Graham Jack interview: Total Recall, visual effects and HFR

With Total Recall out on Blu-ray now, we spoke to visual effects supervisor Graham Jack about the future of CG, HFR and more...

Although the spine of Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is quite similar to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 movie, it’s very different from a visual standpoint. Where Verhoeven’s film imagined a brightly-lit, ‘neo-brutalist’ future of concrete and glass, Wiseman’s movie is an amalgam of decaying cities on one side of the planet, and shiny buildings and hover cars on the other.

Aside from its numerous futuristic vehicles and exotic gadgets, Total Recall 2012 is memorable for the Fall – a gigantic elevator which takes citizens from one side of the planet to the other. While production designer Patrick Tatopoulos was responsible for how the Fall and other aspects of Total Recall should look, the creation of the incredible number of CG effects fell to the UK company, Double Negative.

The Soho, London-based studio already has such high-profile movies as Batman Begins, Captain America and several Harry Potters to its name, and Total Recall offered its own distinctive challenges – not least the sheer number of effects shots the movie required.

“I think, when we started on the film, it was looking like 1100 visual effects shots, and by the time we finished, I think we had between 1700 and 2000,” the studio’s Graham Jack told us. As visual effects supervisor on Total Recall, he was in a unique position to tell us not only about the movie’s post-production, but also offer his thoughts on the future of visual effects, and what the advent of high-frame rate movies (as introduced in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) might mean for the filmmaking industry as a whole…

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Obviously, those effects shots required a huge amount of work. So how do you begin to plan all that out?

We got involved quite early on before the shoot. We went over to meet the director, Len Wiseman, and he showed us a lot of the previs they’ d done – a company called Third Floor did some great previs for some of the major sequences. So right away, we had an idea of what the bulk of the work was going to be.

We had a presence on set throughout pre-production and into shooting, so we were heavily involved with all the planning. At the same time, we had the team back in London at Double Negative, getting the plan together to produce all the work.

So an effects shot, then, if you were to break it down into stages, started with the previs you got from Third Floor?

I guess there’s two types of shot, really. There’s the shot that features a real, photographed element, and so the process there is, it gets shot on set, using the previs as a guide, then the take the director likes gets sent back to us at double negative. We go through a process of match moving, where we create a virtual camera which matches the movement and lens of the real camera, and we can use that as the starting point of the shot. Then we’ll do some animation based on that.

So say for the car chase – which was one of the biggest action sequences in Total Recall – we would track the practical cars they used on set, and we’d add additional animated cars around that to give the impression of animated traffic. Then we’d go through a layout process, where we put the background in on the city surrounding the road and that kind of thing – that can go through various versions where changes are made. We’ll show it to Len, and he’ll move the buildings around until we get something we’re happy with.

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Then it goes into lighting, where we set up all the digital cinematography – lighting the shot to make it look real, and also creative lighting, to get a sense of drama. To highlight the action and things like that. The final step is compositing, where we’re taking all the different layers of CG that we’ve produced, and marrying it up with the practical photography. 

There’s an assumption, perhaps, that CG is less time consuming than practical effects, but that’s not necessarily the case, is it? Which aspect is the most time consuming, would you say?

It depends on the shot. Parts of the process, like the match moving, it’s not automatic – it still requires us to have someone managing that process – but it is reasonably straightforward. It doesn’t require any artistic input, so that’s quite simple. But the layout of the lighting stages – there’s a lot of artistry that goes into that. It’s not simply a case of taking assets of a city and dropping it into a shot. There’s a lot of composition that goes into it, as we try to highlight the action that’s going on, or produce a pleasing layout. On this movie, that was the most complex part – the lighting.

You have the gigantic elevator in the film, the Fall – I was wondering if you could talk me through the process of building and animating that?

We got some great material from the art department of the movie as a starting point; they’d built a rough 3D model of the whole Fall. From that, they had built the practical set for half of the roof of the Fall, where a lot of the action takes place. So we took that as our starting point, really, where we matched the material they’d used on the practical construction of the set, and building out from there – adding a lot of detail to the models we got from our department.

Really, it was finding little details we could add to give it a sense of scale. I mean, it was meant to be something the size of a skyscraper, so we put in things like walkways and gantries, to give it human scale, so you could get an idea of how big it is. It was a pretty complex model, one of the most complex assets that we’ve created, probably, just trying to get that detail in there to give a sense of size, so that when you look at it, you recognise how big it is. 

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Is that something you’re still finding new ways to achieve – getting that sense of scale in CG landscapes?

I guess there’s always a learning process. Whenever we’re creating something, we’ll always seek out real reference to base things on. So for the Fall, we looked at photographs of the space shuttle for the heat resistant tiles on the side of it, and also at oil rigs for the gantries and things. We’d gather a huge amount of reference material, and that really informs our build process, to make sure that we’re creating something that looks real.

How closely did you work with the production designer Patrick Tatopoulos? Was he quite hands-on in post-production?

Yeah, he was heavily involved, obviously, during the shoot, because he was designing everything they needed for the practical set-pieces. After they’d finished, he stayed on for six months, I think, to continue providing design in post. So he gave the initial creative direction, and we took that and added the detail. The great thing was, he was based in Len’s office in LA, so he could have a conversation with the director to find out what he wanted, then pass that on to us.

How did working with Wiseman and Tatopoulos compare with working with Christopher Nolan, because I know you worked on Batman Begins, too.

I think there’s a lot of similarity. The best thing about working on a Christopher Nolan movie is that he knows what he wants. So right from the word go, he has in his head an idea of what he wants things to look like, and he will press forward with that – and that’s one of the most efficient ways of working. Len, as well, he’ll have a really good sense, from the word go, of the look for the film and what he wants to get out of it. So there were a lot of similarities there.

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It was great working with Len. He was very collaborative, very open to ideas. So we would talk to him remotely with a tool called CineSync where he could sketch live on the movie that we’re showing and things like that. So it was a very creative process. 

Working at Double Negative, you must see how visual effects are evolving all the time as new tools are coming in. Is there anything you’ve seen lately that you’ve thought, “We’ll see that in movies a year or two down the line”?

I think the biggest change the industry’s going through at the moment is in the way we render images. It’s becoming much more physically realistic. A lot of the time in the past, a lot of work would go into creating 3D objects to make them look real in their lighting. Sometimes it’s very successful, sometimes it’s less successful. Members of the public talk about stuff looking CG.

I think we’ll see new rendering techniques combating that. A lot of the work we produce should lose that CG edge we’re always fighting to eliminate anyway.

So more organic looking, in a way?

Yeah, just more physically realistic in their lighting. So when you see an object in an environment, you’ll see it being lit as though it’s genuinely lit as though it’s in that environment, rather than us trying to fake it. So it’s moving from something that’s faking lighting, to something that looks like real lighting.

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I was wondering too, what your thoughts were on 48fps, as we’ve seen recently in The Hobbit.

I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I’m really interested to see it. A lot of people find it uncomfortable to watch for the first time, because it’s something new. But I don’t see that it’s any less valid as a framerate than 24fps. We use 24fps because of a whole bunch of compromises that were made in the early days of moviemaking – so the only reason that people think it looks better is because we’re used to seeing movies look like that.

I think it could be really interesting in the future. I think a lot more movies will get made that way, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think, at the end of the day, it should come down to our creative choice. In the same way that a filmmaker can choose what sort of film stock they want to work on, to get a particular look, or they light a scene in a particular way, or they choose a format – whether something’s cinemascope or whatever – framerate should be just another choice a filmmaker can make.

One of the things that’s been said about HFR is that it makes more obvious the difference between live-action and the effects. How do you think HFR will affect your side of the industry? Will it mean higher-resolution textures and things like that?

It’s something we’ll have to look at on a case-by-case basis. But certainly, where in the past you would think that you could get away with not modelling something to a high level of detail, or not spending a lot of time texturing it, because you knew it was going to be heavily motion blurred, you can’t escape that way anymore. If something is going to be HFR, you need to take that into account when you model stuff. So it will mean we’ll have to put more detail into our models in some cases.

Graham Jack, thank you very much.

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Total Recall is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.

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