If there’s a mid-year front-runner for the VFX Oscar, it’s definitely Industrial Light & Magic’s exceptional work on Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” which is more than just rock ’em sock ’em robots vs. monsters. Aside from the masterfully animated Jaegers and Kaiju, there’s also the complex lighting, atmospherics, and water simulation, which take the CG mise-en-scene to a new level of sophistication.
But faced with a budget gap for “Pacific Rim,” ILM massively reworked its production pipeline to not only cut out waste and inefficiency but to also empower its artists with more advanced tools for lighting (Katana) and rendering through ray tracing (Arnold).
“On ‘Pacific Rim,’ there was a specific number that Legendary and Warner Bros. needed us to hit and we were coming up ahead of that even with the efficiencies factored in from ‘Rango,'” explains John Knoll, ILM’s senior VFX supervisor. “And I wanted to do this experiment to close the gap by swapping out these tools and think of a different way of working with the new tools. Guillermo really wanted us to do the show and was willing to partner with us to help this work.”
Going the ray tracing route is a different methodology. It’s easier to set up and provides more computational complexity for realism, but is potentially more expensive to render. Knoll had already experimented with this approach for the thrilling parking garage sequence in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” with great results, so he thought it was time to make the switch.
“We tried to separate front-end and back-end processes and iterate on the layout and animation phases and tried not to iterate on the [more costly] simulation and rendering and compositing,” Knoll continues. “If the artists have better tools to see what they’re doing and it’s easier to set up, then we’re reducing the man hours that go into setting up and lighting a shot. And if you can really see what you’re doing, you don’t have to iterate as frequently. But all those things can be undone if your client doesn’t buy into that idea when you suddenly get a whole bunch of notes and changes on work that’s nearly finished.”
Fortunately, the experiment succeeded and Knoll had a great partner in del Toro, who has such a thorough understanding and passion for VFX and animation. Still, they had different philosophies. While Knoll strives to get the physics right, del Toro, not surprisingly, is all about theatrical flair. “I try to interject some realism into these things,” Knoll offers, “partly because I think the audience sees it and because I grew up in this family of scientists and engineers and it’s something that I care about. I helped swing it a little bit more toward physicality in places. But I’ll go to physics hell for this movie.”
Knoll certainly enjoyed the fight out in the ocean where the water blew off the wind and the Kaiju were either lit by a helicopter or the beam of the Jaeger. But he also liked the more over the top antics of Gipsy bashing a Kaiju with a ship in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, this new workflow has already become the template for future work at ILM. And cutting waste and inefficiency has now become Knoll’s new role as
chief creative officer, seeing the forest through the trees. Because even under Disney ownership, ILM isn’t immune to the economic crisis in VFX.
“We’re hearing loud and clear that clients don’t want to pay as much for visual effects. They’re doing tax credits all over the world and we’re not competing on a level playing field with companies enjoying 30, 40, and up in Montreal close to 50% tax rebates. And how do you exist in an environment like that? We can’t lower the bar.
“Our business is based on working at the high end so we’re tackling it with a whole series of measures. We’ve got our Vancouver office where we’re taking advantage of some of the rebates there. But we have a healthy operation in San Francisco. Can we keep the quality of the work but do it with fewer man hours? I don’t think it ever really ends. To keep this place healthy, you have to be constantly questioning your assumptions. Is there a better way of doing this?”
With so much at stake, you can bet that Knoll is on the right track, especially with a rebooted “Star Wars” on the horizon.