During the first day of the Web Summit, in Dublin, we had the opportunity to interview Oscar winning visual effects specialist Tim Webber. Tim currently works at Framestore, a visual effects studio based in London, Montreal, New York and Los Angeles. The filmography he and his studio have worked on include The Dark Knight, Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Paddington Bear.
Do you do any research for a project? For example, for the film Gravity, did you visit NASA to experience what weightlessness feels like and how it would affect you and your environment?
Yes I did experience weightlessness, which is one of the most fun things that I’ve done in my life. We stepped into this plane called the vomit comet, where you can experience about 15 seconds of weightlessness. When I came back later, it was me and a stunt woman. She suffered from motion sickness so she vomited and consequently couldn’t do most of it. However she soldiered on and tried but in the end it wasn’t possible. I ended up having to try and film myself and before I could show Alfonso what we found out, I realised I couldn’t show it to him. It just looked like I’m having fun; it didn’t look like serious work, especially since they paid thousands of pounds for me to go up on this plane. It looked like I’m having a whale of a time and with a big grin on my face.
Did you have similar experiences with any other films you worked on?
Well not to that extent but researches are always big parts of any film. Normally we spend plenty of time making creatures, which is why we often look at lots of footage of animals. Even if the creature isn’t a real animal, it’s a fantasy animal, you want to base it on as much as possible on something grounded in truth. We would look at the way animals move and the way their skeletons work as anatomy is very important.
I’ve done research for The Dark Knight, I did research on bad burns which wasn’t the most pleasant work I’ve had to do, looking at pictures of bad burns. For Children of Men, for the childbirth scene, we did extensive research. My wife had just had a baby, which was quite useful for research as we had to find out exactly how babies look when they’re first born.
Does the soundtrack for a film influence how you would incorporate visual effects into scenes?
Normally the soundtrack is done after what we do. With Gravity we worked with sound more than we usually do, in fact every bit of the production and every normal rule of film-making is different. To a certain extent we were more integrated with the sound, for example with every breath that George and Sandra were taking we would have to put breath on the inside of the visor of their spacesuits.
We’d have to put a visual breath to go exactly with the sound of the breath, whether it was a slow sigh or a sudden exhalation. It all had to tie in and those breaths were generally based on what they were breathing during the time of the performance, which is why we would listen to that often. However there were times, due to the editing, were breath’s had to be added on. They were working with the sound crew quite often to tie in with what each department (sound and visual effects) was working on.
When you are faced with a room full of exhibitors, what are you on the lookout for? What makes you stop in your tracks and think this would be great for your visual effects studio, Framestore?
Something new and different to what has been done before. I’m not looking for anything in particular; you just need something such as a tool that no one else has got because every movie is trying to do something different that hasn’t been done before. This normally would involve you having to come up with an idea, an invention or something innovative. In fact there is a lot of work going on at the moment in terms of creating 3D spaces, cameras analysing space and making it 3D. It’s kind of like Kinect, in a broader sense. Every now and then you see something and think that could be really useful, it’s original and that will enable you to create original images for the audience.
Nowadays we are moving on with virtual reality especially with the Oculus Rift, do you think that will be the future on how we see movies?
Yes. At Framestore we work a lot with the Oculus Rift technology, not in the film department, it’s a different department but there’s a lot of crossover I think. In fact we’ve just done a virtual reality experience to coincide with the release of the film Interstellar.
The visual effects of virtual reality and augmented reality will be the future. There’s going to be a lot of crossover with film. I do think they are two different types of entertainment. I think film is very much about the way classical film has been the last 100 years, which is that it is about; guiding the viewer down a pacific path, telling a certain story, guiding what they are looking at and influencing them. Every edit decision, every lighting decision and every sound decision in film is all about leading the viewer down a pacific path and virtual reality is about something different. It’s about allowing the person to explore, interact and to experience.
Gravity was a rare film, which crossed that divide a little. It was more of an experience; certainly the reaction we got from many people was that they felt like they were in space. I think there is some cues in there as to what can make a good virtual reality experience. It shows it’s possible to tie the two together. Having said that I think we have to not think that would just be a great way to watch a film using virtual reality. It needs to be a different type of entertainment that is suited to that being there and exploring that. It’s more like a game in many ways but there’s something in between the two really.
Do you mean to create specific scenes like what they do with IMAX?
Well that I think is quite interesting and quite possible. I’m thinking of a project myself, which is a film were virtual reality is part of the story and the idea would be to have a side experience that was virtual reality based on the virtual reality in the film.
To sit and watch the film with an Oculus Rift headset is different to that but the two experiences would be tied together. It would be much more tied closely than what you currently get with games and movies linked to be coming out at the same time. I’m talking about more of a joint experience than that.
Do you think the film industry is too heavily reliant on CGI (computer generated images) these days, do you worry the audience will lose interest?
It totally depends on how good the CGI is. If CGI isn’t grounded in reality, if it’s too fantastical and it doesn’t abide by certain rules then there has to be a coherent set of rules for the movie. If it doesn’t do that then you start to think ‘well anything is possible,’ and the audience thinks anything is possible. If the audience thinks that then they don’t care about what happens because anything is possible. I think it does happen in some movies, for example in superhero movies, were you have a fight and you just think ‘well surely what’s the point of a fight when they can just trash each other to that extent. Who cares if they are having a fight, if that’s the sort of damage they do to each other and they just get to carry on.’
It’s true in a broad range of area. One thing we did in Gravity and all the films I work on, Christopher Nolan is a Director I’ve worked with who’s a real stickler for this, it’s got to be grounded in reality. For there to be some stakes, for there to be something you care about, it’s really got to be grounded in realty. As long as you do that, I don’t think people will get bored of CGI. It’s just another tool to make a good movie.
There has been CGI, bullet time and motion capture, what do you think the next visual achievement in film will be?
I’m not sure I could answer a particular area of technology. I do think the technology of CGI itself has reached a point in which I don’t think there are any leaps forward to be had. There will be continued development; the quality of the rendering is going to get better. The quality of every aspect is going to keep getting better.
I think the big change that is happening at the moment is to do with the merging of the physical and the virtual worlds in a way that augmented reality is merged with the physical and virtual worlds.
At Framestore, we are starting to work on a lot of events and installations were CGI is merging with something real, that is projected onto a fountain or images are shown by the water of the fountain.
I think the virtual image is going to leave the screen and the physical world is going to come into the world of CGI. We used a lot of tools on Gravity, very complicated and physical tools such as computer controlled wirings or the light box. The light box was used to light the actors, it was a box of nearly 2 million individual lights and each light could be computer controlled.
Do you think cloud rendering is the future for all visual effects (VFX) studios?
Everyone is very keen to use cloud rendering. At Framestore, we are using shared rendering in various different ways but we keen to look into it. When you are working on big Hollywood movies there are challenges with security. I mean the amount of data that has to move backwards and forwards is always a challenge. Allowing any images outside the building and out of a controlled network is a tricky thing to do.
Most of the rendering of a movie comes in the last couple of months so you have these spells were you will be using thousands or tens of thousands of processors very intensely. For a brief period of time you don’t need them for a while so having an expensive rendering farm sitting there and not being used doesn’t make financial sense. I think everyone is very keen to use more shared rendering power in that way.
With the budgets for films shrinking, that don’t already have a built in audience or a franchise, do you think it will affect VFX or push the boundary for innovation to come up with a cheaper alternative solution?
Yes, I think the world of VFX is split into 2 worlds, there are the big budget franchise type movies (tent pole movies as the studios called them) and then there’s the small movie trying to do a lot on very little money. We’ve been recently working on a Paddington Bear movie, which is big for a small movie. I wouldn’t call that a typical small movie but it’s still a long way in budget terms from your massive Hollywood movies. But with smaller movies, thanks to VFX, they can make the audience believe more money was spent on the screen than there really was.
You mentioned Paddington Bear; do you think it’s more of a challenge whenever you’re working with ‘real people’ compared to fictional characters?
Doing anything which involves real human beings is the biggest challenge and is a challenge that no one has totally cracked yet. The closer to a human being the character is, the harder it is, and so a dragon these days is old hat and fairly straightforward. When they are the lead character, who has to carry the movie like Paddington Bear then it’s a massive challenge. It’s a lot to ask but it can be done, the challenge that isn’t reachable yet is digital human beings that could carry a movie. We put digital human beings into movies all the time one way or another. But not in a way that they are generally carrying the whole movie and not in a very human way.
What Avatar did with humanoid characters was very impressive. I’m sure the next Avatar will be even more impressive. We certainly are working with digital humans, I think getting there is the next challenge.
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