Tag Archives: Roland Emmerich

VFX Supervisor Volker Engel: ‘Independence Day,’ technology and more

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.

Concept art via Trixter.

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.

The mothership touching down in DC.

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.

Trixter concept art.

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.

After: Area 51

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.

The Ncam at use on set.

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!

Destruction of Singapore

The destruction of Singapore.

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!

The A-List — ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ director Roland Emmerich

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.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

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.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

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.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE
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, CinINDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCEesite, 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.

What’s next?
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.

FotoKem colorist Walter Volpatto discusses his process, ‘Stonewall’

FotoKem colorist Walter Volpatto comes from a family of farmers in Italy. He studied electrical engineering at the local university, which gave him an entrée into broadcasting. He began his career at RAI (Italy’s national public broadcasting company), where he became proficient with electronic compositing, lighting and photography. Around 2000, as more computers came to market, he segued into digital mastering, learning the craft with the help of film color timers.

Volpatto then transitioned to Cinecitta Studios about 10 years later, and subsequently became a freelance colorist. After working in that role on a documentary for FotoKem (@fotokem), Volpatto joined the facility in 2003. His credits include many features, such as Interstellar, San Andreas, CBGB, Chronicle and Hustle & Flow, along with some TV movie and restoration projects. His most recent project is the film Stonewall, about the 1969 Stonewall riots, which kicked off the gay rights movement in New York City.

Volpatto SMALL

A photographer himself, Volpatto says he is particularly attracted to the artists of the Renaissance, and the purest form of art. He claims his best work is influenced by art representing reality. Let’s find out more.

How has the state of the art of DI technology changed over the course of your career? 

Computing power has advanced exponentially over the years, making it easier to review footage and make changes in realtime versus waiting for files to render. But machines are simply tools. The color science and approaches we use today have pretty much stayed the same — other than slightly different strategies that support digital and film projects. The bottom line is I can certainly work faster with the new tools, but the concept behind the DI hasn’t really changed.

How did you work and communicate with director Roland Emmerich and/or DP Markus Förderer regarding their vision for the look of Stonewall? What did those discussions reveal in terms of the direction you would take? 

I worked with Markus about 99 percent of the time. He and Roland had a bold vision for the movie, and they were very much in sync on the look they wanted. When they approached us about the project, I asked Markus some standard questions about the camera and his intent for the look, and we immediately started talking about film. Even though he wanted to use a digital camera, it was obvious he wanted the final product to look like film. That resonated with me, and we further explored what his thoughts were about grain structure and film emulation. We did a test, and he loved the results. 

We also looked at a few images in a photo library he kept on his computer.

Markus is a technical connoisseur. He knew from the beginning where he was going with the look. After showing me a few photos, the main visual theme for Stonewall — a 1970s filmic look — transpired" STONEWALL " Photo by Philippe Bosse. We basically changed grain to emphasize a look that reflects the warm highlights and cool-ish lowlights of film, without feeling artificial.

At FotoKem, we have a team of experts overseen by our in-house color scientist Joseph Slomka, who spends a lot of time engineering solutions so that digital cameras look like film stocks. Joseph assisted us on this project, so when we started, we were on the right path and just had to fine tune along the way. Markus is also a big fan of anamorphic lenses, using the full anamorphic format on the Red Epic Dragon at 4K. And we finished the entire movie at 4K.

Have you previously worked with either of the filmmakers?
This was a first-time collaboration. They came to FotoKem because they wanted the convenience of finishing in Los Angeles. They saw my resume and that I had experience with film projects in the DI, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Stonewall is the story of an incredibly important event in history, highly charged politically and emotionally — were certain visual elements relied on to create certain moods in a scene or to convey the mood of a character?
I was not familiar with the Stonewall riots until this project came in. We established a certain look that becomes a little harsher when the riots ensue, and it’s a little smoother when happier events are taking place. It’s very subtle – not something you can see but rather feel. The tension in the movie wasn’t meant to be overpowering.

What tools were you working with? How did it help to enable your work?

We chose a Quantel Rio because we needed to finish in full 4K with full film emulation with grain layers, and at the time it was the best color correction tool for accomplishing this in realtime.

Stonewall-OneSht1438370594

You mention the movie was shot on Red Epic Dragon. Did that affect how you worked or approached coloring scenes?
Markus was familiar with Red and knew how to light for the camera. On Stonewall, he exposed and lit to create some texture. With that strong visual foundation created by Markus’ photography, we were able to focus on the task at hand — to fine-tune the images in order to create the film look he and Roland wanted.

A colorist works at the intersection of art and science. How do you translate what a cinematographer says into pictures?

The first thing I do is get an understanding from the DP about his or her digital experience. DPs who have worked more heavily in the film format will be able to make reference points from using printer lights and being in a lab. They have a way to express what they want.

The process is scientific in that there is only so much a colorist can do to bring the original material where they want it, and the artistry lies within how much further the DP wants to go with it. The work in the suite can become almost visceral. It’s usually expressed as a feeling — I want it to feel this way — and then I decide which tool will best accomplish that. I don’t rely heavily on controls and buttons. I’m a minimalist and bring that predisposition to the suite.

How do you know when you have gotten to where you want to be, and where the filmmakers want to be?
When the material comes to me in great shape, with good lighting and captured as close as possible to the intentions of the filmmakers, my job is to not mess it up!

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to become a colorist?

There are two approaches to color. You can use color to represent reality or emotions, or a blend of the two. For colorists inclined to being a realist, I’d tell them to learn how to represent that within the limits of their display. They should start in black and white — or work on a black and white short film. With the influx of a younger generation of colorists, I’ve noticed they are prone to using color to represent emotions, and they tend to make strong color choices. 

I’d recommend to anyone who wants to be a colorist to look at what other people do and understand how light works, and how the camera and display (monitor) react to light. Then they should practice achieving a particular look with the minimum amount of tools. There are many fabulous places where colorists can learn the craft, but to be proficient a basic understanding of color science will go a long way. 

Lastly, it’s the colorist’s job to bring the vision of the DP to the screen — not just to make a pretty picture. To do that, you need to learn to understand what’s inside the mind of the artist.

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Stonewall is in theaters now.