Uncharted Territory’s Volker Engel is one of Hollywood’s leading VFX supervisors, working on movies as diverse as White House Down, Hugo and Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare movie Anonymous. Most recently he was in charge of the huge number of effects for Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
Engel was kind enough to make time in his schedule to discuss his 28-year history with Emmerich, his favorite scenes from Independence Day, his experience with augmented reality on set and more.
When did you get involved with Independence Day?
I was probably the earliest person involved after Roland Emmerich himself! He kept me posted over the years while we were working on other projects because we were always going to do this movie.
I think it was 2009 when the first negotiations with 20th Century Fox started, but the important part was early 2014. Roland had to convince the studio regarding the visuals of the project. Everyone was happy with the screenplay, but they said it would be great to get some key images. I hired a company called Trixter — they are based in Germany, but also have an office in LA. They have a very strong art department. In about six weeks we finished 16 images that are what you can call “concept art,” but they are extremely detailed. Most of these concepts can be seen as finished shots in the movie. This artwork was presented to 20th Century Fox and the movie was greenlit.
You have worked with Emmerich many times. You must have developed a sort of shorthand?
This is now a 28-year working relationship. Obviously, we haven’t done every movie as a team but I think this is our eighth movie together. There is a shorthand and that helps a lot. I don’t think we really know what the actual shorthand is other than things that we don’t need to talk about because we know what needs to happen.
Technology continues to advance. Does that make life easier, or because you have more options does it make it even more complex?
It’s less the fact that there’s more options, it’s that the audience is so much more sophisticated. We now have better tools available to make better pictures. We can do things now that we were not able to do before. So, for example, now we can imagine a mothership that’s 3,000 miles in diameter and actually lands on Earth. There is a reason we had a smaller mothership in the first movie and that it didn’t touch down anywhere on the planet.
So it changes the way you tell stories in a really fundamental way?
Absolutely. If you look at a movie like Ex Machina, for example, you can show a half-human/half-robot and make it incredibly visually convincing. So all of a sudden you can tell a story that you wouldn’t have been able to tell before.
If you look at the original Independence Day movie, you really only see glimpses of the aliens because we had to do it with practical effects and men in suits. For Independence Day: Resurgence we had the chance to go much further. What I like actually is that Roland decided not to make it too gratuitous, but at least we were able to fully show the aliens.
Reports vary, but they suggest about 1,700 effects shots in Independence Day: Resurgence. Is that correct?
It was 1,748. Close to two-thirds of the movie!
What was your previs process like?
We had two different teams: one joined us from Method Studios and the other was our own Uncharted Territory team, and we split the task in half. The Method artists were working in our facility, so we were all under one roof.
Method focused on the whole lunar sequence, for example, while our in-house team started with the queen/bus chase toward the end of the movie. Roland loves to work with two specific storyboard artists and has several sessions during the week with them, and we used this as a foundation for the previs.
So Roland was involved at the previs stage looking at how it was all going to fit together?
He had an office where the previs team was working, so we could get him over and go literally from artist to artist. We usually did these sessions twice a day.
What tools were you using?
Our in-house artists are Autodesk 3D Studio Max specialists, and the good folks from Method worked with Autodesk Maya.
The live shoot used camera-tracking technology from Ncam to marry the previs graphics and the live action in realtime to give a precise impression of how the final married shot would work.
How were you using the Ncam exactly?
The advantage is that we took the assets we had already built for previs and then re-used them inside the Ncam set-up, doing this with Autodesk Motion Builder. But some of the animation had to be done right there on set.
I’ll give you an example. When we’re inside the hangar at Area 51, Roland wanted to pan from an actor’s face looking at 20 jet fighters lifting off and flying into the distance, and he wanted to pan off the actors face to show the jets. The Ncam team and Marion [Spates, the on-set digital effects supervisor] had to right there, on the spot, do the animation for the fighters. In about five minutes, they had to come up with something there and then and do the animation, and what’s more, it worked. That’s why Roland also loves to work with Ncam, because it gives him the flexibility to make some decisions right there in the moment.
So you’re actually updating or even creating shots on set?
Yes, exactly. We have the toolbox there — the assets like the interior of the hangar — but then we do it right there to the picture. Sometimes for both the A-camera and the B-camera.
We did a lot of extensions and augmentations on this movie and what really helped was our experience of working with Ncam on White House Down. For Roland, as the director, it helps him compose his images instead of just looking at a gigantic bluescreen. That’s really what it is, and he’s really good at that.
I explain it this way: imagine you already have your first composite right there, which goes straight to editorial. They immediately have something to work with. We just deliver two video files: the clean one with the bluescreen and another from Ncam that has the composite.
Did using Ncam add to the shooting time?
Working with AR on set always adds some shooting time, and it’s really important that the director is briefed and wants to use this tool. The Ncam prep often runs parallel to the rehearsals with the actors, but sometimes it adds two or three additional minutes. When you have someone who’s not prepared for it, two or three minutes can feel like a lifetime. It does, however, save a lot of time in post.
On White House Down, when we used Ncam for the first time, it actually took a little over a week until everything grooved and everyone was aware of it — especially the camera department. After a little while they just knew this is exactly what needed to be done. It all became instant teamwork. It is something that supports the picture and it’s not a hindrance. It’s something that the director really wants.
Do you have a favorite scene from Resurgence?
There is a sequence inside the mothership where our actors are climbing up one of these gigantic columns. We had a small set piece being built for the actors to climb, and it was really important for Roland to compose the whole image. He could ask for a landing platform to be removed and more columns to be added to create a sense of depth, then move the view around another 50 or 60 degrees.
He was creating his images right there, and that’s why the guys have to be really quick on their feet and build these things in and make it work. At the same time, the assistant director is there saying the cameras are ready, the actors are ready and we’re ready to shoot, and of course no one wants them to wait around, so they better have their stuff ready!
Some of my other favorite sequences from the film are the destruction of Singapore while the mothership enters the atmosphere and the alien queen chasing the school bus!
What is next for you?
In 1999, when I started Unchartered Territory with my business partner Marc Weigert, we set it up as a production company and started developing our own projects. We joke that Roland interrupts us from developing our projects because he comes with projects of his own that we just cannot say no to! But we have just come back from a trip to Ireland where we scouted two studios and met with several potential production partners for a new project of our own. Stay tuned!