Karen Goulekas is back on The Art of VFX. In the following interview, she explains her collaboration with director Rian Johnson and the various challenges she encountered on this project.

How did you got involved on this show?
My agent told me about it and got me a meeting with Ram Bergman – and from there, a meeting with Rian Johnson. Sounded really cool – so – the rest is history!

It’s the first feature of Rian Johnson with VFX. How did you help him on this aspect?
First film with so many vfx I guess. He came in pretty cynical about vfx in general – kept referring to them as « cartoons. » I kept telling him that he only notices the « bad » vfx – but the good stuff is seamless and he wouldn’t even realize he had just seen an effect. But he wasn’t buying it!

But – once we got into post it all changed. He would come in every day so I could show him all the work that had come in from our vendors. I had a 2k playback using tweak RV – so we could zoom in and draw notes on the frames and all that good stuff. He got pretty into it – picked up the lingo too! He would say « Is that a halo? Is there a tracking bump? »

Happy to say, that at the end of the show, Rian no longer thought all visual effects looked like cartoons! Yay! Mission accomplished! And we can thank our vendors for all their hard work and creative collaboration for that!

What was his approach about the visual effects?
He always wanted to shoot as much practical as possible which I believe is always the best approach. He was very cautious not to overuse vfx or do things that would make them jump out at the audience. That’s a good thing!

The movie shows a near future. Can you tell us more about your work with the art department?
The Art dept, led by our Production Designer, Ed Verreaux, gave us concept art for ideas about what things could look like. But, unlike a lot of shows I do, we didn’t start any vfx development until we got into post. At that point, we started with the cool ideas from the art dept and continued on from there.

How did you create the futuristic city and the various vehicles?
The future cities, both here in the U.S. and in future Shanghai – were created by Atomic Fiction. They started off with 2D concept art and from there branched out into full layouts using a combination of 3D buildings, 2.5D camera projected buildings and 2D distant skylines. It all went very smoothly thanks to the fact that Rian is very clear about what he wants. Atomic would put all kinds of cool ideas in front of us and Rian would say yes or no or we’d throw out an alternate idea to what they had proposed.

When a director is so decisive about what he likes and doesn’t like it gives us way more time to finesse the work and make it look great. Otherwise – you can get stuck in concept art land and run out of enough time to make the work look really great. But in this case, we got through the concept design very quickly which left us enough time to work on the meat of the shots!

Can you explain to us in details how was created the impressive sequence of mutilated Old Seth?
Old Seth was created by Hydraulx. During shooting, I opted to use a couple of canon 7D’s as witness cameras to accompany the main film camera. By placing these two additional cameras at approximately 45 degree angles to the main camera, we could provide Hydraulx with the means to extract the camera move and figure out Old Seth’s position in 3D space and be able to rotomate his body motion.

We also placed dots on his hands and face during shooting. We used a plastic mask, created from a life cast of Old Seth’s face, that had holes drilled in it where the tracking markers should go. This helped ensure that the tracking marks were in the same place on his face each day which greatly helps in post. We used green dots for day time shots and white fluorescent dots for night shots.

We also did a full body and head cyberscan of Old Seth. With all this data, Hydraulx was able to begin their work. The hardest shot in the film is the one where Old Seth crashes his car into a telephone pole. First, we had to blend the two plates – one with the stunt driver and one with Old Seth. From there, Old Seth gets out of the car and his legs disappear as he walks.

After a lot of thought, it was decided that our best approach would be to completely replace Old Seth from the waist down with CG. I remember the horrified look on Rian’s face when I first told him that this is how we decided to do the shot… I said, « Don’t worry! It’s Hydraulx!! »

At a moment, Joe is falling while escaping his apartment with the camera following his fall. Can you explain this beautiful shot?
This shot is really cool – done in camera with the exception of rig removals and the CG Gat Man that falls to the ground behind the car at the end which was done by Atomic Fiction. They had young Joe up on the escape ladder and then a stunt man lower down on the building who fell from the building to land on the car. Cool shot…

The movie features many gore shots especially during gun fights. Can you tell us more about your involvement on these kind of shots?
Hydraulx did all the blood splatter shots. Love that stuff. We had some practical blood shots that Rian liked so we were able to zero in on what the blood hits should look like very quickly. We also shot some practical squib hits during shooting. The SFX dept put blood squibs on 1′ square boards and then covered them in gs cloth. We shot at tons of different angles. Although we ended up doing CG blood, these squib elements were very helpful for the cloth tearing effect we captured. We could use these to track onto the bodies of the guys getting shots and it would look like his clothes had been ripped open and then we could have our cg blood shoot out.

Can you explain to us in details the impressive establishing shots of the futuristic Shanghai?
These were done by Atomic Fiction. The first one – the aerial shot – began as a piece of stock footage of San Francisco! We changed the bridge and futurised the big boat below – but that was all that was left of the original plate once we were done adding a kazillion buildings. One of my favorite shots. All the others were done like all the other city shots – first 2D concept, followed by a combination of 3D, 2.5D and 2D elements to create the end result.

How was filmed the shots with the flying bike?
We had a big pickup truck that towed the bike on a flat bed. The rig could be set up so the bike could be behind the truck or on the side of it – whichever gave us the least amount of headache for removing it in post. Of course, we also shot clean plates to go along with the main plate. Hydraulx then added the thrusters, heat distortion and dust fx that came from it.

Can you tell us more about the bike creation?
The bike was practical in all the shots except for when it comes flying out of the dust cloud that Joe kicked up with his gun. We had shot it with the practical bike – but needed a different trajectory for it to travel – and also needed it CG for when it first impacts the ground and starts to break apart

The editing style is pretty slow with long shots. Does this causes you some troubles?
No just makes it take longer to track and roto and stuff like that – but I wouldn’t call that a trouble – just the nature of the beast!

The first time when Bruce Willis appears in front of Joe, there is a cloud with a very specific look. Can you tell us more about it?
Yes, Rian wanted something unique in the shot that would ensure that the audience realized that we were seeing the same scene over again. We discussed birds at first, but then decided to go with a cool looking cloud trail.

Can you tell us more about the impressive car crash caused by Cid?
These turned into quite tricky comps that Hydraulx pulled off for us! The car flip was practical – but not shot in the actual location where it needed to be in the film. So, we had to do background and road replacement, rig removal galore, dust removal and then add cg dust with action that better suited the shot. Hydraulx also replaced the bottom undercarriage of the car with a cg version which was a better alternative to trying to paint remove all the rigging!

About Cid. How did you design and filmed his destructive super-powers?
Well – the super cool shot of Jesse exploding was done by Hydraulx. Rian described it as needing to be a beautiful and surreal shot where the blood almost felt like a flower blooming in super slow motion. It was one of those shots that just needed experimentation to nail down what would look right – but Hydraulx was very quickly able to get some ideas in front of us and we nailed the concept down pretty fast so we could get into the nuts and bolts of the shot.

Can you tell us more about the creation of his super-powers?
The final sequence where Cid creates the shock wave across the sugar cane field and causes all the dirt and sugar cane bits to swirl around in the air was created by Scanline. They were really fast about getting previs in front of us to nail down the amount, speed and action of the debris. Once we would nail the basic timing and feel down, we got into the specifics of what all the pieces looked like.

Scanline totally understood what we were looking for – to the point where they became like mind readers! Rian and I would look at their shots and circle pieces that we thought looked too cg, or didn’t like the motion or wanted to lose, etc. Then, I would get on a cinesync with Scanline – but almost every time when I would start to go over the notes – they would say, « Yes Karen – we already knew you and Rian wouldn’t like those pieces so we’ve already rendered a new version that will be on the ftp shortly! »

I would always laugh and say « I don’t think we need any more cinesyncs! You guys already know what our notes are before we even tell you! » Awesome when you have that type of creative mind meld…

How did you split the work between the various VFX vendors?
Hydraulx did:
– Blood fx
– Highway confrontation dust fx
– Slat Bike
– Old Seth
– CU on Joe’s eyeball when he puts the drops in his eyes
– Truck flip shots
And a bunch of others

Scanline did:
– The finale sequence!

Atomic fiction did:
– All the city work, aerial vehicles
– Gat man falling to ground
– Life support device that was on top of Seth on the operating table
– Fertilizer device

Base FX, Incessant Rain and Pixel Magic did:
– GS comps
– Speed Changes
– Monitor Comps
– Cel phone graphics
– Rig Removals
– Sugar Cane Cloning
– Sky Replacements

The vendors are all over the world. How did you organize yourself to follow their work?
Pretty easy to do these days with a 2k playback and ftp! We downloaded the work that came in every day and I loaded it into tweak RV. I would always have the previous version included so I could show Rian what we had previously seen to remind us of what our notes were and then compare it with the new version.

We could also annotate the frames in tweak RV which was great because I could circle the specific areas that our notes referred to so they had a visual reference of what we were babbling about. And, then, as needed, I would do cinesync sessions to discuss any notes that weren’t clear enough without more explanation or to answer any questions that came up.

Even though Hydraulx was here in LA, I think I only went over there 3 or 4 times – you can just review so many more shots in a day when you do it all on your 2k playback than you can if you are driving back and forth to facilities! And with us all using the same efilm look up table we could also be sure we were seeing the same color, contrast, etc.

Is there any invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
Like any film – there are a lot more vfx shots that we touched that no one would ever realize – basic stuff like sky replacements for continuity, adding extra sugar cane to cover up the dead and sorry sugar cane that was there… stuff like that!

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was the budget! We got really lucky. I was really stressing how to get it all done for the money we had because there was a lot of work that required an A-list vendors. But, fortunately for us, A-list companies like Hydraulx, Scanline and Atomic Fiction were really interested in the project and the work came at a time when they had some available resources – so they were all able to work with us on the price. I never would have believed we were going to get high end vendors like that on our show when we first started! So very lucky indeed!

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Old Seth keep me awake for a bit – until we figured out that we were going to replace his body from the waist down! The city shots were worrisome because we all know how that kind of city work can jump out at the audience in a film if it’s not done correctly. Also – the dust cloud on the highway – even though we do cg dust a lot – it is still hard to make it look photoreal. And, of course the finale sequence with everything flying around…

But when you have good vendors – no need to worry so much, right? (laughs)

What do you keep from this experience?
This was my first indie that I’ve done from start to finish.  I wasn’t sure what to expect at first but I walked away from it really enjoying the experience.  I got to wear a lot more hats than I do when on a huge tent pole film and I really enjoyed the enthusiasm everyone had for working on it.  I will definitely be doing more indies!

How long have you worked on this film?
1.5 years! Hard to believe – I started on the film in Oct 2010, then took an 8 week hiatus right after we finished shooting in Shanghai in April 2011. We finished post on the U.S version in March 2012 – but then I stayed on to complete another 50 shots for the china version until Aug 2012.

How many shots have you done?
388 for the U.S. version. Another 50 for the china version.

What was the size of your team?
This is the trippy part… it was so small and we had so much fun! During shooting it was just me and two data wranglers on set. Then, in post, in addition to me, we had our vfx producer, Dane Smith, and a coordinator – we had 3 across the length of the show – but our main coordinator was Matt Lloyd.

And since the edit was done pretty early on, we only had our assistant editor, Joseph Kirkland on with us during post. So, the four of us would show up each day and work and laugh and then laugh some more. Rian would come in once a day and we would see Ram Bergman here and there to check up on us and make sure we weren’t blowing the whole budget… (laughs)

It kinda felt like 4 college friends hanging out in the dorm making a movie each day…awesome…

What is your next project?
Don’t know yet! But I’m ready for something juicy! (laughs)

A big thanks for your time.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012


  1. Je viens de découvrir le film et il est très réussi, mais ils arrêtent pas de parler de la version chinoise, qu’elles en étaient les différences?


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