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.

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