Bill George began his career in visual effects as a model maker in 1979 on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. After completing his work on BLADE RUNNER, he joined ILM in 1981. He created models for many films such as STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – RETURN OF THE JEDI, INNERSPACE or GHOSTBUSTERS II. In 1997, he became a visual effects supervisor and take care of many films like GALAXY QUEST, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, EVAN ALMIGHTY or I AM NUMBER FOUR.
What is your background?
I started in the industry as a model maker waaaay back in 1979. My first film project was STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. After working 2 years in Los Angeles I finished up my work on BLADE RUNNER and started at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in 1981. I worked in the model shop there for a number of years before moving into the art department. Doing a lot of stage work while in the model shop and the experience of dealing with clients while in the art department, paved the way for me becoming a visual effects supervisor. I’ve been doing that since 1997.
How did ILM get involved on this show?
There was a lot of bidding and planning that was done before I came on the show. The studio knew that the Himalayan sequence was going to be one of the “key” sequences in the film and one that had a number of technical challenges. I think they felt that the “casting” of that sequence was a good fit for ILM. The VFX coordinator on the show, Christine Felman, and I had worked together on I AM NUMBER FOUR and I think she might have put in a good word for me.
How was the collaboration with director Jon M. Chu?
When I found out I was going to be working on the show I looked Jon up on IMDB and was surprised to see that most of his experience was doing films that involved dancing. I thought that this was an odd choice for the director of G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. After I got to the set and saw all the complexly choreographed ninja battles going on it all made sense. One of the (many) things I loved about Jon was that because of his youth, he has no fear about using computer graphics. In the past it has sometimes taken some convincing, as directors fear the falseness that sometimes happens with CG. With Jon, if I suggested using it as a solution he’d would say “Let’s do it!”
What was his approach with the visual effects?
Jon was great during our reviews in that his feedback was very consistent and clear. Jon always went with his gut reactions to our work, good or bad, and that felt very “honest” to me. He was wonderfully vocal and energetic. I always tell directors to direct us the way they would an actor. It’s not necessary to give us the exact changes to make to an animation or shot. It’s better to get direction like “I need to feel more power out of the kick” or “the scale of the background seems off.” This way we understand his goal for the shot and can try a variety of solutions to get to the solution. Jon was great at working this way. Because of his understanding of movement, he had LOTS of feedback for Paul Kavanagh our animation supervisor.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Production VFX Supervisor James Madigan?
As I mentioned earlier, I had come on the show fairly late. Jim and his crew had been working for a year on the pre-vis for the Himalayan sequence. The plan had already been formulated as far as how the green screen elements would be lit and shot. Jim handed all the work that he had done over to me to keep the work moving forward and to complete the shots in post. Since Jim knew the sequence design better than anyone from his work on the pre-vis he was the go-to guy for questions. In post production Jim was a great wing man for me since he was down in LA working with Jon and had access to him. He was great at helping us to keep Jon happy.
How did you approach the Mountain sequence?
Most of the plates that were turned over to us were of the stunt ninjas and Joes hanging on ropes against the huge green screen. Our job was to place them in the digital environment. This set-up reminded me a lot of my work on the Quidditch games from POTTER 2 and 3 where all we started with was a kid on a broom against a blue screen. Working on those films certainly influenced my approach to the shots on JOE.
Because of the fact that the green screen elements were shots as if they were in the shadow side of the hill, I was really worried about the shots looking very flat. I talked to my Digimatte supervisor Johan about how we could jazz up the cliff. I have spent a lot of time in Yosemite, and I have encountered granite faces there that are so polished they appear slightly reflective. Johan came up with a way to render a reflection pass on the geometry of our cliff face that we mixed slightly onto the surface. The subtle changes then playing across the surface added a lot of life to it. We also added in some wet areas, that would have been caused by melting snow, where the reflection was even greater.
We did match-a-mations of the characters on the wall to generate subtle shadows to help connect them to the wall when they touched it. Since we had done these match-a-mations for for the shadows, we could also use them to render the character’s reflections in our wet surfaces. All of these subtle cues helped to integrate our green screen characters into our digital environment. Even though the main action took place on the shadow side of the hill, I cheated sunlight as close to the characters as I could. The direct light adds so much dimensionality and the presence of even a small sliver of blown-out sky makes the shots feel more real. In almost every shots we added camera float to make it feel as if the cameramen were hanging from ropes along with the ninjas.
Can you tell us more about the shooting of this sequence?
The stunt players we had on the green screen shoot were just amazing in their abilities. When they had two of them swinging towards each other they were going at about 30 miles an hour! The second unit stunt shoot directed by George Ruge was able to get the majority of the elements we needed. After all the pieces were edited together Jon made decisions about what needed to be augmented and what needed to be replaced digitally. There were a few shots where Jon was happy with the overall performance but wanted to strengthen a sword swing or add a kick to make the performance more “badass”. For those shots we replaced limbs on the stunt performers with pieces of our digital doubles. Kapow!
Can you provide some additional detail about creation of the impressive avalanche?
The first stage of the process for a sequence like the avalanche is to do research. Although avalanches are powerful and dangerous, many times they look soft and fluffy. Because of this, I suggested that the falling material start out as compressed icy snow like you would find on a glacier. I found some amazing footage showing a massive ice bridge that collapses into a river. The huge ice chunks fall and atomize when the hit the water. This was the inspiration for our avalanche, as we wanted to make it hurt the Ninjas as much as possible.
We built a model of the ice overhang that we broke into interlocking “puzzle pieces” Paul animated these pieces using both key-frames and simulations. The ice chunks passed right through the ledge they were hitting and later we emitted particles from those points to create the atomized backsplash. The particle effects needed some break-up and so we also used plume to get a smaller scale and more “smokey” feel to the ejected snowfall. We kept adding more and more layers until the avalanche had the right complexity.
How did you create the White House environment and the flags?
The White House pull-back was created on our digital matte department. We had a plate that Jim had shot of the Cobra soldiers raising the flag at the head of the shot. This element was combined into our CG model of the White House. Jim had risked being thrown in Jail to get us really good texture reference of the real White House with his still camera in Washington D.C. The dropping cobra banners were CG cloth simulations.
Can you explain in details about the impressive destruction of London?
The destruction of London in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION is caused by the dropping of a man-made meteor. When the filmmakers turned over the shots to us they explained that they didn’t want to see the typical “nuclear blast” type shots. They wanted to surface of the earth to “shatter”. We explored the idea of treating the ground plane as a thick “shell” that would break like glass when the impact happens. Jon also wanted the energy from the blast to move out in a wave rather than a ring. The film’s cutting room in LA had provided to us helicopter footage over London to use as plates.
The plates were used to set the camera and the lighting, but since so much destruction was going to occur over the course of the shots we completely replace the plate with our digital London. Once the ground plane was constructed Paul Kavanagh oversaw the fracturing of the surface and how it moved after the impact. We had some very specific movement we wanted to see, like some of the plates under the Thames river tilting towards us so we could see the water slide towards camera. This animation of the plates drove ALL the destruction and simulations that would follow. We broke down the buildings and bridges into foreground and background assets with the foreground models being more finely detailed and the many background ones being more procedural.
We benefited greatly in the fact that many of the artists who came onto our show to work on the London destruction had just come off of BATTLESHIP and THE AVENGERS. They were working at a very high level of speed and efficiency right from the start. The work was very complex and interconnected and everyone on the team used their superpowers to make the shots look amazing.
How did you manage the stereo aspect of the show?
The decision to release the film in stereo came after we had delivered our finaled shots. After the crew wrapped on the main show, a much smaller crew stayed on to break our shots into layers elements for dimensionalization.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The shots that I lost sleep over were the Avalanche shots. The reason for this was that they were on a fast-track to complete for an early trailer. They didn’t come together until the last minute and stressing over the deadline is what kept me up at night.
How many shots have you done?
We completed 180 shots for the film. The majority of the work was the Ninja fight on the cliff face, destruction of London, and the White House pullback.
What was the size of your team?
I can answer that question visually. Here is our GI Joe2 ILM crew photo. Over the course of the show we photographed our crew members and put them on “trading cards” with their own “Joe Name” The real heroes of G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (in our eyes)!
What is your next project?
I just finished a very fun little project IDENTITY THEIF where we created a CG snake that terrorizes Jason Bateman. Currently I am working on a couple of “secret projects” that go into production next year. And no… it’s not STAR WARS (laughs).
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
I can tell you the ones that had a profound effect on me.
When I was 10 my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told her I wanted to see a new movie that was out called PLANET OF THE APES. Since it wasn’t playing in the small town where we were living, she had to drive me all the way to Sacramento to see it. It was playing as a double bill with ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. Both films scared the crap out of me and I love them both to this day.
My appreciation for 2001: A SPACE ODDESSY has evolved and matured as I have. When I was young, it seemed a promise of all the cool technology that was ahead. I remember calculating how old I would be in 2001 to see if I would be able to enjoy the future as seen in the film. I was disappointed to discover that at 42 I would be way too old to take part in the fun. Later as a young adult I viewed the characters and acting as rather dated and wooden. Now I view the film from another unique perspective and see it as the masterpiece it is.
When I was in High School, STAR WARS came out and changed my life. After seeing it I was driven to start building copies of the model spaceships seen in the film. Two years later, building spaceships was my job.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– ILM: Official website of ILM.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013