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Supervisor Series-Digital DomainMatthew Butler-Flags


Matthew Butler, Digital Domain’s VFX supervisor on the World War II opus Flags of Our Father, recalls director Clint Eastwood attending an advance showing of the film that recreates the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising during what many have called America’s last “good war.”Butler recalls that one vet was impressed at how seamlessly Eastwood apparently integrated documentary footage into the theatrical release.Eastwood—we can imagine the trademark gravel in his voice—had to explain to the gentleman how it wasn’t really documentary footage at all, but special effects. Whether he went on to say that these effects were created in Venice—and not the Venice recaptured after the fall of Mussolini, but the Venice of Dennis Hopper and Tony Bill—is unreported.But indeed, Butler, and Digital Domain, were charged with overseeing not just the hell of war, but what Butler calls the “clusterfuck” of war, as well—that colorful collective noun referring in this case to troop landings, battle plans gone awry, explosions, and military vehicles—both of the wheeled and nautical variety—careening, crashing, or sometimes simply driving by.And it wasn’t only the aspect of war Butler had to help recreate, but also the more prosaic parts—a “fairly wide breadth,” he says—creating images for the film of things that “couldn’t be done anymore” in more conventional and/or mechanical ways.He cites a “lack of authentic military hardware” as well as the “lack of a main location.”And by “main,” he means, of course, the South Pacific’s own Iwo Jima, which no longer looks quite the same as it did 60 years ago—though what does?—nor was it readily available. This brought up Hawaii as a possible Pacific-based, tropical alternative, but all the practical explosions Eastwood was planning on using during the landing scenes weren’t very practical, since while Hawaii may be fond of film location work, the State isn’t so fond of getting the hell blown out of it by visiting Hollywood movie troupes.That left, of course, the next logical alternative: Iceland.Not only were people descended from Viking stock inured to the effects of recreated battles or sudden, startling noises, but more practically, they had “a lot of black sand,” as Butler notes, thus matching the Pacific island’s own inky sands.But there were some things Iceland’s beaches couldn’t offer, in particular Mt. Suribachi, the great volcanic mound where the stars and bars were unfurled in the first place.Butler needed Suribachi “in the background” of a lot of the landing shots, but also acknowledges it was “very much a character in this movie,” one whose performance, if you will, “couldn’t be achieved with a matte painting technique.”And so Butler set about making a “mathematical recreation” of the island, using Digital Domain’s own terra-forming software, affectionately called “EnGen,” to recreate the Iwo Jima and Suribachi of yesteryear.And on the yesteryear theme, if Burt Lancaster’s famous film line that the “Atlantic Ocean was really something in those days,” is true, well, so was the Pacific, and it crashed with abandon on Iwo Jima’s shores. Butler found himself needing to generate water—a useful skill in both desert climes and FX shops, and he was no stranger to doing it in the latter context, as Digital Domain’s associate FX supervisor on Day After Tomorrow.But this had to be “interactive white water,” accurately reflecting the “behavior” of crashing surf—and not just crashing against black sandy shores, but against landing craft, spraying around as shells go off, and also wetting the boots of Marines, many of whom were about to die.But in this case, the “many” were mostly ones and zeroes as well. There were about 100 extras of the flesh-and-blood variety, “used for close-ups, useful for reference,” Butler says, but for wideshots, it was always, “digital craft, digital Marines.”These were “sentient beings,” he continues. “They can react.” Was he using the same programming and logic engines beloved by videogame makers, then?Those game-playing logic programs, he observes, “tend to be sets of behaviors,” ascribed to groups of characters. Making use of Massive Software’s 3-D crowd animation tools, Butler’s group created a “behavior tree,” where characters could be “told” to move left or right in the case of certain events (i.e., the equally “random” programmed explosions, etc.), slow down if a digital vehicle crossed their path, or “run from a visual cue,” if need be. The behaviors were “sewn into the brain of these beings.”And they didn’t need meal breaks!Butler’s group also made use of Maya and Houdini software tools, as well as their own in-house compositing tool, Nuke. The various programs were allowed to “speak” to each other via in-house pipeline toolsets.But none of that conversation involved blue or green screens. Butler knew he “would not have a chance to do elaborate blue-screen set ups. That’s not how Eastwood works.” Instead, the digital and flesh-and-blood (and sand) parts of the film were brought together via the heavy use of rotoscoping.Butler felt this actually resulted in a “more realistic blur around the edges” of moving objects—realistic, that is, in terms of how we expect such movement to look on screen.It all seems to have worked. “Eastwood knew we were bending over backwards,” to avoid the usual matte-style methods of filming actors, and the director was “generally happy” with the shots as they came in, as was overall FX supervisor Michael Owens (who’d worked with Eastwood previously on Space Cowboys).“Eastwood’s one of these guys—he has people he trusts,” Butler says, and then is happy to delegate to them while he focuses on the story and the actors.There was a lot to focus on. “This is a movie that’s supposed to be big,” Butler continues, “and never draw your eye to the visual effects. You lose that once, and you lose your entire audience. It raises the bar of quality control to pull that off.”If the words of the men who were actually there are to be believed, that bar was successfully cleared.

Written by Mark London Williams

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