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Interview with Framestore's Mike McGee

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
There are 6m postcodes in London, what's happening in yours?
Published June 12th 2014

Whether we love or loathe them, special effects are integral to the process of storytelling in today's multimedia age. It doesn't matter whether you're an eight year old kid picking the negatives to simulate gunfire or a major company like Framestore with an Oscar for 'Best Special Effects' under your belt, they're part of the process.

If you ever watch Gravity, Framestore had to overcome three problems, which included how you film Zero G and weightlessness and make it photorealistic.

It started as a 3d moving storyboard with a greyscale model to determine what shots to take and how to take them, including lens sizes and Framestore pitched this to the producers. The animators had to use traditional animation techniques, but these were very limiting.

Physics professors gave lectures to the animators to explain what happens in zero G, as this is the motor force of the story, but does this lead to an over dependence on special effects?

Mike McGee, the founder of Framestore explains: "The original story was not written with the special effects in mind. The story was written as an ideal narrative and the director saw the film as being filmed using actors hanging on wires and film it in a very traditional way. For him, the most important thing was the struggle that Sandra [Bullock] goes through and how to tell that story with the close ups on her face, and the immersive camera work and working out how to do zero gravity. He didn't care about that, as the writer of the story. What we, as visual effects guys, were needed to create zero gravity to help tell that story."

Miss Bullock had a direct line to the International Space station, to which she spoke to an astronaut every day to glean information about procedures and day to day life aboard the ISS, but how important was accuracy?

McGee said:" We met with astronauts and got briefs from them about what would happen in space. We had lectures in physics from professors at universities about what would happen in space." This effectively meant that traditional animation techniques, although used, had to be adapted to show what would happen in weightlessness, so "we were constantly sent images of the interior and exteriors of all the spaceships used in the film and when the astronauts look at the film, they say that is how it is, down to the tool Sandra uses. The levels of details and accuracy were followed to the letter.

However, the director said: 'I'm not making a documentary, I'm making a story telling movie,' and he broke a few of the laws of physics when he made the film." This is where I'm reminded of the laws of cartoon physics, as it's all artistic licence. " to give you an example, when you're space walking, because there is no filter between you and the sun, no atmosphere, if you didn't have a full mirrored visor, you'd go blind in seconds. So artistic licence was used tell the story."

If there is am mirrored visor, you can't get facial expressions or identify who's giving which line. Since 60% of the film is made of long shots, this is not a problem. Rotoscoping actors and then superimposing them on the greyscale model, but most of the action was shot in a 360* light box made of LEDs and shot on a converted car assembly line robot that allowed for fas zoom ins and pullbacks at 35-40mph. Innovation like this is a sign of increasing competition, but does this lead to an arms race between companies to push the bar higher?

"I think that between the companies, we are all trying to raise the bar and Gravity, as a movie, has raised the bar higher than it's been raised in years." This is quite evident, as a lot of this has bled out into their work in advertising. Take the Galaxy chocolate advert with Audrey Hepburn. Two body doubles were used and one digitally rendered face of Miss Hepburn, which was based on actual photographs, which leads to an interesting development, which I will mention later. "Everybody is saying that it's the most innovative film that's been made, on so many levels. Not just because the lighting, cameras, the amount of animation and photorealistic imagery. Our competition is made up of people that worked on Gravity might move next week to a project by another competitor down the road, there is a sharing of technology and techniques amongst the community and that's good for British filmmaking as an industry, means we all raise the bar together."

That's the British film industry, but what about elsewhere? India, for instance? "They are a poor country, but they have a big move making industry. That's because movies are a great escape, a cheap form of entertainment. Hollywood has invested a lot in Bollywoo, there's a lot of money going there." However, the Indian film industry is bigger than Bollywood, if you factor in the Tamil and Gudjerati film industries. Being the back office of the world, it only seems that this would go into their industries and areas, as McGee points out: "We're looking to India to help us outsource". If you think it's because of cheap labour, McGee tells you to think again: "No, not cheap labour, but outsource the vast amount of work we need to produce. Doing it cheaply is not, as we've learned in the past, doesn't mean that you get the best quality. We need to get a balance between getting our overheads down, but the work you see has to be of the highest possible calibre."

With new trends like Oculus Rift, we're on a cusp of seeing new storytelling that's non linear. If you remember the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, you'll get what I'm talking about. You can choose different perspectives and plot lines by panning across to different parts of the screen. McGee is really excited about this: " It has applications already in the gaming industry, you can run around in worlds, you can walk around the room and shoot people up, you can sit in the car and drive it for real. Everywhere you look, it's an immersive experience. Sony have brought out a VR headset that's wireless and people are making them out of bits of card and their telephone."

This was a revelation, which reminded me of something I came up with when trying my hand as a street fundraiser (which didn't work out). Namely using the WWf's cheap binoculars as a stereoscope for an iPhone. "A DIY Oculus. Get some granny magnifiers from a chemist, and some card for the split between the left eye and the right eye images. Stereoscopic video." Would this lead to a revolution in special effects? "I think it throws up all sorts of opportunities, one would be that you could meet your friends for a telephone call, put the headset on and use it as a telecom device. You could meet your friends in a virtual place, or in a real place. If you have 360* camera, put it in Times Square, then you put your headset on here, meet your friend in Australia, your friend in France, and have the conversation in Times Square." I even thought transport would be obsolete. McGee laughed at the idea: "I don't think that you sitting in your armchair at home is the same experience as travelling and smelling other cities."

That's one development, but now the one I have been keeping under wraps, which is the Audrey Hepburn advert previously pointed to. Many movie stars are now future proofing their image rights so they appear in films twenty years after they die, which is somewhat macabre, as they're being digitally scanned to appear in future films.

When confronted with this almost Frankensteinian prospect, McGee asks: "Do you want to see your favourite actor or singer performing today?" I did feel it was somewhat necrophilic. "Well, to me as a fan, I use the Michael Jackson analogy. I like the young Michael Jackson in his heyday, so if I could see a concert now that was put on with a performer. If you go see a look alike band or a soundalike band, it's the same experience. You're going along and enjoying Beatles music played by guys dressed up as The Beatles, but what if you could've the real Beatles, what's the difference?"

The thought of a horror film featuring a zombie Jimmy Savile leaves me cold, even for the fact he was a talentless hack alone. Think of the kids' brains! No, don't think of the kids' brains, they smell too fishy. " That's the trick, balancing the essence of the performer." If it was GG Allin, then who would pay to see a reanimated corpse do what he didn't do in real life: blow his brains out on stage? Well, I'll give the last word to Mike McGee: "The less awards we win, the better. No one knows we've done it."

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