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VES Awards 2008

Exclusive Podcast with Spielberg

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Spielberg's Take on Visual Effects

Photo: © Tony Donaldson/tdphoto.com

The long journey to bring a new chapter of the Indiana Jones saga to the big screen during the last 18 years has been well documented, but the end result is only now available for evaluation. In Steven Spielberg's view, that result adheres firmly to the original vision, philosophy, and look behind the franchise. As Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull got ready to hit theaters, Spielberg insisted that what he calls “the old-fashioned B-movie mentality” and the production methodology behind that mentality both remained intact.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and now Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — they have all been B movies,” Spielberg says. “Very expensive B movies, but still, B movies. With the exception of moving the timeline to 1957, I never had any intention to modernize Indiana Jones because my fear was that it would bring the film into alignment with the style and palette of all the contemporary adventures — many of which are based on Manga, comic art, and graphic novels. The look we established for Indy is what Indy was and should always be. Once I was immersed in the very familiar world of Indiana Jones, the shots that I came up with and the lenses I chose were, I believe, intuitively similar to what I did 19 years ago. Whenever I had a great idea for a shot that would have been along the lines of nothing I had ever done before, I immediately filed that idea for a different kind of movie, and went back to a little more measured and fun-loving angle that would complement the series, not reinvent it.”

Therefore, the only thing fundamentally different about making this installment of the franchise, Spielberg insists, is the new tools available.

But that's a key point: Spielberg and his team of collaborators labored hard to make Kingdom of the Crystal Skull appear to have been shot more or less in the same era as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — even while updating their technological approach and workflow and aging the lead character while bringing his story into the fringes of the modern era, the start of the Cold War period in the 1950s. The new movie also used a different cinematographer (Janusz Kaminski, stepping into the shoes of original Indiana Jones cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe); added bigger digital effects (about 560 shots), including significant creature work done at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM); and brought Spielberg into the world of the digital intermediate at long last.

Still, these changes or updates, while important, do not change the inherent character of the movie, according to Kaminski, Spielberg's longtime collaborator. Crystal Skull, Kaminski says, adheres completely to the traditional Indiana Jones formula — a formula he says Slocombe pioneered on the first three movies.

“This is totally a traditional movie, and it was fantastic for me [as cinematographer] to follow Douglas' footprints,” he says. “To some degree, the [original Indiana Jones trilogy] reinvented the action-adventure genre. The genre existed going back to movies like Where Eagles Dare [1968] and Kelly's Heroes [1970], but Slocombe kind of reinvented it to some degree with his own visual style. I tried to follow the blueprint, and of course, there is that certain history the audience was expecting. So you get the guy running with the whip, the hat, the similar humor, and all those things. But, at the same time, this movie takes place in 1957, a time with more advanced technology and a different [global conflict]. So, to some degree, I had to invent my own representation of Slocombe's [template] — warmer and high key.”

In keeping with Indiana Jones tradition, Kaminski shot the movie in the anamorphic format using Panavision C and E series anamorphic lenses, and relying on two stocks — Kodak Vision2 250D and Kodak Vision 500T 5279 — for “shots that required that extra stop,” according to the DP.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski used Panavision C and E series anamorphic lenses with Kodak Vision2 250D and Kodak Vision 500T 5279 to uphold the tradition of using the anamorphic format on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Photo: David James. TM & © 2008 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Used under authorization.

Action plan


The film's extensive action sequences exemplify the trademark Indiana Jones style, while the methods and tools used to capture them and incorporate them seamlessly into the rest of the picture exemplify how far the filmmaking world has evolved since the last installment in 1989. Spielberg says, for instance, that digital effects technology has greatly enhanced his ability to weave the entire fabric together compared to how his team worked back in 1989.

“The digital tools at our disposal are basically able to do things that, when we did them in the '80s, they looked kind of fake,” Spielberg says. “Our matte paintings were good matte paintings, but they were obviously painted. When a car full of Germans goes off a cliff, the cliff is a watercolor almost, or maybe an acrylic rendering. That's not the same thing as what we do today. I always cringed in the 1980s, hoping for a technology someday that would allow daytime matte work to be much more realistic. The mattes we did in [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] were as real as you could possibly get, but that was all night work. With night work, it's a little easier to be impressionistic and really hide the fact that the horizon really is not at magic hour for the next 80 shots. In that sense, I kind of cringed when we made the original Indy films, but those shots were necessary evils.

“Now, instead of using matte paintings — which limited where the camera could move and how much it could even pan — I now have free range to move the camera inside a world that was created in the computer, and not on a canvas or a matte stand. I use more CG now because there are many more tools to keep the actors and the stunt people safe with harness and wire work than we had available to us between 1980 and 1989. A lot of the CG [now] is simple wire-removal shots, but we also had a few digital animals and other critters. We had many more effects in this movie than we did on Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Spielberg points to a stunt in the movie in which characters plummet into a raging river — a scene directly comparable to one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

“For [Temple of Doom], we had a scene where Indy takes a sword and severs the main supports on a rope bridge,” Spielberg says. “It was a very dangerous stunt, and stuntmen were out of the question because the fall was not survivable. So George Gibbs, the mechanical effects supervisor, devised mechanical automatons that could kick their legs and arms as they plummeted 300ft. to the gorge below. We had a similar stunt to do in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but this time, we used digital actors to fall to the river.”

For all sorts of sequences, there was a series of major visual-effects tools developed internally at ILM that Visual Effects Supervisor Pablo Helman says have the potential to significantly impact the industry, which will be discussed shortly. Likewise, from a production point of view, Kaminski liberally used more sophisticated tools to help him better accomplish the ambiance of Indiana Jones-style action. Kaminski explains it was only logical to rely on such tools, given the nature of the action he was charged with filming in the jungles of Hawaii and elsewhere.

“In 1989, when they made the last movie, the technology was way different,” Kaminski says. “Not the [film] cameras, but the way of traveling high-speed with actors. The Cablecam, the Spydercam, the Technocrane — that whole way of gyroscoping the camera to follow the action did not exist. In this movie, the action is way bigger, almost nonstop, and we simply had to use that technology to shoot it. So the way we move the camera [for action beats] is still Indiana Jones, but for the modern period, and the lighting is not as glamorous, because this takes place in the 1950s and not the 1930s. Those are the primary differences, and they allowed me to do my own interpretation of [the style developed by Slocombe].”

The quintessential example of the challenges Kaminski faced shooting action is the movie's big jungle-chase sequence — a sustained scene involving four jeeps racing through the Hawaiian jungle, swerving in and around each other, as individuals stage complex stunts between the vehicles.

Director Steven Spielberg wanted the latest addition to the film franchise to maintain the look and feel of the first three Indiana Jones movies. Photo: David James. TM & © 2008 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Used under authorization.

“It's literally almost like a racetrack cut through a jungle,” Kaminski says. “So it's really a combination of live action, second unit, and greenscreen, and to combine those elements is always complicated. ILM's work on their portion of it was amazing. But [the challenge of] putting the camera on a cable to follow the action, with the light constantly changing because you are in the jungle in Hawaii — when it is overcast one minute, sunny the next, rainy the next — was great. You have to also be there to shoot all the wide shots and, at the same time, travel with the actors and shoot anamorphic with a very heavy contrast ratio between shadow and highlights, while moving the camera between the four jeeps. I really credit my [Rigging Grip] Jim Chizmar, [Lighting Director] David Devlin, and [Second-unit Cinematographer] Flavio Labiano for tremendous help on that. But even so, it was a very complicated thing to light and shoot.”

Indeed, Kaminski says, “lighting was an essential part of storytelling in this movie,” and yet, lighting in the jungle was extremely problematic. “You can always figure out a way to capture the image, but lighting it in those situations — you can't always light perfectly when the camera moves in 180 degrees, and the actor at 45 degrees,” he says. “So we had to bring huge lighting instruments into the jungle. We had a big 40K [Luminsys] SoftSun instrument, and we drove next to the jeeps, lighting right next to them as they drove along. So that was kind of old school, like what you might see in [behind-the-scenes] still photos from the making of a John Huston Western — a camera on the rail and arc lights following a horse rider. It was like that, except, of course, we were moving about 35mph. We actually had setups where an 18K [lighting instrument] was a highlight because there was so much [natural] light outside, like in the desert. There, the sun was so bright, we had to bring out HMIs that were even brighter just to fill out shadows. It was an amazing learning experience.”

“[The process of making this movie allowed me to] rediscover the true art of cinematography, which is a disappearing art form — especially in a period movie with lots of action,” says Kaminski, a notorious traditionalist. “You start appreciating [legendary cinematographers] Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe — those masters who knew how to light and had to do this kind of lighting every day. A lot of young guys coming up today do not know how to light in this way.”

The complexities of shooting that chase through the jungle are what eventually led Kaminski and Spielberg to settle on the decision to do a digital intermediate on the film, working in concert with Efilm colorist Yvan Lucas. The DI process was something the two filmmakers had not planned on initially and had traditionally avoided over their many years of collaboration.

“For this movie, the DI was the right choice because we had lots of visual effects and wanted them to be more organic with the rest of the movie, and there were certain areas of control it gave us in [complicated action sequences],” Kaminski says. “It started because in that jungle scene, there were so many issues with mismatching light, and not always being able to put lights in exactly the proper position. I knew I would have to even certain things up. And it wasn't just light — I couldn't always control all colors in those scenes either. I had four actors [in some shots] wearing different makeup, and so I knew that is a sequence where I could [better] control contrast [in the DI suite]. Sometimes, the shot would go into very bright areas that were four stops over, and I didn't have the means to control that as well [in the field].

“So I got an agreement from [Spielberg] that I could do a DI for that sequence to control the amount of brightness in the frame, by reducing it down a little bit, maybe lowering the contrast a bit, and controlling secondary colors on the faces of the actors. So we did a DI on that scene, and Steven really liked it, and we agreed we could do the whole film like that. Basically, the technology has really improved, and the people doing the DI work have really improved in the last few years, so Steven was willing to go there.”

But Kaminski is quick to interject that he insisted on following a traditional photochemical timing template in the DI suite.

“We only agreed to do it because we felt the DI finally matches the quality of the photochemical processes,” he says. “So I used it exactly as I would photochemical timing, using point scale and primary colors. Occasionally, I used secondary colors, but only in very necessary conditions. I make my movies on the negative, and not in the DI, and I feel that was true here. This film would have looked amazingly beautiful either way, but it just happens we were able to improve certain things, or enhance them, by doing a DI this time.”

Much of the centerpiece action sequence in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the
Crystal Skull involves traveling through the jungle, and Kaminski says lighting was an essential part of making the sequence work. The crew brought a 40K Luminsys SoftSun instrument into the jungle, which they used to light the actors in the jeeps. Top Photo: David James. TM & © 2008 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Used under authorization.

Visual effects


Within the production, the role of ILM's
visual-effects team involved augmenting and tweaking photography and
practical stunts and creating realistic CG creatures along the way that
fit into Spielberg's “epic aesthetic,” in the words of Helman.

“It's not a big effects show, but it does have
560 shots — about 45 or 50 minutes of screen time — and it has all the
markings of an epic Spielberg movie,” Helman says. “By epic, I mean
really wide lenses the majority of the time, and unique camera work and
lens choices, composition, blocking, and geography that is very
specific to how [Spielberg] likes to work. All of that had to get
translated and bleed into the visual-effects work, our lighting, and so
on.

“[Having synthetic images bleed into practical
plates and sequences required] a great level of integration of a lot of
different disciplines at ILM. I've never worked on a show where more
integration of departments has been done than this one. Our digital
matte department, compositing, TDs, creature development, simulations —
all those areas had to routinely work together just to create single
shots. That emulated what we did on the entire show. [ILM's] work
really went hand in hand with the special-effects work of the team led
by [Special Effects Coordinator] Dan Sudick and [Stunt Coordinator]
Gary Powell.”

In particular, the amount of shots, and the
complexity of those shots, required ILM to greatly ramp up its R&D
capabilities. Even so, Helman says the development of the
visual-effects work had a particular advantage in having Spielberg in
charge of the whole effort. The director, Helman says, for all of his
preference for practical, nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, has become
particularly adept at “seeing parts of the whole, and understanding
what those parts will do together.”

“We developed some very important tools that
were needed to get this movie done on time,” Helman says. “Without
them, this would not have been the exact same movie — not only from an
aesthetic point of view, but also from a scheduling point of view. We
had eight or nine months to develop tools, but because of the
complexity of the work, that timeline still felt really compressed. The
simulation we did for the end of the movie, for instance, took months.
So there is no time [in that schedule] to see it all together. You see
parts of it, and then imagine what it will do.

“And that's a really great thing about
[Spielberg]. He knows visual effects so well, and is willing to look at
partial work and evaluate it, rather than looking at millions of pieces
being simulated and then saying he doesn't like it and putting us back
six months. He is one of those few directors who can judge the partial
work and keep you moving in the right direction.”

Outside of the creature work — largely
involving a swarm of CG ants, monkeys, and creatures that may be aliens
— large chunks of ILM's work involved augmenting shots and building
digital matte paintings to give panoramic scope to major sequences,
such as the jungle-chase sequence. While the rest of the production
stayed firmly rooted in the United States, Helman went to South America
to personally shoot the elements that would be sewn into, and around,
the principal photography.

“In the waterfall sequence, when they go off a
cliff — it had to be digitally augmented,” he says. “There was no such
cliff. I went to Argentina and Brazil and shot plate work for it in the
VistaVision format. We shot the chase in Hawaii on a flat road that did
have an edge, but no cliff edge. That let us get incredible plates in
Argentina and Brazil and go into our digital matte department and our
CG department and put a huge cliff up there. The digital matte
department was particularly huge on this movie — we had more than 18
people in that department. And when I say the word matte, for this kind
of work, it has been redefined. That used to mean 2D work, but not
anymore. The majority of it is now 3D, involving projecting real
photography into geometry, matchmoving, environments, lighting, and
lots of other things. We used [Apple] Shake, our Sabre [Autodesk
Inferno-based] compositor, and our proprietary [Comp Time] tool to put
shots like that together.”

Helman adds that ILM also developed new
techniques for using stereoscopic images made out of
ultra-high-resolution still images of actors as the basis of some
digital doubles work on the film. After photographing actors from
different angles with six different still cameras, the company used
software to calculate 3D geometry from those photographs for building
and moving digital doubles in certain shots.

“And we also developed a completely new tool
we call Fracture that I expect we'll use in all kinds of shows later
on,” Helman says. “Its purpose is to allow you to automate the
rupturing or fracturing of hard-surface models. Previously, we had to
break and rebuild and then remodel those models, so that things could
be broken again later. In this case, we created a tool that does that
automatically through a bunch of different parameters, and it has a
simulation engine. That allowed us to do more efficiently the end of
the movie, which involves large sets and locations being destroyed.”

He also points to the development of a “jungle
implementation tool” that permitted ILM to more efficiently extend
environments, which was crucial on this project, because so many scenes
involved sophisticated jungle environments featuring real and simulated
plants.

As discussed, all of these developments were implemented solely to help Spielberg give viewers a new dose of their traditional Indiana Jones.
The director says he firmly hopes that from the moment early in the
movie in which an older, wiser Indiana Jones is revealed from the
shadows, bending down to pick up his dusty hat, that the movie will be
seen as a reintroduction for modern audiences, not only to Jones and
the franchise, but also to the traditions and style of the fast-paced B
action movies of yore.

Steven Spielberg and Michael Goldman at the 2008 VES Awards

Photo: © Tony Donaldson/tdphoto.com

Spielberg's Take on Visual Effects


In February, as he took time out from posting Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society (VES) (see digitalcontentproducer.com/podcasts/audio/ves_lifetime_achievement_spielberg_0211), Steven Spielberg sat down with millimeter for an exclusive conversation about his relationship to, and influence on, the visual-effects community. Here are excerpts of his conversation with senior editor Michael Goldman:

millimeter: What have you learned from many of the luminaries in this industry, such as Dennis Muren and Pablo Helman, with whom you have worked closely over the years?

Spielberg: The thing I learned most from Dennis is that nothing can't be creatively accomplished. Dennis was the one who fearlessly led me into the land of digital dinosaurs when I was perfectly happy to do it the [Ray] Harryhausen way with Phil Tippett, the brilliant effects artist, doing some of our dinosaurs [for Jurassic Park]. But when Dennis showed me some of the technology he was working on, I basically made a decision to direct the first picture where all the stars, at least all the box-office stars, were going to be digital stars.

I knew [this was changing filmmaking]. I could see it happen before my eyes. We all were experiencing a tectonic shift with special-effects plates. It was kind of amazing, because I was both in awe of that technology and thrilled with the opportunity, but also a bit in mourning for the past. I'm kind of a sentimental kind of guy, and I was sad to see what was going to supplant all the tactile artistry of hands-on go-motion — the movement of the armature, which had been the state of the art for decades. I was sad to see that go. As a matter of fact, I showed the test that Dennis did for me to Ray Harryhausen the first day that I met him, and Ray joined me in saying goodbye to the past and welcoming the future with open arms.

Had digital technology been available back in the 1970s, though, would a movie like Jaws, for instance, have been the same movie? Or does it change the basic creative intent of a piece?

Well, no, Jaws would not have been the same movie with CG, because I could have accomplished all my shark shots according to all the hundreds of storyboards I had drawn. What helped make Jaws a really good movie, from just a pretty good movie, was the fact that the shark didn't work at all and I had to fall back on a Hitchcock trick, which convinced the audience they were seeing what was not visible to the naked eye. And that cranked up the suspense in a way that, had I had the shark in every shot, the suspense would not have been there. So my feeling about that basically is that Jaws was always meant to be Jaws, and it was only really going to be successful before the digital times.

But there are other movies that would have been, I think, equally enjoyable. I think ET, had we had a digital extra-terrestrial instead of a mechanical one, I don't think it would have changed the movie that much. The only difference would have been the kids would not have been as good with their reactions to what was physically on the floor right there with them, evoking those tremendously deep emotions from [actors] Drew [Barrymore] and Henry [Thomas] and all of my cast. They were really involved in acting with another actor, who happened to be a mechanical one. A digital ET would have been a stand-in puppet that would not have blinked. The kids would have had to use their imaginations, which would probably have created a lot of distrust, because actors need to trust to be honest emotionally. And ET really brought the performances out of those kids.

How important are digital tools in helping you visualize shots and illustrate them for your collaborators?

I first used digital previsualization technology on a concept shot for Minority Report when the spyders scanned a tenement building in the urban sprawl. That was a very good experience for me, and I've been using digital previsualization ever since. However, I think I need to point out that I still do my own storyboards. So not all of the storyboards [for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull] are being done the modern way. Even though every effects shot on Kingdom had a previz storyboard that we all worked from, I still hired several conventional storyboard artists to first sketch my angles flat 2D before [Previsualization Supervisor] Dan Gregoire's team rendered them in 3D.

Despite your pioneering work in visual effects, you remain by your own admission, a traditional filmmaker from a production point of view. Have your views on digital filmmaking changed any since your last chat with millimeter? (See digitalcontentproducer.com/digitalfilm/video_spielberg_goes_retro.)

Like I've always said: I'll happily attach my caboose to this large freight train if all theaters get rid of 35mm [projection] systems and put in digital systems. I want to keep making movies, but I'll be the last car on the train. I love that Luddite quality of being respectful of the people who taught me how to be a better director — people who only knew film and only knew KEMs and Moviolas. In honor of them, and because I love the past, and especially the old guys who made the great films in the '30s and '40s and '50s, I do not feel it is a dichotomy for me to be shooting on film, but digitally working in special effects. It's a great marriage.

But [even then], if a day comes when I have to shoot a digital movie because there is no other exhibition technology to get it out in the theaters, then I will simply make a second digital pass and put back the grain and the scratches. And we're going to stay cutting on film.

Because that is your chosen path, what advice would you give to other filmmakers about the best path to choose — traditional or digital?

I would just say that everybody needs to find their own path. It's nothing that I can suggest. I can really neither advise nor consent with another filmmaker, especially those that work for my company, DreamWorks, on what process they want to make their movies in. They have that freedom of choice. If they are filmmakers that were brought up on a digital camera, or a video camera that later went into the digital realm, then they will probably want to shoot their first feature digitally, which is fine by me. I can only account for myself, and I can't impose technical tools on any filmmaker.