Ant-Man was a fun project which required a more hand-crafted approach to the visual effects. Instead of having to do hundreds of similar shots with a handful of cg assets (my bread and butter for many years), this was the exact opposite. We had small groupings of shots, each with lots of unique characters, environments, and effects. The number of assets we created for each sequence rivaled any of the largest projects I've previously worked on. With a small team we were able to mix various techniques (keyframing, mocap, 3D lighting, 2.5D matte paintings, shooting our own plates, rendering FX elements in both Mantra and V-Ray, etc) to avoid overloading any single part of the pipeline and still get all the results we wanted. As with any show of this nature the key was maintaining flexibility and being able to rapidly go from concept to final comp. It was actually very nice seeing how the studio loved many of our internal development tests and concept images and promoted them into key shots in the movie.
Oz the Great and Powerful
Oz marked my fourth Sam Raimi movie, and sixth collaboration with VFX Supervisor Scott Stokdyk. I worked for a while on the show just to get it officially awarded and immediately proceeded to plan some of the strategies before principal photography. For many of us it was our first experience with a show natively shot in stereo so there was a lot of preparation required. Once we were up and running I supervised a large team spread across three countries, from building the assets all the way to final stereo delivery. We had to build several large environments, hero and bg characters, and a lot of atmospheric fx. Among the hero characters my favorite was China Girl, a porcelain doll whose physical limitations and on-set puppet performance reference forced us to be very meticulous with her animation, lighting, and integration. The result was a believable and emotional character of which I am particularly proud.
Alice In Wonderland
I came onto Alice towards the end of the schedule - the project had grown and not much work had been done for the final battle sequence, so I took it on (final battles have always been my specialty after all!). It was one of the most artistically rewarding experiences I've had, and it was great to work with Ken Ralston in bringing Tim Burton's vision to life. It was also the first show where I was directly involved with the stereo (conversion), and by working closely with those artists within the same team I feel it also helped us deliver a better 2d presentation. Even though it was a stylized look, the show was one of the most comp-heavy I'd done in years so it was refreshing to brush up on that skillset and learn a few new tricks to boot. Also, we had a dragon. Who doesn't want to work on a dragon?
G-Force was an opportunity to work closely with director Hoyt Yeatman who is a pioneer in visual effects and therefore gave us the best possible ally on set . We already had a set of tools for working with HDRIs taken for reference or reflection maps, but G-Force was the first show where we had based all the lighting (particularly character lighting for plate integration) around HDRIs. That methodology became the standard for pretty much all future shows. We made extensive use of these HDRIs since Hoyt made sure his HDR-Cam was used to acquire practically every lighting setup done during principal. Continuing a trend, this show sees me in charge of a final battle. So while some people see this as a "talking guinea pig" movie, for me it was also a "giant robot stomps around and rains space junk down onto ineffective SWAT guys" movie. Ok, I really dug the cute guinea pigs too. The animation and lighting we did for this still holds up well to this day.
Spidey 3 was in full swing when I was finishing up Monster House. As had happened on the second film, the work was challenging and had grown to the point where they needed to bring aboard another supervisor, so when I was offered the position I was happy to take it since it was like coming back home. Sandman had been the main focus of work done until that point, but no dev work had been done towards a giant version of sandman that appears in the end of the film. So I took on the final battle sequence which at the time was over 380 shots and focused on how to pull off this incarnation of Sandman without taking away from the resources that were still tied up on the other FX-heavy sequences. I really had a stellar team of VFX commandos on this one.
Although my experience has mainly been in live action features, Monster House was an interesting all-cg project for me because our goal was to make it look more like a stop motion miniature and not follow the trend of how cg animation tends to look. By far the biggest challenge was lighting and rendering. The creative decision for the look took us away from scanline rendering and shadowmaps and towards a new renderer: Arnold. Now almost every big-budget blockbuster uses Arnold but at the time it was unproven in a production of this scale. So in addition to my duties supervising sequences and overseeing fx animation, I was responsible for getting Arnold to be fully production-ready and building a new lighting pipeline around it, supervising a small software team dedicated specifically for this and personally writing some of the supporting tools. Besides the technical aspects there was a lot of relearning and training involved for all our team going to a global illumination raytracer for the first time, from how to write shaders to how to light and comp. Instead of learning new tools for data management, we took all our leads to a practical set to learn how to light an actual miniature. It's not too often that the end result reflects exactly what we had hoped for.
Having focused primarily on lighting for the first Spidey film I wanted a change of pace so I was a lead for FX animation. The various different types of effects required a great deal of flexibility, and I worked on pipelines than spanned various different software packages to help make the most of the tools and talent available. One of the highlights for me was spending over a month on set with VFX legend John Dykstra and picking his brain every day as he was directing a miniature shoot which included extensive motion control and practical destruction rigs.
Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle
There were two major sequences which had previs showing outrageous and physically impossible stunts, and I had to figure out how to shoot them. I had to break out the motion of the actors and stuntpeople from the cameras and vehicles. We then shot plates for backgrounds and greenscreen for the actors, with moves that were pushing the limit of the moco rigs, and all having to fit within the confines of the specific stage volumes and where we could lay down tracks for cameras and motion bases. It was a ton of planning, tricky math, and back-and-forth with the motion control operators, but ultimately it was very satisfying whenever we'd shoot a take and saw that it was matching the crazy previs.
Men In Black 2
I worked for a short time on MIB2, specifically the opening sequence which required several one-off planetary destruction effects. Raise your hand if you have experience destroying planets. Yeah, that was my thing for a while.
We started the first Spidey with the idea that we wanted to see shots of our favorite comic book hero swinging through the city with a virtual cameraman that could keep up with him. How to make a photoreal New York City that we could move through was a challenge at the time. We had to build new tools and new ways of thinking about how geometry and lookdev assets are built and organized. The plan was to have more shots with practical plates as opposed to cg, but outside circumstances forced us to end up doing more cg environments. The best example combined both - the final swing which ends with Spidey on top of the flag and closes the movie. It was close to the delivery deadline so I had to break up the shot into three separate sections so several artists on my team could work in parallel. I lit the environment for the first part of the shot and handled the hookup to and from a short section that was shot practically in downtown Los Angeles. The end result turned out to be an iconic shot of the film which left audiences walking out with a smile.
Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man is one of the most difficult projects I have worked on. The FX we were trying to make were truly groundbreaking, and going into something without really knowing how we could possibly pull it off was precisely what drew me to it. I worked on the transformation sequences where two characters (the main protagonist and a lab gorilla) go from visible to invisible by slowly revealing layer after layer - skin goes first, then fat, muscle, veins, bones, etc. I started by working out ways of iterating quickly on the animation for timing buyoff without having to do expensive renders. The computer hardware at the time wasn't quite able to render the full frames we were aiming for so I had to come up with a simple but effective way to break up the renders into more manageable blocks and piecing them back together - a technique which continued to be used at Imageworks for the next 8-10 years that followed.
I was brought onto Fight Club to help troubleshoot some render issues that were popping up while making the opening credits sequence. David Fincher does love visually stunning opening credits! This was an all-cg flythrough a human brain, with a look that resembled electron microscope imagery. After fixing those problems I worked on the continuation of that sequence, where the camera comes out of a hair follicle, goes down the character's forehead, nose, and looks down the barrel of a gun which was CG for that extreme closeup. I did the shaders, lookdev, and lighting.
This is a movie nobody saw, but was still an awesome experience because I had the opportunity to work closely with Mark Stetson. As the VFX Supervisor, Mark's positive energy and engaging approach with the artists set the example I still aim for when I work with my teams. I created environment/bg elements, as well as fx animation featuring the destruction of a galaxy. I also helped translate previs data and geometry specifications for the model shop which built the miniatures, and even had a hand in designing a shuttlecraft seen in the movie.
My first major VFX feature was Titanic, and I learned many lessons there that I carry with me to this day. I worked on many of the signature shots including the long camera move that starts at the bow and travels down the length of the entire ship, ending up far behind the majestic vessel. I created a setup (particle dynamics and Renderman shaders) for the smoke and steam, which had to hold up to extreme closeup as well as a wider view within this one shot. We then carried that setup onto every other shot of the ship traveling at sea. Later in the production I provided a CG version of the hero iceberg, along with accompanying FX elements such as ice chunks breaking and water splashes.
My first screen credit was in Michael Jackson's Ghosts, a short film or very long music video depending on who you ask. I had just started working on Titanic when they asked if there was anyone who could whip up a CG tornado in a hurry. It was just a few days of work but what made this experience memorable for me was meeting Stan Winston, who directed the film. Afterwards he invited a few of us to geek out in his conference room with the life size models of the T-800 Endoskeleton, the Predator, the Alien, a Velociraptor, and many other of his iconic creations. That was my "welcome to the movie industry" moment.