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John Carpenter's

 

Q&A with Image Engine

Image Engine, who are based in Vancouver, Canada, created the majority of the digital effects for The Thing (2011). Since their establishment in 1994, they have risen to prominence as one of the major digital visual effects companies. Early successes include their contributions to I, Robot and Stargate SG-1 (the movie and later the television series.) 

Their profile rose dramatically as a result of their outstanding work on District 9. Besides earning them an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, their accomplishments on this movie led to them acquiring the reputation of being the 'go-to' company for digital creature effects, and made them the perfect choice for the realisation of the highly challenging digital component of the alien effects required for The Thing (2011).

In addition to their realisation of the various, gloriously grotesque manifestations of The Thing itself (the Edvard-Adam Thing earned them a nomination for the highly prestigious VES Award), Image Engine also contributed a number of ingenious digital environmental effects (e.g. the alien ship and characters' breath), many of which were so subtle and inconspicuous that their digital nature escaped most viewers. We are very grateful to them for providing this opportunity, not only to ask specific questions about their work on The Thing (2011), but also to obtain broader insights into the nature of their work and of digital visual effects in general. We also very much wish to thank jayneandd for arranging and running this Q&A.

Q: Can you clear up some confusion that seems to exist around the practical effects for the prequel. Is it true to say that it was intended from the start that the effects would be a mix of both practical and CGI? That is every practical effect had some sort of green screen element to it on set that was later embellished with CGI? 

A: The film was officially greenlit just before the Xmas holiday in 2009, we had our first meeting with the producers, Matthjis, ADI and the other key crew the first week of January 2010, these meetings lasted the entire week. We went through the entire script. Principal photography was to start in April 2010, starting with the exterior work, and was scheduled to end in June 2010. This meant that any practical puppets / animatronics had to be ready by May at the latest. The release date was set for February 2011, which means we’d have to be finished by the end of year 2010.

Throughout the first week of meetings a strategy was agreed with ADI as what creature would be a CGI augmentation and what would be entirely CGI. All the designs were created by ADI. All the transformations were to be entirely digital effects. i.e. filmed elements combined with CGI.

 

Q: Did you see the version of the film that was shown to test audiences ahead of the original April 2011 release? If so, how did it differ from the final version?

A: Yes. It was missing a couple of dialogue scenes, that were going to be reshot and the ending did not feature the Sanders-Thing.

 

Q: Your team are very obviously massive fans of the 82 version and Bottin's effects. How does it feel to read some of the derogatory comments on various forums that say the "CGI is laughable", "SyFy-standard", "looks terrible" and "ruined the film"? 

A: But then other people have been very complimentary ... we received a VES nomination for best character, which is a nod from fellow artists.

Everyone is a critic and they're entitled to those opinions. Although saying that it makes me laugh when I read these same fans saying CG hasn't improved since Jurassic Park. In many ways audiences are so spoiled by the quality of visual effects being delivered today they do not even realize what it is they're viewing.

 

Q: What scene or effect are you most proud of?

A: The Edvard Adam transformation scene.

 

Q: You indicate in an interview at ARTOFVFX that the final CGI effects shot count was much higher than originally scoped. What was the reason behind this? AND In an interview with fxguide it was said that you received a request for 200 more shots than you anticipated. What did these shots entail?

A: As part of the reshoot, the ending was changed from the Pilot-Alien to a thing based on Sanders, this was designed by ADI. 25% of the new shots were for this. The rest were basically because the winter of 2010 was a warm one in Ontario, Canada, and for the exterior location, which had been snow bound in previous winters, wasn't when we shot there. All the exteriors had to have matte painting extensions / breath / whatever was needed to make it look like we were in the Arctic.

 

Q: It was fascinating to discover that the breath of the characters was added using CGI - Are there any scenes that audiences might not realize are using CGI in the final movie?

A:This is a great example of where fans get confused. Breath was added but we composited filmed breath elements onto the live action plates, there was no computer graphics imagery (CGI) used at all. One of our compositing leads went to Toronto for the reshoot spent a day in a freezer with a cameraman and extra, who was dressed entirely in black and they filmed all the breath elements against a black background. They were shot at different frame rates, different angles, speaking, every combination thinkable. In fact another company called With a Twist did an additional 120 shots worth of breath on the film using these elements.

Image Engine provided over 30 minutes worth of visual effects, over a quarter of the finished film was a visual effect but of course, every 'fan' knows what is CGI and what isn't, don't they!

 

Q: How much additional CGI work was involved in the transformations of Griggs, Juliette and Edvard/Adam from the version screened for test audiences before the original April 2011 release and the version eventually released in cinemas. 

A:The versions shown in the preview screening were work in progresses of the same shots as released in the final film. These transformations were always going to be digital.

  

Q: Did you see the original practical FX cut? If so, what were your thoughts?

A: That never existed, as the original plan was to always at least augment every creature. 

ADI's work – all animatronics / puppets have limitations.  As does CGI.  We use a combination of both to get the best out of both.

The craft of filmmaking is still an art - there is no right or wrong. When something does not go as planned / is not how the director thought it would be / whatever the reason, all the departments involved have to react creatively to come up with solutions. That is also a blessing / curse of CGI, you can change it after photography, so it is more flexible but unless it is creatively driven, lots and lots of time can be wasted and that doesn’t end up on the screen.

For example the one character which just didn't work as an animatronic / creature suit was Juliette, the creature as designed by ADI had a fantastically grotesque silhouette with a broken upper body torso, that could not have been achieved any other way apart from using CGI. However shooting the person in a suit was still the best approach, as we had a perfect reference for height, scale and lighting and we were able to set fire to the stunt woman in the suit. 

  

Q: Are you aware that there is a petition to Universal to release a "practical cut" or the original work print that was screened to test audiences. What's your view on this? Would you support it?

A: There never was a practical only cut as it was always the intention to be a mixture with CGI.

 

Q: Was the budget of and lack of time something you had to fight with to deliver the quality you wanted? 

A: You always have to fight to deliver the quality you want. And that is not just a budgetary issue.  Creating these effects is an incredibly complicated and time consuming task, for example the finished shot of Grigg’s face split was version 348, over a 12-month period. That tells you how many different versions we created on that shot alone.

 

Q: What issues did you have in trying to hide the effects so as to not make them so obvious? Did anything in the environment or context of the movies scenes or visuals give you trouble?

A: We always go back to nature for our starting point, we used lots of reference from BBC’s Planet Earth for example, the way that squid’s can split a tentacle into many more was an idea for Grigg’s tentacles. The hardest part of any film like this one, is that it is completely made up, there is no known creature that can do what the Thing does so it is hard to make an audience believe that these are ‘real’ creatures as we all know they’re not … animatronic or CGI.

Matthijs, in the spirit of JC’s version, didn’t want to hide the monsters. The deal was always to have them as featured as the actors. We did replace some objects in the plates so the CG characters had something to interact with but we didn’t do any grading to hide them if that’s what you mean.

 

Q:  Obviously the practical effects are big to most THING fans but if you could tell us what the main reasons the CGI was put in and what instructions you were given when crafting the effects? It would be appreciated!

A: As already stated CGI was used because it was the most effective tool to get the results as required by the director.

  

Q:  While the THING CGI is where many questions are directed the ship and the ice effects were done very well! Did your team handle those as well and if they did how was working on those effects? Was there any sort of specific challenge whether time or technical that might have come up?

A: A company called Mr X handled the opening sequence in which the snow spryte falls down the ice ravine and discovers the spaceship, With a Twist added breathe composites, everything else was completed here at IE.

The trickiest task was the spaceship ice cave, to create the scale and grandeur took a long time, at least we had real world reference but as with all films, it became ‘film’ reality !

  

Q:  Did you have creative input on the effects or were you left to work out the conceptual issues in designs to meet the aesthetic needed for the shots?

A: We were a part of planning the shoot and coming up with certain ‘looks’. It’s usually a process that evolves not only throughout pre-production but also in post until you run out of time.

We also had to solve certain problems with the designs. For the ice cave we kept exploring the size for example and for the creatures we had to make the anatomy work for when they move. 

  

Q:  How much collaboration was there between yourselves and ADI and was there any animosity when your work effectively replaced their own 

A: ADI were a pleasure to work with throughout pre-production and the shoot and that was even with us setting fire to one of their owners! They were not involved in postproduction as by that time their job was done.  They did come back to design the Sanders-Thing for the reshoot.

 

Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of play of CGI in movies?

A: The level of creativity and quality of CG is amazing and is only going to get better.

Now of course not all films are equal, there is a mantra in VFX about the three rules cost, quality, time … now pick 2 …

But this is not how the studios work, they have a budget assigned per film and will drive a deal to get the film made for that cost. The direct to DVD market will have different budgets than TV, than blockbusters etc.

As an industry it is only in it's infancy, being less than 20 years old. You also have to remember that CG is only a tool, the vision still has to come from the director, the story still has to come from the writer, the onscreen chemistry still has to come from the actors, etc

However as a tool it has allowed directors and writers to open up worlds previously unachievable ...

 

Q: I also find CGI stands out sometimes not because it doesn't look good but because directors pick ridiculous shots.

By that I mean if you have a rubber effect in a real world environment you can only shoot it in so many ways because of the bounds of real world equipment whereas with CGI the sky's the limit, the camera can go anywhere and do anything.

This is what in my opinion makes the process stand out as phony; Cameras doing things their real world counterparts are not physically capable of which resonates with the audiences subconciously (They know deep down cameras can't float or fly in these bizarre rig free manners).

A: Star Wars had impossible camera moves, as does Blade Runner and every other sci-fi film. Fight Club, in fact every David Fincher film goes inside something or through something that is impossible. These are creative choices made by the director, which are realized by his crew.

I am not disagreeing with your critique but these are personal choices made by the individual directors …  Warhorse has CGI enhanced shots but Spielberg insisted that the camera moves had to be physically achievable, that was his aesthetic choice.

  

Q: How do you feel about this point as do you ever try and guide directors away or towards this way of shooting CGI?

A: Again this is a huge misconception; we are a VFX facility so the use of CGI is not the only solution available to us. Can elements be photographed, so the visual effects become a composite, how about a matte painting solution? When we sat down at the beginning of The Thing, we were trying to come up with an approach that produced the most realistic result. With the transformations we used the actors as long as possible, that meant getting special effects to create a special rig for each actor so that they could perform a transformation, costumes created clothes that ripped on cue for multiple takes, the 2nd Unit director Clay Staub got a fantastic performance from Trond Espen Seim as Edvard and I assure you hanging from wires bent over like he was, was not comfortable!

As previously explained we are a part of the creative solution but always as per the director.

 

Q: Do you find that post production is almost being taken out of directors hands in terms of CGI effects, colour grading, final cut,etc. Studios would much rather play it safe and do it their own way rather than leave a director up to it.

A: As per the DGA, every director has a 10-week period to edit the film exactly as he / she would like. This is then screened for the studio and they react. They then work together or they don’t and the studio takes over. In my experience the studio would always rather work with the director to finish the movie but that doesn’t always happen.

 

Q. What do you think are the next big leaps in CGI technology and is it an exponential technology? 

A: CGI is certainly a tool that’s been evolving exponentially. I can’t tell you what the next big leap will be but the bar is constantly being raised and we keep trying to raise it even higher.

 

Q: Were any of the effects in the movies rushed due to deadline?

A: The reality is that most vfx shots, or in fact most parts of the filmmaking process is rushed to one degree or another. A lot of what a director has to do is picking his battles when there are several things up against a deadline at once. As frustrating as they can be, deadlines are necessary to move forward (or ever finishing).

 

Q: What are your thoughts on the practicality of lighting for effects?

A: We had something to frame and light for all the main creatures. It’s a luxurious way of working as our shots gets the same amount of attention as every other shot which sometimes doesn’t happen when there’s a general idea that we can ‘fix it in post’. To me this is the best way of shooting. There’s much less of a compromise compared to non vfx shots and not only does this give us the best possible plate, it also gives the filmmakers something to cut with without having to wait for the vfx facility to deliver a version of the shot back. 

 

Q: What is the price difference between using practical vs. using CGI? Has CGI become so common that it is now most cost effective to use than practical FX over the past 20 years? I know this was not the case back in the days of Jurassic Park and Independence Day, where it cost far more for CGI FX than practical

A: That’s very hard to compare apples for apples. In a very simplified way you could say that the cost of CGI is fairly linear as it’s takes the same time for an artist to generate each shot whilst if you build something physical the cost per shot is the time it takes to shoot.

Although money is a big factor there are many more for the director to consider when choosing methodologies. 

 

Q:  And what is the time gain/loss difference? How long to create practical and deploy/shoot it in a film vs. creating CGI and editing it into the film? 

A: Any practical effects have to be ready to shoot for principal photography, a visual effect shot can be dropped into the Digital intermediate / graded feature right until the film has to be recorded out to negative … this can be as little as 4 weeks before the theatrical release.  This can be a good thing in terms of flexibility but can also be a bad thing in terms of decision-making.

Deadlines are a good thing I assure you; otherwise no film would ever get released!

  

Q:  One last question: We saw the standalone screenshots of the practical FX in The Thing in various images across forums and sites on the web... though never really got to see any film shots of it in action? I think some may be "jumping the gun" and assuming just because it looks awesome in a single picture they saw on the web also means its just as fluid and more realistic during live action filming... more fluid than CGI that is, with better character quality.

Is that true? Or is that simply not the case... that just because it looks good on a single screenshot, that it perhaps did not work effectively in motion?

A: Have a look at the Blu-ray of the film and make up your own mind. The behind the scenes show the shooting of the puppets / animatronics.


 
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