Sunday, June 23, 2024

Hal Hickel on Creating Tarkin

Back in 2020, Hal Hickel answered a Quora question with great detail about how we created Grand Moff Tarkin for "Rogue One" (2016), and in the interest of film history preservation, I got Hal's permission to reprint it here. (I was a lead on the digital human team at ILM for Tarkin, and worked closely with Hal on the film.)

Hal summarizes our process succinctly, and corrects many misconceptions and untruths about how we made Tarkin, so I feel like this is an important document. To be frank, I hesitate to talk publicly too much about our Tarkin and Leia work for "Rogue One" because for some folks it generates a lot of... emotion.

I, like Hal, have no interest in defending the quality of our work. I'll say this: immediately after the movie came out, I talked to a lot of regular, non-industry people who saw the movie and asked them their thoughts on Tarkin, 'you know, the older gentleman who was Krennic's boss.' Many folks didn't understand the nature of my question, nor why I was asking it. They liked his performance, and didn't think anything further of it. Then I let them know that Tarkin is a digital creation, meant to resemble Peter Cushing who appeared in the original "Star Wars" (1977) and who died in 1994. I got a lot of stunned reactions from relaying that news. A lot of people who saw "Rogue One" had no idea that Tarkin was a digital, synthetic character, and just assumed it was a regular human actor.

I hope you like Hal's piece.

. . . . 

Quora: Why does Tarkin's CGI in Rogue One look so plastic-y? Could they have made it look more realistic?

Answered by Hal Hickel, Animation Supervisor for "Rogue One"

Hi, I was the animation supervisor on Rogue One, and as such I was intimately involved with the creation of Tarkin.

I’ve decided to chime in for one purpose only, to clarify the process we used. I have no interest in trying to convince anyone to like the results more than they do, or to argue with anyone about how “real” our work looked in the film. Again, I just want to clarify our process for informational purposes.

The broad plan was to hire an actor, film them on set in costume, and just replace the head with a CG Tarkin head, leaving the real body in the scene. The actor on set would be wearing a helmet with small cameras mounted to it, to record their facial performance (similar to what you’ve seen in the behind the scenes footage from Avatar, or Planet of the Apes).

That’s what we did, excepting that in about 30% of the shots, we opted for full replacement (head and body) with CG, because for certain shots it just made more sense.

Guy Henry was cast because he’s a terrific actor, and had the bearing and vocal quality we were looking for. It was helpful that he also had a certain physical resemblance (high cheekbones, etc), though that was not essential, given that the plan was to completely replace his head with our CG Tarkin. That said, when remapping the facial expressions of one person onto another (Henry to Cushing), the more similar they are, the easier it’s going to be.

The intention was never for Guy to do either a vocal, or physical “impression” of Peter Cushing, but rather to give us a performance that “felt” like Tarkin, both physically and vocally. So we never asked for, or expected a spot on vocal match, or for Guy to smirk, etc, like Cushing.

We didn’t do any modulation or any other audio tricks with Henry’s voice. We didn’t compare waveforms with Cushing audio, talk to his old manager, or any of that other stuff mentioned elsewhere in this thread. We just used Guy Henry’s voice. I’m sure Guy watched the Tarkin scenes from ANH endlessly, and did his best to find a tone and delivery that felt right.

Guy didn’t wear any prosthetics or makeup as part of the process, with the exception of the dots that help us track his facial movement. Someone in this thread talked about “makeup, cosmetics, physical altering”. No. Again, we just put dots on Guy’s face to track it’s movement, that’s all.

Guy was filmed on set, in the costume. The movement of the dots on his face, and his voice were recorded simultaneously during filming. I mention this, because some VFX companies prefer a method where Facial Capture is done separately, on a specialized stage at a later time. We prefer to capture an actor’s performance all at once (voice, body, face) whenever possible.

We also scanned Guy Henry on the ICT Light Stage, to give us a high resolution CG model of Guy Henry, and to capture his skin texture. Now why would we need a CG Guy Henry?

The CG version of Guy Henry (left) and the real Guy Henry as photographed (right), from Rogue One - A Star Wars Story: The Princess & The Governor Featurette

We needed it for a few reasons: One is that once we’ve tracked the motion of the dots on his face in a given piece of performance, rather than immediately applying that motion data to the CG Tarkin, we instead apply it first to the CG Guy Henry. This give us an apples to apples comparison to see if we’ve captured and processed the facial performance accurately. When we’re satisfied that we have, we then apply it to Tarkin.

Another reason, is that having the lighting data that is captured with Guy Henry on the Light Stage, gives us a sort of “ground truth” that we can compare our CG Tarkin to, to see if his skin is reacting to light realistically. Also, because there are many things about the fine details of Guy Henry’s skin that are appropriate for Tarkin’s skin (general tone, pores, etc), we can use the Guy Henry textures as a way to get a leg up on the Tarkin skin textures, rather than starting from zero.

Ok, so we’ve hired an actor, and shot them on location. We’ve built a CG copy of that actor in order to be able to check out facial capture data to see that it’s accurate, and to give us a “ground truth” for the skin texture and lighting.

Now we (obviously) have to build a CG Tarkin.

I noticed some comments in another answer in this thread about his mouth “not being aligned to his chin”, or the ears being “too long”. Again, I’m not here to argue the merits of our work, but I think it’s useful to point out that if you assembled hundreds of photographs of Peter Cushing (as we did), you would find that he can look vastly different from one photograph to another, depending on his expression, the lighting, the makeup, the focal length of the lens, the year the photo was taken, etc etc. So comparing a single frame of our Tarkin to a single photo of Cushing is not a particularly valid way to troubleshoot whatever issues there may be.

Luckily, we didn’t have to work from just photos. We had in our possession a life casting of Peter Cushing’s face. It was made not long after New Hope, so it was very accurate in terms of Cushing’s age, etc. Of course we know that sometimes the process of taking a life cast can slightly distort the face of the subject (the weight of the casting material can pull down on the skin), so we were mindful of that. That casting was a terrific starting point for us, and gave us very accurate information.

Starting from there, a very accurate CG model of Tarkin was created. As well, highly detailed textures, with pore detail, age spots, veins, etc etc. The CG hair groom was challenging, as the styling on Cushing for that role was a bit eccentric.

So taking one shot from the film as an example, let’s say a medium close up:

We track the movement of Guy’s head through space, so we can move the CG Tarkin head in the same way.

We track the dot motion on Guy’s face to extract his facial performance. We apply that motion to the CG Guy Henry, and if we’re happy with how it looks, we apply it to the CG Tarkin. By the way, someone in this thread theorized that perhaps the CG Tarkin was missing “micro expressions”. While we are always trying to increase the accuracy, and detail of our Facial Capture system, I have to say that even now, we are capturing very fine detail, including very tiny, barely perceptible micro movements. We are familiar with Paul Ekman’s work, and the importance of Micro Expressions, and have tried hard to be sure that level of fidelity exists in our work. If it was happening on Guy Henry’s face, it was happening on Tarkin’s face.

Now we have the real Guy Henry body, with the CG Tarkin head. We paint out any bits of Henry’s head that Tarkin doesn’t cover up.

We make adjustments to the facial performance to make it feel more “Tarkin”, since (unsurprisingly), Guy Henry doesn’t use his facial muscles the same way that Peter Cushing did. Guy doesn’t smile like Cushing, doesn’t form phonemes like Cushing, etc. So we have to do a sort of “motion likeness” pass. This is done by our animators, using a very light touch. Note: the point is NOT to change the acting choices made by Guy Henry, it’s just to adjust things so that when Guy chooses to smile, it looks like a Tarkin smile, not like a Guy Henry smile. Of course in doing so, we have to be very careful to maintain exactly what sort of smile it is. We don’t want to transform a mocking, insincere smile into a genuine, warm smile.

The Tarkin head with final facial performance is lit to match the lighting in the footage, and rendered.

The rendered CG Tarkin head is composited onto the real Guy Henry body.

There are of course many many steps to each one of the steps I’ve outlined above. Each one of these steps encompasses the highly skilled work of many many very talented artists and technicians.

So again, like it, don’t like it, that’s none of my business. I just wanted to get the facts out there, in terms of our process, because there was some inaccurate information being posted.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, June 13, 2024

Lighting Techniques and Style

This is just a simple apples-to-apples comparison in the most basic sense of lighting techniques and style. No judgment, no "this is right and this is wrong", just a comparison.

The Hollywood cinematography of the interior of a cave, daytime, in a big sci-fi feature film in 1968. "Planet of the Apes" (1968), cinematography by four-time Oscar winner Leon Shamroy (18 total nominations!) who also shot "Cleopatra" and "The Robe".

The Hollywood cinematography of the interior of a cave, daytime, in a big sci-fi feature film in 2012. "Prometheus" (2012), cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, who also shot "Crimson Tide" and the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

The Apple HomePod "Welcome Home" Ad was NOT 'All Practical'

In an effort to combat misinformation, I'm going to make short blog posts so maybe, just maybe it can make it into search engine results. Misinformation about how movies, TV shows and commercials is overwhelming, and I feel like I need to do what I can to try and slow it down.

A tweet highlighting the amazing work in the Apple HomePod ad said: "The fact that this Apple homepod ad is all real still blows my mind. The apartment stretching is not CGI, just practical effects, holy shit!"

This is not true.

The Spike Jonze-directed HomePod spot "Welcome Home" from 2018 is an amazing piece of art, due to stunning production design, physical effects, choreography, lighting and camera work BUT ALSO extensive digital visual effects and computer graphics.

Janelle Croshaw Ralla was the HomePod spot's visual effects supervisor. She also supervised visual effects for Jonze' "Kenzo World" spot with Margaret Qualley, and also was visual effects supervisor of "John Wick 4".

My original tweet:

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Studios: Please Don't Spoil The Movie We Are Seated To See

I tweeted this incredibly non-controversial take and it got a huge reaction, so I thought I'd recycle the content for a blog post. Enjoy.

We took our kid to see "Alien" (1979) on the big screen during its one-week-only theatrical run. We told him there was a good chance of a pre-show featurette that would spoil the movie, so he needed to be ready to cover his eyes.

Well, that's exactly what happened.

My kid threw his hoodie over his eyes while a pre-show interview between Fede Alvarez and Ridley Scott appeared, featuring tons of behind-the-scenes photos of the alien, the chestburster scene, and discussion of the legacy of the classic film.

Why do this before the movie!??!

If even one person in that theater hadn't seen the film yet, it puts a huge damper on the surprise and delight that the movie would bring them, which is sad. We WANT to bring first-timers to theaters to see classic movies. Don't ruin it for them.

Play that shit AFTER the movie.

This has happened with several re-releases for me. Fathom did this to "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (pre-show highlighted a main character's death!) and "Close Encounters" (pre-show showed the effing aliens!). And now "Alien" (Disney/Fox).

The solution is simple: preserve the wonder for first-timers by putting these featurettes AFTER the movie. Tease it before the feature.

Anyway, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is coming to theaters again this summer (Fathom), so get ready to cover the eyes of first-timers before the show.

Original tweet thread.

Friday, April 05, 2024

Something We've Never Noticed in "The Abyss"

Selective attention is a concept that all filmmakers need to understand. When an audience is focusing on something, the aspects of the frame that are not directly related to the action, even if they're overwhelmingly dominant, can be rendered invisible to the viewer.

Take this scene from "The Abyss" (1989). In the middle of the most dramatic, most memorable, most heartbreaking scene in the movie, something happens.

Something happens that I didn't notice when I saw the movie in theaters in 1989. I never noticed it when I watched it over and over on my precious LaserDisc version of the film. I never noticed it when I watched it over and over on DVD. And I never noticed it when it finally debuted in 2023 on streaming. Watch this carefully, and then be amazed at what you didn't notice.

watch on YouTube

It's been like this since its release in 1989, and amazingly, has never been painted out of any subsequent releases - thank goodness. What's in the movie is in the movie. Studios and filmmakers need to exercise restraint during restorations, and resist the temptation to paint out "errors" visible in movies. For example, this bit from "Goodfellas" (which has been painted out of the most recent 4K release) and this bit from one of the "Terminator 2" Blu-ray releases, which had a ton of paint fixes and 'special edition' tweaks.

I'm working on investigating this further - I'd really like to know exactly what happened, and if anyone has knowledge about this extremely minute moment of filmmaking. Most likely, a diligent (and aggressive) camera assistant wiped the lens housing of water droplets during a filmed rehearsal, or during a take that they thought would be entirely unusable with water droplets on the glass. 

When the work is compelling, it's amazing what you can get away with.

Pointed out to me by Janne Ojaniemi over on Mastodon. Thanks, Janne!

Update 1: Bluesky user Neil Bulk told me that cinematographer Mikael Salomon pointed out the 'wiping of the lens housing during a take' in a Q&A screening, and was surprised to see Cameron use the take in the final edit.

Update 2: I've talked to two prominent "The Abyss" crewmembers, one of whom was in the editing room throughout the entire production. Both people said they never ever noticed this before, and this was 100% new to them.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Oscar Pool Ballot, 96th Academy Awards

It's time for the Awesomest Oscar Pool Ballot In The History Of Oscar Pool Ballots.

Every year I create a special ballot based on a typical Academy Awards printable ballot -- but on my ballot, each category has a different point value. The highest valued category is "Best Picture," while the mainstream films' categories are valued at two points. The non-mainstream categories (like the documentary and short film categories) are valued at one point.

This way, in a tight race for the winner of the pool, the winner most likely would not be determined by the non-mainstream films (in other words, blind guesses).

Download the ballot here for the 96th Academy Awards and use it at your Oscar party.

And if you're wondering why Tom Cruise is on my ballot... he's been on every one of my Oscar ballots. Because he's soooooooooo cool.

Monday, February 19, 2024

I Hosted a Panel on the Visual Effects of "The Creator"

Watch on YouTube

The beautiful and moving film "The Creator" (2023) is nominated for the Academy Award for visual effects, and I had the honor of hosting a panel with the nominated team as well as director Gareth Edwards.

I was thrilled to be asked to moderate this panel, which included visual effects supervisors Jay Cooper, Andrew Roberts and Ian Comley, as well as physical effects supervisor Neil Corbould.

A general time limit was set for forty minutes, and I could ask any question I wanted - I got zero notes from Disney and ILM for my quesitons, so the questions you hear me asking are mine and mine alone. I hope you like it!

Join ILM's Todd Vaziri for a moderated conversation with The Creator's visual effects team, including Production Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor Ian Comley, On Set Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Roberts, and Supervising Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Todd Vaziri on The Incomparable, Talking "The Abyss"

It was my absolute pleasure to (finally!) be a guest on Jason Snell's The Incomparable podcast! We talk about one of my favorite movies of all time, "The Abyss" (1989). Jason, Annette Wierstra, Erika Ensign, John Siracusa and I talk about the epic James Cameron film, what the movie means to us, the differences between the theatrical cut and the Special Edition, and much more.

THE INCOMPARABLE MOTHERSHIP #701 - KEEP PANTYHOSE ON - Host Jason Snell with Todd Vaziri, John Siracusa, Annette Wierstra, and Erika Ensign

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Todd Vaziri on "50 MPH", the Podcast on the Making of "Speed"

Kris Tapley invited me to be a guest on his wonderful podcast 50 MPH, the oral history of the making of 1994's "Speed". The movie's visual effects bridge (hehe) the gap between the optical era (of miniatures and optical compositing) and the digital era. For the podcast, Kris interviewed over 100 people who helped make the movie, who reported on the movie, and some of us who are just big fans of the movie.

Digital matte paintings, CGI renderings within miniature environments – you name it, we cover it. And that’s all barely scraping the surface. We also engage some of today’s esteemed VFX artists like Todd Vaziri (AvatarStar Wars: The Force Awakens) and Jake Braver (BirdmanJohn Wick), among others, to take stock of Speed‘s legacy in their field.

50 MPH, Episode 29, A VFX Hybrid

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Most Egregious Example of "We Didn't Use CGI" Mythology (So Far)

Folks who follow me on Twitter (currently known as X) are probably aware of my years-old, depressing, frequently updated and repetitive thread pointing out studios and filmmakers downplaying or outright lying about the use of digital visual effects on their projects. "We did it all for real!" is the message given in interviews, production notes and featurettes. The truth is these movies frequently contain hundreds or even thousands of digital visual effects shots, and sometimes the sequences they're directly referencing are made entirely out of digital effects. 

The typical pattern is as follows:

  • Pre-release studio-driven featurettes and studio-provided production notes handed to journalists include the filmmakers stating that "real, practical" action is the proper way to film this kind of movie, implying that little or no digital visual effects are used because audiences can 'always tell'. The amazing stunt work, special practical effects and production design is heavily championed, and vague language is routinely utilized, ultimately implying that "no 'CGI' was used in this film". Reasonable people watch these clips and read the production notes will understandably conclude little or no digital visual effects were used in the film.
  • The digital visual effects supervisors and artists working on these films see these featurettes on YouTube and scream into pillows.
  • The social-media hype machine of YouTubers, Twitter users and TikTok'ers repeat the "no visual effects" mantra, which solidifies its "truth" even further. Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, CNN, local TV news, and mainstream media outlets repeat the myth, which feeds the social media folks even more.
  • The movie is released and even though there are literally hundreds of visual effects professionals' names in the credits, the "no visual effects" chorus continues, this time by supporters of the film, and is weaponized in the form of "the movie was good because they didn't use 'CGI'", as in "this proves how practical effects are superior to 'CGI'".
  • Weeks later, if studios allow visual effects people to discuss their work at all, visual effects supervisors talk to the tech press about the hundreds upon hundreds of visual effects that were used in the film (sometimes documenting how the very same stunts and sets that were championed in the featurettes were digitally augmented or were made fully from computer graphics techniques).
  • At awards time, huge visual effects reels are seen by industry professionals and are mostly confidential.
  • These films get nominated and win digital visual effects awards.
  • The damage done to the truth is seemingly permanent. Even years after films' releases, some people still believe the mythology that there are no digital visual effects in movies like "Mad Max: Fury Road" and the recent "Mission: Impossible" films, and the phrase "practical is always better than 'CGI'" continues to thrive.
  • The cycle begins again.

The visual effects industry is under attack from many sides, most significantly manifesting in working conditions, hours, burnout, exploitation of workers, unreasonable client expectations, unreasonable schedules, bad client design changes, bad client management, visual effects shops underbidding each other, fixed bids, only a handful of clients who pit the visual effects shops against each other, near-zero unionization amongst visual effects workers, no trade association for visual effects shops to leverage solidarity, uneven free money given to movie studios that destabilizes visual effects and creates false markets... I could go on.

The perpetual cycle of false mythology that these movies are made without digital visual effects adds insult to injury and feeds an already burning inferno.

• • •

Like me, visual effects artist Jonas Ussing has been paying attention and keeping receipts of these instances of "No CGI Mythology" over the last few years. Ussing has launched an amazing video series documenting some of the most extreme examples of actors, filmmakers and studios creating a false mythology about how their movies are made. Part 1 of his four part series is now online, and it's called "No CGI is really just Invisible CGI", and I suggest you all watch it.

Watch "No CGI is really just Invisible CGI", part 1 of 4 on YouTube

In this day and age, when there are filmmakers out there like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Michael Bay, Zack Snyder and others proudly showing off the digital effects work in their movies, considering them valuable partners in the filmmaking process (and earning billions of dollars at the box office and awards and prestigious accolades in the meantime), it's absolutely bizarre that certain studios and filmmakers steadfastly maintain the idea that marketing a modern movie means highlighting physical production while outright lying about their use of digital visual effects - and indirectly and directly insulting an entire craft in the process.

And yet, it continues. Mere days after Ussing's video debuted, Sony released a featurette for "Gran Turismo" (2023) to promote the film's home video release. At less than ninety seconds in duration, the promotional featurette represents one of the most egregious and blatant examples I've ever seen of deceptive myth-building (ahem, lies) about how a specific movie was made.

• • •

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, who also directed the imaginative science-fiction epics "District 9", "Elysium" and "Chappie", "Gran Turismo" features several exciting racing sequences that were executed with stunt drivers, innovative camera rigs, drones and many other techniques to capture as much material practically with stunt performers and actors.

via American Cinematographer - In the Driver’s Seat for Gran Turismo by Joe Fordham

Oh, I forgot to mention, the movie also required over a thousand digital visual effects shots.

Before we get to the featurette, let's talk about the visual effects of the film. Most of the stories debuted, as they usually do, a week or two after the films' release, and the "Gran Turismo" visual effects press followed the same trend. The movie was released in the United States on August 25, 2023. Two weeks later on September 16, Befores and Afters published "Make them go Fast", which detailed the various visual effects challenges of the movie. Ian Failes interviewed VFX supervisor Viktor Müller about the computer graphics cars made for the film.

Here's a few example of live-action plates, and the final shot which features CG cars.

from Befores and Afters visual effects coverage of "Gran Turismo"

Here's an example of one of the performers in a special spinning rig, photographed against a greenscreen, for a crash sequence in the film.

from Befores and Afters visual effects coverage of "Gran Turismo"

The Direct spoke to "Gran Turismo" editor Colby Parker Jr. about the post-production challenges of the film in late August, and said some very direct and clear things about the visual effects in the movie. Like, "This was a big VFX film. Our hero car wasn't going fast enough in certain scenes. So we had to find plates and strategically CGI Jann's car in certain scenes."

Blomkamp is himself a former visual effects artist. His movies "District 9", "Elysium" and "Chappie" have fully computer generated characters in prominent roles, and synthetic environments throughout each of those films.  (In fact, he and I happened to have worked on the same film at separate studios  - "3000 Miles to Graceland" - me in visual effects and him in the animated sequence that opens the film.)

In September, Blomkamp went out of his way to praise his visual effects team on "Gran Turismo" on social media. In two tweets, he displayed his pride for the VFX team as well as promoting the Befores and Afters article detailing the film's digital visual effects. He has been a vocal supporter of visual effects in the past, and these examples are no flukes.

All of this is preface to Sony's ridiculous featurette.

• • •

Premiering on YouTube on October 28, 2023, Sony's ninety second video promoting "Gran Turismo"'s digital release trumpets the physical production, and also plays heavily to the ridiculous marketing technique of repeating that "digital effects are inferior" and "only brave filmmakers shoot with practical effects".

Watch on Gran Turismo: Neill Blomkamp's Approach on YouTube

Check out these whoppers that appear the video:

  • The film's producer, Asad Qizilbash says, "He wanted to make it really practical and shot like in real life." [his quote has some obvious audio editing to splice together several different comments into a single sentence]
  • Blomkamp: "The temptation is to go all digital. The cars could be animated. You could film the [racing] tracks as background plates and do digital cars, but in this case, everything is real." [again, obvious audio editing here]
  • Actor Darren Barnet: "It's always a treat for an audience when something feels more real. Shooting this movie without green screens, without projectors, I think gives the more honest performance." [again, obvious audio editing here]
  • Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret: "It's very practical."
  • From the video's description: "No green screens. No projectors. That's just how Neill Blomkamp rolls."

Let's be clear - the director of the movie said "Everything is real", and no reasonable person would assume the filmmakers used "background plates and do digital cars" which is exactly what the director said they didn't do. "Practical" and doing it for "real". The video's description is less vague and far more direct: "No green screens. No projectors. That's just how Neill Blomkamp rolls."

In 2023, I can't believe we're still dealing with these ridiculous, obvious lies. "Gran Turismo" had over 1,100 digital visual effects - digital effects that producer Qizilbash and director Blomkamp asked for and directed. And paid millions of dollars for. But you'd never guess that from this featurette. Any reasonable person would assume, after seeing that studio-produced video, that no visual effects were used in the film.

What makes this especially egregious is this studio-driven erasure of visual effects (outright lies) was brazenly published after the visual effects press promoted the movie's digital effects. Typically, the pattern begins with the deceptive marketing occurring before the film's release, not after the film's release (and after in-depth reporting). 

The whiplash sustained from the witnessing the intense contrast between the filmmakers' clear pride in the digital work on "Gran Turismo" and the studio-driven marketing of "we did it all for real" is staggering. And for those of us who care about the truth, the situations is quite demoralizing. The visual effects world is under attack from all angles, and it's deeply unsettling to get fired upon from one's own studio and filmmakers.

I'll say this as clearly as I can. Filmmakers and studios should be proud of every aspect of the filmmaking process. They should brag about their photography, their stunt work, their production design and physical sets, the amazing special practical effects. They should shout their pride and excitement from the rooftops. Filmmaking is a collaborative experience, and all crafts work together to achieve the director's vision. But there's no need to weaponize their enthusiasm of physical production against visual effects, with the ultimate goal of diminishing, erasing and outright lying about the project's use of post-production work.

Why do the studios think this is a winning strategy? That's another topic that's far too complicated to go into now. But a cursory look at the YouTube comments of the Sony featurette clearly illustrates that this marketing isn't working as well as studios think it is.

I'm really getting tired of studios and filmmakers telling the #CGLie. And others are, too.


Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Todd Vaziri on "The Flop House" Podcast, Talking "Waterworld"

The gang behind my favorite movie podcast asked me to be a guest on the show, and it was scientifically impossible for me to be more giddy about it.

Dan McCoy, Elliott Kalan and Stuart Wellington invited me on The Flop House (a podcast where they watch a bad movie and talk about it) to discuss "Waterworld" (1995), one of the quintessential big-budget "flops" of all-time. We talk about the negative hype surrounding the film's production, how it infected every single piece of press about the movie before its release, and the film itself - what we liked about it and what we didn't like.

It was a really wonderful discussion, and I'm really happy with how it all turned out.

The Flop House - Episode #408, "Waterworld" with Todd Vaziri

Friday, October 27, 2023

Vanity Fair and "The Exorcist"

Anthony Breznican from Vanity Fair asked me if I could take a peek at a shot from "The Exorcist" (1973), and get my thoughts on it on whether or not it was a visual effects shot. So it was a thrill to talk with him.

Todd Vaziri, a veteran visual effects artist and historian who has written extensively about vintage filmmaking techniques, agreed with Gay’s assessment that the “demon” hidden in this shot is really just a trick of the light from her nightgown and movement.

“I’m looking at your shot and I’m stepping through it, and I’m going to say that for the first part of the shot, you can see that her screen right eye is in shadow. She’s self-shadowing. Her brow is blocking the key light,” Vaziri said. “Then for one frame, it looks like both eyes now are completely black, and it’s a little…” He pauses, then laughs. “I’m just hanging on this frame and it’s freaky as hell.”

Freaky, but most likely accidental, according to Vaziri. “This seems to me like just a lighting issue,” he said. “Her natural movement moved both eye sockets for one frame out of the key light. And that’s the effect.”

A few things I mentioned to Anthony that didn't make it into the piece.

One, "The Exorcist" is one of those films that have had alternate versions appear in the digital era. In 2000, Warner Bros. released "The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen" which features newly added scenes and digital visual effects including a morph that replaces a jump cut in one of the last shots of Father Karras. Much like the "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" Special Edition, the filmmakers and the studio have done an about-face on all the alterations and additions, and the version of "The Exorcist" that you can find on streaming and physical media is almost entirely the theatrical version (the Karras morph remains in the cut).

Two, I added that if this was a deliberate optical effect (it's not), then I'd argue that it's not a successful effect, since it's extremely subtle and only happens in one frame. It's not broad enough to register as a subliminal image.

I understand how folks want to add additional meaning and mythology into frames and sequences from "The Exorcist", especially because it's one of the most successful movies of all time, one of the most emotionally and spiritually effective movies of all time, and one that actually contains flash frames of horrific imagery. (See also "The Shining".) In this case, however, it's a trick of light and movement.

Vanity Fair: The Truth Behind the Hidden Demon in The Exorcist, by Anthony Breznican

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Todd Vaziri on Corridor Crew "VFX Artists React", Parts 1 and 2

watch Part 1 on YouTube

It finally happened.

I was thrilled to be a guest on Corridor Crew’s “VFX Artists React” YouTube series. Watch Part 1 here. Watch Part 2 here.

watch Part 2 on YouTube

I admire the Corridor team’s goal of promoting visual effects as a creative craft — just like any other craft in filmmaking — by elevating human faces associated with the amazing Hollywood visual effects that we all take for granted.

My goal in being a guest on the show was in harmony with Corridor’s ethos. In the current media climate of systematic dehumanization of the digital visual effects community, I wanted to present stories of the real, human artistic choices behind some of the shots on which I’ve been lucky to collaborate. Human beings make these movies, and I think it's important for visual effects folks to tell their stories of creativity, problem solving and storytelling.

I also wanted to illustrate the generous, artistic, cooperative cultural spirit of Industrial Light & Magic, my home since 2001. I’m very grateful to the ILM team for bringing me into their fold. I’ve learned so much from legends like John Knoll, Roger Guyett, Scott Farrar, Dennis Muren, Bill George, Ben Snow, Rob Bredow and countless others who have worked hard to maintain and strengthen the cultural spirit of ILM - always collaborative, always compassionate, always human. Making movies is an amazing experience, and it’s a special joy to be able to work with kind, collaborative people. Every day, I get to make movies with some of the most talented artists on the planet. I’m a lucky guy.

Thank you to Wren and Niko who made me feel comfortable and supported, and to Christian and Chase and everyone behind the scenes at Corridor, and to Ian at ILM who helped so much. Wren, Niko and I talked for literally hours and could have gone on for much longer.

If you liked the YouTube version of the episode, Corridor subscribers get a longer version where I go into greater detail with Wren and Niko. Part 1 (Extended) has more discussion about my shots on “Star Trek” (2009), “Rango” (2011), bluescreen extractions, and deeper into technical and philosophical aspects of visual effects. Part 2 (Extended) goes into greater detail about my work on "Mission: Impossible III", "Avatar", "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" and "Tomorrowland". (You can get a 14-day free trial on a subscription!)

Here are some of my show notes:

“Synthetic” (Part 1)

I wish I elaborated further on my definition of “synthetic” while on the show, because I think it’s important, especially in the current climate when visual effects terms like “CGI” (or worse, “no CGI”)  are being tossed around in the mainstream media without much care, to disastrous results.

I’m defining “synthetic” as my all-encompassing term for imagery that is NOT:

  • full scale (1 inch of real world space equals 1 inch of movie world space)
  • photographed and projected in real time
  • photography presented without geometric transformations

I consider a shot that has a slight retime to speed up a portion of the shot synthetic. I consider a split screen synthetic. I consider the stabilization of a shot synthetic.  Of course, this progresses all the way into in-camera miniature model photography, forced-perspective photography, filming overcranked for slow motion, vanity work, onwards to digital matte painting set extensions, computer graphics creatures into live-action photography, all the way to shots where the entire image is computer graphics.

The term “synthetic” is valuable because it defines modern digital visual effects. There is no agreed-upon definition of “CGI”, and yet the term is used interchangeably with digital compositing, computer graphics creatures, set extensions, bluescreen photography, even motion picture editing. I avoid the term at all costs because no one agrees on its meaning. “Synthetic” is a solid umbrella term meaning “not filmed in-camera with actors” and even when filmed footage is used, it has been manipulated beyond the “purity” of what was captured on set, in real time.

(Is a glass matte painting hanging in front of the camera filmed concurrently with the live action synthetic? Come on, that’s an edge case. [Yes, it is.])

For the pedants out there, I looked up the literal definition of "synthetic" and I'm pretty happy with my results.

synthetic: something resulting from synthesis rather than occurring naturally, synthesis: the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole


"Methocel" (Part 1)

The stage crew at ILM built the miniature lava flows for "Revenge of the Sith" using methocel, which is a thickening agent (I said it is sometimes used in "shakes", as in fast-food restaurant milkshakes). The dirty crust on top of the lava was a combination of burned pieces of cork and other materials. Remarkably, after the stage crew ran the lava down the miniature after each shoot, they'd filter out all the cork and re-use the methocel for subsequent takes. It took a lot of experimentation to get the lava flows right - ultimately, the results were stunning. The work was supervised by John Knoll and Roger Guyett and miniature cinematographer Pat Sweeney was in charge of the photography, and the model supervisor was Brian Gernand. "Revenge of the Sith" was the longest running stage shoot in ILM's history.

From Cinefex #102:

Previously, ILM used methocel as a primary ingredient for lava flows in "Congo" (1995), supervised by Scott Farrar. The slime river from "Ghostbusters II" (1989) was also created with methocel, supervised by Dennis Muren.

"Baraka" (Part 1)

Do what you can to see the amazing film, "Baraka" (1992). I wrote a big blog post about this amazing project.

Films Every Visual Effects Artist Should Watch: "Baraka"

"TIE Fighters" (Part 1)

Of course, both Wren and I knew that TIE stands for "twin ion engine". I should have been clearer about the idea of what a TIE Fighter might look like when in an atmosphere, because we've seen it in "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), circling Cloud City on Bespin.

"The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

My main point is that, differentiated from the short sequence in "Empire" which featured TIEs in a clouds environment without the ground in sight, we would see TIEs in "The Force Awakens" in very close proximity to a terrestrial ground for the first time in a live-action "Star Wars" feature film. Doug Chiang, the design director on "The Force Awakens", drew inspiration from "Apocalypse Now" in his earliest artwork imagining the shot.

Doug Chiang's still frame artwork, from 2013, as seen in "The Art of The Force Awakens"

"Apocalypse Now" (1979)

Final shot from "The Force Awakens" (2015)

"Mission: Impossible III" (Part 2)

The most frequently asked question about the shot of Ethan Hunt being blown off his feet from "Mission: Impossible III" is "why does he get blown to the side, when the explosion is behind him?" I've talked about this in the past - the short version of the story is "it's what they were able to film".

Here is what I wrote in 2008:

You know, that was my first question to Roger [Guyett] when I was turned over the shot. When they arrived on the set to actually photograph the stuntwork, a certain amount of improvisation occurred - JJ, Cruise, and stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong adapted to the physical realities of the set, rather than adhering strictly to the previsualization (which had Hunt flying prominently forward). Certain realities existed--the original placement of the flipped-over truck, the ultimate destruction of the bridge, and the amount of airborne space required for Cruise to fly through the air and safely hit the parked car. Add to this, the complex nature of the stereo camera rig, the not-trivial explosion of the truck, the dolly backwards, and the synchronization of multiple passes, and you've got some serious hurdles. Are these excuses? Perhaps. But with all of these challenges, I think we succeeded in 'telling the story' with the shot, even though, in screen space, the explosion happens between Hunt and the car... and yet Hunt is thrown screen right. In context, I think it works pretty darn well.

Here's how I'll finish my thought: about a week before I finalled the shot, I did a quick test for Roger, where I actually grabbed Cruise's element (which we fully roto'd), and shifted him further screen right, to try and at least settle the screen space issue, and help out the physics of the shot (so the explosion would be the furthest left, then Hunt, then the car, which makes his shockwave trajectory more plausible). And because I couldn't move the car or the truck, I moved Tom. I slid him over about three feet, and also had to do some tricky retiming so all of the choreography beats still worked. Unfortunately, it only sorta-worked. Yes, his trajectory was more plausible, but it broke a few things. Firstly, and most importantly, Cruise's performance was being manipulated and retimed, which took away a lot of the organic, realistic grit of the stunt. Secondly, it was harder to read the missile hitting the truck (since Cruise was covering that area of the frame). Thirdly, the shot was unbalanced, with just about everything in the frame on screen right, with screen left almost empty-- it felt odd. So I restored all of the original placements, and that's how we finished the scene. It was worth a shot, but it just took away too much of the authenticity of the moment.

My Overlook Hotel Socks

Yep, my socks are Overlook Hotel socks, inspired by the carpet pattern of the hotel as seen in "The Shining" (1980). The socks go very well with a tie I own.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Me on Local TV

I was on KPIX CBS San Francisco to talk about visual effects in the "Mission: Impossible" film series. I didn't work on "Dead Reckoning - Part One", but I did work on "III" and "Ghost Protocol".

I should also mention that I had no idea it was going to be live until about ten minutes beforehand, and I had no idea what questions they were going to ask me!

watch on YouTube

Special effects in movies are an essential part of making a groundbreaking film. A specialist who has worked on some of the “Mission Impossible” movies, Todd Vaziri with Industrial Light and Magic, discusses how he conveys special effects, his favorite sequences on screen, how movies have evolved in this creative field, and more. (07/14/2023)