Contender – Visual Effects Supervisor Matthew Butler, Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Digital Domain’s Matthew Butler finds himself with his first Academy Award nomination, one of the co-VFX supervisors on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, along with Scott Farrar, who suped for ILM’s share of the work, and special effects supervisor John Frazier. Animation director Scott Benza rounds out the quartet.
Farrar, Frazier and Benza, however, were previously nominated for the first Transformers (and a slew of other things, for Frazier and Farrar, the latter having previously won, in those halcyon, mostly pre-CG ’80s, for Cocoon).
Butler remains undaunted by the company he’s in – or even by the fact he’s up against DD colleague Erik Nash for Real Steel.
Of the series in particular, and the craft in general, he says “the tools do get better. The renderers get better. The reflection of light gets more complex.” The impossible becomes steadily more possible. “If you do it right, sequels can get better and better,” he says. “It all gets down to improvements.”
So what was it his colleagues saw in the latest Transformers, that prompted the film’s nomination?
Among other things, there were sequences that were “dramatic as all hell,” including some of the battles over Chicago involving burning Osprey helicopters which were entirely CG, with armored personnel jumping from cardboard boxes, later reworked in post to be utterly convincing, while being, as Butler notes, “100% synthetic.”
Besides the convincing battles and mechanical transformations, the film’s last sequence unfolds on the moon, which allowed Butler and his colleagues to “play in a new sandbox,” taking into account the different gravities and atmospheric pressures, which can make the familiar Transformers seem once again new.
Though what wasn’t necessarily new was sharing FX duties with Farrar & Co, at ILM. “We’d done it before,” he says, of splitting up the post-house duties. Besides, “it’s a fairly small group in effects, and people move around a lot.”
Butler said that familiarity allowed them to make a pact that would enable each to work more efficiently – the pact being to have as few shared shots as possible. Butler thinks there may have been less than five in the whole film, though ideas and skills were shared throughout.
Ideas were also shared with director Michael Bay, who is known for his emphatic nature when overseeing films. “He’s very talented,” Butler notes, in addition to being “a tough character – with a good eye. He’ll drive you to attempt perfection.” Butler would describe ideas for shots, or sequences, and one of Bay’s oft-repeated notes was “this better look effin’ awesome.”
“There was a lot of pressure to do that,” Butler allows, to “make it look amazing, or you’ve failed.”
And while Bay “does a lot of previs” – in order to impart for his post folks at least some sense of “what the movie’s about,” he also “does a lot of stuff from the hip. He likes to work it out in the edit.”
So the previs, ultimately, is “treated with a pinch of salt.” However, since it all seems to have worked as far as getting those FX considered on Oscar night, Butler & Co. may want to take some of that salt and throw it over their shoulders, prior to “the envelope, please…”