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Supervisor Series-Kevin Mack-Ghost Rider

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Maya, the fabled software package so beloved by digital effects artists everywhere, is, according to Kevin Mack, good stuff. He’s had plenty of chances to use it, as visual FX supe for films such as What Dreams May Come, Fight Club, Big Fish, and A Beautiful Mind.And it’s even good for the particular element that comprises so much of not only Ghost Rider’s look, but its very raison d’être as a story—being as it’s the saga of a motorcycle rider, Johnny Blaze (essayed by Nicolas Cage), who sells his soul to the devil, Robert Johnson-like. The devil grants Blaze a break for someone near and dear to him, but in exchange, well—be careful what you name someone, for Blaze becomes “Ghost Rider,” a knight errant for the horned one (here called Mephistopheles, and played by Peter Fonda). And the Ghost Rider doesn’t resemble Mr. Cage (himself stage-named for another Marvel superhero, Luke Cage), but rather, sports a flaming skull—and a flaming chopper.So then, while Mack has done his time with water, in films such as The Abyss, (where he was a model painter), now the job was fire. And plenty of it.And much fake, digitally-convincing fire has already been rendered in the 21st’s canon of commercial cinema. And yet, none of it was quite what Mack was looking for. Maya, he stated, is definitely “good for doing candle flame, maybe a campfire,” but not, he found, for flaming skulls roaring down highways.The film, he notes, is filled with “fire moving fast… reacting.” In other words, “character fire”—flames with emotive intent.What to do? How to render anthropomorphic flame? Well, there was still Maya, which provided a lot of “lower level controls” for the redolent fire, a “kernel” used—along with Houdini—to ultimately design “an elaborate suite of tools” that is now proprietary to Sony Pictures Imageworks, in case you were wondering where to get a state-of-the-art “fire-solver,” as Mack neatly dubs it.In fact, the fire had to be so convincing—”absolutely real, no matter how fantastic”—that there was some rumbling that Mack’s convincing “test reel,” as they call digitally projected previs files these days, played a pivotal role in convincing Sony the Mark Steven Johnson–directed project was doable.”People always talk about these characters that defy the laws of physics,” Mack says. But, “you should still believe (the screen action) is happening in this world.”Another key thing happening in this world, or at least the part of it concerned with the digital side of movie-making, is that FX supervisors are in on the workflow from the moment it starts flowing. Often in the past, the visual effects team was treated as just another “vendor,” as Mack says. Now, with the increasing complexity of effects, “whether they like it or not, I get to have input” from preproduction onwards, especially when it comes to effective collaborations with the DP (actually two of them—Russell Boyd and John Wheeler) and the production designer Kirk M. Petrucelli.Mack is quick to praise his colleagues’ work, exclaiming that Petrucelli’s “sets were awesome,” especially singling out “corroded, rough hewn stone,” used on one set, “made out of styrofoam. Even up close you couldn’t tell!” FX supes like that kind of stuff.There was also direct collaboration, with Mack citing an “old West town shot in a freezer warehouse,” since there was no additional sound stage space in Melbourne at that moment. The set “was built right up the to the wall,” he recalls, and they “couldn’t light it or hang green screens.”That became one of Mack’s tasks in post, including putting in a “night sky, and extending the desert” ostensibly surrounding the warehouse in Melbourne. Even the “lighting is a story point” in that sequence, as the sun comes up. But to shoot it, they “had to light the whole thing up,” leaving it to Mack to re-do all the lighting.On a smaller note, the FX team even “got to come up with jokes,” Mack adds, underscoring the “everyone pitch in” feel of the production. “I was on set every day,” he says, “there were only a handful of days where they said ‘we don’t need you today.’”And while the collaboration was always close, Mack also stresses the “flow” part of “workflow,” as in being flexible, and knowing when you need to change things.”The previs team was in Melbourne [where the film was shot] to do previs; there are definite roles for them,” including, he adds, being able to help certain shots the production wanted to do as filming proceeded, post-green light. “A lot of stuff was redesigned in post,” he adds. “Often you’ll form precise plans for a shot, then something changes and your plan is out the window.”In addition to a Zen-like flexibility, Mack also coordinated the “non-fire” footage from the other digital houses under his purview, notably Cafe FX and Gray Matter FX.”We had a pretty reasonable schedule for posting,” he says, “and we started development on the fire even before we started shooting.” The schedule was helped along by a request from director Johnson to delay the film’s originally planned summer opening, precisely so it could come closer to fulfilling everyone’s creative ambitions.And in spite of a film where flames carry emotional weight throughout, Mack notes that they had only “600 shots, which isn’t that many by today’s standards.”Mack also credits the “handful of people who are fiendishly smart” that he worked with in taming the fire for this production, because good digital fire is “very memory intensive.” In fact, on some shots, more memory was required than was available on a single computer—particularly for the close-ups, so he found himself “rendering single frames on multiple CPUs,” each bit of the shot referred to as a “slice.”Yet in spite of all the “slicing” going on, Mack returns to the idea of collaboration, and says “I always try to work in such a way that we’re somewhat transparent to production,” so that the FX aren’t mysterious, but an extension of what went on on set.Transparent, that is, like a cool blue flame. Whether flying down the highway on a hog, or not.

Written by Mark London Williams

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