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Watchmen’s Effects Challenges

Recently, we had a chance to speak to Watchmen visual effects supervisor Peter Travers. Pete has worked on films such as Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, The Matrix Reloaded, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to name a few.

The following is the complete interview that we had with Pete that day.

The look and feel of this film is similar to “Blade Runner.” It’s a set heavy film, so aside from the obvious CGI of Dr. Manhattan, were there any decisions to keep a lot of the effects more practical than CGI, or not really?

Peter Travers: I think certainly, the way I look at that is not doing models and miniatures, but trying to get actual practical sets built, versus doing CG. I think Zack was mentioning it the other day that there were over two hundred sets in the movie. If that’s not the record, it’s got to be close.

You’re obviously aware of the graphic novel and the movie itself, the story itself is so broad and expansive, not in just locations but in time. When they talk about the film being unfilmable, what they were really saying was it was too much money to make.

This movie in particular — the translation from the graphic novel — it’s a concept of “one up” after “one up” after “one up.” That is just of the challenging nature of it. It wasn’t like the graphic novel and the movie weren’t just doing that just to do it. It’s all an essential part of portraying the depth of this universe that they live in.

The one thing I really like about it, the story that is, is that you know like in Batman and the Superman there is Gotham City, and Metropolis and there may be a President there but it’s a fake President or somebody you never heard of and it’s a completely alternate universe.

The Watchmen world is distorted but it’s still based in our reality. You’ve seen the movie — JFK is in it, Nixon is in it, I think [Pat] Buchanan is in it; Lee Iacocca. There are a cast of characters in it that are in our recent history all laden through out this story which to me makes it far more interesting to tell this parallel universe kind of world and what would happen if super heroes really existed, and they were living in the Cold War era.

Dr. Manhattan and JFK

Did it make your job a little bit harder because it’s easier to make Gotham City or Metropolis because they are not real cities. But, when you’re dealing with the real New York City in 1985, and recreating Kennedy’s assassination…

PT: Everyone knows exactly what that looks like, yeah. You have to get to that level of realism with the camera work and everything. And certainly when we were having to figure out how to “explode” New York, there was a certain level of fear there because there was only one real way to do it and certainly when in the aerial shots where we tear down the buildings, it had to be all CG, but the thing is it had to look photo real from frame one on. That’s hard stuff to do. There was just a tremendous amount of data and detail that had to be added, because like you said we couldn’t simplify — it had to be Times Square, it had to in some way be the Times Square people would recognize.

It was extremely challenging and I think that whole concept and fear of making this look right, that completely translated to [Dr. Manhattan], because Zack [Snyder] made the conscious choice to have a more live action of the actual world, there’s real actors and Doc is really the only true CG character in the movie. That was the fear, excitement, and the anxiety for us early on because we’ve not only got to make this character look real on his own, but look like he’s part of this close to three hours of action movie. Be a very integral primary character in the movie.

With CG characters like Dr. Manhattan I think it’s natural for everyone to look at them and think “okay, how real does that look?” But, once you get past that, the suspension of disbelief was easy to do. It definitely worked.

PT: Actually, those were some of the earlier things we shot and some of the earliest stuff we worked on, but I have to say we got really good at animating Doc as time went on. My favorite shots are actually at the end of the movie when he has his confrontation with Rorschach outside of Karnak, when those shot started appearing, because there are some really close up shots of Doc in the snow, and his face is absolutely full frame. When we started working on the animation, they came in and said, “Wow, that looks real.” You question whether or not you’re looking at something real. Especially when we were the people that created it. That was a very exciting moment.

Talking about digital effects versus practical effects, was it known before you even got on set that Dr. Manhattan was going to be CG? Was there any discussion to maybe paint Billy Crudup blue?

PT: The discussions were pretty much finalized before Billy was even on the show, in that there was a test that was done way before I was even on the show. Some company I don’t know, but they did a test of painting somebody blue, and trying to treat that and try to make that glow. I think the danger is you needed a bald, super muscular, 6 foot 2 inch guy, that narrows it down if you’re going to use a practical person. That narrows down the list of actors that you can get. Then you’re looking through these guys and thinking who’s the best actor? I think you would run out of names really quickly.

There are also advantages to doing him CG, so that you can get the actor you want with the same body proportions. In this case, it was such a great choice that they picked Billy because at least working with him he was impressive. I don’t ever think I heard him flub his lines on set or it was like all he needed was one take and he figured it all out. That was why they did so many various takes was to watch him and Zack work together, Billy would walk up to Zack and ask, “should I really be caring about the universe or this person at this point?” He would work it all out, then he would deliver the same lines with inflections in a different way just to try to capture a different emotion for it. He was never screwing up his lines, they were perfect, and he was impressive. As he was showing off how good of an actor he was, he actually started to make me more nervous, because with the assignment, we were going to have to capture all that. We are going to have to make sure we replicate that and it was really hard.

In a way it was hard and in ways it was a blessing in what we were doing, I think typically when you’re doing a digital human, you’re doing a human for a certain reason, because an ordinary human couldn’t pull off the performance. In this case, a person could pull off the performance, but the reason he was CG was for an alternate reason. That was basically the fact that he was glowing blue and so forth. Really the performance we were receiving and had to replicate was subtler. Typically what we are doing is a digital double, a character that has to fly across a room or something like that, that an ordinary actor can’t pull off on set. This is different though; this is a subtle, dramatic performance and we had to replicate it. There was certainly anxiety there. It was like “how many people have pulled this off,” not many. We had to make decisions on where we focused when we built our character, all the effort started to go toward the face, because the majority of the shots of Doc are close up shots.

Dr. Manhattan

It’s not like he’s Jar-Jar Binks, and he’s not Gollum, he’s got to look like a person, and he’s also got to look like Billy. I can see how hard that could be.

PT: We cyber scanned Billy, and we pretty much used Billy’s head, you know balded him up, changed his facial proportions slightly, but not that much, you can actually see the asymmetry that Billy has — it's in Doc. Then the body was started from a muscle and fitness body builder template. Then we had to take it that much farther but not too far, because we wanted to make sure that Doc’s proportions were grounded in reality, we didn’t want to make him look like the total comic book super hero. We had to have some sort of reality to him, but he also had to be ripped. Then those muscles had to move right. We spent a lot of time on the front end making sure the body is working, and by the time we got into the animation it all started to move toward the face and the head and how the neck moved, we learned a lot about how to animate a neck.

Often times when you’re doing motion capture per se you see the people with all the dots all over their faces; we had to do that to Billy. The reason why it was successful is when you think about it, when you’re moving your jaw; you’re basically moving your neck. Then you see how the skin slides across your clavicle and all of that had to be replicated. Primarily what we do is we look at Billy’s performance and we see what his neck was doing and we match it. The reading of the character was pretty intense. The whole internal structure of his tendons and his Adam’s apple, those are all internal structures that are rig, and then the skin would obviously slide across that in the appropriate way. That was a pretty complicated rig and we had to load it in components, you know some day you would be working on the face, you have the facial component and work on that, and you would be like “Okay, I’ve got to dive in and do the neck.” In most cases the neck would take a full day just to see how the neck was responding in a shot. But it all paid off, because really I think with facial performances, most of them fail because a lot of the movement is too localized.

It was very convincing, and you sort of outed Billy because in all the interviews he would swear that he was that ripped and that cut. [Laughs] Although, nobody would believe him, he swears that was the case.

PT: I cannot confirm or deny that. [Laughs]

Now, the “squid,” it’s definitely not in the movie, but was there a time early on where that effect was discussed? Was there at any point the possibility the “squid” was going to be in the film and were any effects tested?

PT: No. Not to my knowledge.

Was Veidt's cat Bubastis always in the script, or did they throw her in later, thinking she was cool in the graphic novel and let’s get her in there?

PT: Bubastis was always in the script that I’m aware of. That was on our plate of work to do from day one. I think we started with a lion we had from I Am Legend — that was our starting point for the character. Bubastis is more of a lion or a tiger than it is a lynx as far as the proportions, and we started to pluck and pull the ears and tail to have her have that sort of lynx look.

I remember seeing on the set the poster board skeleton the effects team used as her stand-in.

PT: Oh, Half-ass-tis?

Is that what they called it?

PT: Yeah, that’s what we called it — Half-ass-tis. It was just barely good enough to have as a representation in a scene.

I was actually on set when someone approached Zack with some green fur samples that were likely scavenged from a Vancouver costume shop. Zack pet each one of the samples and picked his favorite. I was like, “Cool, I witnessed a little bit of Watchmen movie-making history there.”

PT: I don’t know how important that whole process was. Certainly wasn’t for the shot that we did.

Comedian in Vietnam

In speaking to Malin Ackerman, she said there was real fire raging behind her during the tenement rescue scene, and you actually had to gel up her back just so her latex costume didn’t burst into flames. Why not just use digital fire?

PT: NPC primarily did that work I believe. I can’t talk about the specifics of that, but what I can do is talk to you about the fire that was used in the Vietnam sequence. When the Comedian blowtorches the guy, it’s the same thing, once specific fire that is just generic fire, your right having that in a scene is not necessarily critical, however, there is a certain light quality that responds to everything that ends up being essential in that you don’t want to have to guess in post how to make that look. The more you get it on the front end the easier your job is.

That whole concept completely translates to the decisions made for Doc with his light suit. In particular, if we didn’t put the 2500 LED’s and make that suit like that, and if we had to add the blue light in post, it would have never looked as good. In particular with the other actors and how the light responded on them. There is a few times in the movie where Billy has to raise his glove to Malin’s head to give her a kind of flash back, In those scenes you can see the light, it’s at a fairly low level on her face, but when Billy raises the glove the light really gets brighter and starts changing hues as it gets closer to her face. I can tell you, to try to guess to how that would work, we would never have made that to look as good as what we got practically. That’s an important aspect in anything in CGI, is that the more we have to guess and we don’t have reference, the less of chances are that we can make it look the best it could possibly look.

I think I heard somewhere that it’s never a cost issue, and that a practical effect is just as complicated and expensive as a digital effect. It’s just a matter of what’s going to make things easier.

PT: Yes, what’s going to make things easier, and then that was really the choice. The whole balance with Doc is we were talking about putting these lights all over Billy’s body, but then are we going to encumber his performance? If we did it would have been all for waste. If Billy weren’t able to act in the light suit we would have been wasting our time. Not so much the light, but the animation reference that we had to replicate, we would have never have gotten it. If Billy were never in the scene, eye lines for everyone else would not have worked right, no matter what they would have they would have been wondering a little bit. They needed somebody to act opposite too.

I don’t know if I talked about how we shot with the witness cameras and everything. Generally speaking we had placement of our character and a performance that we primarily just had to replicate. Granted there are differences — the height differential between Billy and Doc — just how he gets integrated in the scene, his proportions and stuff like that.

We had such an awesome starting point as far as a performance to match. That’s why I think it works, like I said, imagine Billy just did the voice, in a AVR session, after for all of it, and all these actors were acting opposite a tennis ball or something. It just would not have looked as good, not just in what we tried to do in Dr. Manhattan’s performance, but in the other actor’s performances as well.

That’s pretty much what Andy Serkis, who played Gollum, had to do in Lord of the Rings. They actually put him in the mo-cap suit so that they could get the actual performance from him.

PT: Yes, and Davy Jones [in Pirates of the Caribbean]. That’s the kind of lessons we’ve learned here. A master oil painter is trying to paint a masterpiece, how many masterpieces do you know of that didn’t have any subject matter or references to paint. You always need something. I think if we just started doing this from scratch, it would have been challenging and I think there would have been some shots that looked good, but as a whole that’s the part about it with Doc you have to make sure your worst shot is good enough. Doc is in the movie like thirty–eight minutes. That’s thirty-eight minutes of a digital character in a movie, that’s a lot of animation that has to look spot on.

Now I’m assuming that Dr. Manhattan was probably the biggest visual effects challenge on Watchmen, what would run a close second?

PT: If you wanted to think of it as two main camps, Doc was the primary thing and we were able to focus quite a bit on Doc, and then we kind of hone in to the look, to the point that most of our scratching our heads occurred on the front end. Figuring out how it was going to work and, better yet, how it was going to be shot. That’s a huge aspect of the whole thing.

But then what started to creep in as we went along was the heavy-duty effects work, in particular blowing up New York and disintegrating people, which was really hard stuff. What we found out was there were a number of scenes where Doc blows up somebody whether it was the Vietnam soldiers, mobsters, Rorschach, and it all had to look real. Working in a real movie, we couldn’t stylize it at all. What we had to do with those shots is, each of the Vietcong soldiers in that shot where Doc walks up the hill, when he’s one hundred feet tall, each one of those soldiers had to be built from the inside out. Bones, organs, skin, clothes, and weapons, all that stuff had to be built and matched.

At the beginning of that shot you can see it’s the actors, and then just when they are about to explode we have to transfer into these full CG versions of them and then explode them from the inside out. So, you can actually see the rib cage tearing apart and it’s true simulation so it basically starts somewhere around the heart and then the whole thing explodes out and you can see, we were looking at this stuff frame by frame and you could see how the lungs would push against the rib cage and tear that apart but then, they wouldn’t penetrate through, it was all like one big semi-soft body simulation.

You know the mobster shot when they explode? There is a mobster on the far right and there is a pole right next to him, a support beam in the room, his explosion just wraps around that pole and also up and down and everywhere but, the whole room had to be one big simulation, even when the mobsters were exploding against each other.

Dr. Manhattan exlodes a mobster

What do you use as reference? I hope you didn’t put hamsters in microwave ovens [Laughing]. How do you do that?

PT: Because it is a simulation and you have a certain time in your shot, a lot of it is the impact. When you’re doing procedural animation, or effects based animation, it’s much different than key frame animation. Key frame animation, you’re positioning things in certain key frames and your asking, “Does that look right, oh it does, ok let’s move on.”

In physical based animation you’re literally putting a virtual bomb inside of a body and you think if kiloton power is about this much, and of course there is gravity in the room, it’s much more of a physical based thing. Rather than you going in and physically placing everything, you kind of play God, you sit back and go, “okay, here is how strong the wind is, here’s how strong the gravity is, here’s how the bombs are,” and then you let it go

It’s a strange science; it obviously takes smart people to do that stuff. They guys that work during the day and launch a simulation and go home over night and we would go in dailies and sit and watch it. It was obvious when it was working because; the effects man name was Dave Stevenson, with the animators and everyone watching the dailies would go “OHHH!” [Laughing] that’s exactly the reaction we needed so the simulation is done. The reaction it looks extremely natural.

It’s like baking a really nasty cake, once you have all the right amount of ingredients, at the right levels, it’s perfect.

PT: You just let it run. You’re right, it’s more of a recipe based animation technique.

Let's talk about the explosive climax of the film. You want to be able to level and destroy New York in a manner that seems realistic, so what did you do? Did you look at old Hiroshima footage?

PT: Yes, oh yes. We watched Trinity and Beyond. It’s a great movie, a total guy movie; it’s based from history, of atomic bombs from start to finish. All the weapons testing, it was narrated by William Shatner. The guy's guy movie. It starts with Trinity which was the first, I think it is a kiloton that they test, and literally stack 1000 tons of dynamite out in the desert and they blow it up. That’s their gauge for the power yield of nuclear bombs. Then it escalates to each new bomb, which ever bomb they have footage throughout the Cold War all the way up to the hydrogen bombs. Imagine the first test was a kiloton and they got a mushroom cloud, we got all the way up to like 50 megatons.

I think the challenge for that kind of stuff, that when you get to these enormous bomb levels, it really starts to look foreign to the point that you can’t really get the true scale of the bomb. We wanted to make sure that what ever we did didn’t go so far beyond the point where you could look at it and understand. If you were at satellite level and seeing New York explode it wouldn’t have nearly the impact of actually being able to frame Times Square being at maybe an airplanes level maybe a little bit lower, and then see the individual buildings tear apart and collide and react with each other. There was a certain scale framing that we had to maintain so that we didn’t make it so foreign that you couldn’t understand the pain of it all.

New York explosion

I remember one of the last shots of the crater, you have to be crazy not to notice the similarity between that shot and what ground zero after 9/11 looked like. I assuming that was deliberate.

PT: That’s correct. Our reference photos for the crater itself were ground zero photos and when they were reconstructing. Like the ramp going into the crater itself. so yes we grabbed a lot of reference photos out of 9/11.

In that exact shot of the crater and the cranes and the ramps, directly in the middle of that shot, all the way in the distance, you can see the Twin Towers still standing.

PT: That’s to continually ground you in the concept of that this is an alternate reality, which I think is the important aspect of the film. This is what life would be like if super heroes existed and all this stuff happened within the current framework of what we know about our past history.

3.17.09 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.

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