The work being done at Weta Digital is cutting edge, we all know that. Down in New Zealand, a talented crew is able to take just about whatever a writer or director and imagine and create it for film. The complexity of it all can boggle the mind, but to pick the brain of someone doing that work is a fascinating experience. A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to chat with Guy Williams, one of the folks at Weta making magic happen.
Below you’ll see our conversation with Williams, chiefly centered around the work he did creating a digital Will Smith for “Gemini Man.” Directed by Ang Lee, the action film sees Smith play an aging assassin who has to go on the run from a younger version of himself. Crafting this visual effect was paramount for Williams and Weta, since the movie doesn’t work without it. The story may be on the generic side, but the effects are stunning, making Williams a compelling artist to talk with. We hope you enjoy.
Here is our interview with Guy Williams:
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: What first got you into visual effects and what’s a typical day like for you when working on a project?
Guy Williams: Hmm. So what got me into it was computer graphics. I’ve always tinkered around with computer graphics. I started trying to figure out how to do cel animation way back when, before there were computer programs for it. Just sort of piddled along, but then stumbled into the fact that you could use computer graphics to do TV commercials. I tried to get a job in that, and that didn’t work out, but through the contacts I made pursuing that, I ended up getting a job in film. That, of course, was my end goal, but I never thought I would skip TV and go straight to film. It was just a serendipitous thing where I was exploring computer graphics and the industry was just starting to change over to using computer graphics, because it was usually practical visual effects before that. Then, it was just off to the races. I’ve been doing it for almost 35 years now.
The second question, a typical day. Like you said before, it changes, not so much from show to show, but just during a show. So, during the prep phase, I do a lot of paperwork. It’s reading scripts, doing breakdowns, figuring out how you’re going to do something, you know? Talking to people that will probably end up on the team and saying “hey look, they want to add this to this. They want to have a giant one of these running around. What’s the best way to go about doing that? What’s your thoughts on the matter?” I have a notion, but I not only want to validate it with other people’s ideas, but also be challenged by people that are smarter than me, coming up with the best possible answer.
Once we get to the end of prep, I then shift over to a client based situation, where I work with the filmmakers and the production team, and we start talking about how we do it and how that affects your shooting day, you know? The AD’s are constantly evolving the shooting plan, what they’re going to shoot on what day and where. Visual effects, like you say, have become a significant part of the shooting process. We’re not just a thing where on one day of the shoot we need a little time to do this. Every day you shoot, you have to account for us needing to do this, this, and this. The AD’s have been doing this long enough that they know there’s no point in firing back, there’s no real point in asking if we really need to, since we’re just like “well, do you have a 25 foot tall dinosaur? Because if you do, you don’t need to do this.” Otherwise, you might need us. Look, everyone is so smart on a film shoot, the conversation is never like that. And that goes through the entirety of the shoot, since it’s a constantly evolving monster. You have a plan, but by the time you get to the end of it, the plan is not quite what you did, just because you have to constantly adapt to situations.
Then, you get into post and a typical day in post is the artists work like crazy making these fantastic shots come together. My job is to sort of sit there and make sure they stay on an even keel and the result is going to look homogenous and as good as possible. That’s done through a lot of meetings with artists and a lot of reviews.
JM: It’s so fascinating how you guys have to be on a movie from its inception, work on the project during shooting, and then almost have a whole other production once filming wraps.
GW: I find it very interesting that it used to be that we were a very ancillary department to the filmmaking process. In some degrees, we weren’t even a much loved department, just because we were considered more post than production. That’s evolved now to, especially on a big blockbuster, a visual effects heavy film, which is 99% of all big budget films, the Visual Effects Supervisor is one the people closest to the director during the shoot, because we’re an integral part of the process. I gotta say, I absolutely love it, because it gives you this opportunity to work with so many insanely talented people. The relationships that you strike up with the costume department, the art department team, the actors themselves, the AD’s, you end up with all these great relationships. Every day you wake up and your job is to have an idea of how to do something. Then, you go to set and you’re challenged by so many brilliant people that you have to evolve your idea, because they’re coming up with even better ideas. Everyone just feeds off of each other. It’s the reason that such incredibly hard things come together so seemingly effortlessly.
JM: The field does change so rapidly. Even just looking at your career, the technology is always cutting edge, but evolves so quickly. On a personal level, is it hard to look at movies you’ve done in the past and know what you would have done with the technology that you have now? Like, “Wing Commander” is a guilty pleasure for me, but do you look at it remember what you had to work with, or think about how it could look now?
GW: (Laughing) Totally. Look, it doesn’t bug me that much for the simple reason that every time I look at a movie in the past that I did and go “kinda wish we could do that again,” I get the opportunity to work on a movie that’s similar. I did “X-Men: First Class” and know that the tools we had then just aren’t as good as the tools that we have now, but then I get to work on a superhero movie like the first “Avengers” or “Iron Man 3.” Every year you get a chance to find something new, so I wouldn’t say it’s too much of a bummer. The one thing, to be totally transparent, budgets on films are constantly shrinking. So, the desire is to do more but you’re getting paid less to do it. A visual effects shot, from when I started in this industry to where I am now, has dropped a little bit in price, but the expectation has gone up by multiples of ten. Way back when we did “Wing Commander,” we had a lot of time to figure things out. We didn’t have the tools, but we had the time. We had talented artists. Now, we take those talented artists and don’t give them as much time, and rely on the tools.
JM: With “Gemini Man,” you guys were the ones to finally get a crack at it. Was there something that hadn’t existed until recently that made it a feasible project to take on?
GW: It’s not that black and white. It’s not like one day there was a piece of technology that let us go make it now. It’s more than every three or four or five years, the studios would go around to some key players in the industry and ask about the film. Do we think we’re ready to try it? For the last 20 years, the answer has been no. No way we could do that digitally. This time, when they came to us, they asked us if we could do a digital human, do we think it’s time, we looked at each other and thought that we could. The thing is, we didn’t have the tools to do it when we started. We just felt confident that we could put the tools together. With the technology we had at the time, we could get about 90% of the way there, and we felt we could get to that uncertain ground. That’s one of the joys of working at a place like Weta, people come to us with those kinds of films. We’re one of the companies where you can come to us with no confidence that it can be done anywhere. We get to say “give us a shot!” We work with the filmmakers to give them the confidence that it’s possible, then we set about doing it. The work Dan did on the “Apes” films and the work Joe did on the “Avatar” films, we’ve been fortunate enough to get the opportunity to stretch beyond what everyone feels comfortable doing and try to achieve it. So, this one, Jerry (Bruckheimer) and Ang (Lee) came to us and asked if we thought it was time, and we did.
JM: The constant at Weta seems to be that the projects are all auteur-driven, whether it’s “Gemini Man” or “Ad Astra.” There’s a reason for them to exist, which must be a great fuel, right? Not just delivering a product, but helping to tell a story.
GW: Exactly! One of the things we pride ourselves on, and obviously we have an amazing technology base, Joe sculpted the company like that, but we don’t rely solely on brute strength and the cheapest manpower we can, so we can put as much resources forward. We actually rely on very smart tools, but the other thing that the company is shaped towards, is that we consider ourselves collaborators in the filmmaking process. We don’t consider ourselves technicians. In other words, you don’t hire Weta, we come in, take a couple of photographs, and then give you a thing. You hire Weta, we look at your scene, then we work with you to try and make that scene as awesome as possible. Whatever we need to do to work with and support the director as much as possible. Look, some directors don’t want that kind of service, they just want someone to say yes and do what they ask us to do, and we’re happy to support them in that way, but there are plenty of directors who are keen to sit with us around a table and try to figure out how to make a story point better.
JM: On this project, to not only have to do something that’s never been done before, but to also do it in 4K for Ang Lee, with his High Frame Rate, is that an added bonus or an added challenge?
GW: It’s a challenge on two fronts. One’s seemingly the bigger challenge but is actually a smaller challenge, and the other seems like a smaller challenge but is actually the bigger challenge. The small one that’s actually big is that it’s a lot more work. What I mean by that is, the way we shot it, we had Victor Hugo standing alongside Will Smith, so Will had someone to act against for Junior. But, we have to go back and paint him out of every frame so we could put in a digital Will Smith. You talk about 4K, five times the frame rate, so it’s 40 times as many pixels that we have to paint. We allocated a lot of money for that, but then we found out that we were blowing through that alarmingly fast, because it just takes a lot more manpower. The seemingly hard but turned out to be an easy thing is, you think that it creates no place to hide, that the resolution, the frame rate, is so crystal clear, that you can’t get away with some of the things you did in the past. The truth of the matter is we never rely on those tricks in the first place. We don’t under-create our assets. We don’t make them just good enough to hold up for what you see. We tend to make them at least twice as good as what you expect to see, so that we never have a director say a creature looks awesome and want to push in on it, but we have to say it’ll cost them more since we didn’t create it to hold up to a closer look. The director should always have that freedom, so we can go “hell yeah, let’s do it, it’s going to be awesome.” We knew going in about the 120, but even if it wasn’t a factor, we’d have built this character to that level.
JM: Can you talk about getting past the “uncanny valley” in creating a whole new Will Smith? Especially when it comes to getting features like the eyes to be right. What are the added challenges?
GW: The best way to describe it is that you don’t know what you don’t know, but we at least know that. I know that sounds really weird to say. So, we know that we have to go beyond what know. If we take the best character work that we’ve done to date, we knew that wouldn’t be good enough. So, what we do is we look at what we’ve done before, the best we’ve done with human eyes, and then figure out how we can go further. Skin, etc. So, you said yourself, there are hot points. You look at the eyes and know they’re going to be hard, so we give ourselves three or four months. You’re going to have answers in the first month, but they’re going to tell you that you need to go down this path or that path. You use your experience to give yourself time to create all of the steps. We don’t start the process by having a checklist of 50 things. We start with five, but by the time we finish, we have 500.
JM: Can you explain a bit about how that works, especially with the eyes?
GW: Sure. With the human eye, you have this structure called the sclera, which are the whites of your eyes. If you look closely where it meets your iris, there’s a blue tinge. Some people’s scleras are darker than others, and you think it’s a coloration of the sclera, but it’s not. What’s happening is that on the inside of your eye, there’s this thin layer called the choroid, this blue/black inky layer, a thin film inside your eye that’s super dark. It keeps your eye from seeing lens flares. It’s the reason you’re not constantly blinded by flares.
JW: It’s J.J. Abrams’ worst enemy.
GW: (Laughs) Exactly! The trick is, the blue comes from the choroid, so the sclera’s thickness, it’s not changing the color, it’s changing the thickness, making it go darker. That’s something we knew we had to do. That’s something we’ve actually been doing since the “Apes” films. On this film, we put all of those things together and then look at and say there’s a coloration of the corner of the eye we can’t account for. Why does it go more yellow in the corner of the eye? It turns out that there’s yet another layer of the eye, this very translucent layer of the eye that sheaths the sclera, which we’ve never accounted for. It’s a little bit thicker towards the corner of the eye and it has a slightly yellow cast to it, so we had to model it in. You keep putting everything together and study it to see what you have to add to that.
JW: Was it a disappointment that so many people won’t see the movie in the clarity that you and Ang Lee intended?
GW: That’s an interesting question since I see it from a slightly different angle. When people see our films, I know it’s going to hold up in whatever format they see it in, even if they see it in the most demanding format. We don’t anticipate that it’s only going to be seen in 24, we anticipate that someday they might remaster the film in 4K. We always try to build in that bit of headroom. So, the same holds in the opposite direction. We know that once we have that headroom, we know it’s going to hold up in whatever form it’s seen in. The only frustration is that Ang is trying to push cinema in a bold new direction. He’s trying to create a new viewing experience for the audience. That’s the history of film. The various steps we’ve done over the eons, Ang is trying to do that. He’s trying to create a better experience for the audience. That’s the reason why you get a little frustrated that people won’t get to a chance to see it in that resolution. The whole process is to create a better experience for you but then you watch it on your iPhone.
JM: Well, congratulations. The creation here is really one that’s special. Whether it receives a Best Visual Effects nomination at the Oscars or not, it seems like a compliment not only that people are mistaking it motion capture, but that it’s sure to be copied in the years to come!
GW: (Laughs) Whatever we can do to make the industry better, we’re happy to do!
Awards Circuit would like to thank Guy Williams for speaking with us.