Articles & interviews about VFX in films, Interview: John Van Vliet on 'Herbie: Fully Loaded'

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Visual effects supervisor John Van Vliet shares some of the effects secrets behind the rev'd up Herbie: Fully Loaded.
Interview by Ian Failes

How did you get involved with 'Herbie: Fully Loaded'?

I was contacted by the studio, who asked me to meet with the director, Angela Robinson. After I read the script, I made some drawings and a few Photoshop composites and showed her how I would approach the show. Angela seemed to like what I was showing her and shortly thereafter, I was working on her picture. Can you talk about the role you played in pre-production, on set and in the finalization of the visual effects shots? Herbie was unusual in that I had a fairly long pre-production period where I was asked to help develop the character. I brought in Lightwave animators Bill Arance, Doug Beswick, Chadd Cole and Don L. McCoy to do a series of animatics that would explore how far we wanted to go with the Herbie performances. Image and motion picture technology has improved considerably since they made the first Herbie movies and Angela Robinson and the studio wanted to see where and how it could be applied with the modern tools available. We generated a number of performances showing the car in showing various emotions and tried to give a wide 'Menu' range of capabilities. Ultimately, we ended up very close to the original 'rules' that governed Herbie’s performances from the sixties. With rare exception, we do not bend metal or what we call 'shape deformation' to produce expressions.

It was determined that we had to maintain what I like to call carness so that we never really expect Herbie to move any of his parts except where we would naturally have pivot points or connection points. That means no morphing or similar behavior. Well…except for one golden moment, where it really seemed like a really good idea. After these animations were approved, they were passed to Matt Sweeney SPFX who was tasked with actually building a car that would mimic the performances that we had created. We had an interesting division of work as the studio preferred to have a real car on set that would perform as much as possible. This was achieved in a static, non-driving car that was filled to the brim with various linkages and controls that enabled it to hop around, blink, smile or frown with the bumper, you name it. The CG Herbie only got used for performances when the car had to be in motion or was unavailable. Where the new technology was the most help was in putting shots in the correct environments. This covers greenscreen work, matte paintings and splitscreens.

How was the work distributed among the visual effects houses? How did you go about reviewing their work?

It seemed like everyone and their brother wanted to work on Herbie. I was a little amazed at how enthusiastic everyone was to get on this show. We ended up with over 650 shots spread out among a number of vendors. Here are a few of the vendor highlights: CIS/Hollywood who did the vast bulk of the greenscreen shots and most of the 2-D compositing work. They performed heroically with some really dodgy background plates. ILM who came in later and created most of the heavy-duty, full CG, 3-D shots of Herbie at the end of the race. The fact that they were able to create full synthetic environments that were so successful is a testament both to their talent pool and fire-power. Entity FX which generated a lot of shots with CG bumpers and headlights for expression performances. They also did some very nice work with building a full CG grandstand at the racetrack so we could add crowds. LOLA and Pixel Magic both handled a lot of 2-D fixit shots which we call body and fender work. Pixel Magic also contributed all of the 'HerbieVision' shots which I think added considerable value to the Herbie personality. Hammerhead created only two shots, but they were great fun and unique as we paid tribute to the Fast and Furious movies. In these shots, we ran a virtual camera through a CG engine interior and transmission when we get to see Herbie’s very tired, but spirited motor rev up for racing action. If you watch it carefully, you’ll see bearings and other engine parts flying off as it speeds up. Make EFX provided all of the CG Herbie shots when we see our bug pop up in a physically impossible rear wheelie to avoid getting hit by the bad guy’s car.

Can you talk about some of the effects shots from the film and how they were accomplished?

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We broke the effects work down into several categories, personality enhancement, environmental work and Car Generation. The personality work was mostly done as an add-on in post where we added CG headlights that blinked over the originals and added CG bumpers to real cars that we shot without a real bumper originally (to be able to animate on expressions later). Environmental work covered matte paintings and location greenscreens where we had to put in whole new backgrounds than what was really out there in reality. Also, the vast bulk of the shots where we see the actors in cars while on the track or on the street where shot against a greenscreen. There were some towed cars, but they were negligible and we ended up working on them anyway to remove the wet rainy streets. CG Herbie was created to insert Herbie onto the track during the real race at any place or time the director needed it. We also had a fair number of NASCAR racers recreated in the digital realm to add as need to better populate the racetrack. Since there was a lot of action that could not be physically staged safely, we ended up with more than a few full CG shots where nothing was actually real.

It's a really fun film. How did that translate into the way you approached the visual effects?

This was a collaborative effort with our director, who had very good instincts about what was needed and how far to push things. She was also one of those rare directors who maintained her wonderful sense of humor no matter how hard it got or how tired we all were. Angela set the tone of this picture and her leadership and instincts encouraged us to take it exactly where it needed to go. We were lucky to get her on this. A lot of Herbie's stunts and emotions seem to have been accomplished practically.

At what point did Herbie have to move into the digital realm?

The initial mandate of the producers was that this was to be a practical effects picture and we were told emphatically that this was NOT an effects picture. But we’ve all heard that before� Matt Sweeney EFX did most of the stunt car building and their rigs proved to be outstanding pieces of engineering (and great fun to watch too!). But as the list of crazy stunts that Herbie need to do grew, it became apparent that CG Herbie was going to be used more than originally thought. CG Herbie ended up being used in almost all of the shots where he completely ignores the rule of gravity and physics. Towards the end of the picture, it was decided that Herbie needed to do some driving shots that we just didn’t have time to stage, so they were also created completely on the computer. There are a fair amount of shots in this picture that are CG that you probably won’t catch.

Did you look to the previous Herbie films to see what they had achieved in a pre-digital world?

I did my homework and reviewed the original films in excruciating detail to see what they had done earlier and was actually quite surprised at what they had managed to accomplish. Peter Ellenshaw oversaw a lot of the work in the original picture and his approach was actually far ahead of its time. Even with the crude tools (by today’s standards) that they used, he was one of the first film artists to really understand and apply the concept of component filmmaking, a technique we are now calling the 'Digital Backlot'. Most of the shots are matte paintings and sodium vapor screen shots, so a great deal of the picture was all shot at the studio and essentially built in post- production. We take that process for granted now, but at the time, it was unusual, innovative and probably pretty scary for the filmmakers. They didn’t have the luxury of video playback and onset composite artists to see a 'proof of concept' before they shot it and moved on. It was all about planning, confidence and trust in what they were doing. There wasn’t much room to be off in the old optical analog days as you had very limited adjustment tools. If your perspective on your setup was off or it was lit wrong, you were just plain screwed and that was that. I was incredibly impressed with what he figured out and accomplished, so long ago. As a side note on the Ellenshaw legacy, his daughter Lynda Ellenshaw Thompson was our very capable VFX producer on this show. It was kind of a nice touch to have the Herbie legend continue with that original family of filmmakers involved.

Can you talk about any other effects work in the film that might not stand out as visual effects shots?

Take a look at one of the last shots at the end of the race. It is of Maggie standing up thru the sun-roof of her car as the camera swings around her. This had to be the most difficult shots we did. Our time opportunity to shoot a crowd background plate of the crowd was less than 60 seconds at the racetrack, so we had to run out there in front of 140 thousand fans with a marker stick and a steadi-cam and grab it before the race officials threw us out to start the race. Later we had a group called Engine Room track the shot and give us data to apply to a motion control unit that was setup to shoot Maggie and the car against a greenscreen. When we were almost finished the composite, The director decided to change the camera move to tilt down to see the car better for a story point. Unfortunately this was not what was originally shot, so we had to build a transition into the move from a greenscreen composite onto a full CG environment with a CG Herbie as well. I think we got away with it, but don’t mind saying it had me more than a little concerned.

Are you now obsessed with Volkswagens?

Obsessed? I wouldn’t really call it being obsessed, but every time I see one on the street, it catches my eye now. I also know more about VWs and NASCAR racing than I ever thought I would need to know. But what really continues to impress me is the timeless appeal of that simple little car. Somehow after all of these years it still has this weird appeal to people that hasn’t ever been duplicated. If there was ever a car built that seemed worthy of being bestowed with a soul, this would be the one.

Related Links Herbie: Fully Loaded Official Site MigrantFilmWorker.com - John Van Vliet's website Special thanks to John Van Vliet for chatting to vfxblog.

All images copyright © 2005 Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.


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