Visual FX supervisor Thomas J. Smith has overseen digital effects on pictures where you know you’ll be watching a lot of digital sleight-of-hand, like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and The Chronicles of Riddick, and also films you wouldn’t immediately expect to be FX heavy, like all three Ocean’s films with George Clooney. He found himself in that role again with Clooney, with a film set in other deserts besides downtown Vegas, namely “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”
The film concerns an alleged battalion of the U.S. Army that makes use of “paranormal powers,” and is based on a reporter’s real-life account of attempting to verify whether the Army in fact believed it could marshal such powers.
Along the way, some of the reputed paranormal warriors, like Clooney’s character, make animals keel over just by staring at them, using only telekinetic chops.
To film such a scene, you need a goat to fall over on cue. Enter Smith. “We first tried to capture that with real animals, which didn’t work,” Smith says, though not for lack of trying. However, “the interview with live goats didn’t go so well.”
Among those auditioning was a species of goat that faints, or passes out, when overly frightened or excited. (The curious can look up such creatures on Youtube).
Smith headed down south to scout such creatures, but it was felt their manner of fainting didn’t look right for the “mind bending” (or “ungulate bending,” as the case may be) in the scene. He says that while the goats did have a handy “genetic disposition” toward falling down more or less on cue, the end result looked “kind of like an epileptic seizure.”
So the decision was made to go with a CG goat, matched to a non-fainting real one. Of course, you want to build up to a thing like a goat, so they started with a CG hamster instead.
The falling hamster was easier to create, Smith says, because in the film it’s seen in a “shot designed to look like a VHS quality tape seen on television.” The hamster was created in Maya—for fur—and lit with Renderman, and was convincingly created, along with a yet smaller creature—a butterfly which lands on Clooney’s hand and is blown off, only to be tracked to some tree branches above.
Between the wings, the fur, the flight, the hamster wheels, it was time for a goat.
For that, Smith notes he accumulated “detailed photos of goats,” including hooves, ears and facial features, “lots of reference stuff.” The goat “had to be spot on from eight or nine feet away.” The last thing the filmmakers wanted was the audience to think they were in fact watching a CG goat.
So “we kept refining it,” Smith says, as they also used Joe Alter’s Shave and a Haircut plug-in for Maya, which helps model fur or hair, depending on the species in question.
That refining was all in service of making the goat-drop as believable as possible—for example, the way “weight is displaced” when the goat hits the ground conveys subtle touches about the believability of such an act—quite aside from the Army’s willingness to believe in the power of Psionic soldiers. But Smith recalls he was hampered by the lack of any “real-life reference. I don’t remember seeing a goat fall down in my lifetime.”
Thus, while taking pains to match the digital goat very carefully with the real one, all the way down to using color maps created from reference photos of live-action goat, with translucency grades for each follicle. And when it was all done, there were several ways to go for the big moment itself, including a more comedic feel to the fall. And yet, that moment in the script “wasn’t supposed to get a big laugh.”
But all was not just rams and ewes for Smith.
The company shot in Mexican deserts as a stand in for Iraqi. Smith eventually added helicopters in the air for some of the Middle East sequences, and they had to darken down the sand—moving from follicles to grains—to mimic the “Iraq look,” whose sands are a different hue than those in the New World.
And while Smith is the first to acknowledge that The Men Who Stare at Goats isn’t marketed as an FX picture at all, he takes satisfaction in knowing that “every little bit of work we do adds up, even though it’s transparent.”
Once people wonder how no goats were harmed in the making of this movie, or how many real helicopters were rented to fly over hemispherically-tweaked sands, they often tell him “I didn’t realize there were any effects in this movie at all.”
And Smith considers that “the ultimate compliment.”