An Interview with Red Riding Hood’s VFX Supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun
Visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun has been creating outstanding effects for films over the past two decades with a further 10 years working in various capacities in movies. His credits as supervisor range from early work with directors Renny Harlin and Roland Emmerich, to more recent films with Edward Zwick. Over a year ago, Okun was contacted to work on a new version of the classic fairy tale Red Riding Hood with director Catherine Hardwicke who had helmed the first of the Twilight films. Set in a medieval village haunted by a werewolf, the story involves a young girl, played by Amanda Seyfried, who falls for an orphaned woodcutter. To date, the identity of the wolf has been kept a tight secret.
In this exclusive interview with Below the Line, Okun reveals the process of making the film on stages and locations in Vancouver, Canada, and his many choices as effects supervisor.
Below the Line: How did you come into this project and what did you do to get started?
Jeffrey A. Okun: I personally got a call from Catherine Hardwicke to come down and meet her. It was a very interesting meeting. It was at her house, which is also her workspace. We met around a dining room table. All around us, her walls were covered with amazing artwork for the film. It was not very ‘Hollywood.’ I was thrown off a bit by her world. The artwork was conceptual, covering just about every phase of the movie – costume, makeup, sets, color palettes, and reference photography of sets and locations she had found. It was breathtaking and awesome; it’s rare that you get to start on a project that is evolved on the path that a director wants to go. It was very exciting. The artwork was a roadmap for what we were going to do, and we achieved a good deal of it. The artwork sets the tone that she is going after, framings that she was going to go for, and even camera angles. It was like looking at storyboards, but it was 8 ½” x 14” richly colored work. It was like being six months ahead of where we would be from scratch. It’s a shorthand way to get much further ahead in the process and define the language that you speak. It cut out all of the guessing.
BTL: With this early conceptualization, did it shorten the amount of pre-production you had to accomplish?
Okun: Yes, because we knew what we were doing right from the get-go. Her theory is, if you have ideas, bring in 12-15 of them, and let’s see what we like.
Instead of having to spend six months getting to understand each other, we were already there. It was like starting at full speed. It was an awesome way to work. She has an assistant and they were always pulling research from videos, books and magazines, pouring through stuff and coming up with ideas. She worked with the writer and was pulling reference at the same time, so if they came up with a verbal or written concept, they would integrate photographs and use a concept artist who draws amazing stuff. His sense of color is unbelievable. The artwork was stunning – frameable.
BTL: Did you launch directly into pre-production from that early meeting?
Okun: Not right away. I first met her in February of 2010, and I started on the film in April of 2010. I put in a couple of weeks in between. We did some test work at Digital Domain to design the wolf to present to the studio in order to get the green light. That is the best part of the moviemaking process. You are transferring the script into a visual effects bible, budgeting the technique, informing the director, and going back to the studio with your ideas. You are free to imagine. We had a lot of meetings about sets being built, and what we could do to make the visual effects work easier. We had an extraordinarily short pre-production schedule.
At that point, Tom Sanders the production designer was on board as well as Mandy Walker, the cinematographer. We did everything as a pre-build so that when we were shooting, we didn’t have to change things around. We did that for eight weeks of pre-production. In that time, you are doing presentations with the studio, arguing about budget, and finding out if you can add more budget or have to cut more budget. It’s a circle – an ever-tightening spiral. You are free to dream and invent.
BTL: In pre-production, did you conceive of what you would shoot practically on stage as opposed to adding in CG?
Okun: Well, first, we are talking about the sets having to be built on a soundstage and how we’re going to get outdoor lighting and big wide shots. We are talking about what lights we can build into the set, and what they can design in a soundstage, building their own grid. Every shot would be a visual effects shot involving at least set extensions.
For Mandy’s lighting, we had four curtains – green, black, gray and white. If you shoot off the set, the white curtain is a matte. The black is for wintertime night; the gray is for winter dusk and dawn, and the green is for total set extensions. With Sanders and Mandy, you can design your shots so that you can add tracking and don’t have to lock the cameras down.
With Catherine we talked about what kinds of shots and lenses we were going to use. We worked out all of the problems in advance, so that when you shoot, it’s just a few measurements. Mandy’s lights are pre-built and turned on and off on a dimmer panel. Then it’s a practical set vs. flying walls. For many of the sets, we wanted to move from outside to inside in a continuous shot, but we didn’t want to be bogged down during photography. The sets were built and dressed three weeks before shooting, so we did all of our rehearsals on the set. During this, Mandy was on the set looking for angles with a prosumer HD camera. Patrick Sanchez was pre-editing some of these sequences. We were prepared for what discoveries we would find when we shot. It yields a great deal of savings. We shot an awful lot of material as we didn’t spend time on the set building rigs and moving lights.
BTL: Can you describe a typical shooting day?
Okun: At 7:00 a.m. you start shooting. It’s a road race. At lunch, you go over what you’re going to do later.
Per stage minute, we were shooting more than any other show I’ve been on. It’s stunning what you can achieve. With Mandy, Sanders, Cathy and myself, and a cadre of producers, it was a good bunch of people and we really got a lot done in an amazingly short amount of time. It mostly has to do with Catherine. She is really passionate and dedicated to doing a lot of shooting. It had to be like that in order to do what we needed to do in the budget that we had. Feature film has become drawing room speed and TV is at full speed, but feature films and TV are colliding now. Catherine’s model is going to become the norm. With this type of pre-planning, there’s nothing that you can’t do efficiently, quickly, and have it look great.
In the 40 days, our normal number of setups was ridiculously high and we would do four moves from set to set. We’d run over to a new stage that was ready to shoot. Then we’d drive 40 minutes to Van Dusen park where everything was ready. Then, we’d be back on set where we’d do our final setup. We were shooting a lot of footage, and there weren’t a lot of takes. Cathy does three or four takes and moves on. Some directors do 11-17 takes before they move on and nobody knows why.
One hour before the end of the day, she would yell out “final frenzy,” then she’d shoot at double speed for the rest of the day. At the end, you were beat.
BTL: During shooting, what challenges did you face that were not planned?
Okun: I always expect the unexpected. That’s why I am on set – to keep myself open to opportunities. I am there to offer efficient and inexpensive solutions. Catherine was all ears. We came up with visual effects solutions to shots that were pre-planned but didn’t work when we went to shoot them. It was a very collaborative set. If there was time to shoot stuff we didn’t expect, we’d ask ourselves, ‘What else can we get that we had planned to throw out in pre-production?’
The prop guys and set dressing guys and lighting crews had everything ready all the time, and most of it was handmade. For example, we planned to do a lot of the wolf in the first sequence practically – he is suggested, but not seen – just a bunch of blurs. That was done for financial reasons. It was a rough thing to do because you are hiding your character. We want to see its actions and what it does. We thought we could drag a chunk of fur through frame, reduce the frame rate, and have it suggest the wolf – but it really looked like what it was. That ended up turning into the CG wolf blur.
The other unpredictable items were standard visual effects stuff, like shooting off the set. Then, there’s a scene where Gary Oldman comes to town. She wanted to shoot low up at him, but his head was in front of a giant lighting grid. I had to say, “there’s no way to make this shot work. I have a physical grid in the light mixed into his hair.” But I got to put a hole in the clouds with the sun behind him. The shot of him against the lights rotoscoped looked better than a shot with a green screen.
BTL: How did you plan for the visual effects shots featuring the wolf character?
Okun: The wolf is interacting with actors in one way or another. We were going to shoot layers of the crowd with green behind them. Then we made a deal with Rhythm and Hues who were able to come up with competitive roto costs, which became a far better solution.
The savings doing it that way ended up better than doing it with a green screen. Because of our schedule, to do a crowd scene, if you have three layers of people, you have to bring in a dolly track, run the move repeatedly, light the green screen, shoot it, relight, do a blank pass, and this is all in snow, so redress the snow to get rid of the prints. It could take half a day or more. Rotoing it was far more inexpensive because of our shooting schedule. On a bigger movie, you would previz these shots beforehand. Here, we had to have all of the instruments and tools ready for the unpredictable. We did that to give the director the leeway and freedom she needed. You want your visual effects process to be as invisible as the visual effects themselves, so that the actors and director are free to focus on their craft and not your technique.
BTL: Was the number of wolf shots eventually trimmed because of the limited budget?
Okun: Actually, we have more wolves than were planned. There were originally 60 shots, and we ended up with around 100. You always end up with more. When you are planning it, there are unknowns and you are on a budget, so you cut down. When you get into shooting, you find an economy that lets you have more. We had to pull plan B out to use the money for these shots. In the course of doing that, as we worked along, because of the experience of Rhythm and Hues as they worked on the show, we found ways to use one shot and flip-flop it to use it as another shot. The charge for rendering it out as a flop is less costly than doing a new shot.
BTL: Is your work more satisfying when you are involved in principal photography and can shepherd your shots through the post process?
Okun: The hardest day on every movie shoot is the last day. It’s a lonely time. You’ve climbed the mountain with everyone, but everyone goes on vacation, and our work really begins. When you enter into post, you execute the plan that you created. The editors are finding the movie, but the plan changes. Visual effects exist to help tell the story. The editors eliminate great swatches of stuff that you planned and paid for, and sometimes they add great swatches that you hadn’t planned but have to pay for. It’s a back-and-forth to arrive at the best way to tell the story. We created imagery that was temped into the movie until the final shots were done. CosFX was able to turn out temps at an amazingly rapid pace. My effects editor is an amazing guy at temping shots together out of nothing.
BTL: How did you work with your vendors to realize the complex shots of the wolf?
Okun: At Rhythm and Hues, we were developing the real wolf in a real environment. Sometimes we’d deliver the wolf and the director was unhappy, but sometimes she’d be happy, and it would take us in a new direction. I’ve worked with Tom Boland, the visual effects producer, for 17 years now. We accomplished everything we wanted. We almost doubled the shot count, and still came in on budget because of Tom’s brilliance, the editor’s brilliance, and Catherine’s brilliance. She wouldn’t ask for new shots unless they were absolutely needed. She did ask for some, but because of the way she shot it, she never asked for something that we couldn’t come up with out of the material we had.
When I’m on a film set, I shoot stills – 5,000-10,000 for every single movie – for exactly these purposes. There was hardly anything that we couldn’t do in post because we were well-planned and prepared. For instance, we added a bunch of wide shots to the movie – God’s point-of-view – day and night shots of the village. We did helicopter scouting and shooting, so we already had the village. It was a matter of changing the angle of the village and utilizing stills that we already had.
We already paid for the shot, and the reuse of various elements made it very cost effective. That’s about communicating very well with your vendors in the bidding stage. You have to understand when to tell them to cut their prices on some shots because you might feed them other shots. Our visual effects budget was well under $10,000,000.
BTL: How hectic was your schedule in creating the wolf?
Okun: My last day was Feb. 15 and we stopped shooting in September, so we had a short post schedule. It was very focused.
For the wolf, Catherine had collected images of every werewolf that has ever appeared in a motion picture, TV show and in books that we could find. The design of the wolf was brought along by Catherine, her concept designer, me, and an artist at Digital Domain who sculpted it for us. It became a collage of bits and pieces of feelings that we drew upon to come up with this wolf. We also built it based off of things that she hated. We had lots of round-table discussions.
The wolf was then animated by Craig Talmy, the director of animation at Rhythm and Hues. It was again a collaborative process driven by Catherine’s vision.
BTL: How was it determined how big and fast the wolf would be in Red Riding Hood?
Okun: We did the wolf calculations in pre-production. We made a styrofoam wolf and a stuffed wolf for set, and we had an apparatus that the actor could wear. Based on the pre-production concepts, we calculated the speeds that he would move. At Rhythm and Hues, Derek Spears was the in-house supervisor and Craig Talmy was the animation director. Craig did things that really expanded the ferocity of this wolf. There were some natural cues in the scene that they could take advantage of. Originally, you never actually see the wolf attack anybody. Initially, you see him blur through the scene, and then you see the remnants of the attack. Craig gave us the ability to do some real right-in-your face attacks.
When we were giving Rhythm and Hues our wish list of effects shots, Craig, because of the way a shot worked out, would mock up a way to add the wolf in the frame. Then Catherine would either love it or hate it, and we’d move forward.
Later in the movie, the wolf was never planned to attack a horse, but the wolf takes this horse down in the final movie. Because of the way the horse moved on set, Craig figured out a way to animate the wolf to have the wolf attack the horse. We had to do manipulation to add a dead horse to the aftermath of the scene, via Paul Bulger at CosFX, which added drama to the sequence.
BTL: Are you ultimately pleased with the effects work in the final film?
Okun: There are a lot of issues that affect the outcome. I’m very proud of the work and how it came out. The question is, “what I could have done to make it better?” In my world, you can always do something better. I’m always left a little unsatisfied with the work. But I think we did more than anybody thought we could accomplish with the schedule and the budget. There is always a shot or two in any project where you cringe when you see it. There are some physics that we disobeyed that wrinkled me. But in the end, this is a fairy tale in a different world. I’m extraordinarily pleased with how it came out. It was an amazing process. It was the best crew ever. It was an awesome experience that I’m glad I participated in.