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PP-Supervisor Series-Sin City

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“We had a lot of spurting blood,” Stu Maschwitz recalls of his effects work on the Robert Rodriguez film version of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels.Maschwitz had cut his teeth on exploding space ships during his five years at ILM, and presumably, after becoming a founding partner of San Francisco-and-Los Angeles-based visual effects house The Orphanage. He was also no stranger to the various digital indignities the flesh is prone to. After all, Maschwitz helped develop the Magic Bullet software which gives digits a film-like sheen, and has been used by Jackass: The Movie, among others.But this blood was different: “It was ‘Yellow Bastard’ blood,” he states, referring to one of the Sin City books that makes up the movie’s storyline.Since Miller is one of comics’ renowned auteurs—both writing and drawing such esteemed classics as the definitive Batman Dark Knight series, and the dystopian, sci-fi-ish books about black teenager Martha Washington—Maschwitz knew that the Yellow Bastard blood already had “a particular look—where it clumps together in an anime kind of way.”And since Rodriguez was not merely adapting Miller’s work, but famously seeking to recreate his highly stylized look on film—so much so that Miller, at Rodriguez’ insistence, received a co-director credit, an issue over which Rodriguez resigned his DGA membership—Maschwitz knew that Yellow Bastard blood, clumping and all, had to look like, well, Yellow Bastard blood.“Robert could never quite get it in the shot,” Maschwitz notes, though nearly all of these shots featured actors alone—with, perhaps, an occasional weapon or car—and the rest was all greenscreen, leaving it for Maschwitz’ The Orphanage crew to come up with the rest of the landscape.“We spent a month computing fluid dynamics,” he continues, “but fluid dynamics break down when things start moving very, very fast.”If real live fake blood won’t work, and digits are likewise coming up short, what to do? Luckily, the particular month Maschwitz is talking about fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so they gave up on trying to program Bastard-y blood and turned to the next best thing: hockey pucks.“We went out in the parking lot,” he recalls, having borrowed said pucks from a Canadian colleague, “and spent about an hour throwing pucks into a bowl of egg nog.”Thus the shortage of nog at The Orphanage Yuletide party served the cause of art: “We shot at 24 fps,” Maschwitz recalls, thinking they would use the thick, splattering—and yellow!—egg nog as a reference for designing Miller-y blood, but instead “the compositor just grabbed it and put it into his shot.”Of course, digits were then deployed to give the nog the required sanguineous features. “That was a fun lesson learned,” Maschwitz says, which he boils down to getting effects done by what he terms “any means necessary,” a sentiment that Malcolm X would’ve appreciated, had he taken to a computer console instead of an activist’s pulpit.But Maschwitz knew even pre-nog that a lot of means would be necessary on this gig—a gig which did not come automatically from The Orphanage’s work with Rodriguez on the Spy Kids franchise.Rather, as work on the adventures of the jejeune agents wrapped up, Maschwitz read that Rodriguez would be attempting Sin City via a leak on Ain’t It Cool News.Miller had long vowed he wouldn’t allow his graphic novels to be filmed, since he thought the general look or vibe could never be recreated. Maschwitz then shot Rodriguez an email saying The Orphanage was up to the task, and while the director was busy sorting out what that task would be, the effects supervisor got busy.The first thing Maschwitz did was take note of a “shot in ‘Yellow Bastard’”—“shot” in this case referring to a visual panel on one of Miller’s pages—“of a car flipping over.” He “found a model of the car, and lit it in a way” that replicated the artist’s high-contrast style, then “added a little Miller-esque falling snow to it.“Having come off The Day After Tomorrow, we should’ve known the snow would be a big deal—but we didn’t.” The task wasn’t to make “normal” looking snow, of course, but moody “noir” snow, “snow that could be backlit, could sparkle, could be black and white.”Appropriately, then, they called in more ammo: “We bought Houdini.” Generous in his praise, Maschwitz likens Side Effects’ Houdini software’s array of 3D animation and visual FX tools to a computer “which can do everything. You (just) gotta figure out how to do it.”So “we designed an approach I came up with on my own,” and pushed Houdini into the land of stylized ice flakes. But Maschwitz wasn’t done playing with his digital tool box. The film features not only gunplay, but carplay—or car chases. Virtual chases, since, remember, Rodriguez was green-screening everything but live thespians.So Maschwitz decided to give animators control over gas, brakes and steering—to let them become, in a sense, their own stunt drivers, admonishing them that they could wipe out if they drove too recklessly over digital ice—and would have to do the scene over. “That worked for about half the shots,” he allows. For the other half, “we built a rig defining where the car was going to go.”Sometimes familiar tools are good, too. And in the end, Maschwitz found himself “really affected by the story, too.”What about the directors? Not just Rodriguez, but credited co-directors Miller, and Quentin Tarantino?Tarantino, it turns out, only directed “one short scene in the middle,” and “we didn’t interact with Frank much either.”Except indirectly. Maschwitz’s team would do QuickTime dailies with Rodriguez as the film progressed. During one of those sessions, “Miller calls (Rodriguez) on his cell phone.” Rodriguez then starts describing what he was seeing to the artist, and started to pick up the pace so he could convey more and more of how the film’s look was coming together.It worked for Maschwitz: “We finalized more shots that day than we ever did before.” And he didn’t have to email the director to ask about his next gig, either: The Orphanage is currently at work on Rodriguez’ latest greenscreen feature, the kid-friendly Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D.

Written by Mark London Williams

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