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The Hitchiker's Guide to Monuments Men and a Career in VFX

COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Wilson : The Hitchiker's Guide to Monuments Men and a Career in VFX
CreativeCOW presents The Hitchiker's Guide to Monuments Men and a Career in VFX -- Art of the Edit Editorial
Palm Springs California USA All rights reserved.

Creating a realistic background for a bombed-out city is harder than it sounds; make it too real, and it looks fake.

That assessment is coming from Cinesite VFX Supervisor Jon Neill, a guy who has also created compelling front-and-center foreground elements for some of the biggest VFX features of the past 20+ years, for franchises like Harry Potter, James Bond and the X-Men.

Jon's work at Cinesite began as an artist, moving up through lighting, to lead lighting, then Sequence Supervisor and CG Supervisor before he became one of Cinesite's VFX Supervisors. Features he's worked on in a leadership role have included The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy as CG Supervisor, and in his first two jobs as a Cinesite VFX Supervisor, John Carter, and Skyfall.

Jon's most recent job as VFX Supervisor on Monuments Men would appear to have been relatively easier than your typical VFX epic… but "relative" is a relative term.

Monuments Men is based on the true story of attempts by World War II Allied countries to rescue stolen art treasures at risk of being destroyed by the Nazis in World War II.

One of Cinesite's major tasks was to build the bombed-out city of Aachen, Germany. The biggest creative problem was balancing realism with usefulness.

"It sounds easier than it is to actually create a realistic bombed out city behind actors," says Jon. "We went through lots of versions -- different levels of haze, different depths of field. It was very demanding, because the main thing is, you're not supposed to look at the background. If it's too spectacular, your eye keeps going back to it. We found that at a certain point, it looked more realistic to have less in the scene.

"For one shot, we even took out some of the buildings that were actually there. We left just one building and a brick wall that was partially destroyed. That worked much better from a storytelling point of view."

One of Cinesite's key sequences in Monuments Men was a reveal of pallets of bags of gold, boxes of money and artwork in a salt mine. The room starts in darkness, and then lights come on in stages, creating an impression of the space expanding and expanding. The trick here was to create something realistic, and at the same time, give filmmakers the largest number of options for telling the story of that particular space.

"When the scene opens, the actors can't see anything. It's all black, and then one of them pulls on a generator, which sets off all these lights and illuminates this vast cavern, as far as the eye can see. Our work started with a greenscreen set that only had bags of money on pallets going back only about 10 feet," Jon says. Rather than use traditional 2D set extension techniques, he and his team set out to create something with real depth.

"We used photogammetry to recreate everything in the scene -- pallets, bags, tracks with carts on them -- by taking photographs of every object from every angle. We brought those [photographs] into software that looks at all the pictures, and recognizes it as a 3D object. Then we laid out the scene one object at a time, textured them, and lit them."

Duplicating the bags on the pallets in particular was a bit of a trick. "We started in groups of four sandbags, piled in a square. Then we duplicated those out to fill a pallet, and started to stack them. The problem is that if you're not careful, it's easy to recognize the pattern, and see those same bags over and over. It's much too CG looking. That's when we sent the scene to the digital matte painter to touch them up individually."

The Monuments Men come across pallets of gold bags. In this scene, darkness melts away as the vast cavern is illuminated.

A digital matte painter was brought in to create realistic variations on the bags of money.

This is when Jon's lighting background kicked in. "Painted light directions and painted shadows never look quite right. Everything about them is flat. The nice thing about the way we rendered the lighting is that each pool of light was a kind of occlusion render, acting as its own matte. As each of the lights came on, they worked correctly with each other. We also used shadow pass occlusions so that all of it was working for us.

"The other thing was, there were maybe 100 lights hanging from the ceiling. We didn't know which way the director or the VFX clients wanted the sequence of lights to come in. Maybe they wanted the back lights to come on first, or rippling down front to back, or in stages. This is what comes up in post. 'Yeah, but I don't like this light coming on at this time. That one comes in too early.' So we had every lamp isolated, with its own light occlusions and shadow occlusions individually controlled. We could time them in the comp, and everything just works."

Through it all, Jon and his team had to do justice to the historical reality of the scene. "Everything you see in that room was taken from a real picture. We had a black and white image of the real mine to start with that we followed," although Jon notes that their approach was somewhat more than literal. For example, highlights in the black and white photo were recreated in this 3D scene as glistening from moisture, and reflections off the different kinds of rock that were veined through the walls.

In the end, it was kind of relaxing, Jon laughs. "It wasn't a lot of shots -- maybe 45 for Cinesite -- over quite a long period of time, so it was quite an enjoyable experience."

Cinesite's VFX for John Carter
No kidding, the story of Cinesite's work on John Carter is epic. Whether you saw the movie or not, whether you liked the movie or not, you're going to love this article.
There are a lot of factors that go into assessing the success of sci-fi VFX epics. There are not just the effects to consider, but the movie itself -- do people actually like it? -- and, invariably with epics, the business of the thing -- did it actually make money?

All of this came into play for John Carter. When the domestic box office underperformed expectations, much of the US reporting stopped before foreign grosses were added (75% of the film's total!), to give the film a modest profit in theaters before heading to a successful post-theatrical life.

The fact is that audiences who saw it also liked it more than was generally reported at the time, giving it a B+ CinemaScore rating. The filmmakers had hoped for more, but it was hardly a disaster in any case.

Through all of that haze, the VFX have to do their job, and for John Carter, the story of Cinesite's work on it may be more epic than the film itself: two and a half years spent on 831 shots, with Cinesite's Sue Rowe leading a team that included 4 additional VFX supervisors.

Jon's role this time included responsibility for Zodanga, a city built on a mile-long rusty tanker, with 674 legs to move it. (See the pictures to see what I mean.) The level of detail that Cinesite pursued in the Zodanga sequences meant up to 20,000 objects in a single shot, with up to 2 billion polygons.

There was also a particularly complicated flyer chase over Zodanga -- hundreds of its legs were visible and in motion, translucent CG wings on the flyer, and a digital double for actor Taylor Kitsch's John Carter shot much closer to the camera than is generally attempted.

Zodanga, a city built on a mile-long rusty tanker, with 674 legs to move it.

Jon's sequence went very well, which led to his next job: VFX Supervisor for Cinesite on Skyfall. That one did okay at the box office I think, and I guess people seemed to like it.

Some of the most important CG work that Cinesite had to do on Skyfall was to make sure that nobody realized it was CG. That's almost always the case of course, but for the producers of a James Bond feature, especially so: the Komodo dragon that Cinesite made for Skyfall was to be the first CG creature in Bond franchise history.

The Komodo Dragon in a scene from SKYFALL © 2012 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

"They could have had a crocodile on set," says Jon, "but not a Komodo dragon -- so if they were going to do a Komodo dragon at all, it was going to have to be CG. Because it's Bond, they prefer to shoot everything in camera, so we built a test dragon to prove that we could build a convincing CG creature."

While the Komodo dragon would spend most of its time lurking in the shadows while Bond fought off a villain, Jon decided to go big: their CG test dragon was rendered in full daylight -- a dramatically more difficult task. "We felt that if we could convince them that we could do a photoreal Komodo dragon with all the lights on, they'd be confident that they could do anything they wanted to do with it."

Once that mission was accomplished, the question became how to merge the two worlds. "We decided early on that we weren't going to go down the greenscreen route. Roger Deakins, the DP, doesn't like greenscreens at all, because they contaminate his lighting. If anything, he likes to use gray or black -- but sometimes, it's best not to use anything at all. The decision was to let Bond move where he needed to for the scene, and we would work in the dragon. We shot a clean plate, scanned it and rebuilt it in 3D, and then it was just a matter of doing old-fashioned roto."

Jon and Cinesite took a similar approach to a spectacular underground train crash later in the film. The shoot itself was also quite spectacular, starting with a very-nearly life-sized "miniature" -- "You could walk inside, but you might have to duck," says Jon -- crashing through the ceiling of a catacomb beneath Charing Cross Station in London after an explosion. "The stunt itself was so dangerous that the special effects guys were the only ones on set. I got to watch from a port-a-cabin outside the stage that was packed with monitors -- like NASA!" he laughs. "There was even a 30-minute countdown!"

"Roger Deakins used 10 ARRI Alexa cameras to shoot from all different angles. We couldn't use green screens, or even gray screens, because we'd be blocking one or more of the cameras. All the cameras were locked down, which made things easier, so we were able to use roto to tie together the train crash with shots of Bond taken the day before."

The work included adding cars to the train, placing the driver in one of them, wire and rig removal, various extensions, dust enhancement, and other tasks that are part of the "invisible effects" that Jon particularly enjoys creating.

The key to all of it for Cinesite was getting results quickly. "Steve Begg, the client Visual Effects Supervisor, doesn't want to see a million versions," says Jon. "He wants to see something that's right, so once we reached a point where it was photoreal, we were done. Sam Mendes, the director, was the same way. As soon as we hit the spot, it was 'Right, got it. That's in the movie.'"

To review, Jon Neill's first two jobs as a Visual Effects Supervisor for Cinesite were on movies with production budgets north of $200 million.

While not quite at that scale, one of Jon's first roles as a CG Supervisor was on the cult classic, 2005's The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy, starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Bill Nighy and Zooey Deschanel, plus the voices of Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren. It was a major undertaking for Cinesite, who handled all of the movie's VFX shots, over 500 of them, with a team of over 100 artists working for more than a year.

Among those 500+ shots, there was plenty of CG to supervise.

When I ask Jon for a few stories from that experience, he laughs, "All I remember is being stressed! I was very nervous because it was my first role as a CG Supervisor on a big film, and I had to learn the ropes by doing. Before that, I was just working on sequences, and somebody else had responsibility for being on the set.

"I learned that getting stressed doesn't help. I learned that a lot," he laughs again. "I was younger, and nothing seemed like it was ever going to get done. I learned about just getting through each day, making sure that we were moving the film forward, even if it was just a little step forward."

All of this made me wonder, how exactly does one study to become a Visual Effects Supervisor? Jon's immediate reply is that he didn't necessarily set out with a career in visual effects in mind at all. "I went to Art College in Scotland doing drawing and painting, and they had a new department in which they did video arts and animation. I completely fell in love with it, so my degree ended up mostly animated paintings.

"I had it in the back of my mind that I should also get something that's a bit more commercial, so I did a post-graduate course that included training on Quantel systems and 3D."

Jon started at Cinesite as a 3D generalist before he moved into lighting, and from there, up through the supervisory ranks. "It's good for someone moving up to get general knowledge of everything. When you're asking for something to be done, you can have a sense of what's actually involved, instead of, 'Oh, it's only tracking. You just open it up and press the button.' But if you've done some tracking, you have an idea what they're dealing with."

Cinesite completes VFX shots for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) ©Touchstone Pictures. Planet Factory image: CG Supervisor: Jon Neill, CG Sequence Supervisor: Thrain Shadbolt.

"The important thing about that part of the process is that you have to enjoy what you're doing at the time. It's not that I wanted to be visual effects supervisor from the beginning. I enjoyed my time as a generalist, I enjoyed lighting, I enjoyed becoming a sequence supervisor, I enjoyed CG supervising. It just evolved.

"Some people might do it differently. Maybe they want to go straight to the top. I've always liked to be comfortable about what I was doing as I moved up."

That's the artistic side of it, but I was also curious about the traits that translated into leadership skills. Jon feels that they're connected.

Cinesite's work for Monuments Men included backgrounds and lighting for this aircraft scene.

"You get into very stressful situations and you learn that the best way to get through it is to be calm, and to do things. There's enough stress around anyways without adding to it," he says. "I found that I was quite good at giving a sense of calmness to a situation, and not panicking. And, how do I say this? Some people aren't," he laughs. "Let's put it that way. Doing things with a calm mind, you can do it much better than a knee-jerk reaction and getting upset."

I end by asking Jon what's next, and he doesn't hesitate. "There's so much to learn in this job that I could be happy just doing this forever. In my career until now, there's always been a stage up, but I'll end as a VFX Supervisor. I don't think there's anything after that.

"I just want to consolidate, and then just keep getting better at it."

Jon Neill, VFX Supervisor at CinesiteJon Neill of Cinesite

Cinesite as a company has itself worked on scores of features since its founding in Hollywood in 1991, expanding to London in 1994.

It's a widely diverse CV that spans Titanic, Space Jam, Alien vs. Predator, Muppet Treasure Island, Hideous Kinky, Girl With the Pearl Earring, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, O Brother Where Art Thou?, HBO's Band of Brothers, and 300: Rise of An Empire.

They also contributed almost 500 effects shots to the Academy Award and BAFTA-winning VFX for The Golden Compass. See? Diverse.


Re: The Hitchiker's Guide to Monuments Men and a Career in VFX
by Mike Cohen
We just saw Monuments Men last week. Fascinating story. That scene with all the gold fillings brings a tear to the eye.
The salt mine scene reminds me of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark - did that scene come to mind as you were making it?

Always amazing to find out something like the Komodo dragon was not real. CG has gotten so good in some cases, yet is still pretty bad in others. And I suspect it is not always the budget alone that is the reason.

Mike Cohen
Re: The Hitchiker's Guide to Monuments Men and a Career in VFX
by Mark Suszko
John Carter was done in by terrible marketing; the movie is actually quite good. I particularly loved the Barsoomian "doggy" creature = whoever worked on that really knows their business.

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