At the recent Production Summit thrown by the Visual Effects Society in Marina del Rey, collectively attempting to suss out the future of Hollywood filmmaking in a world both all-digital, and all-outsourced, director Roland Emmerich’s visual effects cohorts, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert—the former supervising VFX on most of his pictures, the latter in charge of producing those FX—each took to separate panels to weigh in on their own visions of the road ahead.
No matter what they might’ve said, the pronouncements had to pale in comparison to the particular version of the future portrayed in Emmerich’s 2012, which they’d recently finished working on.
For the record, Weigert mentioned that the day was coming when even “live” filmmaking could be subjected to intensive correction/emendation in post—particularly in the area of lighting set-ups, which could save enormous amounts of time on set, (even if changing the mood). Closer to the subject at hand, Engel mentioned that in 2012, an entire sequence had been edited in advance by Emmerich, before the actors were even filmed.
Whether this is a harbinger of production-schedules-to-come remains to be seen, but in the case of 2012, the earthquake sequence needed to be dealt with in advance, in any case, because according to Weigert—who with Engel, also shares co-producer credit on the film—in the script, the destruction of Los Angeles “was about three lines—‘buildings crumble around them as they drive in the limo. Eventually, they arrive at Santa Monica airport.’”
It was a sequence that particularly cried out for previs, but in this instance, Engel says, the previs was so good it rendered about 98 percent of what they wanted in the sequence. So Emmerich was able to edit the once three-line scene into yet another definitive ending-of-L.A., all of which presumably made the shots he actually needed from the actors that much easier to figure out during the phase between previs and post known as “production.”
About which, Engel notes—referencing a favorite statistic—that “98 percent of this movie was not shot on location.” Or at least, not on the actual locations that other places, sound stages and greenscreens were used to double for. He contrasts that to Independence Day, which only had “400 visual effects” in the whole film. Now in a sense, everything’s an effect, since there’s an ability to “create everything as a digital backlot.”
However, that may serve some of the film’s aesthetic well, as Weigert describes the movement from quake-torn L.A. to quake-torn Vegas and beyond. “It’s almost like a ride, and the viewer is in the middle, trying to get out of it,” as opposed to viewing the mayhem from a more “third person” perspective.
That, he says, “opens up a lot of new problems.” One of those problems became the use of miniatures in terms of the detail and depth you can often get by building scale versions of “reality.”
But because of the relentless nature of how the destruction was to be chronicled on screen, miniatures proved “too expensive” compared to what the duo was already able to render with their own in-house FX group.
Additionally, Weigert notes, that for the shots they wanted—lots of movement through an imploding landscape—every single miniaturized detail, “every tree, every mailbox” would have to made to “crumble in an earthquake” in a coordinated fashion.
So instead, Engel says, “we surprised ourselves with the quality of texture and lighting that we got” thanks to the “magic and talent of our artists, through compositing.” Still, Weigert notes, “we wanted to make sure we had something real in that L.A. sequence,” so they decided to “build a street and drive a limo through it.”
On the other hand, when they went to screen scenes with Emmerich, there were sequences when the director asked if he was looking at the real limo or the digital one. No one knew without double checking which specific shot they were watching.
There was much talk, at the VES Summit of missing out on the magic that happens on set in our looming all-digital future. Weigert says there is indeed about “20 percent magic, and 80 percent limitations.”
“That’s where the sun should be,” he says, musing about the hypothetically magic shot, “to light my limo perfectly.” But wherever the light comes from, Weigert says he and Engler “sit together with the DP from the first thought” about the film’s look, to discuss the visual schemata.
Those discussions also included other post-houses, besides the one Weigert and Engel formed for this particular film, (they’re fond of building new post-houses with each production, then selling off the equipment at the end, which Weigert explained is “cheaper than renting”), like London-based Double Negative, which handled much of the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera.
Since no volcanic eruptions on that scale have been seen for 600,000 years, and we’re not sure who might’ve “seen” it then, what did Engel and Weigert, and Double Negative, use for visual reference?
There was a lot of documentary-watching, featuring pyroclastic clouds—those billowing, scorching tsunamis of hot ash and rock that erupt from the most vociferous of volcanoes. The doc footage was sent to Double Negative “as a reference,” though there was much tweaking late into the process, as Emmerich was still making up his mind about this gigantic explosion.
There were other disasters that had to be tweaked, as well. Weigert recounts how research showed that the eruption of a caldera 30 miles wide—or, in another scene, the rushing of water over the Himalayas—would take, on those scales, at least three or more minutes to unfold, in “real” life.
The worst disasters since the Permian extinction would unfold too slowly to make good cinema! So, Engel says, they were challenged to “find the right speed… for when the shit hits the fan.”
Among the tools used to create the fan hits, were Maya, Thinking Particles, Fume FX, and the aptly-named Krakatoa software packages. “As much off the shelf as possible,” Engel says.
Weigert notes they will sometimes push vendors to develop new applications for existing software, co-developing tweaks and improvements then offered back for “the next version” of off-the-shelf ware.
“We try to advance technology in a democratic way,” he adds.
All of which seems to augur a little optimism for the future, pyroclastic clouds and slipping continental shelves notwithstanding.