Visual effects of Tron: Legacy and beyond – conversation with GMUNK

June 1st, 2011

In my last entry i talked why i see “Tron: Legacy” as the best 3D movie experience that i’ve seen so far, and it’s my great pleasure to have Bradley G Munkowitz aka GMUNK join me for a conversation about the work he and his team did on the movie, extending it to the visual effects in general and a glimpse into the not so distant future of movie-going experience.

Kirill: I was reading about the background of the movie itself, and i’ve read that it started in 2007 when there was this big writers’ strike and it started with Digital Domain pitching Tron:Legacy to Disney. Were you part of that phase, or were you brought later?

Gmunk: I was freelancing for Digital Domain, so i’m not a staff employee there. So they hired me as an independent contractor to build a team that was involved after the VFX tests and pre-viz. They hired us to be the concept and the execution.

Kirill: So pre-viz is like a proof of concept?

Gmunk: What you’re talking about, the VFX tests, that is the look development. It’s “we want to make Tron and we want it to look like this, all dark, in a stormy world when everything is glass”. Then they take that look and they pre-viz the whole movie where it’s all done in 3D, but it’s not rendered. It’s a crude structure so that you can see and edit it, almost like the next step from storyboarding. What the shots are, where the camera is, where it’s moving.

Kirill: But it’s beyond the still shots and color schemes, right?

Gmunk: It’s in junction with. And so my team was brought in to do the look development and execution of key holographic UI sequences.

Kirill: So that was somewhere in mid-2009?

Gmunk: It was the end of 2009, yes.

Kirill: And it took you about a year until the final completion, with the movie released in December 2010.

Gmunk: Yes, it was about a year. The team scaled from me all the way up to five people who were brought in at different times [see the links at the end].

Kirill: It was about 800 people working on the digital art of the movie. So five people doesn’t sound a lot.

Gmunk: That’s true. Digital Domain has its own visual FX pipeline with giant teams doing giant strides. And we were this outside unit that just parked in a corner of Digital Domain facility and just did our own thing. So we were kind of a special team.

Kirill: But you guys did the vast majority of the real work on the VFX part

Gmunk: The VFX part of the select scenes in the movie. We were not doing the VFX for light racers, for example. We were doing small niche graphical interfaces, data visualizations. We did the opening titles, the fireworks and a few other scenes. It’s all on my site.

Kirill: You mention on your site that you worked in close collaboration with the movie director. Can you describe the process?

Gmunk: I knew Joe [Joseph Kosinski] personally since we worked together on the Hummer commercial two years prior, so he felt comfortable just coming over and sitting down with us. You get him for 45 minutes to concept out what it is that we’re doing, what the task is, sketching it on a sketchpad. And then we’ll take it for two or three weeks and show him our solution, he’ll critique it and we’ll start refining it. We had five really key reviews which would trickle into the VFX shots and then to the desk of the VFX supervisor who wants to have proper depth of field, for example. This is integration stuff that gets critiqued more and is in front of everybody’s eyes on the daily basis. For the core conceptual look development stuff we had three or four review cycles with Joe and then it would go into the VFX pipeline.

Kirill: So you were doing all of the scenes in parallel?

Gmunk: There was a ton of overlap for sure. We were just a team of five, and it takes a lot of time to get that super grunt work done. There were big tasks, like for example the solar sailor sequence which took us three months, while we did the opening sequence in about a month and a half. Fireworks were quick – there are a lot of these quick design bits where we would do interfaces for the bikes or the throneship – those were couple of weeks.

Kirill: You also mentioned in one of your summaries that originally you were contracted for about five minutes that later expanded to ten. Was it more scenes, or more content in each scene?

Gmunk: It’s definitely a good thing to get more opportunities to jam. It was definitely different scenes. We were killing ourselves doing the solar sailor, and they would come in asking to do the opening titles and we were “OK, let’s add that to our list”. Or we would be heavy into the throneship rectifier extraction where they were decoding the disk, and they’d ask us to do the fireworks. So it would be a completely different thing, and we’d have to develop and concept it. We looked at it as a good thing, because we were super-inspired and we just wanted to jam.

Kirill: Well, the end result is amazing. Did you have something that you worked on and then the entire scene was cut?

Gmunk: Not on this one. I’ve had that happen before. They would advise us on a lot of stuff. A lot of eyes looked at our graphics and had comments after the core development, and a lot of stuff was dumbed down a lot, but never killed.

Kirill: What do you mean by dumbed down? Removing extra fluff?

Gmunk: “Removing extra fluff” is a good description. It’s like taking out the greeble. It looks awesome – the more complex, deep and insane it looks, the better, but sometimes it sacrifices the quick read on what it is supposed to represent with its conceptual cues. And so, we definitely had to take out a lot of greeble so the point of the graphics was understood quickly.

Kirill: In all the portfolio entries and blog posting by you and your team mates you spend a lot of time describing the underlying geometric primitives and algorithms behind the implementation, but not a single mention of the 3D aspect. Who did the 3D part?

Gmunk: We did all of 3D. We would put a lot of compositing into the Digital Domain pipeline because we weren’t the end people for these shots. We did the elements and then work with the compositor that would comp our elements into the shot under mostly mine and Jake [Sargeant]‘s art direction. That was one of the things that we didn’t do a lot – comping.

Kirill: So that would involve mixing it with live acting?

Gmunk: Exactly. Mixing it into the shot with actors within, casting lights on the actors. That was the big thing, because the holographic elements that cast the light.

Kirill: Do you have special screen hardware to check how 3D looked?

Gmunk: Not on our screens. There was a testing stereoscopic 3D television called “The Hyundai”. We would go in there and check.

Kirill: So you would go there and check if it looks good?

Gmunk: We developed so much stuff. Digital Domain has a very special VFX pipeline, there’s nothing else like it. And we found a way to get these stereoscopic 3D cameras into our 3D applications, like Cinema4D. We used a lot of openFrameworks applications that had to take in these stereoscopic cameras. Digital Domain had a technical director Jon Gerber who helped us accomplish that, to write the scripts to get the cameras to go into Cinema4D and openFrameworks. And then out of our 3D apps we would render stereorenders and then check those on The Hyundai.

Kirill: There’s a lot of complaints that movies shot in 3D don’t look very good in a fixed-eye projection system – if you buy a BluRay disc for your home TV or go to a regular screening. Did it take care of itself because the 3D aspect in Tron:Legacy is so muted?

Gmunk: I think the use of 3D in Tron is the best out there. It was so tame and tasteful. We never had an interface to make that was supposed to knock you upside your head. Our stuff was always medium and wide shots of whatever holograms they’re using.

Kirill: That was also my impression. Even in the solar sailor scene where the guys extract the virus from Quorra’s DNA and there’s a lot of camera panning, it was all very subtle. Was it an explicit directive from the movie director, not to go overboard with 3D?

Gmunk: That’s very much Joseph’s style. Kosinski’s style is always very tasteful, beautiful and elegant. I think the best example was during the light jet fight. It was always done in a really tasteful way, even an exaggerated shot of a ship coming directly to camera and then diving back down when it runs out of gas. It doesn’t come super close, but just close enough so you see. That kind of stuff is awesome, it’s perfectly controlled – and that was all over the movie. In the light jet scene there were a couple of times where the jet flies by camera but it wasn’t right by camera, it was kind of off to the side. We got to see in dailies every day the work of the VFX supervisor, Eric Barba – he’s the man. Watching him critique a 3D image in stereo, pinpointing all the problems, citing interocular distances and the convergence points, picking apart the 3D image – it was amazing. That was my favorite part – watching Kosinski and Barba work together and critique images. It was being in a super advanced design school.

Kirill: Sounds fascinating. Do you think that the industry is still making baby steps, exploring the right ways to shoot, edit and composite 3D movies?

Gmunk: There’s a lot of movies that do 3D after the fact, and that’s awful. I think that “Transformers 3” is going to be a really good test of where it is right now. That is a 3D explosion movie, that’s an upper cut, that’s a smack you across the face grand effects movie, and if they can nail that stereo so that it is super frenetic, but in a tasteful way that doesn’t crush your brain, that’s a big step forward. My favorite 3D implementation is still “Avatar”. I thought the camera work in that movie was so beautiful, so well done. Every single shot, the camera feels completely hand-held.

Kirill: All of the movies that you mentioned – Transformers, Avatar, Iron Man and of course Tron: Legacy – are confined to the “escapist” genres of sci-fi, horror, animation and adventure. Do you think over the next few years, or perhaps a couple of decades it will transition to “Oscar-type” productions?

Gmunk: I think film makers are such purists, that for the sake of respecting the medium it will take them longer. Oscar-nominated movies will take perhaps ten to fifteen years before it happens. It should be in five, but people are going to stay true to the art form a little longer. Until going to the movies is completely immersive. In fifteen years a movie theatre is going to be an interactive 3D fully-realized hologram in front of you. You’ll be on those flying mountains, you’ll be able to touch the wing of the Ikran.

Kirill: Will this translate to the TV experience in my living room?

Gmunk: I think the theaters will be fully immersive crazy kick-ass ones, and the living room will be a scaled down version, with perhaps hard-core super gamer types who drop eighty grand on their system to get the full experience.

Kirill: I think it was “The Lawnmower Man” which had this immersive gaming experience. That never happened, right? And that was 20 years ago.

Gmunk: May be i’m getting ahead of myself. But things are getting pretty cool. I think in five years your phone will be able to project something out of it that makes something you can use.

Kirill: This brings me to the topic of futuristic UIs. I’ve been reading Josh Nimoy’s blog that talked about bringing realism into the hackery scenes, showing emacs and proper Unix commands. Do you ever get told to forget about how realistic it will look to the geeks and instead to concentrate on wowing the audience?

Gmunk: What Josh did was awesome. I was talking about purists, and he’s a purist. He’s an artist and you always have to plant these Easter eggs in everything you do. You have to stay true to your roots and plant those little reminders. This is what Josh did, he went old school and did a retro thing that nobody but geeks would appreciate – and that’s what’s important for him.

Kirill: Now that the movie is out on BluRay, do you get emails from those hardcore guys that dissect every single still from the movie?

Gmunk: He probably does, and that’s cool – you’re touching people. The average movie goer is perhaps looking at the surface level, with nothing to really grab them and touch their inner passion. But geeks and people who live for this – they are just more educated fans that appreciate this aspect, and that’s who we care about.

Kirill: Do you need to get an approval from the director – to plant those Easter eggs?

Gmunk: I don’t think the director knew [laughs], but i think that he would appreciate it as much as Josh did. We’re all purists, we’re all indie at heart. When i graduated from college, i preached that i would never do client work in my life. I was completely anti corporate America, a vegan (still am), super against the carnivores, super environmental. So i made a pledge to do what’s right and that quickly faded when i moved to Los Angeles.

Kirill: Somehow you need to pay your bills…

Gmunk: Right. So you always want to throw in the whatever indie respect that you can give. I try to do that a lot with commercials too.

Kirill: Talking about the futuristic UIs. Whenever it gets mentioned, people always seem to be talking about “Minority Report”. It seems that only that movie managed to capture people’s imagination on what the interaction with computers will look like in the future. Do you think that the way we interact with computers every day at work and at home will change?

Gmunk: First of all, the reason why it was the most accurate representation of the UI is simple – it was developed at MIT. They had computer scientists and UI specialists that research this for a living design this interface. Mostly in movies it’s just greeble – just make it look awesome and don’t think about making this a real-life thing. Kind of like “Iron Man 2” – the implementation was gorgeous, and that may be a real-life hologram some day – but did they really thing about usability and would that mirror what would happen soon? The thing about “Iron Man 2” and more so about “Minority Report” is that it’s all gestural. It’s all about controlling things with your hands, interacting with your hands, taking everything off the mouse and the keyboard – which we’re already seeing starting with iPads and iPods and the gaming consoles. That’s the way it’s going, and basically every UI you’ve seen in the last ten years in a movie has been touch-based, with gestural controls. I can’t remember the last UI i saw in a movie that had a mouse.

Kirill: We mentioned “Iron Man 2” a few times. I was reading this article which says that Robert Downey Jr. would improvise his movements on the set, and then the VFX artists would need to build the entire holographic UI around his movements. How was your interaction with Jeff Bridges in the elevator and solar sailor scenes?

Gmunk: We were just given the footage. We weren’t involved in the shoot of those sequences at all. Unfortunately, in the elevator shot his hand is completely out of focus. They shot everything at f/1.4 and everything has a crazy shallow depth of field – and so the graphic had to be out of focus, which was kind of a bummer. The solar sailor had also a shallow depth of field, so that was something that we had to work with to get our renders right.

Kirill: So you got the shots of him staring into empty space and moving his fingers around, and then you built your scenery around that? Is this more interesting than creating your interaction model and asking the actor to somehow work with it?

Gmunk: It’s way better to do it when actors are gesturing in the air and then design around that. It’s easier and also fun and super-inspiring, as long as the performance is good. He didn’t have a lot of definitive motions, with soft gestural commands and not a lot of emphasis, so we made the interface itself react to that and be less complicated. We made it match his gestures.

Kirill: I was thinking about the sci-fi movies that i’ve seen in the last decade or so, and it seems the best of them take place in darker environments – such as Matrix and Tron, of course. Your portfolio would also indicate that you’re moving in this direction. Is it because you can explore the futuristic environments better in an inverted contrast?

Gmunk: I just love dark, the vibe and the evil dark aesthetic. I love the original “Matrix”, it is by far the best sci-fi movie ever made. It had this nasty, really dark vibe to it that was so beautiful. And the plot lines and the language were so deep, intelligent, sophisticated, well thought out and written.

Kirill: Were you disappointed by the sequels, from visual as well as content point of view?

Gmunk: The third one was almost unwatchable. The visuals in the third one were cool, but it was really bad script. Everything every actor said was just a sentence, plus they got away from the charm of the first one where you see all the karate. And by the third one you have seen all the tricks and you didn’t care anymore, it was almost a video game. But the first one was amazing, and it still holds up today.

Kirill: Getting back to Tron and its dark environment. Did you feel restricted by the color space that was at your disposal, with soft blue for the good guys and yellow-oranges for the bad guys?

Gmunk: We got to love the glowing light blue a lot. But that’s just how it was. It would’ve been cool to see some pinks explored – no way it would go through of course. Some really nice cool pink.

Kirill: Did it somehow affect the exploration of different geometrical building blocks?

Gmunk: Not really, because we knew it would never go through. I would throw some yellows, and i think a pink slipped through once in a while – and we were told to change it. But some of the graphics got expanded colors. The board room, for example, got a full spectrum. We also designed the holographic animated rectifier globe in the scene where Clu addresses his army, and there were a lot of reds, oranges and browns there.

Kirill: How did it feel to see your work in the theaters, and all the geeks – including me – swooning over the effects?

Gmunk: It felt really good to see it on the screen with the audio, because we didn’t get hear any of the sound design. So hearing it was really quite a treat, because we didn’t have any creative input whatsoever into that. It was really interesting to hear the bits they added to the stuff that we were doing. You’re animating it and you think about how it will sound and you have ideas, and then they come back with something completely different. It was really fun. So the sounds the scoreboard made, the sounds of the hologram on the solar sailor when you click on it, the sounds of the DNA when it forms, the rings breaking apart in the rectifier extraction. And then hearing the sound track too was a part of it – a lot of the shots that we’ve seen, you’ve already seen on the big screen during the development on the theater screen in Digital Domain. But to hear it, that was a treat, the thing that i remember the most.

Kirill: So what can top your work on Tron: Legacy?

Gmunk: I think that if we’re doing another Tron, i don’t know what kind of charm it would have. But just knowing what we know now, learning from the process of generating these graphics, we can really push the envelope a lot further because we would hit the ground running.  We would be full speed in the first week because we’ve been there and we know exactly what’s coming and we could pull off a lot more kick-ass.

One could only hope that James Cameron is already on the phone, tapping the man to lead the VFX team for the Avatar sequels. I’d like to thank Gmunk for this fascinating peek inside the VFX industry and for the incredible work he and his “black-ops team” did on the movie. Here are the links to their portfolios: