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Exclusive: 'UFO' director talks 'miniature revival' on Shutter Island

INTERVIEWS - FILM

The miniature strikes back! In this exclusive Shadowlocked interview (with loads of exclusive pics), 'UFO' director Matthew Gratzner discusses the return of 'real' models to VFX for Shutter Island...

Beyond spaceships - Motion control work integrating with real actors on Shutter Island

We've all seen the promos for visual effects on sci-fi movies such as Cloverfield. We now know that is doesn't matter how shaky or raw the footage may be that the director provides - those Hollywood CGI wizards can insert impossible scenes of apocalypse/invasion/destruction seamlessly into the background. It's one of the reasons why movie model-work is dead. Hanging miniatures? Pah. Locked-off shots and plastic spaceships encrusted with model-bits, being encircled by motion control rigs? It's a bit 1970s, no? A bit New Hope. It's yesterday. Movie miniatures are the past, and CGI continues to be the future.

Unless you're Matthew Gratzner, whose New Deal Studios has created more visual effects on more Hollywood blockbusters than we can list. He's about to direct the movie adaptation of Gerry Anderson's 1970s SF series UFO. But he had one last big VFX job to complete first. The movie came out this month, and it's packed with as many visual effects shots as any summer tent-pole flick.

I couldn't spot one of them. And every single one is a 'miniature' shot...


"We've taken the technology that's the newest of the new and mixed it with the old-school technology."


In Shutter Island there's a tremendous amount of match-moving between first unit and actual miniatures. We've all seen pre-and-post footage from movies like Cloverfield, where the first-unit match-moving plates [i.e. 'hand-held' shots that end up with real and CGI elements combined] go straight to the CGI end of the production pipeline…but what was accomplished in this field in Shutter Island with real-world miniatures is really something else. Are there greater problems in match-moving with real-world models?

Absolutely. One hundred percent. There was no motion-control shot on the first unit - nothing encoded, nothing match-moved, no motion-control heads recording the data on set.

Everything we did, we had to track. We used a combination of Maya LiveTrack and BouJou to track all the shots, and we were often lucky if there were any tracking points in the shot at all! I actually went to the set for a month and supervised [the VFX on] first unit while [Shutter Island VFX supervisor and 2nd unit director] Rob Legato was out shooting second unit. So it was exciting but also very trying.


No CGI in sight...

Sometimes I'd be sitting there blocking out a shoot with [Shutter Island DP] Bob Richardson and [first AD] Joe Reidy and just say 'Okay, this is the composition of the shot - what do you think?'. It wasn't like we had storyboards or a very elaborate series of pre-vizes that we were blocking stuff to. It was great, because it was a kind of 'on the fly' deal. It wasn't stressful, because it was a very fun, open and creative process.

Extending the 'Ward C' staircase in Shutter Island (2010)
One of the hardest set/miniature matches on Shutter Island - the 'Ward C' 'Escher' stairwell

Anyway, having tracked the footage in Maya, we take the Maya data and create the digital background from our [real] models, and then we have to link everything together and make sure it lines up. And then we have to hope that the motion control rig will follow exactly the path that we created with Maya, which it does. It's a question of making sure that the right lensing is used, that you're zeroing out the rig correctly.


"You're giving the computer this data saying 'Okay, the lens is tilted down ten degrees, it's panned over fifteen degrees, and now the move begins'. So if the model doesn't line up - you're screwed!"


You have to have a point in space that becomes your 'zero', where the rig starts. You're giving the computer this data saying 'Okay, the lens is tilted down ten degrees, it's panned over fifteen degrees, and now the move begins'. So if the model doesn't line up - you're screwed! Whereas if you do it as a post-digital shot with a digital background, you can hammer it into place one way or another.

I think the big thing that working on Shutter Island did for me was to solidify the post-tracking process [where miniatures are inserted into non-static shots from principal photography]. We had a lot of very complicated hand-held shots. It's one thing to be able to take a series of graceful crane shots, or even lock-offs, take them and do line-ups and comp them in…it's one thing to be able to do that. But to be able to take these very visceral, almost cinema verité, hand-held shots, track them, put them into a Cooper system, shoot the motion control to match-move on a model and seamlessly lock them together…it really solidifies that it does work well.

We can really, really take a free-form, shoot-from-the-hip, whatever-it-takes film and really expand upon the background without - though I hesitate to say it - without the proper planning that you would expect in miniature visual effects.

I recall Richard Edlund doing some of the same kind of work, to a more limited extent, in Alien 3, but match-moving with real miniatures - whether there's first unit tracking data available or whether it's tracked afterwards - seems to be a fairly little-used technique…?

That's a very good point. Not to be disparaging to my fellow visual-effects supervisors and companies, but I think it's an insanely under-used technique. The key thing is that you have to know what the shots are going to be before you do them in regards to building the models.

You can actually build a set, shoot wild and do anything you want, and as long as you get that data and the data is accurate, then you can build a miniature and track it, and then you're done. It's actually a very straightforward approach.

The hardest thing on Shutter Island regarding this technique was the Ward C model. It was one of the hardest tracking line-ups you can do, because we're not just extending the live-action set, but the live-action set is nothing but vertical and criss-crossing and diagonal lines. That interior of Ward C, what we call the 'M.C. Escher stairway' was a series of brickwork and steel girders, and the steel girders all terminated into a green-screen. So everything we built had to line up exactly. There must have been about two dozen different vertical struts, criss-crossing, and it all had to match the same patterns. Our Digital Effects Supervisor, Bob Chapin, accomplished an amazing feet hand tracking that shot then prevising the finished shot with a digital version of our physical model;  This is how he was retooling and exporting the data for the motion control system.


Still no CGI...

If they didn't match, you couldn't fake it, and you couldn't fix it in post any which way.

One scene that was very difficult to do was when Leo was being attacked by that bald guy, the insane patient, on a catwalk - it' s a big crane shot and you're following him looking through another catwalk. And behind them there's this insane cacophony of steelwork and grating in layers, and you're getting moiré patterns…and then beyond that, there's a green screen.


"The effects we're doing on Shutter Island - that's the same sort of thing I'm planning on UFO"


We had to extend all that, and it all had to be hand-tracked. There were no tracking markers. So it was a pain in the ass, but it looked really good.

Shutter Island seems to be completely free of any visual effects. That must be the ultimate accolade, and at the same time, not great publicity for you!

To be honest, that is the bane of my existence [laughs]. It's a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because I've always believed that visual effects should be 100% seamless and you should never know they're there. Even if it's on a big film. Not to go off on a tangent, but the effects we're doing on Shutter Island, that's the same sort of thing I'm planning on UFO.

Okay, they're a little more fantastical, like Skydiver bubbling up from the surface of the water…that's obviously not the same as a lighthouse in Massachusetts, but it's the same sort of idea where you have to absolutely believe it and not even question it.

Leonardo DiCaprio next to Matthew Gratzner's 'Lighthouse' miniature on location for Shutter Island (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio next to Matthew Gratzner's 'Lighthouse' miniature on location for Shutter Island (2010)

I guess the point is to have a reference - we've seen lighthouses, and - as regards Skydiver in UFO - we've seen Polaris missiles coming out of the ocean, so these are embedded cultural images that you can draw on, I'm thinking…

Exactly! That's the big thing, and I do this on every picture that I work on, regardless of whether it's a Martin Scorsese thriller or a sci-fi movie, or a comics-based picture like Dark Knight…I try to find reference that is 'real world'. That gives us an idea of what something actually looks like.

The one thing I never do, and I've never done in my entire career…I never look at other movies for reference. I always look at the real thing. When we were doing Pitch Black many years ago, all our reference was from looking at real aircraft. I go to air shows from time to time - I have a pilot's licence and love flying. I have a huge library of military aircraft photographs. So when we designed the ship and all the details, it was all based on aircraft assembly or helicopter assembly. This was the kind of research I did, as opposed to 'Oh, here's some pictures of TIE fighters in Star Wars or the Vipers from Battlestar Galactica'.

It was the same thing for Shutter Island. I was looking at references of real civil war forts. Ward C, the most predominant set, did not exist.

Motion control photography that will blend Leonardo DiCaprio into the scale model of 'Ward C'
Motion control photography that will blend Leonardo DiCaprio into the scale model of 'Ward C'

SHUTTER ISLAND SPOILER ALERT...

I should warn your readers that what I'm about to say is a big spoiler for Shutter Island, but all of the horrible things that Teddy [DiCaprio's character] believes are happening in structures and places that don't even really exist in the real world. It never really occurred to me until now. This is something we talked about with Martin Scorsese, that we need to remember that this is all in his head. So if there's a continuity issue, one really shouldn't worry too much about it because the audience really is going on Teddy's own delusional journey.

The two main structures in Shutter Island really don't exist. There's no real lighthouse and there's no real 'Ward C'. Some of the other structures, such as the administration building and the clock tower - those were real. The film was shot in a defunct insane asylum in Massachusetts in a town called Medfield. They went in and dressed up the ground. That whole portcullis and the huge entry point with the giant brick wall all around the compound was designed by (production designer) Dante Ferretti. That's not real. But the courtyard and all the buildings that were brick, and mid 19th-century, those were 100% real.

Regarding Ward C, did Martin Scorsese look at locations before he decided that he had to have a miniature?

Marty never really pitches things in that way. He wouldn't know whether it has to be a matte painting or a miniature, or anything like that. He'll just do whatever looks the best. But in the original plan there was some kind of water-containment tank that was already on the property, and the plan originally was to use that as the existing core structure. It was colossal. It was three or four storeys tall. The original plan was that Dante was going to build a giant wall around that. It was going to be turned into…I don't want to say a medieval keep, but kind of like a giant tower, and that was going to become Ward C.

It went through a number of iterations in design. There are some tremendous forts on the East coast in the United States, and there was one down in Florida called Fort Jefferson, which is a huge pentagonal structure with these cannon ports all around, from the civil war era, and when we saw that we said 'We should make Ward C an old civil war fort'. Funny enough, that's what it said in the script too, that it's an old civil war fort, so that's nothing that we made up.

But the design we locked down was a pentagonal fort with a central tower, which became that staircase that [DiCaprio] climbs up, with these large grass berms on the rooftop. The berms, and this is all very historically accurate, were used in an attack because cannonballs would deaden on these grass-laden rooftops, which were basically giant dirt mounds with grass on it. So they would take the impact of the cannonballs with inertia. Everybody keeps asking 'Why is there grass on the top of the roof?'. That's why - it's a period thing, and that's how it was.

Working on the 'keep' miniature at New Deal (Shutter Island, 2010)
Working on the grass-laden ward c miniature at New Deal (Shutter Island, 2010)

So Dante decided that Ward C was the inside of a fort where all the cannon ports were bricked over and turned into cells.

They ended up building a foam-core maquette of what the model should look like in the terrain, and then the first unit built a forty to sixty-foot foreground brick wall with a door in it, and then they had a stone wall behind that with fencing. The wall was about twenty feet tall and sixty feet long, and that was the entire 'real' Ward C. That was all first unit had.

Looking at the Shutter Island VFX footage, the before-and-afters, at your site, we see the first ariel shot of Ward C, and it looks pretty 'modelly'. By the time we get to the final shot, it looks indistinguishable from reality - is there some particular process that was used on that footage, or is it just a question of context and grading?

We just did colour-correction. I think it is a question of context - it looks modelly in the first shot because you're looking at a blue-screen behind it…to be honest, we didn't really do anything. What you see was completely photographed as is - there was no digital magic to it. We didn't go back and add detail or texture. The trees are the same, the vehicles are the same…

But once we put in the water-plate, the people and the colour-correction over the whole thing, it just ties it all together and makes it feel believable.

Shutter Island VFX

I remember a miniature fly-over of a stadium in second Jurassic Park movie where a tower just came a little bit too close to the lens and 'gave the game away' with depth of field, and with the kind of movement that we would expect in a real ariel fly-over. What are the tricks in frames-per-second and depth of field, in order to avoid that kind of false movement in filming miniatures?

The only technique is that if it looks good in a photograph, and you believe it, it'll look fine on film. When it comes to depth of field, that's a different story. We shot that outside with a silk-over, so you get the natural light through the silk, and we shot it twenty four frames a second, believe it or not.

It was a motion control shot, but the thing is that we had so much daylight pumping in that we were able to hold depth of field. Now, if we'd shot this on stage and couldn't get the same exposure, we probably would have shot it at six frames per second [on a slow pass, not real-time]. Obviously depth of field is what can kill any model shot - if your foreground is not as sharp as your background, you start to have a problem.

What also helped with the Ward C model was the infinitesimally small detail that was applied to it.


"I built Ward C in insane hyper-detail, and I figured that there was going to be a point where they were going to want more shots of this, and I wanted to be prepared for that eventuality"


There were actually a couple of things that were tough, that we did struggle with. One was that the first-unit set felt a little artificial in that the stones were beautifully detailed and everything, and it did look real…but because the design of the fortress itself was devoid of any very coarse lines, pilasters or columns, or anything else that might break up the structure, the wall surfaces - while they looked real - didn't have a lot of protruding detail.

So that was a struggle - I had to match what they built in first unit; I couldn't start changing the architecture around. The second problem was that in the opening of the picture, Ward C is revealed in two different shots, the drive-by shots. Those sections were added after the film was photographed and cut together…

Just on a side note, originally with Ward C we were just going to build a partial section of the wall in miniature, and the original opening reveal was not going to be a helicopter shot. It was a low shot breaking across the field, and then Ward C comes into view. And at that point we were going to do our model and extend it.

Essentially a matte painting with a model, or hanging miniature…

Yeah. So what I ended up doing was talking toRob Legato, and told him that we were building and budgeting for this 35th-scale model - a pretty small model, only eight feet across - and I pitched this helicopter-shot idea to him. I just thought that we could do better than this kind of 50-foot crane shot that was planned.

Ward C in Shutter Island

So he asked me what I wanted to do, and we pre-vizzed it and ended up adding a little camera-bobble to not make it so perfectly motion-controlled. Rob Legato showed it to Marty, who loved it, and that became the shot.

I built that model in insane hyper-detail, and I figured that there was going to be a point where they were going to want more shots of this, and I wanted to be prepared for that eventuality.

When the VFX and miniatures budget is tight, do you end up normally building to exactly the level of detail that's been storyboarded, or do you have to get that extra work in just in case the director wants to go close?

This was the fourth Martin Scorsese film that I've worked on, and basically you build as much as you can build within the money, and you detail as much as you can, because there will be shots that come up on the spot…[Scorsese] will have an epiphany. And usually his ideas are terrific. So you want to be able to be prepared to cover those sorts of things if they come up.

But there wasn't a lot of that on this show. Ward C was the only miniature where we were adding other shots.

But the trick was with the 'drive-by' shots…


Spot the 1-inch tall shrubs!

There's a wide shot where the camera's low - we dug a hole in the ground and shot it with a truck. You see the truck drive by, and we composited our model into the background of that. But then [Martin Scorsese] asked on the day of shooting, in a conference call, 'Hey, we'd love to have a shot where we're in the truck, looking at [the Ward C miniature] while we're driving past it'.

So we had to come up with it on the day. All the actors in it are doubles, of Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo…so we had them in the truck with Rob Legato operating the camera. The truck's not moving - it's just locked off against green-screen, but we're shaking the vehicle and there's wind on the guys to ruffle their coats. I was literally next to Rob, storyboarding the shot and visualising what the background was going to look like.


"That model shot where they drive by Ward C...there are shrubs that are projected in the cinema eight feet tall that are literally an inch tall!"


So we took that footage and created the pre-viz and the perspective and what it would feel like, driving past it.

We shot three different versions of that truck-driving shot. We did one where we were in the truck, one where we're looking at it from a distance and it's driving past, and we had to consistently create and re-speed the background to give the illusion that it's moving faster than it was. It was a very complicated trick.

From that pre-viz we were able to export all the [motion control] camera moves from the model shot. I have to tell you...talk about insanely small scale: that model shot that you're looking at, where they're close to Ward C in the compound, there are shrubs that are projected in the cinema eight feet tall that are literally an inch tall!

It was crazy. We shot that, I think, at around 4-6 frames a second, and again we were outside and had an amazing amount of luminance from the sun, so it wasn't like we had to pump a lot of light into it artificially. But the camera lens was a sixteenth of an inch from those shrubs!

Do you think that Martin Scorsese, if he were of the younger generation of directors, would be so keen to use techniques for which the younger ones automatically favour CGI?

He doesn't really call what it should be - he just wants it to look real. If we deliver something that looks sort of painterly, he'll say 'It doesn't look real - you gotta fix it'. He doesn't say 'Oh, this has to be a model, this has to be digital'…he's not making those shots because that's not really his job.

We're making the shots collectively, or rather the choices. Rob would come to me and say 'I think this should be a model', and I'll talk to him about how I'd approach it, the scale, and how I'd shoot it, and then that's how it ends up happening.

But there must surely be a budgetary factor in these decisions…?

Sure, the visual effects budgets are generally quite small on Martin Scorsese's pictures, because nobody ever considers them a visual effects film. It's kind of ironic, because that's what they said about The Aviator - 'It's not a visual effects film'. Even though there was maybe one airplane in the whole movie that could actually fly!

I like working on pictures like that. Sometimes a limited budget really does make you come up with the best and most unique techniques, and sometimes it gives you the best results. Too much money sometimes can be a problem.

You mentioned how you 'sold' the ariel shot to Rob Legato, but how does the division of various VFX shots take place between the various companies? Is it a question of bidding on price and portfolio, or is it down to the director and someone like Legato to make these decisions? Do you ever get consulted first and then don't get the shot?

On Shutter Island there were two big companies that worked on the show, plus one kind of in-house company. It was us, a company called The Syndicate, which was a subsidiary of Café Effects - and Syndicate went out of business although Café are still in business - and then Ron Ames, who was a visual effects producer on the picture as well as the visual effects editor, did a lot of in-house stuff where they brought in independent artists…these guys are doing simple composites, a shot out of a window maybe. But anything that involves heavy art direction, miniature effects and live-action, that usually just comes to me.

This is because we do the production design at New Deal, we build full-scale sets and we also do a lot of second-unit work. On Shutter Island we actually shot a number of shots that were not just second-unit, using doubles and stunt-people, but we also shot a lot of shots with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, when they came to the studio, and we did inserts and pick-ups.


"Scorsese's visual effects budgets are generally quite small, because nobody ever considers them a 'visual effects' film. It's kind of ironic, because that's what they said about The Aviator - even though there was maybe one airplane in the whole movie that could actually fly!"


So we're a full-on production facility that mixes all the techniques and all the tools, and that's usually how I end up getting that kind of work. If there's a key component that has to be physically built and then added into the shot, they'll come to me; if it's strictly digital they would go to Café, because that's sort of their forte.

The funny thing is that if they had come to us for more of that cliff-climbing stuff, I would probably have done more of that miniature than matte painting. Even my matte paintings - I'll build models!

One of the things that makes the film so convincing is the lack of whacky CGI camera moves, even though you had all the means to really move around the models. Was this a group decision? How does that kind of policy come about?

The lighthouse on Shutter Island (New Deal miniature)That's Marty together with Bob Richardson, who in my opinion is probably one of the best directors of photography in the business right now. In the end, Marty just doesn't want to do a shot that gives it away as an effect. So if you're doing a shot where there's like some crazy zoom or some crazy camera move or a cable-cam, he'll say 'No'. He has a very distinctive style, as doe Bob Richardson, and we just have to carry that out in the visual effects. When you're designing a shot, you try and get as much as you can to look like first unit.

Is the process of creating a miniature much the same as it was thirty years ago, or has the computer had an influence there as well? Is it still a genuinely 'old' technique?

I would call it a new and old technique; the physical construction is very similar, obviously, the materials are very similar, but the design…art departments don't really have the time to do a lot of the heavy design. They never really have, to be honest. On this show, for Ward C, we only had the foam-core maquette and the full-scale ward drawings. I did a lot of extrapolation to design it. It was literally a foam-core, flat-sided thing, so in terms of textures and different detail, those we came up with.

For the M.C. Escher stairway, we had blueprints that we followed to the letter so that it matched the live-action. But the thing is, as you build a live-action set, carpenters and welders change thing slightly as they're building it, so when I'm on set I do a tremendous amount of measuring and photographic reference to make sure it all matches.

Thermo-jet wax printingThe Miniature Effects Supervisor, Scott Schneider, did a terrific job with all of the digital set design.  He computer-models everything now. That's one of the big differences between ten or twenty years ago is that everything is done in the computer first. A lot of the parts of the lighthouse were prototyped off a wax printing machine, which we have here. For the body of the lighthouse we did a computer-controlled hot-wire cut to get the shape exactly right.

There's still a tremendous amount of hand fabrication, but I will admit that the computer-techniques not only make the project faster, but they give it a certain edge in terms of flawlessness that's hard to match manually. For instance, the lenses in the lighthouse: we built two different scales of lighthouse - the one for all the exteriors, and that lighthouse was about ten or twelve feet tall and was sitting on a piece of rock that was about twenty-five by twelve feet wide by fourteen feet tall. So the whole thing was quite massive.

For the interior of the lighthouse, we did a one fourth scale interior that went all the way up from the ground floor to the top of the peak of the roof, and that was about thirty-five feet tall. For the Fresnel lenses, we built a computer model of a section of them, grew those in wax and then moulded and cast those out of a clear resin. And they were fully functional in that if you put a light inside, they would translate the light as the real thing would.

Detailing the gangways of the Ward C miniature at New Deal studios
Detailing the gangways of the Ward C miniature at New Deal studios


"It really is absurd that people aren't doing this technique more. Not to sound bitter, but it bugs me."


The great thing is that if we're building a computer model, I can take that model and use it in the pre-viz and know that everything will line up to the letter. And that's how we were able to do all the post pre-vizes with ward c, and even some of the lighthouse blocking shots. Even with the lighthouse, I could take the digital model and line it up in the camera, and I'd know when we went to shoot the miniature that it would be perfect.

It really is absurd that people aren't doing this technique more. Not to sound bitter, but it bugs me. We've taken the technology that's the newest of the new and mixed it with the old-school technology. These techniques should be mixed - visual effects is a magic show, and you should never know how it's done.

 

The lighthouse in progress at New Deal
The lighthouse miniature at New Deal studios

The problem is that when a film is as devoid of visual effects as Shutter Island seems to be, there's no 'hook' for the young audience who have a particular interest in movies featuring 'obvious' visual effects.

[Laughs] That's why I try and advertise, and talk to people like you - so that I can get the word out and say 'Look, there are ways to do these things.

And to be honest, that's why I'm jumping in head-first on projects like UFO, where I'm in more control to direct the film, and have more control to decide how the film's going to look. This way, instead of being somebody else's sub-contractor, who's begging, borrowing and stealing to do a shot, I'm like…screw it, I'll do it myself, I'll make my own movies. This way I can take these techniques and do them on my own show.

Even so, don't you wish Martin Scorsese would make a science-fiction movie?

Well he is making the kids' movie The Invention of Hugo Cabret in England right now. He's in pre-pre-production. I don't know if we're going to be working on it. One of the mandates, I think, was that they wanted to keep it in England, which is sad because it'll be the first Martin Scorsese movie I haven't worked on in…it'll be about six years now. But UFO is taking precedence right now.

For full video showing the pre and post stages of various shots in Shutter Island, check out this link at New Deal.All photos and visual material courtesy of New Deal and Paramount.

 

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