Articles & interviews about VFX in films: Interview with Marc Weigert on 'Coronado'

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Marc Weigert is the co-founder of Dreamscape Imagery Inc., a digital effects house in Los Angeles, and a partner in the production company Uncharted Territory with Volker Engel. Weigert talks to vfxblog about Coronado, recently released on DVD, which he wrote (along with Engel and director Claudio Faeh), produced and vfx supervised, also with Engel.
Interview by Ian Failes

Can you tell me about your background and training in visual effects and filmmaking?

I studied film production (which included directing, camera work, production management and animation) at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany. I came to the US on a scholarship from a German producer’s association and did an Internship at the Avnet/Kerner company ('Fried Green Tomatoes', 'Up close and personal'). I was always interested in Visual Effects. It became clear to me early on, that if I wanted to do things that have never been done before, it’s not enough to put the camera somewhere and push a button. So I taught myself 3D animation with (at the time) Alias/Wavefront Power animator 3.2, and then a little later 3D studio Release 4. So I kind of 'slid'sideways into the visual effects world.

How did you come up with the 'Uncharted Territory' and 'Dreamscape Imagery' names?

My Partner Volker Engel and I thought that since we’re venturing into 'Uncharted Territory', i.e. the unknown, with our new approach to producing movies, this would be a name that fits really well. Dreamscape Imagery is another descriptive name, because that’s essentially what we’re creating through the use of Visual Effects: A visual landscape that used to be only possible in our dreams �now we’re making it reality (it’s also a bit of an hommage to the movie 'Dreamscape' with Dennis Quaid).

- Ben Grossmann discussing a shot with Volker Engel.
Image courtesy of Uncharted Territory.

You seem to have approached this film by implementing visual effects in a meaningful way. Was that always the intention?

Yes. When we set up Uncharted Territory as a production company, we wanted to do things differently. Working in visual effects, we worked with a lot of different directors and producers and found that there’s a lot of waste happening in the film industry. Some because of bad or non-existent pre-planning, some because of a lack of knowledge on the producer’s and /or director’s side, some because there are directors who think it’s their birthright to change their minds every 5 minutes. It’s not �it’s horribly expensive and wasteful. We went out to change that. 'Coronado' was the first product where we did exactly that �and I think it shows. The movie was done for under 5 Million dollars. Just compare that with the production values of other movies.

Do you think we have reached a point where visual effects are just another part of the filmmaking process and not something to be separated out?

Theoretically, we have reached that point. Unfortunately, in Hollywood old habits die hard, so a lot of producers or directors still treat VFX as this 'post production stuff' that gets done as an afterthought by some different group of people. That’s of course not the way it should be handled. It should be seen as a tool exactly like the camera itself. And it’s not post production anymore. It should start in pre-production. Of course there are directors like Roland Emmerich and George Lucas who have a very clear understanding of the process. They use VFX exactly they way it should be used �as another tool that’s totally integrated into the production process.

- Freighter from Coronado.
Image courtesy of Uncharted Territory.

What level of previz work did you do on the film?

We did over 45 minutes of 3D computer animated pre-visualization, mixed with storyboards here and there �so about half the movie was pre-viz’d. Anything but 'talkie-scenes' were pre-planned down to the second.

How were miniatures used in the film?

We used a lot of miniatures (created by Hunter-Gratzner Industries (now 'New Deal Studios'), who also provided models for 'Godzilla', 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', etc.) Anything that needed to look 'organic', like the breaking of the jungle bridge, exploding tanks and buildings, was done with miniatures. The underground Mayan temple caves (the rebel hideouts) were also miniatures, that we did not film, but only photograph. The hi-rez photos were then stitched together into super-hi-rez plates, so we could create camera moves later in post production (kind of like a Quicktime VR movie on the web). There will be 2 pretty extensive 'making-of's on the DVD of 'Coronado' that show a lot of the VFX work we did.

Can you talk about how the Osprey tilt-rudder aircraft shots flying through the waterfall were achieved? Did you think this would become such a signature shot?

Actually, we always planned it to be a signature shot. When you conceptualize a movie, you always think: 'where’s the stuff to put in the trailers, the posters, etc.'. The Osprey was one of them. My producing partner and fellow VFX supervisor Volker and I went into the jungle near Vera Cruz in Mexico with a super small team. I did the camera work myself and we shot a waterfall that we later enhanced digitally (to make it higher). The Ospreys are digital. We found one in a museum (I think it was in New Jersey). Mark Norrie, one of our CG artists flew up there, took hundreds of photos of the helicopter, which we then used to texture-map onto the CG model we built in Discreet’s 3DS Max. Brandon Davis, our particle specialist, created all-CG particles in 3DS Max to simulate the water splashing out of the waterfall and dripping from the Osprey. Dozens of other elements (like prop wash etc.) were created by Brandon. All these elements, together with photos of miniature Mayan statues, were then composited digitally in Adobe After Effects by Ben Grossmann, our supervising compositor.

What hardware and software did you use on the film?

We did all the previz in Maya, then the actual 3D modeling, texturing, animation and particle systems with Discreet 3DS Max. All compositing was done in Adobe After Effects, except for 2 shots being done with Discreet Combustion. We used Photohop for matte paintings and a lot of plugins for 3DS Max and After Effects, most notably the 'Primatte' bluescreen keyer. Offline editing was done on Avid Xpress, HD online on a DVS HD system. For project management we use a SQL server database program called 'Amanda' (short for Asset Management Database) that I wrote over the last several years in Visual Basic and SQL. All our machines are Windows (windows NT and 2000 at the time) and most of them were self-built. We also got a contingent of 10 machines sponsored by Compaq. Most machines are dual processor, with 2 Gig RAM, an Nvidia videocard and a RAID array (for compositing computers only) and nothing else, stripped to the bone. We also had a render farm of about 60 processors for 'Coronado'. That gets to be more with every project.

- Digital artist Rainer Gombos working on CG model.
Image courtesy of Uncharted Territory.

What’s unique with our approach is also, that the VFX company basically ceases to exist between movies. When we start a new movie, we buy and build all the hardware and software. We hire all the people exactly in the positions we need �based on the needs of the movie. When the film is finished the freelance artists go off to another job and we sell all the equipment. Then we start that process over again for the next movie.

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Can we expect to see lots of behind-the-scenes and 'making of' documentaries on the Coronado DVD?

We’ve spent a lot of time creating behind-the-scenes material. Unfortunately, not everything that we have fits on the DVD. But as far as I know (I haven’t seen the final version yet that DEJ, the distributor, is creating), there should be one 45 minute 'general making of' with commentary by the producers/vfx supervisors (Volker Engel and myself) and the director, Claudio Faeh. There also is a special VFX making of (about 20 minutes) that shows the different CG and 2D elements being composited together, with a commentary by Volker and myself again.

Coronado DVD
- Coronado DVD cover.

Can you tell me about any of your upcoming projects?

We just finished a new version of an old European saga, which was also the basis of 'The Ring' opera cycle by Richard Wagner. It’s a drama with some mystical elements (there’s a pretty cool fight with a dragon), taking place during the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a co-production, so we haven’t developed the story, but we’re using the same production techniques as in 'Coronado'. We shot it entirely in South Africa, but we’ll insert landscapes (of course digitally altered) from Alaska, Montana and Europe. I also went on a trip through Germany, France, England, Wales and Norway to 3D scan entire castles. It’s directed by Uli Edel, who did the 'Mists of Avalon' TV mini-series. Columbia Tristar is releasing worldwide in 2005 on DVD. The title is not finally decided yet, but our working title was 'Kingdom in Twilight'.

Related Links

Coronado Official Site - http://www.coronadothemovie.com/

Uncharted Territory - http://www.uncharted-territory.com/

Dreamscape Imagery - http://www.dreamscapeimagery.com/

New Deal Studios - http://www.newdealstudios.com/

Amazon's Coronado DVD page - http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/%20tg/detail/-/B00068S418?v=glance

Special thanks to Marc Weigert for participating in this interview.


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