Interview: Josh Comen and Tim Carras of Comen VFX

Ahead of the release of A Perfect Getaway, we talk to the guys from Comen FX, about making visual effects you're not supposed to notice...

A scene from A Perfect Getaway after the Comen VFX treatment

Nowadays, the visual effects world isn’t just about huge CG monsters, or intricate sci-fi creations, with plenty of VFX teams specialising in work that is more subtle, and is seen in films that are not your typical, effects-laden summer blockbusters. One such team is Comen VFX, a California-based facility set up by Josh Comen, a VFX Producer who has worked on over 60 feature films and television series in the last six years, including Saw, Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite.

Their most recent work was on David Twohy’s (Pitch Black) latest movie, the Hawaii-based thriller A Perfect Getaway, and involved, among other things, one major task. Although integrally set in the USA’s 50th state, tax incentives and budgetary concerns took the production to Puerto Rico for filming, which resulted in the need for much post-production trickery, such as replacing backgrounds, landscape, and local geography.

We recently had the chance to speak with Josh Comen (VFX Producer) and Tim Carras (VFX Supervisor) about their work on the film, about the ethos behind Comen VFX, and about the opportunities given by contemporary VFX technology to filmmakers working on either independent or low-budget films.

Could you tell us about your background – what attracted you to VFX, how you got into the business, and led you to set up your own studio. Josh, is it true that you went to USC (University of Southern California)?

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Josh Comen: Yeah, and Tim also went to USC, by the way. It’s kind of ironic, but our controller also – and we didn’t know this – is a USC grad, and our colourist for Picture Lock Post, our post company that we started, also knows Tim from USC – and some of our artists!

But my particular background is, I graduated USC, and a lot of my jobs had been business and sales positions, and, always knowing that I wanted to work in the film industry, I crossed over and basically started working for a title and optical place, and then worked for another place for a short time, and then just said, you know, I want to do this a different way, I don’t want to ever tell a client ‘no’. There have been some piercing moments in my career, when a director or producer wanted something, and my attitude was ‘yeah, just do it’, and I don’t care if it costs me a little bit of money, because the light at the end of the tunnel is, I’m making a relationship here. And the relationships that one can build in visual effects, for me, always trumps anything. I’d lose a dollar to build a relationship any day. That’s basically what my background is, and what got me to basically open up my own company.

You’ve got quite an extensive resume with Comen VFX, working mostly with low-budget, or indie films. Could you explain to us, how that differs from the more big-budget work out there – are you mostly tasked with bringing to the film low cost, budget-saving solutions?

JC: It oftentimes starts with a referral, and a producer will come to us and, if it’s a low budget film, it often is a problem. We did a film called Good Dick, with Jason Ritter, and we went through leaps and bounds and hurdles, in my opinion. I don’t want to say leaps and bounds and hurdles, but really it was a full interview of us – and they ultimately had three shots that needed some help.

They had a cast member who was looking into the camera; they had a shot that was in a video store, that needed some extensive removals; and then there was another shot. And when it is an independent film, we as a visual effects facility have to be constantly monitoring our productivity and efficiency, because the budget just isn’t there for mistakes. It doesn’t exist. And then that gets back to personnel and hiring, and making sure that we built the right team to begin with, so that when an independent film comes in, I’m not worried about the competency of my artists or my staff.

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Before and after effects shot from A Perfect Getaway

So I’m guessing that creates quite a dynamic, challenging working routine. But if you are confronted with problems to solve, how does that relate to the more creative aspects of VFX, as a team?

Tim Carras: Well, that would be where my side comes in. Josh handles mostly the business side of things, and then when it comes to actually interacting with clients and designing shots, that would be my department.

So, let’s use the specific example of Good Dick. I would say that’s a film where they were less looking for a creative team to take the film to new artistic levels, and more looking to solve some editorial issues that were preventing the film from coming together. So, in that respect, films that we do, like recently A Perfect Getaway and more involved effects films, present more of a creative challenge for us, rather than strictly technical challenges.

This is a perfect time to segue into A Perfect Getaway. Tell me how you guys at Comen VFX got involved to begin with – did that spring from one of the previous relationships you’d built up?

TC: We got the film through a guy named David Moulder, who’s the VFX producer for the show, and he’s someone that both Josh and I have worked with many times over the years. He and Jonah Loop, who’s the visual effects supervisor, decided that they needed a facility to execute all the shots, and I guess we fit the bill.

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JC: And, from that moment on, we literally transformed ourselves, to the point where we actually were working out of dual locations. So we’re on a street called 14th Street, we had one office down the street, we had a group of staff working there, and then we had a group of staff working at our brand new facility, and then we moved everyone over to our new facility. That’s literally the epitome of what we do – one second it could be slow, and then the next second you walk in, and there could be ten artists all working at workstations, and there’d be complete and utter concentration here.

Before and after effects shot from A Perfect Getaway: using VFX to add the water down below…

So how does it progress from there? Are you primarily brought on in the post-production process? What are you given to work with?

TC: With this specific film, we were brought in around the end of editorial. We had a pretty good assembly of the movie, they had a first cut. There was a need to go through and re-bid the entire show from scratch. So we went through and identified all the shots that potentially needed set extensions – I think in the final mix it ended up being 183 shots, and I think half were set extensions, meaning replacing backgrounds in Puerto Rico, and making it look like Hawaii, and the other half were various, miscellaneous fixes, CG elements, blood enhancements, wire removal.

So when you put in a shot of Hawaii, how do you reference that? Are you given shots beforehand by the production team, or do you source it yourself?

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TC: There was a handful of reference photos, and background plates that were shot during production of the films by Jonah, but it made sense for Josh and I to make a weekend trip to Kauai, to actually get a look at things firsthand.

I don’t know if you’ve been to the islands, but it’s such a unique location, it’s one of the oldest places in the world, the terrain is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and you really have to experience it to understand it. But beyond that, once the film is taking shape editorially, we had a much better sense of how the locations were tying to each other from one sequence to the next, and had a better sense of which exact backgrounds we needed for specific sequences. So we went for three or four days, took a bunch of reference photos, aerial photos, photos from hotel balconies and photos from trails – and a whole lot of clouds! And those all ended up being pieces that would be composited into the shots.

JC: Even more specifically, we actually stood where the cast members of this movie stood, we flew over the Napali coast, just like the cast members did. And we really immersed ourselves in Kauai, because we knew that there’s no way we could possibly in any way represent, to any of the filmmakers, this shot that we are turning Puerto Rico into Kauai – this is how it looks, we were there. So it was of tantamount importance that we go there, especially in Kauai.

And, in this film, so much of what we were replicating was the atmosphere – and, as Tim said, the clouds. You learn through this film – it’s a crash-course in meteorology, because you’re literally seeing mist, rain formation, clouds. You’re seeing clouds in a formation in which you didn’t know that they really existed. So this is very unique in a sense. And, in a way, it reminds me of – we do a lot of work where a director or filmmaker or producer would say ‘we need to make this character look younger, or we need to remove the wrinkles on this character’s face’, and we need to do it in such a way that the character still looks normal. And that being said, in order for us to do our job in Perfect Getaway – there’s no substitute; this has to look real. And the only way to know that it looks real is to actually have seen it first-hand.

Before and after effects shot from A Perfect Getaway: clouds proved to be quite a challenge…

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Sounds like there was an extreme attention to detail in the production. And, well, it certainly looks seamless in the film. It isn’t something anyone would even look out for, let alone notice, if they hadn’t been previously told about it.

TC: Well, thank you. That’s the highest compliment we can receive on a project like this.

JC: We don’t want anyone to know that we did anything!

TC: The attention to detail on this film started at the top, with the director and writer, David Twohy. It is obvious just from reading the script on day one, that this is a location that has a special meaning for him. He knows it very well, he knows the terrain, he knows the trails. It’s very specific where they are. There was never a question for us, that we had to be there, and help the director realise his vision of what this place looks like.

Yeah, it’s great that when a script needs that authenticity, that it can be provided without having to spend that extra however-so-many dollars on top of the budget. TC: That’s right!

We’ve been sent some before and after images from your work on the film [the images you’ve been looking at throughout this interview]. We’ve already spoken about the location and background shots, but there are the more gruesome moments, like the blood and CG. One picture we have is from one scene in a film, a flashback to the original murder, where the killer tips the victims’ fingertips into the water. Could you talk us through the VFX process for shots like these?

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TC: About a third of the film is told in flashback, and those sequences have that really interesting, cool-tinted, black and white, infrared look for them. The majority of the film was shot on Fuji 35mm film, but the flashbacks were shot on a special, modified Red Camera, with the infrared blocker removed, so it is just recording just the way infrared film does.

That fingertips shot was one example of a handful of shots where they weren’t able to shoot that with the Red Camera, I guess because it was underwater. Their underwater housing was only for the film camera. So we actually had to, among other things, simulate the infrared look that the flashback material had, on film. Which is trickier than it sounds, because infrared photography really changes the way things look – like, vegetation just goes to pure white, clear skies go to black, and water becomes very contrast-y, so it was an interesting challenge to create that look.

In addition to the Red look in the shot, we also had to track in little trails of blood coming down from the fingertips, so the whole thing clouded over the shot, so you get this cool sense of the blood filling the frame.

Moving onto more general concerns – how do you see VFX at the moment, as guys on the inside? It’s always a topic of discussion in the film industry, although most of the reporting goes to the bigger projects, like AvatarTC: Sure, and for good reason, because I think that is where the biggest amount of R&D money is being spent, and where the bigger innovation on a grand scale is taking place, on those big films. You’ve got your Avatar, you’ve got your Benjamin Button, and you have the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies recently, where we’re really pushing the limits of how real we can make CG characters, and, you know, enormous environment pieces. It’s a really exciting time for that kind of work.

At the same time, there are whole other levels of visual effects going on in films of different scales than that. Where you’ve got tools in the hands of people who five, ten years ago, it wasn’t even in the ballpark – it wasn’t even a conversation to be had, about doing on a film like – take A Perfect Getaway as an example, doing the type of effects work that we’re doing just wouldn’t have been an option, before every independent and upward film was doing it… which reduces the barrier entry to doing digital shots. And just having the computing power, and the availability of the artists – it’s becoming a lot easier to put those tools in the hands of all filmmakers, and not just the ones with 100 million plus dollar budgets.

It must be quite a liberating time for those up and coming filmmakers.

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TC: Absolutely, and on top of that, you have a broader range of people using the tools, so you have a broader range of applications for the work. Whereas summer blockbuster action movies are the ones Hollywood expects to make the most money on, so to some extent they constrain it to a certain pattern of storytelling sometimes, whereas the films that aren’t tied as much to their dollar value can take storytelling in some more interesting directions, and we’re really seeing the technology used for a lot of different types of stories now.

Tim, Josh, thank you so much for your time!

A Perfect Getaway is released on August 14th. To find out more about Comen VFX, visit www.comenvfx.com.

Interviews at Den Of Geek