Sister visual effects studios Iloura and Method, both owned by Deluxe, are combining under a single brand – Method Studios.
Iloura, an Australian VFX studio with a 30 year history in Melbourne and Sydney, had in particular been knocking it out of the park recently with killer work on projects such as Game of Thrones, Fury Road, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and many other feature films and TV shows. And Method, itself a studio with a rich 20 year history, continues to be a major contributor to big visual effects films, including Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
You can read more about Iloura and Method’s long histories in VFX and about their new combined pipelines at methodstudios.com, but after hearing about them coming together into one brand, I wanted to share a fun story about one of my first interactions with Method from more than a decade ago.
The first time I tried to cover a project by Method Studios, it actually didn’t work out. Well, an interview happened, but I never published it. This was in 2007 for the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, in which Method Studios contributed 13 shots of miniature Jack Sparrows (Johnny Depp) hanging around the dreadlocks of the larger Jack.
It was a cool sequence – dubbed ‘Little Jacks’ – and one that involved, I thought, some nice compositing to integrate live action miniature Depps into the plates. I was publishing occasional interviews on vfxblog back then, and after some Method employees answered my questions, I looked to put the piece online.
Except, there was a problem.
I wasn’t able to get any images from that scene (this was a Disney issue, nothing to do with Method). Without any visual aids to go with the story, I never published it. Back then, it was hard to source images (sometimes it still is). And although YouTube had been around for a couple of years, it was extremely rare for specific clips to be available at the time.
Ten years later, that’s all changed. So now, here, only a decade late, is my first ever vfxblog interview with Method, with plenty to illustrate it from At World’s End. And I hope to continue to cover the great work of Method, including by the teams in Sydney and Melbourne from the former Iloura offices, into the future.
vfxblog: First up, the sequence looks great – can you give me an overview of your brief for the miniature Jack Sparrow shots?
Alex Kolasinski (compositor): “Little Jacks” was a sequence of 13 shots in which a miniature Jack Sparrow is in the dreadlocks on either side of Jack’s face and talks to him. It was a challenge in that we weren’t around for the shooting of the background plates, and in an effect like this, the shoot for the miniatures is totally dependent on how the backplates were photographed. So, we analyzed, as best we could, the footage that was shot, and then, on set for the miniature shoot, we lined things up as much as we could. For the brief, there was just one thing: to make it feel like the Little Jacks were really there; swinging on his dreadlocks; climbing on his shoulders; totally real.
vfxblog: What did the production film on set and what plates were you provided with?
Alex Kolasinski (compositor): While shooting out at sea, they picked up the plates of ‘Big Jack’ on the boat. They manipulated his hair and beads with q-tips to create some interactions for Little Jack. Several months later, the production designer did a very nice job of creating giant overscale dreadlocks and beads in which they suspended Johnny Depp. Between that rig and an enormous chromakey-blue shoulder, they filmed Little Jack in all of the various positions we needed him in order to make the comps. Alex was in attendance at that shoot as well as at a macro shoot in which the hair department dressed a double in Jack Sparrow’s wig. At this last shoot, he was able to pick up some great macro elements of wispy hairs, individual dreadlocks, and the beads that were actually in the wig.
vfxblog: What elements did you have to re-create in 3D?
Laurent Ledru (CG creative director): We decided to recreate a couple of beads in Jack’s hair because we thought the detail in the real beads was more interesting than what they could make for the oversized rig. We also redid the medallion and little chains at the bottom so that the chains would swing in a way that was true to physics. In order to remove an eyeline marker that was taped to Johnny’s costume, we recreated his right shoulder in two shots. Finally, we made a couple of interactive dreadlocks that covered up things in the original wig that were replaced with the oversize pieces.
vfxblog: Can you talk about the tracking challenges?
Laurent Ledru: It was pretty tough. To replace the beads, we had to retrack them perfectly, and the beads themselves didn’t have many elements to grab onto. We were able to get about halfway with Boujou, but then we had to manually tweak it the rest of the way. We made many attempts before we got it right. Because Johnny was actually holding onto those beads, the tracks had to be really solid.
vfxblog: How did you approach the compositing side of the shots in terms of maintaining a realistic look and motion?
Alex Kolasinski: First and foremost, we used cg dummies to define the scaling of Little Jack in each shot for continuity purposes. This was important because with all the different lenses that were used, we didn’t have a visual reference to get it absolutely right. Next, we color-corrected all of the “Little Jack” plates to match the backgrounds they were going into. We made rough comps, tracking the little Jacks over the big Jack, to get an overall feeling of the sequence. So, we were able to say if we’d need to add more motion for realism. Once this was set, and the basic animation was set, we integrated the various cg elements. And for the final step, we cleaned up comps, adding shadows, re-lighting a bit, and adjusting the colors to mush it all together.
vfxblog: What software did you use to accomplish the shots?
Aaron Kisner (VFX producer): Tracking and 3D work were done in Boujou and Autodesk Maya, respectively. For compositing, we used Silhouette for Roto, Apple Shake, and Autodesk Flame.
vfxblog: There’s a history of excellent visual effects shots featuring miniature characters in larger environments (I’m thinking Indian in the Cupboard, Gulliver’s Travels, Night at the Museum and many commercials). Did you reference any of these? What’s the secret to making these visual effects shots ‘work’, do you think?
Laurent Ledru: When you’re shooting the real plate, it’s really important to have an element representing the smaller version to see how the camera is reacting to light detail and focus. Like that, when you’re shooting your element that will eventually be small, you will know your depth of field and the details of light and shadows. Also, scaling the motion of the large element so that it is appropriate for the miniature element. A small move for the big shoulder is a really giant change for the balance of the small guy.
Alex Kolasinski: I think the secret is all about interaction and matching the depth of field. By interaction, I’m talking about shadows that are cast, the color-cast, etc. The depth of field is very important. You have to believe that the guy who is small was still shot with the same camera as the guy who is big. So, if the little guy is framed tightly, it means his depth of field needs to be as shallow as that of the background. If we scaled the whole set to compensate for a full-size actor, we would need an impossibly large camera. So, instead we cheated the depth of field in post.
Aaron Kisner: Speaking of interaction, one thing I really liked was a moment in which Little Jack stepped out onto Big Jack’s shoulder. Miles Essmiller who was comp’ing that shot did a really good job of combining a contact shadow with a deform on the shirt fabric to make it look as if Little Jack’s weight actually depressed the shirt when he stepped onto it. For me, it’s those details that really sell a scale shot.