The Poetry of Special Effects

Two of Hollywood's brightest visual effects supervisors discuss their work with Kenzo, Spike Jonze, digital humans, water, smoke, fog, snow, and fire.
Words: Ger Ger Images: Digital Domain, J. Croshaw, Starz Entertainment

"Keep it uncertain. I like that people thought we augmented Margaret Qualley's arms for Kenzo. I love when you are not sure if something is real or not." — Janelle Croshaw

Visual effects (VFX) supervisor Janelle Croshaw has worked on many Spike Jonze projects like Kenzo World, Her, and his most recent Welcome Home HomePod commercial for Apple as well as on David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She received a call from Spike Jonze's team to work on Her after she wrapped a project in Iceland. And she received another call from leading visual effects company Digital Domain when she was in New York to lead a secret project in L.A. that only a few months later would take more than 60,000 people at Coachella in 2012 by surprise: for roughly 5 minutes a 'hologram' let the world believe Tupac was alive, making headlines across the globe.

"On the Kenzo set it was 3 am or 4 am and it was cold and Margaret [Qualley] had a blanket wrapped around her. When it was her turn to perform it was unbelievable how she would just take off the blanket, get up there, go into character and blow everyone's minds. We were all sitting there, like we could barely move and keep our eyes open, and she was making these moves and she was just on point.
Spike and Humberto [Leon] liked the lasers to come out of her fingers. A visual effects person's first instinct is to blow up the whole room. But Spike wanted to do it elegantly and not to overpower Margaret's performance. The great thing about Spike is that he is literally able to send these one-liner emails with notes that you understand immediately.

The tricky thing with visual effects is making sure that it doesn't get frustrating along the way. It is really kind of my job to read minds a lot of the time."

"In the early 2000s David Fincher started to hammer into me to do everything we can to make computer-generated imagery seamless yet imperfect so that it does not stand out. He and Spike became friends. It's funny because they have such different styles but in a lot of ways they are very similar and this is something they share. It's an art to dirty it up.

Spike wants to use as many real elements as possible. For him to get the shot that he is happy with he needs to be there in the room shooting it. Spike's cinematography is always so real. He always wants to keep it very intimate. That is what I loved about Her. The whole thing felt so intimate. For Kenzo World's infinity mirror shot, vfx hadn't planned [to use] the technocrane, it was planned as a handheld camera. But on that day it was like, do I put my foot down and risk not getting that gorgeous shot at all or is it something we can do? Those are the hardest decisions to make when you are on set. The shot looked so cool that it was like, 'Okay, we are going to fix it in post.' But I got in trouble for that. It was painful and expensive getting the whole crane out of the shot. But it made all the difference and was crucial to the piece. We got an amazing shot. There are also those times at which you really have to piss off the director or DP and say 'no, we can't do that.' I always ask myself, 'Can we live without the shot and the story will still be told?'"

"For the Tupac-'hologram', we had some pretty intense testing out in the elements at Coachella. The first time we tested out at Coachella the actual projection screen, which we were not in charge of, it was blowing in the wind a lot and the second time it was responding to the bass vibration. Dr. Dre was asked if he could turn down his bass. That didn't go over very well. (Laughing) He was like... 'No.'

That project was certainly one of my highlights in my career because Tupac's music meant so much to me. There were a few tough times in my life. At one point I quit visual effects, moved to Aspen, Colorado, and I was snowboarding and thought, 'I'm not in this industry any longer.' That was 2001 but 11 years later when I received that call his music still meant so much to me. It was a project where you cannot fail. Thirty thousand frames at 60 frames per second. It was really high resolution. We are very proud that it actually held up. So many people were watching those screens. I would love to make more digital humans, more character work. There are so many options that haven't been explored yet but the technology tends to scare people."

"There is not a lot more beautiful than the basic elements of nature. In the early days of visual effects, water and liquids were difficult to render. You had to have a huge company like Digital Domain with crazy computing power to even be able to render the simulation and in some ways it is still true.

We have studios in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Shanghai, Beijing and Hyderabad, and additional offices in Hong Kong, London and Taipei. There is a lot of render power that goes through Downtown L.A. When I was making Her and we were augmenting and adding to all those buildings down there, I learned if that Wilshire building went down the visual effects industry would go down as well.

Talking about the elements, interestingly in the Vancouver/Canada area render farms sometimes go down because of incidents in the forests. Whether an animal eats through the line or a tree falls, it affects all the visual effects houses up there."

Aladino Debert's projects include award-winning work for Nike, the Super Bowl, Pepsi, BMW, Audio, Renault, Coca-Cola, Dolby, and Boeing. He was also behind the adventure television drama Black Sails, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment's Mad Max, and he directed launch footage for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

"Of all the computer-generated effects, water is by far the hardest. Sand, snow, fog, dust, and even fire all used to be very tricky. For instance, fire doesn't scale well, just like water. But it is a lot simpler than it used to be. Water, however, is really tough, because we as humans are very attuned to the way it looks and behaves."— Aladino Debert

"For fog we would either rotoscope [trace over footage by each frame] or create CG shapes to correspond to some of the elements in the scene. What you end up with is essentially mattes that would protect certain objects so you can apply effects. Another interesting technique is deep renders. It allows you to change the depth in which the detail is shown once it is rendered. That is amazing because having depth information for every element on a shot [means] you don't need to re-render when some things change. But it is slow and painful to work with. The compositors want to kill themselves.
Water looks very different when you are talking about one liter of water versus half a million. Crashing waves are really tricky as well. Water hits itself and then becomes one seamless surface again. We treat it as a character. It's freaking hard.

When you look at [a film], are you paying attention to the effects, or are you forgetting that what you are watching is a visual effect? Ideally, the latter."

"Showers and rain are easy because you deal with individual droplets of water hitting a surface, and from a simulation standpoint that is well understood. That's cake. Snow, when it's falling, [is made of] very big, motion-blurred white dots. It's slower and it moves in the wind a bit more, but it's almost like white rain. Once on the ground, it is often a matte painting. You don't simulate it, you paint it. Fire used to be very tricky since it doesn't scale well, just like water. In other words, it doesn't look the same when it is small versus big. It is an ignited gas, but it is a lot simpler than it used to be. Smoke is relatively simple to do and dust is essentially a colored smoke, just a bit more diffused. Water is still a whole, other level. Creating volumes of water is very hard.
If you are too concerned with how to do certain things your creativity can get diminished or curtailed because you are constantly thinking, 'I don't know if I can do that.'
I went to a technical high school and I essentially studied architecture. By the time I finished I could build up to a certain amount of stories and I knew how to calculate the structures. Then I went to college to study architecture and what I noticed rather rapidly was that all the kids who came from normal high schools were way more creative than I was in their design because they had no idea how to build the damn house. That was amazing for me because my designs were boring. It was an eye opener.

Sometimes too much knowledge can be harmful to creativity. It is important that even if you have the knowledge, to not let it impede your creative exercise."

Creative directors and VFX supervisors Janelle Croshaw and Aladino Debert completed many of their projects at Digital Domain, one of the most iconic visual effects and digital production companies in the world. Founded by film director James Cameron, special effects make-up artist Stan Winston and film executive Scott Ross, Digital Domain began producing visual effects in 1993 with its first three films, True Lies, Interview with the Vampire, and Color of Night, which was released in 1994. Digital Domain produced effects for more than 100 films, including Dante's Peak, Titanic, Apollo 13, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, and Star Trek. Other films include Pirates of the Caribbean, TRON: Legacy, Thor, Her, Into the Storm, Maleficent, and Furious 7. We visited the Digital Domain studio in Los Angeles.

Image Credits: [1-4] Kenzo World Digital Domain [5] Testing the Tupac Hologram Janelle Croshaw [6-7] From the Set of Kenzo World with Spike Jonze Janelle Croshaw [8] xXx Digital Domain [9] Black Sails Starz Entertainment, LLC/ Digital Domain