Jeff White and team at Industrial Light & Magic — along with Janek Sirrs, Guy Williams, Dan Sudick — worked tirelessly to bring The Avengers to life on the big screen, helping Joss Whedon realize his vision.
White has worked on some of the most popular (and geeky) movies of the last decade, including Van Helsing, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, xXx: State of the Union, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Transformers (1, 2, & 3), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The Avengers is without question the most successful super-hero team movie to date, and one of the most successful comic book movies of all time. What made the movie so successful was the impeccable balance between story, characters, and special effects. White’s job was responsible the last of those three legs that hold up a great movie by being as believable as possible.
I had the chance to meet White last year at a conference, and had wanted to interview him for a while. We finally caught up and I was able to ask him about how he got into the special effects industry, the importance of computer science for the creative profession, and where the industry is headed.
GeekDad: How did you get into being a digital artist?
White: I was always interested in computer graphics and their application to visual fx. At the time I was going to college there were very few formal programs in CG. I ended up studying Cinema and Photography with a minor in Computer Science. It actually turned out to be a nice combination of skills for a job in the field. I am terrible at drawing so that route was not going to get me in, but studying film production, lighting, camera work, editing was all very relevant to the job I do today.
GeekDad: It’s interesting you mention computer science as a way to get into the creative field. I did computer science in high school and college. Although I’m not a programmer, I find the skills I picked up in those classes every bit as useful for being a creative director as the skills I got in history, English, and math. Do you think computer programming should be required in high-school?
White: I think CS should be required or at least heavily encouraged but the key would be to keep it in the realm of something that is engaging to students. Like an English paper, programming requires good structure, revisions and improvements. I think one thing that could help students engage in learning CS would be to make it as visual an interactive process as possible. I remember learning [Logo] in grade school and the best part was moving the turtle around the screen. Now there are full graphics engines that use an easy to learn language like Python where the students can have a lot more fun with programming because the results are visual. No matter what industry you work in, there’s a chance that knowing a little programming can help you be more effective at your job.
I’d also add that when students see the work we do on something like The Hulk, the underpinnings of the technology that we use to create him is what students are learning in high school right now. Lighting, rendering and simulation are all heavily based in the math and computer science. For students that are interested in visual effects, and who don’t have the art background, there is still a lot of work available improving the look of our work using mathematics.
GeekDad: Did you have a mentor who helped you?
White: There have been countless people that I’ve learned so much from over the years. If I had to pick one person, I would say that it’s Scott Farrar, a visual effects supervisor at ILM. I first worked with him on xXx2: State of the Union and then on The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and all three Transformers films. Scott is incredibly good at all aspects of being a vfx supervisor and it can be a challenging job. Going on location to film the movie, working with directors, actors, producers and production designers to craft the look of the film and working with all of the artists to create the incredible imagery is a three ring circus and the way he handled that work was a real inspiration. On every film I worked on with him he gave me an opportunity to take on a new role and for that I am forever grateful and hope to be able to return the favor to many others some day.
As for getting in the industry, the connections with people were the key. While at Savannah, I had an opportunity to talk with the CG Department Manager at ILM and after keeping in touch over the next two years, he helped me get my interview.
GeekDad: Super-hero team movies have done OK over the years, but mostly with comic fans. Avengers has been a big hit with both popular and geek audiences. Why do you think that is?
White: I think Marvel made a brilliant move hiring Joss Whedon to helm The Avengers. I’d been a fan of Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog and they are both great examples where story and compelling dialog come first. Even with 2,200 visual effects shots, Joss was able to create such great characters for the film so that the visual fx work served the story rather than carry it. Everyone that I’ve talked to really loves the film and I think it’s because it connects on many levels with an audience. Even if you don’t know the complete backstory of all the characters or have not seen any of the other films, it’s a movie that really stands on its own.
GeekDad: Most people acknowledge that story is important, but do you think that a good story can be ruined by overbearing special effects?
White: It is an incredibly difficult balancing act, especially because the visual effects process can be incredibly time consuming. With most films having a 1,000 to 2,000 visual effects shots it can be difficult to know exactly how well your movie is working until late in the process because so much of it will arrive finished just before it goes to the theaters. I think what made The Avengers such a hit is that it worked on so many levels. There was absolutely eye candy that is fun to watch but it was all sewn together with great character moments and dialogue.
GeekDad: What was the biggest challenge to creating a realistic fantasy like The Avengers?
White: There were so many challenges for ILM on The Avengers: creating the Helicarrier, the Chitauri, Stark Tower, the Quinjet but I think the two that really pushed our creative and technical boundaries were creating midtown Manhattan and the Hulk.
Creating New York was a necessity because it was going to be impossible to get street closures on the sections of New York for the duration we would need them. Rather than creating an entirely virtual city, we sent a team to New York to shoot the equivalent of 1,800 virtual background spheres. They look just like Google street view except we capture very high resolution and bracketed exposures. We also spent a lot of time on building rooftops and in cranes capturing the material we’d need for the different sequences. It was then painstaking work by our environments team to replace all of the windows with CG renders and dress the streets with cars, mailboxes, people, etc.
The Hulk was a really exciting opportunity to create a great character. Joss had come up with so many great moments for him like smashing from building to building or slamming Loki back and forth on the floor. We also had a great partner in the process in Mark Ruffalo who not only played an amazing Banner but went through round after round of data capture to play the Hulk. In the end though, it’s the amazing talents of the artists at ILM who animate, sculpt, light and render the Hulk that bring him to life.
GeekDad: What do your kids think about what you do? Do you ever take them to a movie and say “Daddy did that”?
White: I have two step-kids that are 15 and 18 that I really enjoyed taking to this movie. We went on opening weekend with a crowd and there’s nothing more fun than sitting through the shot of Hulk punching Thor with an audience that’s not expecting it. I also have two year old twins who are too young but would be extremely excited if I could land a role on a Dora the Explorer movie.
GeekDad: Is that a goal of yours? Would you like doing something for a younger audience?
White: I’ve had the good fortune to work on a wide range of material and to me that is what’s so great about this industry. We do work for very serious adult dramas and kids movies as well. It’s that variety that makes working in visual effects so fun.
GeekDad: Where do you see special effects going in the future? Have we hit a boundary or plateau in what is possible or is there still areas where the craft can improve?
White: There are so many exciting things going on in visual effects, we are nowhere near a plateau. Even in the last ten years, just the amount of time it takes to get a render that fits in the scene has been drastically reduced and that means we spend more time working on that last 10% that gets the work looking real. There have been amazing strides in creating digital characters this year but it feels like just the beginning of what’s possible.
GeekDad: What’s your next project, and what challenge are you looking forward to most with tackling it?
White: Right now I am actually doing a short stint on a TV show and it’s really a blast. It’s very similar to when I worked in commercials with a short schedule and quick turnarounds but that’s what makes it fun. We don’t have to build a huge pipeline to support thousands of shots which lets us be very nimble in putting the shots together.