Quick Chat: Richard Edlund talks about VFX, ‘Crossbones,’ more

By Randi Altman

It seems as though VFX legend Richard Edlund, ASC, never stops. One of ILM’s original founders, who then opened Boss Film Studios, is a seven-time Oscar-winner with three Academy Scientific & Engineering Awards and an Emmy to his name. Currently he runs New Orleans-based duMonde Visual Effects, a collaboration between himself and another VFX vet, WhoDoo EFX founder/CEO Helena Packer.

Edlund, Packer and team recently delivered over 100 visual effects shots for NBC’s new series Crossbones, starring John Malkovich. That’s right, John Malkovich. These included many complex ship replacement shots involving CG simulation, texturing, modeling and lighting work, which Edlund described as “number-crunchingly intensive.”

In order to make it work in the time they had been given, Edlund called on rendering supercomputer The Devil’s Playground, from Silverdraft’s Devil & Demon Strategy. The system offers a single-layer, four-processor system with 64 cores. He says accomplishing these shots on deadline would “not have been possible without the unrivaled speed of Devil & Demon technology.”

Crossbones - Season 1

Edlund respected the technology so much, he agreed to join the Silverdraft board of directors, saying in the company’s recent press release: “Entertainment imaging is now an internationalized industry, with a nomadic workforce, and needs a forward-looking business approach. Plus, there’s an insatiable demand among digital artists to be able to turn around their work faster than ever, while keeping down the true costs of their computing resources in pursuit of the desired result.

“I look forward to working with the Devil & Demon team to deliver the creative and economic benefits of their technology to creative digital artists and facility owners.”

So once again, this visual effects trailblazer is out to help mold technology with today’s deadlines and VFX needs in mind. What better time to reach out to Edlund and Packer to talk a little VFX.

Richard, you have been a mainstay in visual effects. In addition to how the technology has changed over the years, how have you seen visual effects change since you began?
Edlund: A big question! When I finished Star Wars, I was asked, “After that, what more can you do?” That turned out to be a really dumb question. A LOT! When I started out on Empire, producer Gary Kurtz and I began a stepped milestone program with Gary Demos and John Whitney Jr. to build a digital IO system using a then-primitive scanning system and a high res CRT to record.

Their ideas were not reachable yet with the then-available technology. Though they did build a digital X-Wing and produced a victory roll shot in a star field — but it wasn’t in the script and didn’t make it into the movie. By late 1983 they had finished the system and we created a Jupiter (output in 65mm) with its subtle animated bands and a believable collapsing red spot for the climax of the movie 2010 at Boss Film Studios [which Edlund established in after leaving ILM].

We had reached the end of the photochemical-based analog era in about 1992 with the flocking penguins in Batman Returns and the wire removal techniques in Cliffhanger. And then there was that “water wienie” in The Abyss! The reason we can do visual effects at all is because of the 24 still frames per second persistence of vision phenomenon in motion pictures. We could use high-speed photography to make miniatures seem life-size, we could animate ghosts, rotoscope to make mattes, with matte paintings we created fantastic impossible scenes, but there were so many frustrating limitations in the analog era. It all came to an end when we could break each of those 24 frames down into millions of addressable pixels.

It didn’t get cheaper, and the VFX budgets for the tent-pole movies burgeoned to tens of millions, but our audiences have insatiable hunger and flock to the theaters to see the latest and almost god-like VFX capabilities we have developed in the digital era. Jim Cameron will continue to push the envelope and make more billions. And we’ll see a new Star Wars every year!

Helena, as a visual effects veteran yourself, can you weigh in on this one as well?
Packer: Speed and resolution. We can now be more interactive with the shots, making changes quickly, having more artistic spontaneity.

Looking back, what are some of the VFX trends that you wish were still around but have gone away over the years?
Edlund: I like the idea of collaborating with the physical effects shot on sets. If you can get it (or most of it) in the camera live, it always seems to look better. Rig removals, set extensions, many tricks, and there’s nothing that beats the “happy accident” — the serendipity, the unexpected bonus — that happens when shooting production scenes. And since we can do anything now with digital enhancement, we can be bolder than ever when working on visual effects sequences.

Crossbones - Season 1

On Crossbones, The Devil’s Playground helped you get those shots out quickly. If you didn’t have access to that technology, how much longer would it have taken and how would it have changed the way you approached the shots?
Edlund: It would have been a nightmare… We tried four companies, and Silverdraft was the only one that came through.

You mention in the Devil & Demon press release that VFX now has a globalized workforce. How do you communicate with people from across the world and get what you need from them? How do you bridge those miles and still keep up the rapport and communication?
Edlund: We use Skype, Pix, Shotgun, CineSync, iPhone conferencing and there are other new communication systems emerging; with occasional personal visits whenever possible. Commodity work like rotoscoping and tracking can be done anywhere with predictable quality.

Big thanks to Richard and Helena for taking the time out of their crazy schedules to answer some questions for us. Check out Crossbones on NBC, Friday’s at 10pm.

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