Special Effects in the Movies with Danny of TBL
Hugi had an audience with Emmy award winning graphics artist Danny of The Black Lotus. Written by Magic of Nah-Kolor.
As a graphics artist Danny was active on the demoscene during the 90's. He contributed to demos like Tint and Captured Dreams by The Black Lotus (TBL) or Rink a Dink by Lemon. on the Amiga or The Party 1997 winning TBL 64kb PC intro Stash. Danny also won the graphics competition at The Party 1995 and got a 3rd place at The Party 1996. In 1992 he released his slideshow 'Forgotten'. Now 20 years and an Emmy award later Hugi finally got the chance to meet up with this marvellous personality to talk about special effects in the movies and a little about the demoscene on the side.
Danny introduces himself: "My name is Danny Geurtsen. And I used to be known in the demoscene under the pretty obvious alias 'Danny'. I was largely active as a Graphics Artist for various groups such as Mirage, Anarchy, Spaceballs, The Black Lotus, Nah-Kolor, and a few others on the side that I'm forgetting now. As for when, I think it's easiest for my poor memory skills to say that I was most active during the 1990s. I'll leave it to the historians to fill in the specifics."
Danny has come a long way since his active days on the demoscene. He has worked as visual effects artist on some of the biggest movies out there. To name some: Harry Potter, Avatar, X-Men, The Dark Knight, The Lovely Bones, James Bond - Quantum of Solace and, at the time of writing this article, the forthcoming The Avengers movie. In fact some of this article was written in the period Danny was residing at Weta Digital in New Zealand for The Avengers.
The demoscene was Danny's path to his profession today. How did the demoscene help him? "I doubt an easy, direct parallel could be drawn between what we did in the demoscene versus the work I'm doing today", Danny explains and continues: "The type of work is quite different really. What my time in the demoscene did help accomplish was of course a substantial portfolio that helped me land my first job all those many years ago."
Danny's first steps in the industry
I noticed on imdb.com (see link at the end of this article) that 12 years ago Danny started doing graphics/textures for TV and Movies. Was this a conscious move for him? How did he became involved in this line of work? Hugi asked him. Danny comments: "Prior to starting in the Visual Effects industry for film/TV, I worked in the games industry for a while. At one point I got an invitation from a friend whom I had met at Eidos Interactive to come and help him out on a project that later came to be known as 'Walking With Dinosaurs'. The job involved the painting of the Dinosaurs' skin textures. For those who don't know what this entails, you get given a plain 3D sculpture of a Dinosaur and you paint it up in its natural colours, paint in all the high frequency details like wrinkles, scales, scars, etcetera, all the while making sure that its skin responds to light in a realistic fashion."
After Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking with Beasts, the TV movie The Lost World and Dinotopia Danny did some uncredited work on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The first really big movie Danny worked on I suppose. I asked him how he became involved and about working on this particular movie. Danny: "Well, the work that Framestore took care of for this film involved the sequence with the blue Pixies/Faeries, some Fawkes/Phoenix shots, but most importantly, a CG version of the Basilisk, the giant serpent Harry faces in the end act. The studio had hired a conventional sculptor to come up with a fairly detailed sculpt of the Basilisk's head, which ended up being 3D scanned and Cysliced into a comparable 3D model. The body of the serpent however was about as smooth as a rain pipe. No detail whatsoever. So in addition to painting the colour and specularity details for the head, we also had to paint a lot of 3 dimensional detail on its (very long) body via the means of displacement maps. Now this was before MudBox and 3DCoat were even invented and before ZBrush was really usable for 3D like it is nowadays. So it was basically a trial and error process of 2D UV maps painted in PhotoShop and doing lots of test renders to see whether we were on the right track. I talk of 'we' here, as the lead texture artist on the Basilisk was 'Jason Horley', while I assisted."
Danny's all-time top 5 movie special effects:
(In no particular order)
• 'Children of Men - The birth sequence'. I'm a bit biased on this one, as I worked on it. But I found it was just such a great concept to utilize CG for. People these days are often complaining about the liberal use of CG in films when in-camera effects would've worked just as well. In this case, how could you ever accomplish a long continuous shot like this on set? You can't. This is what CG was invented for in my opinion... to pull off shots like this.
• 'Jurassic Park - The Gallimimus stampede'. While not the first use of CG in film, it blew my socks off when I first saw it. Here we were still tinkering on Amigas with Deluxe Paint and along comes ILM with that. It was the first time I ever saw living, breathing creatures done in CG convincingly. Simply amazing!
• 'Tron'. The original film of course. This sparked my interest in computers, virtual worlds and CG (though I had no concept of that term at the time) more than anything else.
• 'Pirates of the Carribean - the Davy Jones character' Awesome character design and execution by ILM. Quality of the highest caliber.
• 'Avatar - Pandora's Jungle'. Again, slightly biased on this. The size, grandeur and sheer detail that Weta managed to pull off here is unrivaled. Trees and vegetation are tremendously difficult to do in CG. Creating a feature length film that takes place in an Alien rainforest has to be one of the most daunting assignments out there and the team at Weta pulled it off perfectly.
Movie SFX, The Emmy Award and Avatar!
Early in Danny's career as movie special effects artist he won a prestigeous award. The Emmy! I asked Danny
if he could tell you, our reader, a bit about the movie which he won The Emmy Award for. "This was Dinotopia. Not so much a movie as it was a mini-series, produced by
Hallmark Entertainment, based on James Gurney's books. It was about 10 years ago and I
The Emmy was awarded to the whole Visual Effects team at Framestore for the work we had done on the 3rd part of the Dinotopia mini-series. It came with an individual certificate on which, in my case, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in classic English/American tradition, managed to misspell my family name. As you can see we also took our turns getting our picture taken with the statues.
remember having a lot of fun on the show, despite the fact that we knew it wasn't probably going to be all that great of a production", Danny explains and continues: "It was also the first time I got to do a fair amount of matte painting, which was a lot of fun. Framestore was a lot smaller back then, and due to the amount of shots required, the show tied up most of the company." During the creation of this article, which happened in the last month of 2011 and the first month of 2012, Danny just finished work on Gravity and The Avengers. What work did Danny do for these movies exactly and what are these movies about? Danny: "Well, I'm not really permitted to go into any details as both films are still in post production as I write this. Suffice it to say that on Gravity I was Lead Texture artist. This involved setting up a 2D pipeline for textures. Establishing the level of quality of the work to be done and designing an operating standard procedure for artists to adhere to. Tutoring of juniors and writing Wiki documentation. Putting together and supervising (interviewing, hiring and managing) a medium sized team of artists. Bidding and scheduling tasks.... and painting the odd asset here and there whenever there was time left.... to quote my CV. :) I left half way through post production on this project to follow up on other interests, so I'm very keen to see the final result. This will be one to watch out for folks! On Avengers I was hired as a Matte Painter. No supervisory responsibilities on that one, which meant there was actually time again to hold a Wacom pen and spent time in Photoshop. :)"
As written earlier, Danny has worked on quite some movies in the last 12 years. X-Men, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight and even Avatar! Does Danny have a favourite movie he worked on? What exactly did he do can he tell us some anecdotes about working on these movies perhaps? "Two projects in particular stand out. The first one being a BBC series called 'Space Odyssey - Voyage to the Planets'. It chronicled a hypothetical, explorational tour of the Solar System undertaken by a handful of astronauts, visiting all sorts of key planets, moons and even an asteroid. I'm a huge space buff and therefore the whole concept interested me greatly.
"Working at Weta Digital is an amazing experience, simply because they are (in my opinion) the best Visual Effects facility in the world."
Because this was a fairly small/low budget production (compared to your average Hollywood affair) a lot of work had to be done in a relatively small amount of time. The good thing about that is that you don't end up with a lot of, what we call, 'pixel-fucking'. That is were directors endlessly go over shots, making all sorts of changes, from the big important ones, to the tiniest, highly insignificant non-issues. You're often also directly involved with the director, instead of having a multitude of VFX-supervisors, CG-supervisors, lead artists, producers, coordinators, and the coffee-lady making decisions before word reaches you. We were essentially given free reign, within the confines of known science so to speak. So we had a lot of creative freedom to do shots as we saw fit. In general, the bigger the production (read: better funded), the less creative freedom you as an individual artist have. While it's cool to work on big shows like Batman and Harry Potter, a lot of decisions are made for you. Which can take away a lot of the fun", Danny tells us with confidence and continues: "Having said that though, I have to list Avatar here nonetheless. Working at Weta Digital is an amazing experience, simply because they are (in my opinion) the best Visual Effects facility in the world. Bar none. And with Avatar I think we were really breaking new ground. To be able to contribute to that project was quite humbling. I mainly worked on Textures and Look-development of the Na'vi's Home Tree, human Jake digi-double, various Hells Gate buildings and infra structure and loads of other bits and pieces. Then later on as textures were largely completed I moved to the Matte Painting department to work on the Floating Mountains sequences."
Avatar is the biggest grossing movie of all time. (Over 2700 million dollars!) The first real 3d movie ever. The movie that boasted 3d cinema. Written and directed by James Cameron. Zooming in on Avatar, how did you, Danny, get to work on this movie? Did he have any contact with the real actors or directors? And why is, in Danny's above opinion, Weta Digital the best Visual Effects Facility in the world? Danny tells us: "I started work at Weta Digital at around the time when Avatar post production was shifting into high-gear. It was pretty much an 'all hands on deck' affair at one point. The project was just that big. So initially I did textures and look development for a number of assets on the show. Predominantly the large Home Tree interior. This was a ton of work considering it covered such a massive area and it's used in quite a few key sequences. Then later on in the project, I switched to the Matte Painting department to help out with painting 2D and 2.5D backgrounds for the Floating Mountains sequences. CG-artists more often than not do not get involved with actors or directors. The two schedules, plate photography and post production (CG work) usually do not overlap all that much. So by the time us CG grunts get involved the actors have moved on already. There are exceptions, but that's generally how it is. Regarding Weta Digital, it goes beyond merely looking at the visual output of a VFX facility. One also has to take into account how a company treats its employees/contractors. I think Weta and ILM are both on the top tier with regards to the quality of the work they deliver.
"Where Weta (in my opinion) outshines ILM, is the working environment. Better pay, better housing facilities, better location, and generally more pleasant to work at."
Where Weta (in my opinion) outshines ILM, is the working environment. Better pay, better housing facilities, better location, and generally more pleasant to work at. Mind you, as I've not worked at ILM (I have no desire to live in the US), my opinion is based on what I've heard from many colleagues and friends who have been there. So take my opinion for what it's worth."
I read an article about a possible forthcoming new revolution in the games and movie industry. Making rendering 50 to 70 times faster. You can read it here. What does Danny think about the future impact of this new technology which makes rendering in real time possible. What will it mean for making movies and games? What are Danny's other thoughts on this subject?
This photo was taken as I was working on 'Doom' the movie at Framestore as a Texture Artist. One of the tasks was to create a digital double of Karl Urban's character 'John Grimm'. In order to help us do this, the client had sent us Urban's costume to photograph for reference. I figured the best way to do so was to put it on and start taking photographs. Luckily it fit reasonably well and the shot you see here was one of the last we took. I figured I'd strike a bit of a pose. :)
"The 3D industry is young. It's evolving very rapidly and is still finding its feet. Just as the 3D industry is learning how to make increasingly realistic imagery, at the same time, the audience has become more savvy at recognizing a CG element. The uncanny valley is not particularly a problem of render power. There have already been examples where the CG humans have fooled the masses. All done without 'real time rendering'. Sure, more resources always helps, but I think the problems lie elsewhere", Danny explains and continues: "Creating a convincing human in CG is without a doubt the most difficult task out there. There is just so much information to get right. So many choices to make for a CG artist. You end up juggling a million balls in the air all while trying to manage a tight deadline, fall victim to fickle directors and/or supervisors and deal software that changes on nearly a daily basis. The tools need to continue to evolve (and more importantly, mature), directors need to learn restraint, and CG artists need to be given workable schedules that don't involve 100 hour weeks during the last 5 months of production."
Danny told me he doesn't follow the demoscene anymore. However, from time to time he does see old and new demos through Facebook. "They only time I check out the demoscene's activities is when I see an interesting looking link on one of my Facebook friends' pages." Then as we usually do at the ending of an article I wanted to hand over the keyboard and give Danny the possibility to air whatever he wants, give some greetings perhaps. But everything has a first time I guess. Danny politely told me: "Well, I've never been one to feel all that comfortable standing in front of the camera, or as in this case, stand on a soapbox. But thank you for the opportunity. :)"
Over the years in the demoscene, sceners have discussed many times where demos are headed in the future. Thus before we end this article so Danny can work on the top movies of the forthcoming years we asked Danny about his view and thoughts where special effects in movies will be in the next 5 till 10 years? "That's actually really difficult to answer. I don't think anybody really knows where we'll end up. The industry is young still and evolving rapidly through contributions of a great number of people. I think VFX and the Games industry will continue to swap ideas and technologies and grow closer still", Danny explains and concludes: "I hope the industry as a whole will gain more respect for itself from the studios and that the relentless 'race to the bottom', as some call it, will be replaced by a more humane working environment."
Links related to this article
Danny at International Movie Database
Some of Danny's his demoscene work from the 90's
Top 50 movie special effects article