Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Talk With ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Bill George About I Am Number Four

It's not every day that you get to hear from an ILM veteran talk about his career and the movies he's worked on.  From his thoughts on Star Wars to working on the new updated Star Tours ride and his latest work on I Am Number Four,  I think you will enjoy hearing it all as much as I did!

ILM Visual Effects Supervisor, BILL GEORGE

Q - What advice would you give to someone who dreams about wanting to get a job in the visual effects industry?
A - Bill George: There is a tremendous power in doing. Years before I got my first job in the industry building models, I built them as a hobby. I'd advise someone to do what they dream of doing and they will learn so much from the experience. 

Q - What was the most challenging aspect for the team when it came to the visual effects of "I Am Number Four"?
A - Bill George: The design of Bernie was our biggest challenge. He needed to be both aggressive and appealing at the same time. DJ wanted him to be able to kick the Piken's ass but still have the audience go "Awwwww". We revised his design a lot. 

Q - You have such a spectacular curriculum, and have been involved in some of the most talked-about movies lately. That does not come easy does it? What would you say has been the key factor to your success?
A - Bill George: ILM has such a long and successful history and it's really nice to have been a part of that. As a supervisor my job as a creative is pretty visible but there are so many production people on our shows that are more hidden and their contributions are just as important. Being one of the industry leaders, large effect projects are drawn to ILM. 

Q - You have a long, illustrious history in visual effects. Which film are you the most proud of?
A - Bill George: Bladerunner, Innerspace and Galaxy Quest. 

Q - What's the most fun part of your job?
A - Bill George: I LOVE leading the creative team on a show. It's like having the best toys! There is a lot of planning that goes into a project like "I am Number Four" but my favorite part is when you are on the set and things change, or the director comes up with a new idea, and you have to shoot form the hip for a solution. That flash of creative "on the spot" problem solving is when things get really fun for me. 

Q - Since you worked on Blade Runner and Harry Potter/Azkaban, did those experiences help you for this film?
A - Bill George: Absolutely! On every show I learn something and I bring all those lessons with me when I show up on set. The experience of seeing how directors and DPs work is something I really value. My job is always to get inside the director's head to provide from them the shots they need for their movie and my past experience really helps with that. 

Q - How did you start out working with visual effects?
A - Bill George: I started out making models for a hobby after Star Wars came out in 1977. Two years later I got a job in LA building models for movies. In 1981, I got a job at ILM in the model shop working on Return of the Jedi. After that show, ILM allowed me to try new things and expand my abilities. I was lucky in that as the company grew, so did I. 

Q - What was the most significant factor or challenge in creating the proper imagery from the book?
A - Bill George: That was left up to our director DJ Caruso. It was his movie and my focus was to create the visuals he wanted. 

Q - Besides the digital creatures in the film we also can see digital doubles and other really spectacular effects, such as Number 6 fighting against the bad guys in high school, with her ​​appearing and disappearing. What can you tell us about these shots?
A - Bill George: There were over 700 visual effects shots in the film. The majority of those were supervised by Greg McMurray. I supervised the sequences with the CG creatures (Piken/Bernie) and the Mog blast in the end of the film. I do know there was a huge amount of complex stunt work that went into those shots. 

Q - How did you work through some challenges of CGI to make sure that the characters were always real?
A - Bill George: When we are working on our CG creature shots, they usually take a few weeks to create. During that time, our entire team views them daily as they progress. Everyone is welcome to offer their view of what is working and what needs improvement. This method really helps us to get a realist result. It's all about observation and refinement. 

Q - In this film we can see several digital creatures, like those two of the bad guys and the chimera, who helps John. What could you explain to us about these digital creatures and the shots where they appear? Which were the main challenges with them?
A - Bill George: When you are adding a CG creature into a shot, the key to its success is the interaction it has in the scene. We spent a lot of time with the cameraman lining up the shots with cut-outs of the creatures to help them compose the shots and blocking in the action so the actors got their movements right. It's important to always be looking ahead to what the final shot will look like when shooting the actors to make sure their performance will work in the shot. Things like shadows, debris and camera shake are all little factors that add up to a shot being realistic and dynamic. 

Q - Is there still room for practical effects, or are there restraints that make CGI a better solution?
A - Bill George: Having come from a practical background I love using miniatures when possible. CG effects do have the benefit of being more changeable and are more "production friendly" If you blow up a practical miniature you only get one chance at it. If you do a CG explosion you can make changes up until the end. We really like to give the directors we work with the maximum amount of control so CG is many times the preferred solution. 

Q - What type of impact did the film's rating have on the visual effects as a whole?
A - Bill George: Very little. Never were we asked to pull back on anything like that because those types of decisions are really made in the edit. 

Q - In the film we can see the transformation of the dog in the chimera and later from the chimera in the dog. Were these particularly complicated shots? What can you tell us about them?
A - Bill George: The transformation of Bernie in the car was quite a challenge. We didn't build a CG version of the dog so we had to get the "dog actor" to act mean for the lead in to the transformation. The problem was that the real dog was so dang cute! The trainer was able to train him to act aggressive (by taking away a juicy bone) but we had to shoot him against a blue screen. We then had to shrink our "big Bernie" CG model down to fit the real dog. That took a lot of digital pounding. 

Q - What was the most dangerous scene to film and how brave were the actors?
A - Bill George: I was shocked to see Theresa hanging 60 feet in the air for the scene where the Piken picks her up off of the Football field. She was amazing and fearless! That stunt was really impressive. 

Q - How long did it take to get the right effects for the movie, and do you feel like some good ideas had to be lost?
A - Bill George: Our post-production schedule was a short 3 months. We had to slam out rough animation quickly so DJ could get it in the first cut of the film. The editorial process has to be fluid because the film as a whole will evolve over time. We tried to be adaptable as possible with our shots to make the movie as great as it could be and I don't believe we compromised in any way. 

Q - How has CG evolved since you started?
A - Bill George: The concepts have remained almost unchanged. The difference is that things like match-moving that used to be super hard have gotten easier. As machines and software get faster the shots have gotten more complex. Tools are always changing and getting more robust and our work has gotten more demanding. 

Q - Which visual effect in I Am Number Four are you the most proud of?
A - Bill George: I really love the shot of Number 6 riding the Piken down the stadium stairs. It was a real design challenge. The first animation I saw I burst out laughing! In the end I thought it looked really great. 

Q - Is it hard to find the right balance between CGI and 'real' effects? And does the balance change for every film you work on?
A - Bill George: My approach is to always try to get as much as you can practically. At the very least you are going to be getting a good reference take. So much time is spent making a CG asset look real so if you can get something practically you can use that time elsewhere. 

Q - Was D.J. Caruso a hands-on director or did he hand you and your team the keys to the sandbox?
A - Bill George: I Am Number Four is DJ's movie. He gave us freedom to try different things and was very supportive of us creatively, but every shot and animation he directed. 

Q - Considering DJ Caruso hadn’t done a CGI-heavy film prior to I Am Number Four; did that put greater pressure on you to deliver the goods when it came to the effect sequences?
A - Bill George: Part of my job was to make sure that DJ felt comfortable with doing creature effects. He is a super smart guy and has loads of post-production experience, so he didn't have any trouble at all directing the Piken. In fact he really seemed to enjoy it. DJ was very clear about what he wanted in all the shots and that sure made my job a lot easier. 

Q - How closely did you work with DJ Caruso?
A - Bill George: On set the ILM team met with him every day. We kept him updated on the construction of Bernie and the Piken and I would discuss with him his plan for any of the plates we were shooting. Early on in post, we would travel down to LA for creative meetings and later at the end when things were super crazy we had video reviews. Early on I told DJ to think of Steve (The animation director) and I as the Piken. Give us direction the way you would an actor and we'll give you a performance. DJ directed every performance from the Piken and Bernie and he seemed to be having a blast doing it. 

Q - Is there a director working today who you'd love to work with, or whose creative vision you really admire?
A - Bill George: John Waters, probably because what he does is so different from our regular genre of filmmaking. 

Q - How much time do you have to spend on set when working on a big effects movie such as I am Number Four?
A - Bill George: I was there in Pittsburgh for 6 weeks. In that we shot the "plates" that would be used for all the creature work. Being there on set is so important for me to be able to see how the director shoot his movie and how the DP lights the scenes so when we create our CG effects we can match their looks. 

Q - With a sequel planned, did you have a variety of different effects that you wanted to keep in reserve for the next film?
A - Bill George: Nope. We went all out on this one. However, I was very excited about the idea of flashbacks where we get to see the destruction of Lorian. That was in the first script I read but was omitted. That is something I would love to see! 

Q - How many weeks did it take to complete all the visual effects for this movie?
A - Bill George: Our post schedule was about 3 months. While the film was being shot though we were building Bernie and the Piken and working on walk cycles and look development. We had to be ready to go as soon as DJ turned over the sequences to us to get the movie done. Personally, I was on the show about 11 months. 

Q - What initially got you interested in visual effects? Was it a particular movie (i.e., Star Wars) or were you always interested in art/design?
A - Bill George: As a kid I was into sci-fi TV shows like Lost in Space and Star Trek. When I was in high school Star Wars came out and blew my mind. I knew then what I wanted to do! 

Q - Star Wars or Star Trek? You've been intimately involved in the creation of both film universes, after all. Which do you prefer?
A - Bill George: Sophie's choice! I love them both. Seriously, they both have their own unique charms.

Q - Can you tell us what kinds of projects are you involved now?
A - Bill George: I'm just finishing up the re-boot of Star Tours for Disney. The ride opens in Orlando this Friday. I'm really looking forward to seeing the project done. It's in 3D and has a "branching" storyline. Quite a step up from the beloved original. 

Q - You're working you Star Tours 2? What could you tell us about it? What will we see?
A - Bill George: It opens this Friday! I'm heading to Orlando tomorrow and I'm really jazzed. The new ride is in 3D and has a branching story line that changes randomly for each ride. The whole ride experience has been amped up. The only bad thing will be the lines... 

Q - I am looking at the trivia written about you on and it says: "As a teenager, he used to forage through the dumpsters outside the Van Nuys facility of Industrial Light and Magic, looking for souvenirs." - Is this a true story?
A - Bill George: Yep, I still have some of the artwork, film and model pieces I got out of that dumpster. I also learned by going through their trash that the folks at ILM drank a LOT of beer! 

Q - So, if a teenager was to go through ILM's dumpsters today, can they still make out with cool artwork or model pieces or is everything these days, shredded and destroyed?
A - Bill George: It's all shredded and destroyed and you'd probably be arrested! It was a different time back in 1978. 

Q - What is your favorite sci-fi movie? And the latest one you watched?
A - Bill George: I love 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's unmatched in its technical and artistic achievement. Thor was the last sci-fi movie I saw and thought was awesome. BTW I usually enjoy other people's films a lot more than the ones I work on because I can just sit back and enjoy them. 

Q - Have you turned down work on a movie and regretted it later?
A - Bill George: Never. There have been shows we really tried to get and were disappointed to lose and then later, when the film came out, were relieved we didn't get. I'm not saying which ones though.... 

Q - For those not familiar with your job, on a film like "I Am Number Four", what were your responsibilities on the film?
A - Bill George: I oversaw the creation of the shots involving the Piken, Bernie and the stadium explosion. I was there when the backgrounds were shot in Pittsburgh to make sure that when the CG characters were added all the pieces would fit together. I then led the team of artists here at ILM that worked on the shots and interfaced with DJ to get his input and feedback. 

Q - You've had many different positions with ILM over the years. What has been your favorite part of creating and executing film effects? Further what department do you think you've learned the most from?
A - Bill George: Being an effects supervisor brings with it so many lessons and experiences. Dealing with the clients, team building, coming up with creative solutions, shooting plates and elements. It's a role that requires a great variety of skills. It's a challenge. 

Q - Who are some of your mentors and do you still refer/consult with them very often?
A - Bill George: There have been may people who have influenced me through my career. By just working with these people I was able to learn so much. Dennis Muren is one of them and he is still here at ILM. On "I Am Number Four" Dennis viewed the shower room sequence for us with fresh eyes and gave me a lot of great feedback for making the shots look better. 

Q - One of your specialties used to be physical models (and damned good ones): Are miniatures now obsolete in modern special effects?
A - Bill George: Sadly they are on the decline. Whenever I can I use models I will, because I think you can get a great result. BTW I still build models at home for fun. 

Q - Where do you keep your Oscars? What about your Emmys?
A - Bill George: The Oscar sits on a shelf, kind of out of the way. The best thing about the award was it allowed me to move out of the ILM model shop and explore other departments, leading me to becoming an effects supervisor. 

Q - How do you decide which movie you are going to work on?
A - Bill George: Our executive staff reads a script and assigns a supervisor to it who they think is best suited for the project. Many times a studio who has worked with a specific supervisor in the past will request him or her.

Q - What was the most challenging scene to create with IMAX in mind?
A - Bill George: Good question. ILM is a tool that adapts to each director we work with. Working with DJ and watching him film non-effects shots gave us a guide as far as what our FX shots should look like. We wanted to make something unique that would show the audience a glimpse of what Lorian was like. 

Q - We're now in an era of "all CGI". How do you react with that?
A - Bill George: The thing we used to dread hearing was "it looks like a model" Now we dread “It looks CGI". I really LOVE working with miniatures but working with CG gives you a huge amount of control that is hard to beat. Personally, I like mixing up techniques on a show to keep the audience guessing. In the shower scene in "Number Four" we used both CG water and practical water shot against black. 
Q - Despite the technology constantly improving, audiences are starting to grow savvy as to what is real and what is CGI in blockbuster movies. Do you see in-camera stunts making a comeback in the near future?
A - Bill George: Most of the stunts in "Number Four" were done practically. There was a lot of wire work but they also had these AMAZING parcour guys who could do mind blowing stunts on their own. What you mention is so true though. Audiences are very sophisticated and they are looking to figure out our tricks. They certainly keep us on our toes. 

Q - I’ve noticed you’ve yet to do a 3D film. Is that something you’re interested in doing? Does the added depth of 3D make stunts and effects harder to pull off convincingly?
A - Bill George: Actually, I have been working on Star Tours for the past 3 years that will be presented in 3D. I was drawn to the project for that reason, wanting to do something in 3D. It's a very interesting project with a branching storyline that changes from ride to ride. My feeling is that doing a project in 3D means that you have another level of design you must consider. That fact that a project is in 3D will inform your choices as far as composition and focus. It's a great payoff though for the extra effort. 

Q - Do you think the advent of CGI has depreciated your profession or made it more imperative than ever?
A - Bill George: Based on how many big money making films rely on effects work, I would say that effects have become even more important. Modern CGI is a tool that can help any director put his or her vision on film. The tools make almost anything possible. 

Q - With many films going 3D lately, does that change your approach to visual effects and that visual effects will need to be planned with 3D in mind?
A - Bill George: 3D is another level of design that needs to be considered when working on shots, so ideally we need to know ahead of time if the film is going to be released in 3D. 

Q - You worked on some Harry Potter movies. Now that the saga is quite over, what memories do you have of this experience?
A - Bill George: Creating Dobby was such an amazing experience because he was a major character in the second film. After we were done with the show I felt a real connection to him. One of my favorite memories on Potter 2 happened when we were shooting Daniel on his broom against a blue screen for the Quidditch game. The stage hands were helping him get on the broom with a ladder. For some reason there was a label on the ladder that Daniel pulled off and did a little commercial for the ladder. "Hello, I'm Daniel Radcliffe, when I need to get on my broom I prefer "Kingsley" ladders! Kingsley, when you need a lift." 

Q - How was the process to create the visual effects on HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban? What were your references? How different was it to creating visual effects for I Am Number Four?
A - Bill George: For both of these films we looked more toward the directors than the books for guidance. Of course the books are always hovering out there, but movies are a different medium and have to stand on their own. The sparkle effect in Twilight was something that the studio did want us to match the description in the book. They didn't want all the fans to be thrown by something different than the "diamond skin". 

Q - What, in your experience, has been the movie that presented the greatest visual effects challenges and/or was you’re proudest to have overcome them?
A - Bill George: One huge design challenge we faced was on Potter 3 and the Dementors. The challenge was to get across emotions and intent from creatures that didn't have a face! In the long run I think that is what made them creepy. We had to rely on their body language and the action of the tattered fabric that trails off of them. 

Q - Bill, you have worked with some of the greatest sci-films in America but I was wondering, as many films are being released on Blu-ray and seeing how visual effects look so much better on HD, such as "Blade Runner" and "Galaxy Quest", do you watch your films on Blu-ray?
A - Bill George: Many of them I do. Mostly I want to make sure that our effects look OK. For the older films there was a "film finish" that tends to degrade the image quality. Nowadays most all big films have a digital finish so that digital file goes directly to the Blu-ray with no loss of quality. 

Q - Was this your first picture with director D.J. Caruso? - and having worked on films with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest), Alfonso Cuaron (Prisoner of Azkaban), Richard Donner and others, are you left to your own devices or does each director have a different need and make different demands?
A - Bill George: We don't work in a vacuum here at ILM. We always adjust our shot style to match whichever director we are working with. Our goal is to have our work fit seamlessly into third film without standing out. 

Q - If you had to pick one scene that you liked the best, that you worked on for I Am Number Four, what would it be?
A - Bill George: I really was happy with the destruction of the Mog commander. You can see in the special bonus features section of the Blu-ray "Becoming Number 6" how little was shot and what was added. We shot practical explosions and sparks and bombs and there is nothing more fun than blowing stuff up! When we work on our shots we don't have the final sound effects that are added right at the end and the sound design for that sequence was rockin'! 

Q - The camera is always moving and the creatures really interact with walls, furniture etc. - how were the scenes in the school shot to help you add the creatures later?
A - Bill George: All of our tools are set up to make shooting the effects plates as free as possible for the director. It used to be that you had to use special cameras and motion control rigs that stunted progress and felt different. Whenever we can we want to make our shots to use the same techniques as the surrounding production footage. We also add into the shots additional camera movement to match what the creature ends up doing in the shots. A good cameraman has an innate ability to follow action and compose shots that they just do naturally. Of course it's sometimes hard for them when there isn't anything in frame! 

Q - You have a background in matte paintings and models. Do you miss that tangible type of special effects creation?
A - Bill George: I am still able to use matte paintings and models in my projects; I just don't do the actual work myself. I feel so lucky to have these amazing artists that are assigned to my shows. Going to dailies near the end of a show it feels like every day is Christmas! You never know what cool shot is going to be there. 

Q - Do you ever approach a model/miniature with no clear vision in mind and just start putting parts together until you find a configuration you like?
A - Bill George: Never. We always work out designs ahead of time in the much cheaper "sketch" form. At least this is how any major assets are handled. What does happen sometimes is we will ask for some background vehicles or ships and will tell the model makers "just wing it". Having no clear vision sounds like trouble. These days more and more directors are super savvy about effects and WANT to be involved. 

Q - The creatures initially are fast and only shown in glimpses before we get to the end of the film - was it challenging to reveal them slowly like this?
A - Bill George: This was a decision that DJ made to keep them more mysterious. You don't want to give everything away too soon. So much of what you see and perceive comes down to lighting. It was fairly simple to keep the Piken Dark so you didn't see much. The editors had ultimate control over how much the audience would see but keeping the shots short. 

Q - "Number Four" featured some of the best photo-realistic creatures I've seen in a while. Why do you think your creatures look so real while those in other films don't?
A - Bill George: I would say that you have EXCELLENT taste! The main determining factor in a shot's realism is how long the artist gets to refine it. Everyone uses the same basic tools but on many of the lower budget shows don't have a lot of time to polish their shots. On average we usually do about 25 to 45 takes on any shot. We also have some AMAZING artists who work here! 

Q - Do you worry about what the critics may have to say about your movies, or do you strive to please your intended audiences?
A - Bill George: It's always nice to get positive feedback form critics but really the only people I "worry" about are the director and the producers at the studio. They hire us to create the shots for their movie and my goal is to make them happy. 

Q - What’s a specific example of something you do that’s actually much harder than most people realize?
A - Bill George: I believe that most people don't realize the tremendous time and budget pressure we are under to deliver our work. People will comment "they should have done this or that...” not knowing that we do have limitations. Our goal is always to maximize our artist’s time, to stay on track and get the most out of the effects as possible. 

Q - The film is based on the novel of the same name, which was written by Jobie Hughes and James Frey. Did you read the book before you began shooting the movie, and did the novel influence your work in any way?
A - Bill George: I only read certain parts of the book that dealt with our creature work but our blueprint was the script and DJ's direction. Also, the book came out about halfway through shooting. One day on set I got to hang with James Frey and chatted about the books. That was a really unique experience for me, an effects goon. 

Q - There are tons of sci-fi movies out there. What did you try to put into I Am Number Four that would separate it from all other alien films?
A - Bill George: Cute teenagers in love! 

Q - Have you heard anything about a possible sequel to I Am Number Four?
A - Bill George: I heard a little squeak, but nothing concrete. We've got the Pikens standing by just in case. 

Q - Bill, any final thoughts on I AM NUMBER FOUR?
A - Bill George: I am Number Four was a really fun project to work on. DJ has such and infectious enthusiasm that pushed us all to do our very best work. It was a real pleasure to be a part of.

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