MATRIX: How would you define pre-visualization?
ALEX: There are many faces to pre-viz. I usually describe it as taking the storyboards of a film — which is a sort of comic book of all the images in a film — and animating them on a computer so the director can see and interactively work with them. We also build virtual sets, virtual characters and virtual cameras so the directors can choose which camera angles they want ahead of time, and solve any technical problems with things like stunts or blue screen/green screen elements. Our technology allows them to speed up that process.
MATRIX: And it’s not an old a tool.
ALEX: No, it’s interesting to think about what they did before this kind of thing came along and really got used to its potential. I’d say these tools have probably been around, in some form or another, for about ten years or so, not really gaining popularity until about five years ago. The more technical the shows get, the more out there they want to be with some of the camera moves.
We really play a key role in that because the directors get to see and interactively work with us before any of the planning happens, so they can say okay, this shot is great. Hey let’s work with this, or this shot isn’t so good — try changing this camera angle, or something like that.
MATRIX: Since you started in pre-viz, have you seen directors embrace the technology more passionately as the techniques and processes have matured?
ALEX: Yes, I think they have. I think that in the first place, since it’s a new concept, sometimes it’s difficult to really get a handle on even for seasoned professionals. Even when I first got involved in it I didn’t fully understand the entire scope of what pre-viz was. So the more accustomed they get to seeing these images and how we can manipulate them, and to seeing the AVIs and all the different ways that we transform the information, I think they’re getting much more comfortable with it and better understand not only the limitations, but how far we can go with it. It’s being welcomed a lot more, and not just on this movie, but in the visual effects society in general.
MATRIX: Aren’t the limitations something that’s literally changing every year?
ALEX: That’s the other beauty of it: something that might not be possible today, with a newer technology will be possible. Take for example the first JURASSIC PARK and then look at the second one, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, at the changes that have taken place between those films. What we can do now, you’d never have thought you could do that before.
MATRIX: When is pre-viz needed for a shot?
ALEX: From film to film I think it would depend on the director and their need to solve certain technical problems. Where it’s something like you’re inside having a conversation with someone and the camera is just bouncing back and forth, there’s no need for it. There’s more of a technical necessity when there’s a scene of a camera going through a wall and disappearing or something like that. For instance, when we’re going after the Sentinels, the Sentinels are coming right towards camera, or in the Freeway chase where everything is very exacting and life threatening. It’s used intelligently, but not on simple shots.
MATRIX: How did you get into pre-viz?
ALEX: Before I worked in pre-viz I was doing stained glass windows for churches and for cemeteries, and then I started to work in architecture doing 3D models for architecture firms, actual physical models. The firm I work for really ties in to people who work in architecture because of our understanding of 3D space, measurements and detail; and pre-viz is very much like that. You need to have that mind-set to be able to say we need to move this camera X number of feet and inches towards an object or away from an object, and be able to translate that information in a clear and concise way to anyone who needs it down the line — the grips, the directors, whoever it might be.
MATRIX: Was it difficult to break in?
ALEX: I met Colin Green, the head of PLF [Pixel Liberation front] at a SIGGRAPH conference, and he did this great speech about Starship Troopers and the work he did on it. I went up to him afterwards, being the cocky person that I was, and said it was a really great speech and I really appreciated all the work you did, but why use Softimage? At that point, I didn’t work with Softimage. I told him it was a dead product and suggested he use Maya. He gave me this look like who are you, said yeah okay, and basically walked on his way. Two years later my friend was working at Pixel Liberation Front, and they needed someone to fill in a position, so I got a recommendation and went in there and Colin was on vacation in Egypt so the Human Resources staff hired me without Colin even knowing. When Colin came back he didn’t even recognize me two years later, and I’ve been there ever since.
The first film I worked on was Panic Room with David Fincher, which was quite different than how this is going. It’s interesting to see how pre-viz is being used in every single aspect, and we’re getting really creative with wild camera moves; David Fincher’s film was much more specific. My specialty at PLF at the time THE MATRIX films were starting up was documenting information and translating it all into an easy to read format for grips and directors and other production folk, and they needed someone like me on this show. I was placed in that role and it grew from there to doing a lot of the creative work.
MATRIX: Are you using Maya now?
ALEX: Yes. We use both Maya and Softimage XSI. It has all come full circle; I’ve been initiated into the world of Softimage, and Colin has been initiated into Maya.
MATRIX: Do they communicate with one another at this point?
ALEX: You’d like to think that, but they really don’t; they don’t play nice with each other. You can translate models and that kind of thing, but when it comes to animation you’re better off recreating it in the individual software package. That’s part of the reason why we’re using Maya because one of the final vendors wanted everything done in Maya format for the show. We’re normally in Softimage XSI in house, so we had to switch over for this.
MATRIX: All told, how much time have you been working on THE MATRIX so far?
ALEX: About a year and a half. I started in LA, moved to Alameda and then came over to Sydney with the production, which has been a great experience. I’ve always wanted to come here since I was a kid because the duckbill platypus is my favorite animal; I went to the marina and just stared at it for hours. Coming here has been a treat.
MATRIX: What was your first reaction to being told you were working on THE MATRIX sequels?
ALEX: Wow, this is awesome. I really enjoyed the first movie, and a chance to see what the second and the third were going to be like was a really great opportunity. The atmosphere of the people is really quite different than a lot of other movies I’ve heard about or worked on; it’s more like a family here.
When I first got to the LA office we were working on the Freeway sequence, and I was doing a lot of the documentation. There were a lot of stunts where we had to figure out details like what the car speeds were, how fast Trinity was moving, and which lane she was going to be in at what particular time. That information was then packaged, given to the Brothers [Larry & Andy Wachowski, Writers / Directors], John Gaeta [Visual Effects Supervisor], R.A. Rondell [Stunt Coordinator], and various other people, and taken up to Alameda where the actual shooting of the Freeway sequence was laid out. After that I moved onto the Siege, and have basically been working on that for the most part since. I’ve done a little bit of work on side projects for various other people, but pretty much the Siege and the Freeway Chase have taken up a year and a half.
MATRIX: Did the plan for multiple events happening in the Freeway scene add complications for pre-viz?
ALEX: Obviously the more factors you bring into a shot, especially with something where we’re doing pre-viz for live action with stunts with several cars all having to move at a particular speed, it will be more complicated. Those people have to hit those marks, and if the pre-viz is wrong there’s a problem. All the information had to be translated in a way so that everyone could understand it; not just Larry and Andy and not just R.A. Everyone had to really understand it, get their head around it, and know what was going on with each shot.
With something like that where there’s not a cut and they captured a car flipping over in one long take, the thing that was amazing to me was seeing the final work compared to the pre-viz, and how these people took our work and ran with it. It was amazing, the explosions were in the same place and the cars flipped over the same way. The technical know-how that the crew had was very, very impressive.
Right before the Christmas break, when Larry and Andy showed everyone a twenty-minute sequence from RELOADED, all of us in Pre-viz were in the very front row. We were patting each other on the back and everything because it was just so rewarding and awesome to see it all on the big screen. I’m so glad I had a chance to have some kind of creative input into it.
MATRIX: Did you do any on set work?
ALEX: During the Trailer Top Fight I was on set to make sure that all the blue screens and all the placements were okay. If they had any questions in regards to the information that we gave them, or if they needed changes quickly I would go back to the Pre-viz office and come back with an answer.
MATRIX: How do you make sure everything and everyone is in the right place for all the stages that come later?
ALEX: The Trailer Top Fight is a choreographed fight scene, so on the day of the shoot I had to watch to make sure if, say, an arm or a leg went too high that we got enough coverage to compensate. We also do motion control on the cameras so we can do quick composites so they can see what the background is going to look like with the characters in there.
MATRIX: So essentially you’re taking the action on the blue screen and compositing that with the background then and there?
ALEX: Sometimes we’ve been doing that, but initially it was a lot of decisions about blue screen size and the angle we were going to shoot at. Then taking that information a step further and creating a rough idea of what it’s going to look like with buildings whizzing by. If they look at it and say they want to change something, we’ll go back, they’ll shoot it a different way, we’ll slap it back in the computer, re-composite it, and give them an answer.
MATRIX: What kind of time frame are you talking about for that?
ALEX: It depends on the shot. Generally speaking, the pipeline we have is probably in the area of hours rather than minutes. Some things we can give a quick answer to: if something is not working they may ask to look at it on a 21mm lens instead of a 17, we can do that immediately. When it’s something like re-compositing to see what the top of the building looks like over there, it takes a bit of time.
MATRIX: Of all the shots you’ve worked on, have any been particularly memorable?
ALEX: There’s shot FC78 on the Freeway Chase, which is one of my favorites. I got to go out and watch people blow things up, so that was really great. I worked with John Gaeta and did the original animation of the explosion, blowing the Twins up past camera from the car after Morpheus slashes the car with a Samurai sword and blows it up. That was really interesting because a lot of the other shots I’ve been working on the changes happen within a day or an hour, and this one was also post-vized.
We did pre-viz to show what the explosion will look like and the movement of the characters, and that kind of thing, all in the 3D world. They went out and shot plates because they wanted to see a rough comp of what it was going to look like because there were a lot of things happening in that shot that were complicated from a compositing standpoint. They wanted to see what the explosion was really going to look like rotating around and pulling up, and then the Twins coming up and blowing up out of that. There was a lot of BABOOM happening. The Directors and John Gaeta especially were all sitting around going BABOOM! BABOOM! It was a very graphic way of describing these situations.
It was really cool because we did some intermediates between handing the work off to Animal Logic [VFX vendor] who had the final composition I did. We had some intermediates where we went out and did explosion tests, so we went over to the Pyrotechnicians and they tried out a bunch of different explosions. We took a look at them on the camera and chose the one that was really cool, modified it and tried it again.
MATRIX: Did the Directors describe the type of explosion and color of explosion they wanted?
ALEX: The color is more the look of the explosion. The final look is what Animal Logic is going to be doing. What we did was more the timing and coordinating how big it was going to be. We addressed any problems with the speed changes and all the different elements and plates rotating around, and made sure the lenses were right. For some of the shots we used 35mm, for other ones we used a bunch of different lenses and different kinds of cameras. To make all that work together was an interesting challenge.
Another one of my favorite shots would be the Digger Falls sequence, where the digger comes through the dome and falls down. That was great to work on and to get the scale and weight of this massive thing, and the feel of it falling down and crashing through. It’s a very dramatic sequence. What is really cool is that the whole sequence is CG.
MATRIX: You are pre-vizing computer generated shots?
ALEX: Yes, to give the final guys a starting off point. John wanted it done so he and the Brothers could look at some of the scenes and see the timing they wanted. Instead of wasting the vendor’s time and doing a lot of different takes, they could say right then and there that this is what they want the shot to look like as far as timing and scale and weight.
MATRIX: What are you doing on the Siege?
ALEX: It is an unbelievably large sequence. A lot of the Siege is computer generated, though some of it is green screen and some will be done with the motion control rig. Once again, a lot of work will be done in the initial planning and design. If the Brothers like a shot when they look at it we make changes if necessary, and then break it down and address the technicalities of the sequence. We figure out the angle, which will be done what way and document all the camera information. It’s pretty intense.
MATRIX: How exacting are Larry and Andy?
ALEX: They know what they want. The thing that’s nice about them is they also allow creative freedoms, but they’re definitely very exacting in the kind of things they ask for and the kind of things they want to translate.
MATRIX: Does it change the dynamics of the project that the VFX team are working digitally, as is the pre-viz team?
ALEX: It changes the final pipeline. In the beginning it’s about the creativity and the idea, but for what we’re doing now we need to get all this information ready so the vendor can take it and run with it cleanly and easily; making the easiest translation. That influences all our decisions, even down to the software we’re using so the final vendor can work with our information and not have to recreate everything. They have the camera moves, they have the basic idea of what the shot is going to look like, and they can expound upon that instead of having to start all over again. But the idea of pre-viz in the beginning is exactly the same — it’s a creative solution.
MATRIX: Do you feel less reined in on the Siege from a dealing with physical realities standpoint?
ALEX: No, all rules are not off. We have some limitations: we have to translate the physicality of real cameras into that of the virtual cameras. We can’t have the camera racing in our pre-viz at ninety miles an hour and stopping on a dime, we have to take real world physics into account. Or if we want a World War II fighter plane bombing run kind of thing, we have to find a way to best get that sort of feel. There’s a prescribed set of ideas, but within those there’s a lot of creativity.
MATRIX: What do you think about the variety of visuals both inside the Matrix and in Zion?
ALEX: That’s another great thing about this production, the first film had a lot of variation but it was all within a particular set of parameters. Seeing everything on this one — even down to the camera moves inside the Siege — you’re talking very different visuals inside and outside the Matrix. How Zion looks in the Temple sequence where all the dancers are going crazy, and then to the Freeway chase, even the Trinity Falls or Trinity Saved sequences is all unbelievably varied.
MATRIX: Thanks for the interview, Alex.
Interview by REDPILL