Here's an interview that I did last year with Andrew Sibulsky, about my work on "Transformers." There were some really good questions, some of which Andrew culled from reader submissions on various cinema and computer graphics forums.
My favorite part of the interview was this question and answer:
Andrew Sibulsky: Over the last few years ILM has, by and large, produced work of an increasingly realistic manner, almost indistinguishable from live photography. Do you see the possibility of continued growth in the artistry and photorealism of shots, or are we reaching a plateau?
Todd Vaziri: I think the last couple years have been extraordinary for ILM for cranking out really photo-real work that is indistinguishable from live photography, that audiences don’t know what they are seeing – to a higher level than we’ve ever really seen before. I’m really talking about the last few years – "Pirates 2," "Pirates 3," "Mission: Impossible III," "Poseidon," and "Transformers." These films have a quality that goes beyond the 'wow' factor. If you show a normal moviegoer the finals reels of those films, I think that moviegoer would be really surprised at how extensive our work really is. I think people would be shocked at how many effects shots are completely invisible now. I mean, we had over 500 effects shots in "Mission Impossible III," and the average moviegoer probably thought there were a couple of dozen, or so. There’s a new level of photorealism going on here.
And it’s not just ILM – WETA, Sony, Rhythm + Hues, Digital Domain – we’re all hitting this nice stride of creating these amazing characters and assets that are truly believable, in the right context.
Do I see this slowing down or continuing to grow? I absolutely see it continuing to grow, because of the renewed emergence of shot design. Shot design is now the most important aspect of photo-real visual effects.
Let’s look at "Pirates 2," in particular Davy Jones. When you put the talent and the technology that has evolved over the years in computer graphics, there’s really no question that, even a few years ago, we could have achieved the photo-real quality of a Davy Jones. ILM and other companies have done it over the years. But what made Davy Jones so unique? What put it over the top? I firmly believe it was the shot design. Gore Verbinski and John Knoll and Hal Hickel, and most importantly, Bill Nighy – the actor who portrayed Davy Jones – created a methodology that was set up to shoot and animate his sequences, and it was just brilliant; it brought a level of spontaneity and magic to the scenes that would not have been there, had other methods been used.
You can tell, from "Pirates 2" and "Pirates 3" that everything was technically beautiful, but there was really something different, and it was this new way of thinking about shot design, how these shots are created. It wasn’t relying on old techniques, or being lazy and saying ‘We’ll figure it out in later’, after the sets have been struck and after we’ve left the locations. Shot design, from the very beginning of production, is absolutely important and you can see it also in "Transformers." How Michael Bay and Scott Farrar set up these shots in a very smart way, so that when it was time to animate and put our characters into the shots, it felt very normal and felt very natural. That’s what we were trying to accomplish with "Transformers."
The talent and there technology is there, it’s just a matter of how it’s used when it comes to shot design. If shots are planned in advance, or in a smart way, there’s really no limit to what we’re gonna be able to accomplish. And I’m not just talking about digital characters – humanoid creatures – it goes for anything: environments, fantasy worlds, whatever you can imagine, it has to do with shot design. Directors that are good at that are, like I said, Gore Verbinski, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg; they look at these visual effects shots not just as little parts of the film that amaze us, they look at it as part of the process. And when strong visual effects supervisors are there from the beginning, planning out and designing these shots, you’re gonna get some really amazing results.
Read the full interview with Todd Vaziri, Part 1 and Part 2.