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PP-Post Supervisor series-Zathura

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“It’s a kid’s movie, it’s supposed to be fun,” says Pete Travers of Zathura. And as the effects supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks’ visual contributions to the film, he made “fun” part of his visual palette.“In the (space) shots, there was a nebula in every corner,” after the siblings involved open the titular game—which comes from the same “world” as the game in Jumanji (and from the same picture-book creator, Chris Van Allsburg) —and find their house launched on a trip through the galaxy’s outer reaches. Though in this particular case, the idea was to create a galaxy that “looked cool,” as opposed to “what looked right.”They were going for a Tin Toy type of design, Travers states, suiting the made-in-the-fifties look of the magical game itself.There were even some 50s-style special effect techniques used, married to the new frontier of digits – ones and zeroes: in particular, when the game yields up a robot, which proceeds to cause some mayhem.For some of the robot shots they “had a person run around on set in a torso and feet,” to match the rampaging automaton, and then, deploying post-space-age computer tech, and added the pelvis, legs and arms later.But Travers maintains there are advantages to sticking to the “old ways,” when appropriate: “There’s still an advantage if you can shoot it on set,” he says, noting how much easier it is to match eye lines, as one example. Additionally, per the mechanical man, “a giant robot walks into a room, it’s going to affect the room”—a phenomenon readers may have noticed in their own encounters with giant robots.For Travers, though, it comes down to light. A giant robot is going to block light, change shadows, among other things, and if that is captured “live” on stage, there’s less digital conjecture that has to be done in post.Ultimately, Travers’ outlook on how best to make an effect work is in line with Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary”—though in an entirely different context. “If the best answer is to make it from popsicle sticks,” well, Travers maintains, that’s what they’ll do.The popsicle stick demographic also figured into the visual mix: “(Director Jon) Favreau made it a point to make sure the effects were seen through the eyes of the kids—like the old horror movies, way back when.”Another aspect to the Zathura look was to tack against the usual “less is more” adage. For this film, more was more—especially in the climatic “black hole” sequence, which also features an attack by a Zorgon armada, Zorgons being, of course, a particular breed of off-worlders spawned by the game.The entire sequence was “pretty heavy duty” in Travers’ estimation. His crew took a “kitchen sink” approach, and kept “adding debris”—space junk, asteroids, bits of houses and ships. The junkier, the better—a somewhat different approach than Travers was able to take when ensconced at the Santa Barbara Studios, where he oversaw effects for episodes of some of the latter-day Star Trek incarnations.He also did CG work on The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and borrowing the concept of “apparating” from the latter film—the concept of something disappearing in one place, and reappearing somewhere else.In this case, the transportation in question has to do with digital information shared between post houses. There’s “a lot of data sharing with other facilities” that’s become standard in effects work. Especially with pre-viz work, for which storyboards are now a “subset.”In this film, pre-viz was used primarily for motion-control shots, according the Travers. That included a lot of external shots of the house flying around. When a pre-viz sequence is captured, or when any effects work is passed between houses, then “hopefully the scenario is they’re using the same software,” in other words, speaking the same language.And in this case—the Zorgon tongue aside—they were; that language being, primarily, Maya software from Alias, though Travers notes that Softimage has a solid perch on second place. Having the same software used by multiple houses has “helped mature our industry”—though he notes there are still issues about which version of a given software package a production facility is using.Nonetheless, the sharing of work is “doable”—something that helps with today’s compressed postproduction schedules. The best effects work, Travers says, comes from the “opportunity to have as many iterations as possible,” pecking away at the scene to “figure it out,” much as writers do in creating stories.Or as players do when working through the instructions of newly discovered board games—even those that manage to fold dimensions and bend space.

Written by Mark London Williams

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