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ILM VFX Supervisor Scott Farrar Details Minority Report

While putting the finishing touches on futuristic Rouge City for “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar and Steven Spielberg embarked on another science-fiction mega-movie. But “Minority Report,” set only fifty years in the future, was a different kind of project. Departing from the picturesque grace of ‘A.I.,’ Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski set about giving “Minority Report” a gritty feel apropos of the Phillip K. Dick story upon which the film is based. Using high grain film stock and bleach-bypass to achieve a harsh, high contrast look, Spielberg challenged Farrar to create visual effects that would survive the film lab.

Scott Farrar

How many shots did you do?

ILM did about 260.

What was the bulk of that work?

The big scenes that we did were the alley chase sequence, the hover ship landings and take-offs and the Hall of Containment. In the Hall of Containment, all of the 3D prisoners and the sleds that they were in were synthetic. Anderton (Tom Cruise), Gideon and the closeups of the prisoners were real people.

The big areas were synthetic — the lens flares, the atmospheric light effects, the building and all of the 3D face screens. We also created the 3D piece that covered the torsos of the prisoners and showed their heart and lungs. The movies running on the face screens were created by

Imaginary Forces

and the torso readouts were made by Black Box.

We did the mag-lev (magnetic levitation) vehicle chase and all of the futuristic car shots. We did the plants that you see when Anderton goes to visit Iris Hineman. We also worked on the final shot of the film — the pullout from the cottage. The interior was shot on a stage at FOX and the
exterior was shot on an island in Maine. The exterior of the cottage was synthetic.

We didn’t do the spiders.


did those, and I think they look great. We didn’t have people available to get the shots done in time for Steven’s release date, especially for the trailers. And the analytical room, where Anderton (Tom Cruise) moves the images around by ‘conducting’ them, was done by Asylum.

At what point did you become involved in the process?

Pretty early on. I got involved before “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” was in production. But Steven was sick and that delayed the film, and then Stanley Kubrick passed away and Steven decided he would do ‘A.I.’ first. I worked on ‘A.I.’ with Dennis Muren.

‘Minority’ took a little over a year. It was a bit difficult because we started working on it while we were still finishing ‘A.I.’

Were you able to take anything that you had learned on ‘A.I.’ to “Minority Report”?

I suppose you always build on things that you’ve learned, but a lot of the ideas were totally different. The biggest thing that I did on ‘A.I.’ was the Rouge City Sequence, and that required many digital and miniature buildings, but it was a nighttime scene, whereas on ‘Minority,’ the digital buildings are seen in daylight. I thought it was fairly audacious to do daytime exteriors on ‘Minority’ — that is when things can start look bad quickly. It is always easier to make things look good at night in visual effects. Nevertheless, we worked hard to give our exterior daytime shots the same gritty, grainy reality that the background plates contained, and I think the shots cut in well.

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How did you go about creating the city landscape for the daytime shots?

Alex McDowell was the production designer, and he had a lot of futurescapes designed. A lot of those were cut from the film, because of budget and changes in storytelling. We tried to retain some of his ideas even though the storypoints got smaller. For instance, originally there was a long leisurely look at the futuristic city during one of the drives through town. That went away. It was incorporated as a couple of quick shots, Anderton going into work, Anderton leaving. I think once you incorporate it into the story, it works better. That is something that we in effects work always prefer. So it doesn’t just become a ‘gee-whiz’ shot.

We looked at some of Alex’s designs in terms of making things fit within a budget. We came up with modular buildings that could be re-used — change the color, flip it to its left side or its right side. There are many buildings that are similar but not quite the same that we used over and over again.

I suggested that we build the mag-lev system like a railroad. If you buy a model train at the toy store, it comes with straight sections and curves and splits. We built all of those. Usually each and every CG thing has to be built and painted and modeled, and it is very laborious. With the modular construction system, only a few custom pieces have to be made in addition to the reusable pieces.

Alex Laurant, my ILM art director did a lot of studies of what aged concrete and aged metals look like. We didn’t want the city to look new and clean. Essentially, it is old Washington. The idea was to supplement what was already there, so we actually shot backgrounds in Washington. Many cities build roadbeds slightly above the city that already exists, and that is what we decided to do with this.

Have you used that modular style for other films that you’ve worked on?

It is new for me.

Can you talk about developing the storyboards for the film?

There is a point at which, because of how kinetic these sequences are, storyboards fail. So it has to go to videomatics or animatics. There was a company in Los Angeles called

Pixel Liberation Front

that did all of the animatics. They were right there on the lot and could show Steven several iterations a day, if need be. We used the animatics that they produced as our guides.

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Did that help you determine which shots were keepers?

Yes, it helped a great deal. But once you go to live-action, things change. I shot Tom bluescreen for all of the mag-lev stuff and there are certain shots that weren’t quite correct once you went from an animatic that looked really smooth and machine-like to moving cameras on the set with an actor. The pacing and the timing change — quite often you find that the animatic is running too fast. And the mass portrayed in the animatic is not real-world mass. Most often I found that we were slowing things down a little bit.

How did you determine what the motion of the mag-levs would be like?

That idea was developed at a symposium that Steven held for the future thinkers of the United States. They had a big get-together and came up with ideas of what life would be like, not in 200 years, but in 40 or 50 years. They came up with the mag-lev, which has rotating front and back pieces.

The occupants sit straight up all the time as these things swivel and turn, travelling both horizontally and vertically.

Was the idea that they were on tracks?

It is a track, but they are not following a rail. It is magnetic levitation. The system runs your car, but you can take it over at a certain point.

What did you do on the sequence in the car factory?

We thought there would be a lot more work than we ended up doing. Michael Lantieri was the physical effects supervisor, and, as usual, did a great job. He and his team built the tracks for the cars to move around. It is much smaller than it looks in the movie. It is only a couple of turns and a long straightaway. It was a big cable system. We would start the cars in motion during a take and then back them all up and start them again.

There were a few sparks on set, but we added most of the sparks and lasers. We also did the guns that had the shockwave effect and the car being re-painted.

Is the shockwave effect a 3D effect?

No. Rita Zimmerman and I produced that on a 2D machine. It took a while to come up with the look — Steven wanted it to look like a ripple, to convey that time and space are being distorted.

You also worked on the fight in the alley?

Yes. Like in the factory sequence, the actors were all being flown on wires. I had multiple actors, sometimes as many as five, being flown at the same time. If you looked up on set, you could not see any sky. There were five major tracks that ran the length of the alley. So you could fly five people or four people and a camera at the same time. Also, the buildings weren’t high enough, so we had to make it look like it was twelve stories high instead of four. The jetpacks, of course, did not have any flame coming out of them, so we added the flames and the heat ripple coming out. There was quite a bit of compositing work, led by Scott Frankel.

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Is Washington D.C. the only place that you shot background plates?

We shot a lot of locations around Los Angeles — the Hineman House was Descanso Gardens, and we shot the mall down in Inglewood. There were several downtown locations — Crow’s apartment, for instance. We had to add the man in the sunglasses outside on the billboard.

Then we went on location to Washington and Virginia to shoot. The cottage that his wife lives in is in the Chesapeake area. I did an aerial shot where the two hover ships come in and all of the guys drop out. We shot the part where all of the ads come out and try to get Anderton’s attention in one of the walkways at Reagan plaza in D.C.

Can you talk about creating the hovercraft?

The designs were drawn by the art department. Michael Lantieri built a hovercraft. When you see the craft land in the nighttime scene and the people come out, that is a model. I shot the empty alley, a motion-control background plate of that, and then I shot the real hover ship on stage. The problem was that since it had to come from way up high in the sky, the exterior had to be replaced and we just used the interior where the guys are dropping out.

What about the scenes with the plants at Dr. Hineman’s place?

That was all done on SGIs in Softimage.

How long did the shot take where she is nuzzling with the flowers?

That is the hardest one out of that bunch, because each flower was a creature. There were so many of them, and we had a lot of problems trying to get all of the shadows right. Barry Armour, computer graphics supervisor, worked pretty hard on that. We had to create a lot of mattes. We wanted the shadows to cast properly on her hands and face. The green kept coming out not quite right when we went to bleach bypass. Green is a funny color. It has a very narrow gamma.

In the sequence where the vines grab Tom, there was a lot of work because there were so many things to animate. He is really good. He created all of those nuances — looking this way and that way, making it look like there is something snapping in his face, hitting his jacket, grabbing his leg, grabbing his elbow. He had it in two takes. That gave us lots of opportunity to snap at him and grab him.

Was it the color that made the lighting difficult?

Partially. Especially the way the vines were lit. It was daylight and there was soft light coming through the trees. It was an overcast day at Descanso Gardens. There was a wall that created a thin shadow, and we had to get the corridors of light just right, otherwise it looked phony baloney.

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Did you do the cognition sequences?

The montage at the opening of the movie was created by Imaginary Forces.

We composited them into the scene where Witwer plays back the cognitions in Anderton’s apartment. It was tricky. There were a couple of shots where the projection has to go across his hand and the back of his head, so we would create a wrap and then add interference and a little bit of prismatic distortion — so it looked like it was really being projected into the room.

We also worked on the very end of the film where you see Burgess (Max von Sydow) on the balcony. We did something a little bit different there. We shot the actors against bluescreen. We re-created an actual hotel in Washington. But instead of doing a matte painting for the view of the city in the background, we did something else. We went up on the balcony and Larry Blanford and his camera crew shot four different positions, left to right, so that I could take all of those positions and tile them together in one wide master view. The camera positions were shot every 10-15 minutes from dust until 10 p.m. We started at 24 fps but ended up getting to 6 or 3 fps — so it was very slow. But what we ended up with was moving footage of the background, and flickering light and detail — it was quite amazing. That was all done with a tiled-together version of four pieces of film.

How does that differ from a normal matte painting?

A matte painting would not necessarily be created from film. There is a lot of stuff happening out there in the real world. You see oscillating lights, you see planes moving around, and you realize that to re-create that in a matte painting, you’d have to put an awful lot of movement and texture in there that wouldn’t normally be in your matte painting. Starting from nothing. It was surprising to me how much better it looked than a regular matte painting. That was interesting.

When you are working within a distinct visual style and a color palette, does that effect the way you approach your shots?

Absolutely. This movie was extremely different because it went through a bleach-bypass process, which changes the contrast and the saturation of the color tones. The cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, was going for green scenes and yellow scenes and blue scenes — pretty strong colors even though they desaturate after the fact in the lab work.

What was really unusual was that we didn’t use any film stock with a finer grain than a 200 ASA. You are never supposed to shoot bluescreen with a 500 ASA stock. We did. There are problems with it, but you match the look of the rest of the movie. I found it tremendous — it was a great thing to be able to do this totally different look, this grainy, gritty look.

Whenever possible, we used real footage as a reference so that we could re-create the tones and the grain in our shots. That is one thing that is especially difficult in computer graphics work. We always tested what our shot would look like once it went to bleach-bypass because certain colors got hammered.

Virtual Reality

Which colors?

Blues, especially. The warm tones survived pretty well. In any graphics work you are automatically narrowing the color palette, and if you want some of those distinct colors to survive, you have to over-emphasize. So, we’d pump them up, and Steven would see them and say, ‘That’s awfully bright.’ Then we’d show him the bleach-bypass version and it would be fine.

Did your shots go through the lab or did you process them digitally?

Our shots went to the lab. We came up with a look on our computers to see if our shots were close to being right, but that is usually not good enough. You have to send it to the lab and see what it will do.

Is it an unpredictable process?

In the beginning yes, but after a while we knew which colors to be aware of. We had to be leery of certain things, always reminding ourselves that we had to make the color punchier. Otherwise it would not survive.

When you were designing shots, did you consult with Janusz Kaminski? Or did you work through Steven?

Both. There are certain ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in any effects situation. Janusz wants to use his filters all the time. Sometimes I’d let him use them, but there are bluescreen shots where he just couldn’t. I had to add the effects that a filter would give in post. You are always in discussion about where you want the shot to go later and what it will look like.

Did you enjoy working with Steven Spielberg?

I think he is great. He is very open to new ideas. A lot of people close up at a certain point. He is very open about innovative ideas, and just on an artistic level, it is fun.

Steven is also very decisive. I’ve worked with him on several films. This was the most intense and it was a total pleasure. We saw eye to eye on aesthetics, and I knew where he was going — it doesn’t happen very often, I’ll tell you that. He has such camera consciousness — he is so aware of what a lens should see, even when he is making synthetic shots.

We enjoyed solving problems together. For instance in the Hall of Containment, I had to synthesize a Dior filter that Janusz often used on his lens that created a little bit of a starburst on point-light sources. All the flaring and the out of focus and underexposure, overexposure, all the things that really happen on film, we were trying to duplicate. Steven knew what I was going for and he was happy with what we did.