Overlord Interview: Phi Van Le, Producer and Johnny Gibson, VFX Supervisor – Pixomondo
January 9, 2019 – Excellent interview with Pixomondo, the global VFX company. Pixomondo Producer, Phi Van Le, and Pixomondo VFX Supervisor, Johnny Gibson, talk to VFX Online about working on Overlord.
Overlord is a 2018 American war horror film directed by Julius Avery and written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith. The film was produced by J. J. Abrams, through his Bad Robot Productions banner, and Lindsey Weber. The plot follows several American soldiers who are dropped behind enemy lines the day before D-Day and discover secret Nazi experiments.
// From Phi Van Le, Pixomondo Producer and Johnny Gibson, Pixomondo VFX Supervisor
How did you get involved on this film?
Le: We got approached by the vfx-producer who was working for (the film’s production company) Bad Robot at the time.
Gibson: We were approached initially about the underwater work at the end of the parachute sequence since it was a good chunk of standalone design and stylized underwater set extension work. That was followed by what I like to call “dogmentation” – a dog that needed to look more menacing when Boyce escapes the lake. So we modified its facial expressions and added a mouth interior for an angrier look. There was also the “tubes and tar body bag” work that Boyce discovers and some other set extension, and firefight and destruction work that was scattered throughout the film.
Let us know about the core team of Pixomondo who worked on ‘Overlord’
Le: The majority of the work was done in Pixomondo’s Toronto branch, and overseen by Pixomondo’s Los Angeles division where Johnny and myself are based.
How was the working experience of Director Julius Avery? What are his expectations and approaches about the visual effects?
Gibson: Julius was less focused on the nuances and techniques of our shots, and more interested in the featured creature work and overall tempo of the film. In that regard we enjoyed the benefit of having directorial faith in our work. Julius made his preferences clear to us early in the process which meant there were rarely any doubts about the vision. That always helps the process immensely.
How do you balance director’s vision with VFX capabilities when creating visual effects for any movie?
Gibson: That is always the first step in any feature VFX work. You shouldn’t even bid on a movie without understanding the director’s expectation and your ability to achieve it. Step One is the director’s vision. Julius and Pixomondo were pretty much on the same page regarding our shots from the get-go. So balancing what Julius imagined, coupled with what was already shot, with what we could achieve with VFX was established early in the process.
Sometimes VFX teams can be kept in the dark until principle photography wraps and then it is too late to get appropriate coverage and collect necessary lighting and survey data. But in this case, what was shot or covered was basically enough. I think this is largely due to Julius’ clear vision, and his concise communication to the VFX team at Bad Robot who then wrangled all us VFX vendors. We were able to forge ahead and not be hampered by lack of communication.
How did you organize the work with Production VFX Supervisor Dan Seddon?
Gibson: Once the shots were in our hands, Dan was the point person for Julian’s vision and steered us through their critical concerns. Luckily we were given a long leash and had the ability to be quite flexible. Most of the kickoff and review process went smoothly. Dan had all his ducks in a row before we even started each shot, so we didn’t have to slow down for any type of regroup or re-organization.
When it came to nuance and offering specific variations to the shots, we put together packages of different versions and specifics for Dan to look at offline, out of respect for his time. If Dan knew Julius was looking for something in particular, we knew almost immediately which files and versions he could find it in. The rest was deciphering the shot notes and understanding them, which was fairly cut and dry.
Creating CG Blood, Fire and other Elements. What was the biggest challenge of this?
Gibson: When it comes to FX elements in a big VFX feature like Overlord, there are generally two kinds. Big ones, like the manifestation of a magic spell, the firing the Death Star’s main gun, establishing flyovers of an ancient location, or the lava flow in a volcano movie – these are shots the audience is meant to notice. Those are the main focus of these shots. They are not meant to blend in. The bulk of our work on Overlord was the other kind: meshing with the scene flow without drawing attention to itself.
Though at face value, this doesn’t require much design work, the reality is that blending in can be more difficult than a featured FX element. You have to think of questions like: Does the CG muzzle flash precisely match the high-dynamic range color of the ones that were shot? Does the automatic gunfire tempo mesh to the sound track across the cut? How much did that log burn between the first and last shot? Once we blow off the corner of that building; what needs to be put behind it? When the audience sees the guy’s brain splash across the sky in silhouette; where would have bullet have had to have come from and how do we justify the direction? That type of FX work is there to push along the shot narrative; not be the shot. And just as there are invisible FX, there are invisible challenges that come from having to have that FX compliment the structure of the story: fitting seamlessly while looking narratively seamless at the same time.
Did you receive specific indications and references for Overlord?
Le: Yes, Pixomondo received references for the sequences we were awarded. They were extremely helpful in showing us Julius Avery’s vision.
What was the most challenging shot or sequence that you did and why?
Gibson: The underwater drowning scene at the end of the parachute sequence was optically the most challenging. Often times, artists aren’t used to dealing with the mechanics of light, be it underwater or looking from below-water at something above-water. We were fortunate to have reference photography from both Julius and Dan.
What type of software did you use for Overlord?
Gibson: What software? We actually blew up, drowned, and shot people up on camera. We salute those who have fallen for the fine craft of VFX. Wait, you didn’t know that? Software is for nerds! But when we did use software, it was Nuke, Maya, Houdini, VRay.
What are the sequences made by Pixomondo?
Le: Pixomondo worked on various shots throughout the film but the two big sequences we had was the underwater scene at the beginning, and the final gun battle.
How long did you work on the project, what was the overall shot count, and what was the size of the team?
Le: Pixomondo had roughly two months to work on our sequences. From our end, the overall shot count was roughly 66. And we had about 40 people working on the film.
Many thanks to the Pixomondo Team for sharing with us their experiences.
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