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From Aliens To Time Travel: The Effects In “Men In Black III”

For VFX Supervisors Jay Redd and Ken Ralston, working on “Men in Black III” was a labor of love.  Effects such as Agent J’s (Will Smith) fall from the Chrysler Building took two years to complete, and the recreation of Shea Stadium required a supervised team of nearly 200 people.  For Redd and Ralston, the pay-off for this labor was the joy of working with director Barry Sonnenfeld.


“Barry has such a consistent style,” said Ralston.  “You see that style in every film he does.  We focused on trying to absorb that style.  It was really a joy, and often very silly, to work with him.”


In addition to blending live action film with time travel, animated aliens, and lots of smoke and fire, Redd and Ralston also had to ensure all the effects were 3D ready.  Employing software such as Maya and proprietary systems used by Sony Pictures Imageworks that involved tracing and cutting out shapes then layering the depth of field, the VFX supervisors felt creating 3D ready effects was a cake walk.


“There was no real impact on us for we had closely monitored all the steps we needed to take before we did the work,” said Redd.  “We used a system we were comfortable and familiar with, and that didn’t cause any hold ups.”


Added Ralston, “We were always conscious of the 3D needs, as well as what we needed to avoid.  Barry has a unique way of filming with a wide angle lens so we had many conversations with the cinematographer Bill Pope regarding the shots.”


In addition to close collaboration with Pope, Redd and Ralston were surrounded by top notch department heads such as digital effects supervisor Ken Hahn and animation supervisor Spencer Cook.  411 Publishing recently spoke with these team members to discuss their contributions to MIB III.


Ken Hahn – Digital VFX Supervisor


411: What is the difference between VFX and a digital effect?


KH:  Think of digital effects as being done in the computer.  VFX encompasses digital effects as well as miniatures and stuff you can shoot photographically.


411:  What were some of the major digital effects?


KH:  Digital doubles for Will Smith and Josh Brolin who play agents J and K.  We recreated certain iconic things that happened in 1969, such as the NY Mets winning the World Series at Shea Stadium.  We had to recreate the Apollo 11 lunar mission.  Jay Redd went down to Cape Canaveral and got onto one of the launch pads and shot a lot of photographs we used as reference for the background, but the actual rocket, the concrete base, lift off, getting all the flames and smoke, all that we created in a computer.


411:  What were the key points of discussion you were involved with from the start?


KH:  My part is directly underneath the VFX supervisors, and we met on a daily basis along with Barry Sonnenfeld.   The studio definitely wanted it to be a 3D movie.   Barry has a unique style; he shoots everything with a 22 millimeter prime lens.  For comedy he prefers that it’s more compressed, everything is closer to the audience.  We did stereo conversion tests like we had done on “Alice in Wonderland” and “G-Force.”  When we presented all that material to Barry, he liked that he had the ability to address the stereo from the post conversion, that he didn’t have to worry about making some of those stereoscopic decisions while we were shooting using a stereo rig.  Two years ago the technology wasn’t as far advanced and he and Bill Pope weren’t comfortable with the equipment at the time.  The other thing that came up for me after reading the initial script was how much we were going to have to build that were only going to be used once in the movie.  It takes just as much to build a mass that you only use once as opposed to using 10 or 100 times over.  There’s no efficiencies built into it, no maximizing the cost, you have to make it just as good because when you are watching a movie and something unsightly or just a little jarring shows up, it takes the audience out of the story.


411:  Did the 3D conversion provide any challenges to the digital effects?


KH: The first thing we had to watch out for was that characters were looking at each other at the appropriate times, and interacting with the surfaces they are in contact with.  We worked primarily with Prime Focus who did the conversion work, and made sure that the very fine details, like exploding debris, are properly dimensionalized.  Scrutiny becomes more crucial in 3D.


411: What were some of the complications you had to deal with the 3D conversion working with large, expansive spaces such as Shea Stadium?


KH:  We actually wound up cheating the stadium slightly to frame the shots Barry wanted.  For instance, the upper deck where most the action takes place is at a slightly different angle than the real stadium.  When you get into stereo conversion, you have to be cautious of how things feel scale-wise.  You have a double whammy where the depth of field can at times make things feel like a miniature, and especially you have to make sure things feel like they are at appropriate distances to make sure the image isn’t collapsing on itself.


Spencer Cook – Animation Supervisor


411:  Did you have to think of the animated characters differently in a comedy as opposed to a dramatic movie?


SC:  Not in a big way, it was more in some subtleties.  The characters had to feel like they were a part of this world that the actors were in.  In some cases they needed to be monsters; they needed to feel like they could harm or kill the lead characters, the alien fish being one in particular.  Barry likes to have things toned down a bit.   There is a scene where four worm guys are working together to play the bagpipes.   We thought “OK this is funny; let’s have them do some really big shtick here.”  Barry’s reaction was “No.”  He told me that his approach to comedy is to let the audience decide if it is funny or not.  That was an interesting lesson in film comedy: if you try too hard the audience can tell, and their reaction is “If he’s not taking it seriously, then why should we?”


411:  Did you have the creative reign to develop the looks and styles of new aliens?


SC:  To a certain extent.  This is the third in a series and these movies have a very well established look, tone and style to them.  The movie needed to be part of that world, so we couldn’t break away from that.  But, these movies all need to be entertaining and give the audience something new each time.  With the villain in particular, we got to play around a lot, in how he is put together and what he does to the main characters.

411: I know Rick Baker has been involved in the past with makeup and prosthetics.


SC:  And he was this time too, in a big way!


411: How much of the creatures are practical effects versus animated characters?


SC:  There are some aliens that are completely prosthetics and makeup.  There was every shade in-between that combined prosthetics and digital prosthetics. And, there are some characters that were completely digital.  A good example of how we integrated with the work Rick Baker was doing is with the villain Boris.  He’s designed with these cylinders that are in his eye sockets.  When he gets agitated, these finger-like cylinders twitch and move in interesting ways.  When the fingers needed to move,we  would digitally replace the portion of the actor’s face and animate the fingers moving.  That was a combination of Rick Baker’s work with a digital creation on top of that.  There is also a symbiotic part of Boris, a kind of pet that lives inside of his hand.  His palm opens up and this creature comes out of it.  Rick Baker’s studio designed and painted that, and we used the sculpted (creation) to build the digital version.  There was never an animatronic version, it was only created and animated digitally.


411: Does that add a bit of complexity, building something digitally on top of a real foundation?


SC:  Yes, but that is something we do in every shot in a way.  No matter how fantastic this stuff is, it still has to fit this real world that the actors inhabit.


411:  Are there scenes where there is a strong bridge between the animation and the visual effects helping each other, something where the scene wouldn’t exist without each other?


SC:  It’s hard to pick one out; we are creating these illusions in every shot.  Whenever these shots are animated it’s because it can’t be done in reality: it’s too dangerous or impractical to do, so a character becomes animated from there.  In a movie like this the animation doesn’t exist as a separate discipline or in a vacuum.  We are constantly in contact with the modeling department and the texturing guys and the lighting and rendering. Animation and visual effects, it’s all part of the same drive forwards to create the illusion that the character is actually there in that world.

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