Michael Grobe is a Senior VFX Supervisor for Prime Focus World, and has previously worked on movies such as 'The Great Gatsby', 'Total Recall' and 'Mirror Mirror'. The following responses were provided for a Chinese film magazine article on Prime Focus' VFX work on 'Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe'.
1. In the pre-production stages of working on this movie, what kind of work did Prime Focus deliver?
We provided concept art for characters, movie props as well as mood boards for scenes, pre-visualisation of key sequences and technical and creative consulting on how to achieve and execute the desired effects. As a VFX supervisor it is my role to talk to the director early on and help him visualise his scenes and plan the execution of his vision for the movie, while keeping practicalities and budgetary constraints in mind.
2. What kind of talent did you use on this project and what specific work did they do?
The talent was chosen from all departments and skills, from concept artists to CG artists and compositors. Since a production of that magnitude requires a lot of different effects, ranging from set extensions to creature work and heavy FX sequences, pretty much every discipline is needed.
3. Could you talk about the procedure of the VFX work on this project?
The general procedure is to plan and visualise as much as possible upfront in pre-production before shooting and then react on the spot to the challenges and changes of plan presenting themselves during shooting. So the execution of the effects for such a movie is a moving target, that requires readjusting. It depends a lot on how much a client wants and can commit to a plan upfront and how much flexibility is still required to suit their style of shooting.
4. In order to make a creature character, what kind of work needs to be done?
A creature needs to be designed first taking into account it’s role in the movie, so concept art is drawn, references from nature are gathered, if possible a physical maquette is built to approve overall look and anatomy. Then a basic CG model is created, which is then rigged in a basic form and animation and anatomical tests are conducted. After that the model is refined and detailed, rigged properly. Parallel to the rigging stage the creature is going through “look development” where it gets painted with textures and shaders define the surface properties (skin, eyes, mouth, claws, etc.). Finally the creature is lit and rendered into photographic or film plates to judge it’s final appearance. From there it is animated into live action plates, lit, rendered and composited for a seamless integration into the shots.
5. How does the VFX team help the film crew when shooting on set?
The VFX team has multiple tasks on set. The VFX supervisor consults and advises the director and dop and their crew on the preparation and execution of VFX during the shoot. Often the VFX supervisor also doubles up as second unit director or dop for VFX heavy shoots and elements. His or her team of data wranglers and VFX assistants gather a multitude of different data sets (set measurements, photographic data, lighting information, laser scanning, camera data, etc.) which are essential for different tasks during the post production, like accurate rebuilding and extending of sets,
the integration of CG assets and creatures into scenes, etc.
6. The director Lu Chuan said that many different methods were used during shooting to save money. Does this affect the post-production?
It is always a goal to deliver the desired quality in an economic way. Since the efforts needed in post production are closely related to the methods and ways of shooting on set, a lot of money can be saved by properly preparing a shoot in pre-production (like with pre-visualisation) and executing it with diligence during the shoot. On the other side, a shoot going haywire without proper planning and guidance can easily blow the allocated budget for the VFX production, so it is a good idea to involve VFX supervisors, VFX producers and VFX companies as early as possible in pre-production.
7. The Avalanche sequence is very impressive. Would you share with us what kind of work you have done in order to make the avalanche so real when you shoot on set?
When we shot on set, we made sure to capture the close up interaction of the actors with “real” (practical) snow as far as possible to get the realism into the shots, which comes from the physicality of real set builds and actors acting in and interacting with them. It is always a good approach to shoot what is possible on set and then add, extend and blend in the elements in CG afterwards, that can’t be created and shot on location or in the studio. So the actors were running and falling down a studio hill with real film-snow, getting covered in it when the avalanche finally hits them.
8. As far as we know, this is the first time you have worked with a Chinese film crew. Could you give us your ideas and feelings for this cooperation?
It was my first time working in China with a Chinese production and crew. I always love the challenge and opportunity to work with diverse teams and cultures around the world, so after having worked in Hollywood, Europe, India, New Zealand and other places the step into China was a great opportunity to explore people and country, learn and share. Since we all had a great time going through the adventure of shooting such a movie, it most likely won’t be my last foray into this film market. From a business perspective the Chinese entertainment and film market is growing strongly and it makes sense to explore it. We will hopefully see more collaborations between different countries like China and India to enhance the cultural exchange.