The director talks about this VFX-heavy sequel and how it takes advantage of today’s technology to tell its story.
By Iain Blair
After two decades of rumors and speculation, “The Master of Disaster” — German director/writer/producer Roland Emmerich — is finally back with Independence Day: Resurgence. This is the long-awaited sequel to his seminal 1996 alien invasion epic Independence Day, one of the most financially successful movies in the history of Hollywood — it ended up making over $817 million worldwide and turning Will Smith into a superstar.
Following that smash, Emmerich went on to make other apocalyptic mega-productions, including Godzilla (the 1998 version), The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012, all of which were huge box office hits despite little love from the critics. And while Emmerich has also made smaller movies, such as Anonymous, The Patriot and Stonewall, which didn’t involve aliens, the destruction of cities, rising sea levels or vast armies of VFX artists, his latest blockbuster will only further cement his legacy as an ambitious filmmaker who doesn’t just love to blow shit up but who has always seen the big picture. The Fox release opens June 24.
I recently spoke with Emmerich about making the film, which features many visual effects shots, and the post process.
It’s been two decades since Independence Day became a global blockbuster. Why did it take so long to do a sequel?
I made the first one as a stand-alone film, and for 10 years I felt that way. Plus, ideas that were pitched for a sequel didn’t work for me. Then, about six, seven years ago, I was shooting for the first time on digital cameras for the film 2012. We did all of the 1,500 VFX shots in the computer, and it suddenly hit me that the technology had changed so much that maybe it was time to try a sequel.
On the first one I was just so frustrated as I couldn’t do everything I wanted and had imagined, because of all the limitations with VFX and technology back then. I had these scissors in my head — this I can do, that I cannot do — but this time I had no scissors and no limitations, and that was a huge difference for me.
How much pressure was there to top the last film?
I honestly didn’t feel much pressure, although I’m very aware that times have changed. I see all the other big VFX films out there and I keep up on it all and I know how competitive it is now. But I felt pretty good about what we could do with this one. And I feel I’ve always been able to create these “impossible images” where people go, “Oh my God! What is that?” Like water coming over the Himalayas. This time it was this enormous 3,000-mile long alien spaceship that comes down to Earth, like this giant spider. That was the first image I had in my head for the film.
It’s a very image-driven business I’m in, and while you obviously work hard on characters and themes and so on, most of the time it’s these images that pop into my head that inspire everything else. And this giant spaceship wasn’t something we could do back in ’96. It was just impossible.
How different was the approach on this and what sort of film did you set out to make?
I tried very hard to avoid making a classic sequel. And it’d been so long anyway. It’s a different society, and we can stay united and fight together. The other big idea was that we’ve harvested all the alien technology. We can’t rebuild it, but we’ve harvested it, and humans are so ingenious, so we can take it and adapt it for human use and machines. So all these themes and ideas were very interesting to me.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Even when I’m writing I’m already thinking about all the VFX and post, and the moment the script is there it’s well under way. I like to make 25-30 big paintings of key scenes that really show you where the movie’s going — the style, the size of the film. They’re so helpful for showing everyone from production executives at the studio to the visual effects teams. It gives a very clear visual idea of what I want. Then you break it down into sequences and start storyboarding and so on.
You must have done a lot of previz for this one?
Yes, but we had very little time because of the release date, and it was very complicated. I had started shooting already and still had to do previz since we weren’t able to previz the whole film before. We needed to previz everything, so I had double duties: at lunch and after shooting I always had to meet with my previz team. When I look back, the film was like a long race against time.
Post and VFX have evolved so much since the first film. What have been the biggest changes for you?
The biggest for me is the whole digital revolution. Digital cameras can now make far better blue- and greenscreen composites, and we shot with Red Weapon Dragons. That’s huge for me as I used to hate the old look of composites and all the limits you had, whereas now, if you can imagine it, you can do it. The computer gives you infinite possibilities in VFX. On the first one I would have these images in my head and then find out we couldn’t do them. Anything is possible today.
Where did you post?
We rented offices in North Hollywood, and we had our editing suite there… the 3D people, and the VFX team. For sound, I always work with sound designer Paul Ottosson, who has his whole set-up at Sony on the lot. So we did all the mixing there, including a Dolby Atmos mix.
This was edited by Adam Wolfe, who cut Stonewall and White House Down for you. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He’s a very active editor and he’ll run on to the set saying, “I need this or that.” He’s not on the set all the time, but he’s close by when I shoot, and we’ll work together on the weekends so I can get a feel for the film and what we’ve shot so far.
This is obviously a VFX-driven piece, and the VFX play a big role. Can you talk about that and working with the visual effects supervisor?
I really enjoy working with VFX — from the concepts to cutting the shots in — and working with a relatively small team of maybe 15 people on them every day, talking on Skype or in person, ideally. I feel that you can also cast VFX companies like actors — for their special talents. Some excel at this, some excel at that. If you’re doing a creature film, then Weta is great. If it’s a very complicated sequence with a lot of water and buildings collapsing and fires, then Scanline is great.
I always try and inspire them to do VFX they’ve never done before, so it’s not boring for them. In the end, we used 10 big companies and another five smaller ones, including Weta, Cinesite, Scanline, Image Engine, Trxter, MPC, Digital Domain and Buf.
What was the hardest VFX sequence to pull off?
The hardest was the big sequence where the mothership starts sucking up Singapore — the whole city and all the ships — before throwing it on London. That was very complicated to do, and Scanline did an amazing job. The whole scene at the end with the alien battle was also very hard to pull off. That took months and months to do, and the companies started doing tests and simulations at a very early stage. They also sent some of their people to the set to advise you on how best to shoot the live action to go with their VFX.
Another huge film, I hope. I love them. It’s my job, my business.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.