Tim McGovern, the Academy Award-winning American Visual Effects supervisor, was recently in India for a special conversation on visual effects in cinema as part of the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI). During a career spanning well over three decades, McGovern has played a pivotal role in ushering in several groundbreaking changes in the field of visual effects and computer animation. Some of his best works include Total Recall, Dunkirk, and First Man , among others.
You have been a pioneer in the field of visual effects as far as cinema is concerned. How was it like in the early days?
Well, yes, I have actually been there from the beginning. The 1982 film Tron was my first film. It wasn’t a successful film and Disney was very disappointed that the computers didn’t do more for them and then they decided at the point that computers would only be useful for them if they made their job faster and cheaper but perhaps the perception changed with Toy Story which made them loads of money. Seeing the advancements over the years, I believe that the growth has been exponential. In the beginning there was very little that anybody could do that anybody was interested in for film because it had to look like reality but back then nothing looked real. It all looked liked video games. So that’s why it worked so well for Tron because that’s what it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be inside the video game and inside the computer and nobody knew what that looked like anyway and it was a perfect thing for them.
But we made big jumps between Tron and the 1986 film Flight of the Navigator which very early on showed us new possibilities that helped pave the way for more advanced forms of special effects. Then as technology got better and better there were things like Total Recall in 1989-90 which required an X-ray image and there was no other way to animate it and we were groundbreaking because we didn’t even have a path to do it and so we had to create the path and how to do it. Then it didn’t work the way we had thought the first time and so we had to do it another way. Back then there were no standards for software or hardware equipments. Everybody had different computers and so we had to write our own software.
How has the scene changed over the years? Also, what are your thoughts on the use of visual effects in contemporary Indian cinema?
Now, of course, there are standards. Everybody uses the same kind of computers and operating systems and buys almost the same kind of packages for tracking and rendering. We have slowly gone through mastering different aspects of special effects such as water, cloth, etc. Today, we can be involved in any part of making the story with the director so that it can be told in the best possible manner. It all depends on what you need. In fact, you can even ask for more than you need and still not have enough. The thing that I have noticed in India is that sometimes the appetite for visual effects is higher than budget but somewhere they are willing to settle. Now, if the audience is good with it, then it is fine and for now it seems that they are.
The terms, visual effects (abbreviated VFX) and computer-generated imagery (abbreviated as CGI), are often used interchangeably these days. What is the difference between the two of them?
Well, VFX is the overall umbrella of everything. Now, for the longest time, all kinds of movies were done without any kind of computer use at all. Then the first use of computer was to control a camera to do multiple passes of the same exact move and then eventually we started using it to create imagery with it which is getting more and more complex with the technological advancements we are making.
But there still is the usual shooting on film like for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, we had to shoot the entire movie in 65mm and scan it all, film it back out again, make every pixel perfect in 6.5K resolution. So there still are analogue processes and miniatures made sometimes but really why have a physical miniature when you can have an infinite landscape made in a computer and not be limited to the landscape that you can pay for, build and deal with?
How closely does a visual Effects team work with the director? Could you take us through the standard process involved?
Initially, we talk about the areas where the director needs our help. We discuss what each department does for the film and what they can’t do. And then we talk about the things that we can bring to the table. Unlike the earlier days, today there is a much greater clarity about our capabilities and what we can offer. Then the discussion mainly focuses around what’s the best way of shooting the original photography part of it. Sometimes there is no original photography and the visual effects department is taking care of everything. We are making the entire scene even in a live action movie, including the actors and the main storytelling aspect. We point to elements in the script that can be done the other way. There was a time when we could only do a certain amount of it. Now we can do everything and so it is our job to guide a filmmaker so that he/she doesn’t end up doing things the silly way that takes much longer.
Has cinema reached the stage where visual effects can completely replace cinematography?
While we are doing more and more things that are like a director of photography (DOP) but the DOP is still the person who shoots the original photography. There are times when movies are so heavily CG that somebody winning the award for award for photography is a little tricky and so there should be an opening in the awards for the visual effects when the contribution is more digital that there should a second name on the award. Take the case Life of Pi , the DOP was responsible for shooting the parts that are live. The kid is in a blue screen tank and the cinematography is, of course, beautiful but it was transformed into all different times of the day, storms, glorious morning, sunrises/sunsets, etc. by the VFX person. That wasn’t shot by the DOP. Now, I don’t want to take anything away from the DOP but I do feel that the digital part of that was greatly ignored and wasn’t given its due.
The moon landing scene in Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man is easily one of the most astonishing examples of VFX ever seen in cinema. How was it realised?
For the moon landing scene in First Man there was a whole lot of pre-work done. 180 degree set screens were put together so that when you look out of the window of the Lunar lander what you see is the moon and it is made from real geological data of the moon. That allowed the actors to be lit by the actual light from the moon entering through the window, seen through the glass in their helmets, lighting the interior of the lander. So it was brilliant to do that but it involved a lot of digital work to get it right. When they are actually on the moon it is 65mm IMAX, which is the highest resolution imagery of the movie. In comparison the rest of the film is shot in much lower resolution and has the feel of documentary image until you get to the landing.
How can one pursue a career in the field of visual effects? Also, tell us about the latest trends in VFX.
Today there are a lot of citizen groups that train people. I recommend a film school if they can afford it because they would be taught the whole craft of filmmaking. The biggest thing is for them to have fire in their bellies and the passion and the heart to do it.If you can know enough to be indispensable, you will get a job, you will work and go far and you may at some point in time win an Academy Award.
Given the advancements in technology, today there is nothing that we can’t do and so the sky’s the limit. We can help in every way to make the director’s vision come true. We have reached a stage where we can switch out performances and split in different halves of this performance and that performance and change the speed of things and make them feel like they were on the moon when they weren’t because the gravity is different. You can do all kinds of things like and so what’s importantfor cinematic storytellers is to keep coming with stories that people want to see and visual effects are there to realise it.