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Category: Retro

‘We tried a million things’ – the oral history of Sphere’s sphere

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Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

Barry Levinson’s 1998 film Sphere, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, brought with it a diverse array of visual effects straddling both the practical and digital worlds. Its central ‘character’, the sphere itself, was a CG creation by Cinesite, and proved to be one of the toughest design challenges on the movie.

Overall visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun and Cinesite laboured for months over the appearance and textural qualities of the sphere, which needed to be other-worldly, ‘perfect’ and non-reflective – all at the same time. In this oral history of the sphere, vfxblog looks back with members of the visual effects team on the film at how the CG creation was realised – even actor Samuel L. Jackson hilariously weighs in.

Note: Okun’s comments are taken from the fantastic documentary appearing on the Sphere DVD called ‘Shaping the Sphere: The Art of the Visual Effects Supervisor’, while Jackson’s words are from those he made during the audio commentary on the Sphere DVD.

Industry news: Iloura merges with Method Studios, and the lost Pirates 3 interview

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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.

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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.

Tracking nightmares: behind Blur’s half-digested Billy shots in Deep Rising – from 20 years ago

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Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

“We said, sure, we can do it! And we did it, although it was very, very painful.” David Stinnett, Blur Studio

While it may not have made a splash at the box office when it was released 20 years ago, Stephen Somers’ Deep Rising certainly contained some considerable ‘out-there’ practical and CG creature work. Most of that was tackled by special make-up and creature effects designer Rob Bottin, Dream Quest Images and ILM, with one particularly gruesome sequence in the 1998 film – the ‘half-digested Billy’ scene – featuring some startling digital make-up by Blur Studio.

Blur had only been formed a few years earlier in 1995, but already had established itself as a creative CG, animation and VFX house. It took on the tough Billy shots, in which actor Clint Curtis emerges partially digested yet still alive from a creature before collapsing, and helped generate one of the film’s classic moments.

On Deep Rising’s 20th anniversary, Blur co-founder and CG supervisor on those shots, David Stinnett, recalled for vfxblog the challenges involved, from coming on board late in production, having to hand-track every single frame, and creating the CG with a tool that many people didn’t think was up to the challenge.

The story behind Cloverfield’s classic Statue of Liberty shot – in the teaser AND the final film

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In the summer of 2007, Paramount Pictures ran a teaser trailer for an unnamed film with the release of Michael Bay’s Transformers. It featured a group of New York friends at a party who suddenly witness a massive explosion and then see the head of the Statute of Liberty careening down a city street.

That teaser, which went majorly viral, was of course later revealed to be for the Matt Reeves’ monster movie Cloverfield, produced by J.J. Abrams. Eventually the ‘found-footage’ film released in January 2008 would go on to be a huge hit. But there were two fascinating things about that intense teaser; the first is that it was filmed largely while the production was still in prep as a test-bed for the hand-held VFX requirements of the movie.

The second fascinating fact was that, although the majority of the visual effects for the final film were handled by Double Negative and Tippett Studio, the visual effects for the Statue of Liberty head teaser were done by Hammerhead Productions (a fact even mentioned in the official production notes).

It’s certainly not unusual for a different studio to tackle teaser trailer shots or for shots and elements to change from teaser to final – in fact, it happens regularly simply because these teasers need to get out there, quickly. But it is interesting to see what the differences were between the original teaser (above) and the final scene from the film (below).

Now, on the tenth anniversary of Cloverfield, and as a brand new viral marketing campaign for a third Cloverfield film directed by Julius Onah (once known as God Particle) gets underway, vfxblog revisits the original film’s teaser and the final Liberty head VFX from the film.

Retro VFX: Cloning Freddie Prinze, Jr.

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In 2005, a new show called Freddie starring Freddie Prinze, Jr. briefly made it onto US television screens. While the show’s one and only season may not have been that memorable, its opening titles were pretty cool – they featured a number of ‘Freddie’ clones getting up to mischief in one continuous shot.

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Concept art which was part of the planning for where to place greenscreens during the motion control shoot.

Back then, I was able to interview visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun about that 24 second long clone shot. At the time, Okun graciously provided me with some nice concept and planning imagery relating to the work, but I never saw any final stills, or, crazily, even the actual opening titles themselves! YouTube had just started but there wasn’t much on there yet, and I was in Australia where I doubt the show ever eventually aired.

But just a few days ago I somehow came across the titles while flicking through YouTube, and remembered the fun notes Okun had provided to me about shooting the scene motion control, where the greenscreens would be placed to aid in compositing, and then on the challenges of post. Sadly, a previous incarnation of vfxblog was lost to a server crash, and only some of the site can be found on the awesome Wayback Machine. But the text is still there, along with a lone concept image. Anyway, I’d thought I’d now share the titles and Okun’s text with readers again for a fun look at how those neat titles were pulled off.

Miniaturisation secrets: Eric Brevig on ‘The Indian in the Cupboard’

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Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, soon in theatres, marks the latest in a rich history of films that have dealt with miniaturisation – that is, showing shrunken-down characters in a real-sized world.

Films such as Fantastic Voyage, Inner Space, Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Hook, The Indian in the Cupboard and Ant-Man are all ones that have used different visual effects techniques to go small. These techniques have ranged from forced perspective, over-sized sets, shooting on blue or greenscreen and of course digital means.

Visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig happens to have worked on a coupe of these types of films, including one of my favourites, The Indian in the Cupboard, which featured visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic. I asked him about his memories of that film and the methodology behind miniaturisation.