Aliens attack Earth using classic videogame characters
By Iain Blair
Academy Award-nominated director/producer Chris Columbus has written, directed or produced some of the most successful box office hits of the past 25 years, with credits that include Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Help and the Home Alone and Night at the Museum franchises. Not too shabby!
Now Columbus, who got his start writing several original scripts produced by Steven Spielberg — including the back-to-back hits Gremlins and The Goonies — has directed and produced Pixels, Fox’s new action comedy starring Adam Sandler, a lot of classic video games and 1,200 VFX shots. The film features aliens attacking Earth using Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Frogger, Centipede and Donkey Kong as their military model. The film was shot digitally by DP Amir Mokri on the Arri Alexa.
Why this film? This script? Columbus says, “I just loved the whole concept. It was so gleeful, this story of three kids who thought they’d be the rock stars of the video game world, and when that dream crumbles are left with this useless skill, but then get to save the world years later. So I just ran with it.”
Let’s dig in deeper with Columbus to talk about making the film, the complex visual effects involved, and the challenges of posting it.
What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?
My VFX supervisor Matthew Butler and I really set a challenge for ourselves in terms of trying to create VFX that the audience had never seen before. By that I mean, even if you’re doing dragons there’s still this very realistic quality that has to happen in the VFX, but these were all based on ancient video games, so I wanted to create a 40-foot Pac-Man with moving parts all lit from within that had to be terrifying but also mischievous.
What sealed the deal for me was that anything these characters touched in the real world was instantly pixelized. So we had to create this pixelized destruction — like a mad fever dream — and we really pushed our visual effects vendors and teams very hard to get to that point.
How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot to make this happen?
From day one! There’s this directorial toolbox we all have that enables us to do anything we want in CGI, but I wanted to make sure the actors and audience had something tangible to hold on to. That meant we actually built the Donkey Kong set to full scale. It was mind-blowing to walk onto the set and see all the gigantic platforms, hundreds of feet high, and then you put the actors in harnesses and, while it’s grueling for them, it gives the audience a hand-made film look since not everything is CGI.
We did the same thing with the Pac-Man sequences. We shot four weeks of nights on the streets of Toronto and shot it like we were doing an action film. We shot all of that practically and peppered the streets with as many practical plastic pixels as we could. Later we enhanced all that in post. When you combine live action like that with CGI, it’s more satisfying for an audience, but it also takes a lot of planning.
There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, and what was your approach to dealing with them and the post process?
I love post, because you get to shape the movie, and particularly when you’re doing a big VFX movie like this you get to see all the VFX grow every day. We had over 1,200 VFX shots and we had a ton of vendors, including Sony Imageworks (in addition to Digital Domain, Gener8, Trixter, Atomic Fiction and others).
The most important thing you can do when you’re working with VFX is say, ‘no.’ I learned that on Potter. A lot of the time we didn’t say no on the first film and the effects could have been better. Now we just keep sending them back until it’s perfect. We did all the post in San Francisco, where I live, and all the VFX at Digital Domain in LA where we were connected via video conference.
Hughes Winborne (Guardians of the Galaxy, Sling Blade, The Pursuit of Happyness and Crash, for which he won an Academy Award) was your editor. Can you talk about that relationship and how it worked?
He cut The Help for us, and he’s low key but very good. He was in Toronto on the shoot and came to the set a few times, and after he’d done an assembly we worked very closely to get it down to the right length. This really is the director’s cut. There will be no longer version.
What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?
The street stuff we shot in DC. It’s not the longest VFX sequence but it was the most demanding since we had to pinpoint every arcade character and their position. We didn’t want it to get too cluttered. It had to feel like this massive attack, but I wanted the audience to see exactly who was attacking our leads.
The DI must have been vital. How did that process help?
We didn’t shoot on film, so it really helped get the right film look for the whole beginning sequence, set in 1982 — the DI gives you that great quality control. (Company 3’s Stefan Sonnefeld did the grade via Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 11.)
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.