Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Interview With Todd Vaziri, ILM

Through an odd set of encounters on the Internet, which would take too long to explain (maybe some other time), I've been talking with a compositor at Industrial Light + Magic, Todd Vaziri. He's been kind enough to take time out of his schedule and life to answer some questions that some members of a visual effects message board and I had for him about the summer blockbuster, Transformers.

Sibulsky's Rants and Ravings: The official count for shots - that I’ve been seeing - says about 650 total, with ILM doing 430 shots. Was ILM’s work almost all character stuff, or was there other work involved? What did the other VFX houses do?

Todd Vaziri: ILM’s work was extensive and mainly revolved around the characters, all the Autobots and all the Decpticons, and all their associated sequences, with a few exceptions. That means Optimus Prime, Megatron, Ratchet, Bumblebee, Jazz, Ironhide, Starscream, Scorponok, Blackout, Barricade, Bonecrusher, Devastator, Frenzy and when the Autobots come down in their endoskeleton form.
We also had some shots that were not character-related. For example, the opening shot of the movie (the cube in space) and the cube in Hoover Dam. The Cybertron Flashback that Optimus shows Sam and Mikaela, that’s ILM.
The other main house was Digital Domain; they did the Arctic Circle sequence, a couple of shots of Frenzy’s severed head, the cell phone that turns into the Nokia-Bot. I think they did the meteor shower, the stuff that hits Dodger Stadium and a couple other shots. They did a fantastic job.
Asylum did some shots as well, but I’m not sure what those were.

SRR: What, exactly, do you do as a sequence supervisor (or, as the film credits, digital artist supervisor)?
TV: I was a little surprised seeing that, but it makes as much sense as 'sequence supervisor', I suppose. It’s been said that ILM is pushing towards a less compartmentalized assembly-line-type specialization and going more towards a digital artist realm/model. And that absolutely been happening – and it was very obvious on Transformers.
Usually, for the big sequences in every movie, we try to assign one or two, or if it’s intense, three supervisors to a sequence. I was a supervisor (along with Leandro Estebecor end and David Hisanaga) on the base attack, the very first scene of the helicopter turning into Blackout, and laying waste to Soccent Operations in Qatar. I was also on the Scorponok desert attack sequence, along with Nigel Sumner. I also supervised the end battle that takes place after Megatron and Optimus Prime fall from the rooftops, along with the aerial shots of Starcream, and other shots here and there. starscream
What does supervising mean? Generally speaking, we try to standardize styles and techniques, while maintaining continuity of the sequence. It's our to help the artists make things look constant throughout the shots, to interpret our VFX supervisor’s intentions for the scene, to be a conduit.

SRR: Are you still working on shots?
TV: As supervisor, I’m still working on shots – there’s no question about that! We usually try to tackle the first big, heavy hero shot that sets the tone for the rest of that sequence.

SRR: How long did you work on this project?
TV: Personally, I was on the show for 11 months or so; the longest I’ve worked on a single movie. I had a lot of fun; the crew had a lot of fun. Many said that it was the most fun they’ve had on a show at ILM, and that says a lot. We had a fantastic crew on the ILM side, and Michael was really happy with our work.

SRR: Lots of the articles on the Internet have praised the modeling, animation, and lighting teams, but shots are made or broken in compositing. How challenging of a show was it in that regard?
TV: As a compositor, I love that kind of question. In certain ways, compositing on Transformers was kinda classic in that we had our plates and we would comp our creatures into those plates. Michael Bay and Scott Farrar, our visual effects supervisor, shot very dense, very dirty plates with lots of smoke and fire in them, which absolutely made compositing that much more of a challenge. The shots look really raw and real, and that brings a lot of realism to the shot, but it makes compositing much much harder.
But it was great working on a plate-based show for a change. Nearly every shot had a background plate, from with we rarely deviated. Yes, we had some amazing set extensions and synthetic environments, but many of the shots for "Transformers" had its own plate. The nice thing is that the art direction and spontaneity is already there-- when you work on a film like "Star Wars" or "300", which was almost exclusively shot against a greenscreen, you have to do a lot of work to create the world. For "Transformers," the world was already created - we just had to put our characters in it. And with all that smoke and dirt, it was really tough.
"Transformers" was shot with anamorphic lenses, which gives the film a distinctive look. Everything looks a little weird through an anamorphic lens. There’s all these little aberrations, how light hits the lens and the flares and glints from that, and your depth of field is really shallow. You can have the most beautiful daylight render of a robot, but if it doesn’t sit there with those same aberrations, it doesn’t look real. 
scorponokAnd Michael doesn’t hold back, stylistically, everything goes – he’ll shoot right into the sun, or a practical light source. He uses lots of backlight, and contrast, and our robots were going to be doing the same thing. So, all those things had to be as honest and true as possible.
Oh, and all the wild camera moves, like hand-held moves, cranes, all of that kind of mayhem makes compositing harder.
All of this was guided by our amazing compositing supervisor Pat Tubach.

SRR: How much miniature work was there?
TV: Just a few shots. ILM’s model shop was spun off into its own company, Kerner Optical, and they did a fantastic job on the film. Their biggest set-up was the Clinica building miniature. Megatron and Optimus fly through the entire length of the building, destroying an entire floor and emerging from the other side. It was a beautiful miniature, and the shots featuring the stage shoot turned out really well. There's a spontaneity and plausible randomness that is in those shots.

SRR: What was your greatest challenge/problem on the show?
TV: I’d say there were a couple of really hard challenges. The actual transformations were really, really complicated– the rigging, animation; how complicated would these things be, in terms of how they move from vehicle form to robot and back. We originally thought we could be 'honest' and animate in such a way, like ‘this piece tucks under the tire, and is present here in vehicle form.' Of course, we threw all of that right out the window - the complexity and sheer number of transforming pieces made that process impossible. Our animators really came up with some beautiful transformations. Figuring this out was a process of exploration; there’s no manual or blueprint that we could have followed.
The other challenge is that Michael Bay is extremely demanding when it comes to the quality of the visual effects. He shoots a lot of car commercials, and he knows what it takes to make those cars look sexy. Making our animated characters look like they belong in Michael’s world was something that we had to learn, and it took us a while to get it right.

SRR: What was the most complex shot, in your opinion?
TV: On this show, looking down the pipeline, some shots would be complicated on the animation and rigging side, but would kinda come together quickly on the lighting/td/compositing side.
But in terms of shots that were all-around hard, I’ll throw one of my shots in the ring: the helicopter-to-Blackout transformation at the beginning of the Qatar base attack. We had a very complicated model and transformation and animation and rigging that was really, really dense. It was one of the first shots we did.
sa030.comm In addition, there was some particle work – just as Blackout starts transforming, the soldiers start firing, which lights him up like a Christmas tree from all the sparks. I had to animate all those sparks, and I placed them all in After Effects. Jeff Grebe did an amazing job lighting the CG copter. To make things even harder, the real helicopter that you see earlier in the sequence was in the shot, so I had to get rid of the real chopper. Everything beyond the foreground soldiers is a complete synthetic environment, and that was a real hard thing to do. Those soldiers had to be retained, which was lots of work by the roto geniuses at ILM, under the supervision of Beth D’Amato. That shot was really really hard, especially since we tackled it so early in production.

SRR: What was working with Michael Bay like? Is he as 'hands on' and intense in terms of his VFX as he is in his live action shooting?
TV: In a word: yes! If you’ve ever seen behind-the-scenes footage of Michael on one of his shoots, you’ll see him with that bullhorn, talking with someone right next to him with it. If he had that bullhorn in visual effects dailies, he’d use it. There’s no question that he’s a demanding director. He’s looking for something sleek, stylish, cool, and has to be plausible. And it can’t be fakey-tricky kind of stuff – he’s not much for the slight-of-hand. He really wants the shot to look right, the first time you see it.
I always joke that every one of his shots is a signature shot for the movie; every shot is a hero shot. And as long as you think that way, you’re gonna do fine. He knows what he’s talking about, he’s worked with ILM in the past and he’s got the lingo down. He loves the give and take between him and ILM. He loves pushing and pushing and pushing us further and further.
He pushes everyone that is making the film, and that’s how you get a film that looks like "Transformers."

SRR: Michael Bay is known for always wanting something in the shot that was photographed. How often was there a completely computer-generated shot?
TV: I can maybe think of perhaps only a handful in the movie. Ones that I can think of are the opening shot of the cube flying through space, getting hit by asteroids and entering Earth’s atmosphere. That was all synthetic – we didn’t go up and shoot that stuff…
oh020end There was a shot where Optimus Prime was giving a quick history lesson on Cybertron to Sam and Mikaela in the alley, which starts with live-action, but then we go into all CG. There were a lot of rooftop shots where Optimus catches Sam, and is straddling the two buildings. The whole scaling down the sides of the buildings had angles that were so dynamic of Optimus grabbing the sides of these buildings – grabbing fire escapes, windows, basically destroying the faces of these two buildings. There was no way we could have even shot plates to get close to that. Those buildings are entirely synthetic, although based on a lot of photographic reference.

SRR: How much rotoscoping work was there on the movie?
TV: It’s remarkable – I’m surprised all the time by the quality and speed that some of these crazy articulates and paintouts were done. Whenever a robot goes in front or behind something, that has to be held out. Or painted out, as the case may be.
Cars being flipped over and exploding on the set only happen with the help of a lot of rigs, very visible rigs and wires and set-ups that all have to be painted out later. You get a lot of real physics of that on-set explosion work, and the special effects guys don’t have to worry about hiding wires or hiding rigs, or even other cameras, because they know that the best roto/paint team in the world will be handling it at ILM.
One of the shots we worked on had fifteen cars exploding – they each have their individual wires and rigs to flip them over. And there were three cameras, in the shot, that you could see in the frame. And all that had to be painted out. Beth D'Amato and her team did a brilliant job. 

SRR: 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?
TV: 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.

large3Let’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.

I really want to once again thank Todd for answering these questions. Keep up the amazing work at ILM, Todd!
Also, anyone interested in hearing stuff that Todd has to say about Transformers (including even more interviews and reviews), movies, TV, and life should go check out his blog, over at http://fxrant.blogspot.com. He's got a great perspective on things - it's a good read. And also check out his website, http://www.vfxhq.com/tvaziri - which has more stuff information on the projects he has been a part of.

All Transformers images TM and © Dreamworks/Paramount. Courtesy Todd Vaziri and ILM.
All Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest images TM and © Walt Disney Pictures.