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Volker Engel on Independence Day: Resurgence

A few days after delivering the final effects shots on Independence Day: Resurgence, visual effects supervisor Volker Engel spoke to vfxblog about the significant effort behind Roland Emmerich’s newest film. Around 1700 vfx shots are in Resurgence, many of them massive effects simulations depicting the impact of a new wave of alien invasion on Earth. In this frank conversation, Engel takes us through the early stages of planning, then production and then post-production on the film.

vfxblog: Thanks so much for talking with me, especially as you’ve probably just come off it, it must feel great.

Volker: Yes, the recuperating process combined with a slight post-traumatic stress disorder. You know, the digital effects kind.

vfxblog: Do you feel like that after every production? Is that in some ways quite normal?

Volker: There’s always a bit of it involved, because I mean there’s a reason why Roland’s movies look like Roland’s movies look like. And that is, I could easily just say like hey we did great visual effects, but you know, you do it in such close collaboration with the director who is, and I mean this in the positive way, very demanding and has his vision. And so to meet those standards is what specifically over the last several months when, you know, the movie obviously still is being shaped, is what it just requires an enormous amount of work, put it this way.

vfxblog: Obviously you’re making a disaster film here but I always feel there’s much more going on than just over-the-top imagery in Roland’s films.

Volker: Yeah. And I think the big difference to, I don’t know, random other productions that might not be so successful in creating certain images is this close collaboration. So you know Roland is the opposite of a director who just phones it in. He is part of the process literally every single minute, and saying that of course I would love to get more time with him when he is in the editorial process.

But what we’re doing, and when I say we is meaning Uncharted Territory and I think you probably remember our slightly special setup that we have from other productions where we’re the hub for the visual effects, and that’s what we did again this time also. Marc Weigert came back in half way through production as the visual effects producer, too.

Also this time we did it in a way where editorial was as close to us as possible. That was literally down the hall. And so for you know finishing sessions with our vendors, and that in this case included Uncharted Territory who also did just shot-count wise the most, the biggest part of the movie, although not when it comes to overall complexity. We had a couple of vendors like Scanline and Weta Digital and MPC who also did you know tremendous work that was partially much more complicated.

But this was the key thing once again: keep everything close together, have the director very close and have him involved, and you know through the process of post-vis, which these days becomes so incredibly important for the editing process, that just made it possible so that he could actually realize his vision.

vfxblog: Before you ever get to any filming or that editorial process which is really important, tell me about the time that you do have to plan these massive shots and destruction and you know just the visual effects in a film like this?

Volker: There’s two things that come to mind immediately: one of course is the previs process, but the other one starts even earlier, and that was very interesting in this movie. Roland came to me and said Fox really wants to do this movie, but what they would like to have is a presentation where we show them key images, basically concept art of the movie. Basically Roland’s saying how I envision what these rather big shots of the movie will look like. Which of course the studio head can’t see when he just reads the screenplay.

And so that was our first challenge, and I’m calling this a challenge because there is no art department yet. This is before the movie gets greenlit. So I had this idea. I contacted the company Trixter, who also have an office in LA but mainly do a lot of their work out of Munich, Germany. So we worked with Trixter in October and November 2014 before the movie was greenlit and created together with them. And in the end it was fifteen key images we made. We also then later combined it with some artwork from The Aaron Sims Company who did the creature design for the movie, Aaron Sims’s company. With these other fifteen images we had, Fox really wanted to see were these gigantic scenarios. What is this gonna look like when the toe of the mothership comes down in on the coast of Texas, for instance.

I realized at the very start and at the very end of the movie how important this was because we hit all these marks that these images show you. Some of the designs obviously changed, but the idea of these images were a guideline throughout the making of this movie. And so that of course then leads to doing the previs, which we shared fifty-fifty between Uncharted Territory. The specific team we hired for that was supervised the same in-house supervisors that we continuously work with on our projects. And then fifty percent was done by a group from Method Studios.

vfxblog: What do you end up doing in terms of making the concept art or previs communication documents for the studio and, ultimately, the visual effects crews?

Volker: There’s two things to this. One is: with everything that was created in previs, we kept the whole CG setup and the animation files and made those available to the vendors so that it was not just a visual reference that was sent over. So in the end it was up to the vendors themselves if, you know, what they choose to actually take this over, you know, use the file the Maya file for example as-is, or use it as a starting point. And that was definitely an important fact.

And the other one was, now I get very analog: when we started the shoot in Albuquerque we invited the supervisors from each company that we work with to come over, and I talked them through every single image and drawing that up to that point had been done by the art department but that included also the images that we had done with Trixter. And I had a folder with all these images and with really large, actually I’m talking about a physical folder in Cinemascope format. Pretty large prints. And we’d spend the whole afternoon going through these images, and I would explain the movie and specific sequences that at that point that particular vendor was bidding on. So they get an idea of what it actually encompasses, and you know obviously there was a visual effects supervisor and there was a visual effects producer from that company, and so they get a much better understanding of what they were dealing with.

 

vfxblog: Miniatures had played such a large part in making the first film. Was there ever any talk about miniatures perhaps forming part of the shooting for Resurgence?

Volker: That’s an easy answer. It always comes up, and the answer is always no. And of course you’re talking with a huge proponent of miniature effects back from my days from the first Independence Day, and we even made some of them happen on the movie 2012, but that was also kind of when we realized that you can do it if you have a sequence and you have say fifteen shots with one miniature setup, that would make it all work. But frankly with everything we did on this movie there were so many one-offs, and in the end we came up with one miniature shot that I started contemplating together with MPC, because MPC did everything that takes place on the moon and has to do with the lunar base and all that, and we thought this is actually, there might be something very interesting here that we already did as a miniature in the first movie and would be a fantastic idea to do it the same way for this movie.

But I can make this really short and tell you that about three, four months later this shot was actually nixed. And so in hindsight I’m actually happy that I didn’t follow up with all of that. But the fact was also when we got the bid in doing it as miniature; because it was much more of a one-off it just didn’t financially make any sense.

 

vfxblog: While we’re just talking about some of the vendors, could you quickly run through what the main vendors did for the film?

Volker: Let me start with Uncharted Territory. I’m going by shot count, and so the two big sequences that Uncharted did, one was in Area 51 there’s a gigantic hangar, and inside this hangar are literally thousands of jet fighters, these hybrid technology jet fighters that we’re using in the movie. And everything that takes place in this hangar with the background, from dialog to actually launching the first attack and a bunch of other things was done by Uncharted.

The other one was inside the mothership, which pays tribute to the first movie, only, as Jeff Goldblum already said it in the trailer; this is much bigger than the last one. It was a mothership that is three thousand miles in diameter. Uncharted did a whole sequence that takes place inside the mothership where our fleet goes in there and it’s being attacked.

MPC did everything that has to do with the moon, and there’s also the approach of the mothership to the moon, and some destruction that’s happening. And Scanline basically takes the baton over from MPC the moment that the mothership goes towards Earth and enters the atmosphere, and there’s a fairly large destruction sequence that is based on the fact that the mothership has its own gravity, and also of Singapore being lifted up and then later other parts of buildings, actually from Asia, raining down over London.

We have a creature in the movie that is the alien queen and that was Weta Digital, and from the get go it was decided that she’s gonna be very large. She’s about eighty meters high, so at that point it becomes kind of a monster movie.

Then we have Image Engine. And that was also a fairly easy decision because this time, in this movie you see the aliens much more. You never saw them in the first movie, and so that’s when I decided very early on that Image Engine would be a great candidate for that with their excellent creature work animation skills. And so they basically did everything regarding alien animation that does not have the queen in it.

And Digital Domain did the dogfight in the movie. It’s a larger segment that takes place on top and around part of the mothership, and of course it’s also a bit of a nod to the first movie when the humans attack and are themselves being attacked by these alien fighters.

Another big vendor was Cinesite, which did everything that was exterior to Area 51. There’s an attack of the queen’s ship happening, and this happens actually before the queen appears outside her ship.

We also had Trixter as an effects vendor besides doing this very early concept work. I’ll tell you a little secret. There’s a sequence that we went with for quite a while that will be later seen on the Blu-Ray but didn’t make it onto the movie. So it was never entirely finished, not one of these things where you say oh they did this ten minute sequence and then it was cut out of the movie. It was still while the movie was being shaped and edited and so on, and became in the end as so many things a victim of the length, the overall length of the movie.

But that was only one of the things they did. There is, and that’s sort of the big secret of the movie that we’re dealing with a third race which is being represented by an artificial intelligence. And everything that had to do with this artificial intelligence and holographic images that are being projected in Area 51 was done by Trixter. So just the fact that it’s 122 shots tells you that was actually quite a big chapter in the movie also.

We also worked again with a company called Luxx in Germany. They did the opening sequence of White House Down for us where we’re flying over Washington DC in the morning. And guess what, we actually have a substantial amount of Washington DC, futuristic Washington DC shots in the movie, and that was handled by Luxx.

Then Buf in Paris actually did one shot – it’s a one minute opening shot of flying through the galaxies and establishing the mothership. There were several other companies working on the movie too but those were the main shots.

vfxblog: I don’t want you to think I’m being provocative or controversial, but one thing that’s happened in the last couple of years is destruction on film occasionally gets a bad rap. People don’t want to see a building fall down and all these people die. But I’ve sort of felt Roland’s films and your visual effects work the destruction’s always, it’s sort of central to the film depending on what film we’re talking about, or it’s done in a different sort of way. Did you have conversations about that feeling about destruction, and was there a particular approach?

Volker: There is, I mean the way the destruction is being shown, and of course you can start a whole debate about that, of how much do you want to show that people die, or how much do you want to avoid showing that people are dying? But this is a pure decision made by the director, who doesn’t want to relish in the fact that you know people are being sucked up into the sky and then fall down.

At the same time you have to show the destruction as this massive event that tells you they’re not kidding around. This is a serious event that could mean the end of mankind. And that is a Roland decision of how to direct this, and so very early on, also on this movie we made the decision to not show the deaths of single people. I think that’s the best description that you can have. You have, you know, you have some people running on the street and are being lifted up in the foreground, which we did with some wirework and so on. But it’s never about relishing in the fact that those people are, what’s happening with, those people. You know what’s happening and as we know from a long time ago what sometimes happens in your own imagination can or could be more gruesome than anything we should or want to show.

vfxblog: Tell me about some of the challenges of shooting this film, you know just in terms of location shoots or on-set, especially where there are so many visual effects. Tell me about that sort of in comparison to the last film or other films you’ve done as well,

Volker: Yeah, very different. I mean specifically to the first one which was twenty years ago now. But where you have in the first one a total separation between the live action shoot and the visual effects (I mean we had maybe two or three bluescreen days where we did something with the actors, and everything else was you show miniatures or you show the actors in a real location). It’s interesting when you re-watch the first movie how much that was actually separated, or you had people looking up and seeing ships over the city, but you actually don’t have people. And you have these traditional Roland shots where you show people watching something, and then you show the reverse angle of what you’re actually seeing, which then in the first movie was done via miniature, sometimes in combination with a live-action plate that was actually shot by Roland during live action shoot.

But over the years that changed of course, and it was very, very different in this movie where it was a constant combination this time of studio partial set combined with computer generated background or computer generated aliens or anything else that you see in the movie. And the big deal was to have the means of having Roland already direct the visual effects on set, and we might have talked about it in, about this on one of the previous movies where actually we only really worked with the technology on White House Down. And that was the n-cam technology, which basically gives Roland the freedom to have, he has a monitor in his video village that shows the n-cam image, or we can switch it to the n-cam image whenever we want to, which shows him already the background. And not only this, now we’re going a couple of steps further.

It was my digital effects supervisor, Marion Spates, who was responsible on-set for this whole n-cam setup, and we had two n-cam technicians there with us all the time. So let’s say we are in Area 51 inside this hangar, and you have some of our lead actors that had just said goodbye to their friends or loved ones. And then in the background you see this squadron of fighters taking off. And so it was not just them for Roland imitating, that they actually, that the eye line goes somewhere. We actually animated the planes lifting off and implement that into n-cam, and Roland could see that and direct the camera, direct the actors, and that’s just one of hundreds of examples where we took this technology and pushed the limits.

vfxblog: So was that a live composite of previs footage or other footage or both?

Volker: Yeah, no it’s exactly that. So what we did for previs was used as an asset, so let’s take the inside of the hangar, and believe me it was a challenge because a lot of times this was still being designed while we were building it. And so we always had to implement the latest design and upgrade it, and you know sometimes that was, ‘Okay guys you have forty eight hours before we shoot this scene while the art department is actually still designing this vehicle or this set.’

So that was quite a challenge, but that’s what in the end gives Roland the freedom to not just rely on a lot of guess work but actually really directing these you know gigantic setups in the way they should be directed as if they would be really there.

vfxblog: It’s interesting hearing you talk about it because I’ve covered a lot of live comp or simulcam work or shots done with n-cam or bespoke systems as well, and there’s a real mix among filmmakers about how much they use it during the shoot, whether they follow it slavishly or use it just as a guide.

Volker: See that’s the great thing when you have a director who knows the limits or limitations of a technology, and Roland is always the first to admit that he’s not a very technical person. But he has a full understanding of what this tool encompasses, what he can do with it and where its limits are. And the interesting thing is we also had, and this was in talking to actually the people from n-cam where they were sharing their experiences with us also from other sets and telling us listen, this is what it’s really good for and this is what you should not use it for.

And when, I mean to make a long story short, whenever it gets into you know kind of minute details of I don’t know, let’s say you have a docking manoeuvre and partially is set and partially is CG or something like that, you wouldn’t want to use n-cam to do something like, ‘Okay, it has to fit through this half of an inch over there to actually really have the CG piece with the live action piece and so on. We would never do that.

vfxblog: I’m curious hearing you talk about how you wanted to be close to editorial for this film, and clearly you must have been involved very closely all the time with editorial in different ways. But tell me about how that process worked and how much you contribute with post-vis and working out shots that still need to be designed.

Volker: I’ll tell you this in kind of an anecdotal way. Everybody was so used to us cranking out post-vis in a very, with a very quick turnaround, that at some point we had to make sure that one of our main editors was not starting to talk to the artists directly and say, ‘Hey can you give me just like, you know, when the jet comes around and I just need it a little bit more, you know, in the left curve, I think it would be much better if it just does this little left-curve’.

So it kind of became this supermarket scenario of, I have a little bit of this, and I have a little bit of that, and everybody got so used to now having so much post-vis, but you know it’s resources, it’s artists, and it costs money, and it still has to be planned. And so Uncharted had their team of in house artists, so we actually had sort of a floating process where we kept some of our pre-vis artists on for longer to do post-vis, and then we had already hired the shop artists that would do the actual shop animation and take the CG parts of the animation to the finish line. And so it was this mixture of artists that we had to crank out post-vis.

But it was especially Marc in his role as visual effects producer who also sometimes had to put his foot down and say like whoa whoa whoa, okay, we have to stop this at some point. Because what I’m talking about is when things change five times, and it’s like oh yeah but editorial just did another change. So that is where you have to be really careful, and mainly it’s telling the story, to see it in a positive way that we actually created so much post-vis that everybody got so used to it that you know you snap your finger and you have another version of a shot.

But we had to be really careful, especially with Uncharted Territory. We said like wait a minute, those three guys that are working on post-vis were actually supposed to work on shots at the moment. And so yes, the answer is yes, it was a very, editorial had quite some flexibility and I’m pretty sure when you talk to them they’re gonna tell you like we would have needed way more post-vis on this movie.

And, but another really nice thing is our, we worked with two visual effects editors that were our go-to guys, and the main visual effects editor Mitch Glazier was our visual effects editor on White House Down, so we were already best buddies with him. And there was a really good communication between him, and we had for the first time, I would call it a liaison even from our visual effects department, which as I said was just down the hallway, who was permanently stationed with Mitch in visual effects editorial. And he was basically the one who was, who had Shotgun, I always have to say our version of Shotgun, you know to organize all the shots and make sure everything’s updated for the vendors and so on. So we always had one person sitting in editorial making sure everything’s always updated to the frame.

vfxblog: I’m curious too: you’ve worked on so many of these big productions with huge visual effects shots. I was wondering if Resurgence is one of those films where almost all the vendors would have been using some sort of physically-based rendering tool, and whether you noticed in particular that that really made a jump up in the quality?

Volker: I’m probably not giving you the answer you want to hear. I have the feeling that with talking to, however you want to count it if you had five or seven main vendors, there was so many tools in play that you ask yourself, I mean I’m giving all these different softwares that are being used a general high note. And at the same time the supervisors with such a great eye to create these images for us that of course I have the fear in the beginning: is it all gonna fit together? And we have shots where you know you cross-cut between shots from Image Engine to Uncharted Territory and back to Image Engine, and that actually exists. And we try to not do it whenever we can, but it was just fantastic how all of this merged together. And not to toot my own horn but of course that’s part of my responsibility to make sure that it does match also.

And by the way there was also someone we had who was one of those unsung heroes of post production. We throughout post production hired a gentleman called Michael Maher, and he basically in post production became our visual effects art director with everything thrown at him. That was either, like I was just describing a certain shot that existed already in a certain quality or sometimes only in pre-vis, and we wanted to make sure that a particular vendor understands where we wanted to go with this. So Michael had this whole toolset of sometimes doing something on a single frame conceptually and making it look really photo-real. It could be something like, what does the fusion drive of the moon tug look like? Or once the shield effect happens on the mothership and you get really close, and you go wait a minute we’ve never shown it in close-up, not in that close-up, you know we take, we take our inspiration from the first movie.

But there were all these things, and I think I spent thirty percent of my time in post-production with some kind of organizing art direction. And I’m sure you know what I’m talking about just based on the fact that also you know that after the shoot the art department doesn’t exist anymore. So basically visual effects are being left to their own devices, and I’m sure every production handles it differently, but there was absolutely nobody there anymore. And Michael was for us this go-to guy, I would just pitch something and you feel like he’s your one-man graphic designer slash art department who would come up with just some fantastic ideas.

And as you know things change in the post-production process. Something that was nicely designed by the art department in the pre-production phase that all of a sudden because of changes that have been done to the movie, doesn’t work anymore or have to be redesigned. That’s the stuff that he did.

vfxblog: I love hearing that a role like that that exists, because it’s great to hear you’re able to wrangle things and make it more consistent. Because as you say there’s so many vendors. I almost feel like you’ve got a bit of a no-fear approach to having so many vendors, which is hard to keep consistent. How did you communicate with them all during post?

Volker: Well there’s two answers to this one. First of all it was important that we had, for their main sequences, I made sure that the vendors had their supervisors on set. And so you know one example, Image Engine not only had their visual effects supervisor but also their CG supervisor on set for all the key shooting days of the creature setups. Every company has their own way of working, and sometimes they say, ‘Okay we love how you work with the tracking marks, but we would love to have something in addition to that,’ for example.

And then the second answer is a very simple one, and that is CineSync. And I spend usually half of my day during post in our conference room with a large screen high definition television, and seeing the guys on another monitor. Also we figured out a schedule where we would talk to every vendor twice a week, and that became one of the key things. Later, actually it got more like sometimes talking three times a week.

And in some very particlular shots, Roland would actually get involved. So say for the Alien Queen, I had him, not in every but in a lot of the Weta sessions, for example, just as a director, you know, still having to direct these shots even though we had pre-vis done. And once we started seeing a first version that it was always great for him to talk to Matt Aitken, the Weta supervisor directly. You know, I’m sitting in the same room as Roland and I just shut up and let Roland do his directing.

vfxblog: It’s so funny Volker because I was talking to someone you used to work with on Godzilla, and how you used to have to drive around LA and Santa Monica and Culver City until 2am, 3am looking at dailies. It’s changed so much, hasn’t it?

Volker: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why we’re talking about the hub and that’s exactly what it is. You know, early in the process, sometimes you can think about, wait a minute so who can we work with who’s still in LA and I can actually, you know, go by the place and talk to the guys? And we even did that on, I remember on 2012 where we also worked intensely with Scanline, and they were set up in LA. But all of this has changed, and so now it’s you know Scanline Vancouver, and that’s just a fact. But it worked very well, I mean I think everybody is now very used to that kind of system, and I was actually happy that I also got used to this kind of, or I should say to work this intense with this technology. This was the first time we did it just relying on CineSync so much, and you know doing the usual, you know, drawing on the images and coming to an understanding and making sure you know everybody was like okay did you save that drawing so you can get back to it later and all of that.

And even for Roland at the same time just to have this way of communicating, because obviously Roland would not be the one who would drive around to the companies during post. But so for him it’s great to just sit there with a tablet and start drawing on the images and give his notes.

vfxblog: Well that’s so great to hear. Volker, thank you so much.

Volker: Yeah, absolutely, no problem.