Posts Tagged ‘Greg Butler’

far cryIn discussions of CG and visual effects on various occasions – such as ones at mediateacher.net with visual effects supervisor Greg Butler – one of the topics that regularly arises is the particular challenge of animating people.  This involves the concept of the uncanny valley – that territory whereby the closer one gets to creating an artificial human, the creepier and more repellant that version becomes (recently confirmed through research by Maya Mathur and David Reichling).  It seems to be not such a big issue for gamers (such as with Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or Far Cry), but in fiction movies, the trend has been towards creating very cartoonish-looking people.  Among the most famous examples of the uncanny valley turning off viewers have been in the performance capture features of Robert Zemeckis, such as in The Polar Express and Beowulf, as well as earlier Pixar efforts such as Tin Toy (with that unintentionally gruesome baby) and Toy Story.  When reviewing the history of CG in animated features, it is interesting to track the development of animating humans as it settled into a distinctly stylized, successfully cartoonish look, such as in Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Up.  One notable moment in CG features that struck me was with the release of the feature Monster House, in which the setting was animated in a hyper-realistic mode and while the characters were created using performance capture, the design distinctly pursued a claymation look, most visibly noticeable in the hair of the characters.

MogWhen I was watching some British holiday commercials that were highlighted by the blog Media Psychology, I chuckled at one long ad featuring the CG cat Mog (for Sainsbury’s narrated by Emma Thompson).  I wondered, “so when cats watch this, are they creeped out?  Do they experience the uncanny valley too?  And what about dogs?  Do they get a chill down their spine watching CG puppies like when we watch The Polar Express and they yell out, ‘please, just turn on Madagascar again!'”  

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AmericanSniper_MPC_VFX_04In an earlier visit with visual effects supervisor and current head of vfx at MPC Vancouver Greg Butler, he shared perspectives on the art and business of moviemaking.  At a moment when screens are flooded with summer blockbusters that are dependent on obviously CG action scenes, such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and TomorrowlandGreg Butler’s most recent project as a visual effects supervisor on American Sniper provides very interesting perspectives on one of the most important objectives of a great deal of the effects work in today’s movies: to enhance or significantly fill in visual information from what was created and captured during principal photography in ways so that it is invisible.

Here is a link to a full interview with Greg Butler about his work on American Sniper to understand the degree to which Clint Eastwood’s movie is completely dependent on CG in order to create the world of its story.  Butler had previously worked with Eastwood on the director’s period musical Jersey Boys.  You can also check out earlier discussion of invisible effects in the earlier Close-Up interview in which Greg Butler discusses his work on Amazing Grace, among other projects.

Homemade Visual Effects with Greg Butler

Homemade Visual Effects with Greg Butler

Of course, Butler has also helped to craft some of the most compelling fantastical and imaginative worlds and characters in recent years, including groundbreaking work on both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series.  Discussing one point in the creation of Gollum that illustrates the attention to detail that one must show in this work, he commented, “In the CG model setup, there was an invisible sphere behind Gollum’s eyelid that meant that whenever his cornea moved, the skin would bulge out in a realistic way. This is the one time we got to use it because he was sleeping with his eyes closed, and his eyes moved as if he was having a bad dream. We were proud of the fact that we got to use this technique. These were the sort of subtle nuances we were seeking out to bring him to life. We want you to be completely in the movie.”  And that is the case whether you are conscious of the VFX being present or not — or if the filmmakers want you to know that they are present or not.

As one last comment on the “Art & Business of Moving Images” that goes back to Part 1, in our visit Butler shared perspectives that students do not often think about: the day-to-day life of working on the movie industry.  He comments, “If you’re interested in working in film, your choices in life become limited – unless you find an interesting avenue that occasionally people are able to find – you’re either going to end up living in the L.A. area, or you’re going to be a nomad… in terms of developing movies, the dealmaking is all L.A.  In terms of making movies, it’s L.A., but all around the world. You’re on a constant road show, touring band, carnival ride, living on a film set. And you have to live that.  Maybe it’s okay when you’re in your twenties, but it’s something to consider.  When it comes to post-production, visual effect, sound editing – your options open up a bit more: L.A. is still the center, but it’s broken down now, and there’s still lots of other places, like New York, London, Vancouver.  And that is continuing to evolve.  In fact, my company, MPC, is now opening up a new division in Montreal.”

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gregbutlerposteronlineJust a quick announcement that I will be leading a conversation with award-winning VFX artist Greg Butler in Suffield, Connecticut on April 26, 2014.  Greg will be sharing clips and talking about his groundbreaking career, from earlier days of apprenticeship on such films as Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers, to his lead role in the creation of Gollum for Lord of the Rings and on to work as a supervisor of visual effects, including his nomination for the Academy Award on the final installment of Harry Potter.  If you are in the area, I would recommend checking out this evening hosted by the Suffield Public Library Foundation for a fun discussion of moviemaking (see also a classroom visit and my Close-Up interview with him).

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Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson

Orson Welles directing Too Much Johnson

One of the most motivating and fruitful areas of inquiry for learners can be to investigate the early paths of diverse individuals as they navigate their ways into professional, creative, and adult lives.  I was very satisfied to have been able to document some compelling stories in the interviews done for Moving Imagessuch as those with Greg Butler, David Riker, and Hiro Narita.  In relation to filmmaking professionals, particularly directors, there are many books published in recent years that document perspectives about how these creators started their careers, such as Breaking In by Nicholas Jarecki, The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker by Josh Horowitz, My First Movie (1 and 2) by Stephen Lowenstein, and Moviemakers’ Master Class by Laurent Tirard.  For me, good places to start are with Doug Liman or Michel Gondry in Horowitz’s book.  And from this summer, a great early-in-the-directing-career story emerged with the discovery and restoration of Orson Welles’s film Too Much Johnson.     

Early Inspirations (photo Carl Casinghino)

Early Inspirations (photo Carl Casinghino)

The New York Times just wrapped up an excellent series in this vein: They asked a variety of creative and critical professionals about  first inspirations that may have begun them on their journey to a professional life in their artistically-oriented field of endeavor.  The series, titled First Crush, features many great short pieces, including TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s essay on the perils of keeping your children from watching television.  There is a nicely diverse selection of narratives here, and featured articles are available about television, theater, video games, dance, and more.  One of the most refreshing aspects of the article “Remembering the Spark that Ignited a Creative Fire” is that the people interviewed here are not famous celebrities (at least to our students); they are professionals who have found fulfillment and success in a career of their choice.  Of particular note for media literacy are the pieces by Katie Chironis (a game designer for Microsoft Studios) and actor Evan Handler.    

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Greg Butler 3Greg Butler 2Greg Butler 1This past December and January, a Media Literacy and Production class I teach was uniquely lucky to enjoy two visits with VFX supervisor Greg Butler, who currently works in an administrative position with MPC.  Mr. Butler was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, while his most recent vfx supervisory credit is for Jack and the Giant Slayerhis generosity in leading in-depth, enlightening discussions of the art and industry of contemporary vfx with our class is greatly appreciated.  Here is an excellent Visual Effects Master Class interview with Greg Butler created at the time of his BAFTA Award for Harry Potter.  

Visual Effects in The Life of Pi

Visual Effects in The Life of Pi

During these visits, we were able to discuss many topics and observed in-depth CG process breakdowns from the movies mentioned above and other work by MPC, including Prometheus and The Life of Pi.  Interestingly, one theme that Greg returned to many times during our talks was the balance between creative expression and business acumen that is necessary in motion picture fields.  Early on in the discussion, he spoke to the students about the ways in which a variety of coursework can help greatly when working in motion picture fields and the need to take advantage of a wide range of studies, including “business, and economics, and the ‘boring’ stuff you think has nothing to do with filmmaking,” and he cited diverse examples from his work as an administrator in vfx fields.  One specific case Greg described was how when he heads production teams, his company will often have to hire accountants for creating complex excel spreadsheets and other business-oriented work that is needed, and what will typically happen is that the accountants will quit after a short time because they have a hard time dealing with the chaotic, unpredictable needs of moviemaking.

Bill Westenhofer and colleagues on the Oscar stage

Bill Westenhofer and colleagues on the Oscar stage

Greg Butler also spoke at length about current economic difficulties being felt throughout the world of visual effects and used examples from a variety of projects, including his most recent, Jack and the Giant Slayer.   This topic hit major news coverage many weeks later when the Academy Awards ceremony experienced the rather ignominious moment of visual effects Oscar winner Bill Westenhofer being played off the stage (to the Jaws theme – is that supposed to be funny??)  and then having his mic turned off when he started talking about visual effects house Rhythm & Hues, which was one of the companies that worked on The Life of Pi but has since gone bankrupt. Here is an excellent article that discusses the VFX crisis and can provide interesting perspectives on how the economics of the business of creating and selling moving images can be such a complex and daunting task, even for a field that one would think is at the heart of drawing viewers and making money these days in movies — visual effects.

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The second chapter of Moving Images is titled “Inventions and Origins,” and in this unit students learn about and explore the origins of motion pictures and the early developments of filmmaking and visual storytelling.  For this chapter, it was particularly satisfying to feature an interview with a filmmaker whose career has been at the cutting edge of a contemporary revolution in moviemaking that serves as a mirror to the story forged by the initial moviemaking trailblazers.  Digital visual effects have been in a state of a constant transformation throughout late 20th and early 21st centuries while they have been profoundly altering the ways in which we experience and create moving images.  Greg Butler has been involved closely with this story for the past two decades.  His credits include the Lord of the Rings series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part II), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Prince Caspian, G.I. Joe (here is a great interview he did at the Paris FX 2010 Expo for it), and many other movies.  Currently, he works for The Moving Picture Company, which is one of the most active and innovative visual effects production houses in the world.  Check out my following post for info and links for media about visual effects.  

What were your early inspirations to use moving images to communicate?

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s. Between the ages of 7 and 12 alone, I saw some amazing films, many of them multiple times; Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars trilogy, Superman and Superman II, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Dark Crystal, just to name a few. Most of these films would now be called “special effects driven” films, but to me they were just amazing stories that completely drew me in. Of course, I wanted to find out anything I could about how the effects were created. In those days, there was not a lot of information available about how these films were made. There was the occasional TV special, but it usually consisted of interviews with the actors and other more general topics. Home VCR’s were still a few years away and DVD special features were a completely unknown concept. In fact, since the only way to see a film was on one of the three television networks or at the cinema, many popular films would be re-released every couple of years. Luckily, I grew up in a small town and our one theater often showed “second run” films for only 99 cents.


In what ways did you first become involved in making movies?  At what point did you begin to become involved in CG? 

I remember running around the second grade playground acting out scenes from Star Wars.  A few years later, my brother and I teamed up with the two girls down the street and started making short Super 8mm films under the “Blossom Street Productions” banner. We did versions of The Dukes of Hazard, James Bond, and untitled monster and space movies. They weren’t very long, but we planned them first and occasionally built props and attempted basic special effects. After a gala screening for our parents, we would move on to the next project.

In 1989, I went to a small liberal arts college initially to study history and avoid math. In my first semester I applied to get into both film and video production courses, both of which were very popular. I didn’t get into either, but I did get a work study job in the engineering department. I quickly found that my combination of curiosity, technical aptitude, and a set of keys to all of the video production facilities was getting me all sorts of new connections and acquaintances in the film and video departments. I started helping older students and some of the professors with their productions.

In my third year, I was asked to be the director of photography for a friend’s final video project. After graduating, she got a job at Industrial Light and Magic.  She helped me to get an internship and later my first job. I started at ILM in the commercials division and quickly transferred to an entry level job in the new computer graphics department.

What were some useful lessons you learned through your early experiences with motion pictures?

One of the most important things I learned about the filmmaking process is that it is incredibly interdisciplinary and requires a tremendous amount of planning and organization. As a result, films of any significant length can rarely be completed without a large number of people working closely together. A film can succeed or fail at so many different points. Everyone involved needs to keep focused on their job and work well with everyone else.

Motion picture history has been propelled many times by new generations of innovators, from the first filmmakers discussed in Chapter 2 of Moving Images to the pioneers of CG.  How did you experience the evolution of digital effects in moviemaking?

I started in the film industry just at the moment that the transition to digital was occurring. While I was a camera engineering intern at ILM in 1992, they had just completed Hook and Death Becomes Her. Both films effects used some digital compositing, but were mostly created with traditional techniques such as hand inked rotoscoping and optical printing. At the same time, the small computer graphics department was doing tests of digital dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. When I returned a year later to start my first job, the company had almost completed its transition. The optical printers were being dismantled and a number of departments had disappeared or been computerized (fx camera, rotoscoping, opticals). Computer graphics in visual effects had graduated from one-off “gimmicks” like the water creature in The Abyss to become an integral part of the filmmaking process.

Starship Troopers

In 1996, I worked at Tippett Studio on Starship Troopers. Phil Tippett and many of my colleagues at the studio had worked in stop motion animation for years and were finding innovative ways of incorporating digital tools into their process. For example, Tippett Studio was awarded a technical Oscar for the “Dinosaur Input Device” (DID), first used on Jurassic Park to animate digital dinosaurs using stop motion techniques.

Working for Phil Tippett was a great experience. It’s where I really learned about visual effects and animation. I was constantly surrounded by reminders that computer graphics are just a new way of working in a much older craft. The same rules still apply.


How does your role in the visual effects department fit into the entire process of film production?

These days, very few films don’t include some level of visual effects. Sometimes, it’s simply to save money on locations or big sets, to increase the safety of actors or stunt people, or just to save time during the shoot. And of course, there’s still a lot of demand for us to create what doesn’t exist, like dinosaurs or space battles. The visual effects department is now part of the process from the very beginning: creating a budget, then planning the shoot,  and finally working on all the vfx shots in post-production.


An example of an “invisible effect” in which the visual effects artists take the initial photographed image, at left, and use digital fx to transform the scene into the intended setting. These images are from “Amazing Grace,” about abolitionist William Wilberforce (directed by Michael Apted, 2006). Courtesy Walden Media

Filmmaking has always been an expensive and time consuming “group project”. Visual effects and computer graphics have only increased the time and amount of people needed to make a film. With more people involved, there are many more decisions needed, both creative and technical. My collaborations are mainly with the film’s overall vfx supervisor and the senior artists on my vfx team, such as an Animation Director or CG Supervisor. The film’s director is always involved of course, in setting the overall goals, in terms of the story, style and the look of the film.


What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your filmmaking endeavors? 

It can be challenging to maintain the focus, commitment and enthusiasm necessary to make it through a project, while at the same time not having it completely take over the rest of my life. The hours can be very long, with no weekends off during peak periods of the production. I usually spend about 8 – 18 months working on a film, although I was on The Lord of the Rings films for over 5 years.

Creating Gollum for The Lord of the Rings

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking? 

In early 1999, I joined a group of around 20 digital artists in New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings. I had never been to the Southern hemisphere or spent more then a few weeks outside of the US. All of us knew we were at the beginning of something special. The Weta vfx crew grew much larger as the years went by the work we did got bigger and better too.  Playing a significant part in something that will last is certainly among my most fulfilling experiences.

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