Peter Muyzers is the man responsible for some of the most awe inspiring visual effects of the past decade from the early Harry Potter films through to Neill Blomkamp's District 9 and Elysium. Inspired by the designs of futurist Syd Mead, Muyzer's work on creating space station Elysium is a marvel of visual effects artistry. We had a chat with Peter about the unique challenges that building Elysium brought, as well as his continuing collaboration with Blomkamp on Chappie...
Starburst: How difficult is it to work with a director who has a background in VFX?
Peter Muyzers: I believe it can either be seen as a blessing or as a curse at the same time. It can be a blessing in that he knows exactly what he wants given his experience of being a visual effects artist. You also don't have to explain to him in detail what technological terms mean. He would get those and understand what it is you're talking about. So you kind of have this short hand conversation with him. He gets what a grey shaded spaceship looks like and he is not making any presumptions as to how that is going to look in the film. He knows it's at a certain stage in its production. So in that sense it saves a lot of explaining to him and we get very honest feedback based on that because he knows what he should look for and what he should ignore.
It's a curse because you can't get away with anything (laughs). You can't quite bamboozle the guy. Which isn't to say that's a bad thing. He will call you out on every single thing that he sees and it is what it is. He understands that process.
How was working on Elysium compared to your work on the biggest of blockbusters like Harry Potter?
It was a different challenge for myself. When I was working on the Harry Potter films, I was one of the artists working in Soho amongst many other studios working on these monstrous Harry Potter films. They had a lot of visual effects and were very complicated. And the way the work was spilt up was by Warner Brothers looking at all of the studios in London and saying ok maybe the Moving Picture Company could do this, Framestore could do that, Double Negative could this and so they split up the work according to perhaps the strength of each company but then each individual company would be chewing off a smaller portion of the entire film.
Whereas with Elysium, it was basically all put on Image Engine, basically the entire show. In effect, Elysium was for myself far more complicated and a much more heavier lift than anything I've done on the Potter films or any of the work I'd done before, including District 9. Some of those key differences were that District 9 was primarily done at Image Engine but we had some help from other studios like WETA Digital did some of the spaceship crashes and some of the other work. I would say that 70% was Image Engine and 30% was split up between Embassy, WETA Digital and some other studios in town here. With Elysium it was also very similar in that Image Engine was taking on about 70% of the work but it was incidentally the most difficult and challenging work in the film. Having said that, the visual effects were also three times as big as District 9.
District 9 was around 311 shots for Image Engine and now we're close to 900 shots. So just the volume was bigger but also the complexity of the work. If you think back on what the effects were on District 9, for the most part it was aliens in shots. Whether that be the hero aliens or the crowds of aliens and then there was the mother ship and the special effects like weapon effects but for the most part it was all about the aliens.
In Elysium, the variety of work was much greater than anything we'd done before. We had to do space shots, we had to do a lot of the visual effects on Earth, we had space vehicles, the Elysium ring was very complicated, the droids on Earth were very complicated as well as on Elysium and a huge amount of set extensions and environments that we had to build for Elysium.
How did you find the challenge of creating this entire environment in Elysium and how did you go about it?
In hindsight you are always thinking of those challenges ahead of time and you're thinking, ‘well what do we need to create for the movie?’ You try to break it down with the director Neill and for some reason we were all kind of underestimating the work it would take to do this ring, this world of Elysium. We originally started off thinking we could use live action photography of places like Malibu and the Hollywood Hills and then we would go in and map the terrain and remove cars and just keep the mansions and vegetation and start adding in some science fiction or sci-fi looking buildings and other elements. But there were a number of concepts that were just not working out.
One key one was that the planet Earth which is obviously a giant sphere has a certain horizon line over this terrain whereas Elysium is somewhat inverted. It was almost like you were on the inside of a bicycle tyre so if you looked up, you could see the top of, or the opposite side of Elysium. You could see mansions above you. And so the horizon and therefore the atmosphere would be very different on Elysium. It would take so much effort to distort live action photography and somehow wrestle that into what it would look like on Elysium so that we decided you'd have to go all CG. There's no way we can use live action in any shape or form to approach this vision.
And once we went all CG, then it kind of opens up another can of worms, both in a good way and a bad way. Then we can do whatever we want. It's a good thing but also a bad thing. Well when do you stop? What is the limit of what you can do? How close can you get to the terrain? Because otherwise if it was filmed, you could use it as an excuse and say well I'm sorry. This is what was shot, this is what was filmed and there's nothing we can do. Whereas if it's digital, the sky's the limit. So the design of Elysium took a lot longer than everyone had expected including myself and we really had to think differently about how we would get a good end result.
We decided that at Image Engine we would build an art department and we would take over from production's art department through post production, continue on the design and work further on the designs that they started with Syd Mead. Syd Mead came on board with this film and his influence in the ring design and the concept was critical. We took all our cues from Syd Mead and Phil Ivey who was the production designer and then we just built our own art department at Image Engine. We then spent another six months designing all of these aspects of the terrain, all of the seams, the glass, the walls, the terrain itself. We even employed another company in San Rafael called Whisky Tree who helped us with this massive, massive process of building all of these mansions, all of this vegetation that had to be very precise to fit what Neill wanted on Elysium. Like he would imagine a variety of flora and fauna that would appear on the habitat as well as the design of all of those mansions. Were they all going to be modern designs? Were some going to be traditional? Every aspect had to be figured out before we actually embarked on building them in CGI.
Neill wants to keep everything as real as possible. Are VFX guys on set constantly? How involved are you in the production stage?
I think that it's often something that has been overseen and it just comes down in my opinion to education. Hopefully you have a team of people on board including line producers and so on who understand the necessity of getting visual effects done to that level that Neill is expecting. It's therefore mandatory to be on set to be sure that what is being shot is actually going to work three, four, five months down the road when the artists at Image Engine are working with that footage. You don't want to end up in a situation where Neill goes ahead and shoots something all by himself with no VFX on set and all those months later, you figure out that what he actually did in Mexico City isn't going to work. Or alternatively it is going to cost a lot more money than anticipated so from the risk perspective, you have to have representation on set so I spend a good part of three months on location of this film with a team of people with me including Andrew Chapman who was doing the second unit that was also happening at the same time as well as a team of data collectors that would go out and measure physical objects, take photographs and other data that we could use in post production that would help us really fit in all of that data that we would create for the film.
Also my biggest role was to advise Neill. If he would just have to ask the camera operator to take a step to the left, it would be perhaps more cost effective than if he was to stay where he would be at that point. It's little things like pointing out like hey there's a dump truck driving through the background in the far distance that no one is paying attention to and it would cost another few thousand dollars to get rid of that thing in post. At that point you can just then decide ok I didn't spot that so let's just wait until the truck clears frame and then we'll do another take.
Does it take some convincing of the guys with the money to have helicopters stand in for spaceships when the VFX team will be digitally replacing the helicopter?
It is really a challenge to educate an entire crew about why you would need a helicopter when visual effects are going to get rid of it and replace it with a space ship. Really when you break it down if you have a real object right there that's a stand in for Neill as a director as well as the camera team, they won't have to figure out, let's say if there was a shot, imagine this spaceship is flying at high speed towards us and then it banks to the right and slows down and sets down on the ground. If you have to explain that to a camera operator, I'm pretty sure that it won't be the same interpretation with any two different camera operators. So somebody might be panning a bit too fast as he's imagining this spaceship at 100km an hour. So they're making it up as they go and again then you're locked in to what this camera operator decided to do. If you had a real vehicle that can make that motion or at least approximate the behaviour of that spaceship, which in our minds was like the behaviour of a helicopter, because spaceships for the most part are based on the technology that means they can take off and land vertically and so that's kind of similar to a helicopter and so we used these helicopters to really help framing and speed and to get all the camera movements right.
And another important aspect was the action. In a very dusty environment, this space vehicle would lift off with these thrusters that would create a big wash, a big cloud of dust when it touches down. Dust is very dynamic and has very dynamic properties that are very difficult to simulate with visual effects all by themselves. So at least we had a good foundation of well here's this helicopter that's been filmed and dust is being kicked up and whirling around and then we can use that dust to our advantage and we insert the spaceship print but for the most part we still had to add additional dust because the thrusters of the spaceship would be in different positions to what the blades of a helicopter would do. So we would add on top of the live action dust quite a lot more CGI dust and they could be well integrated. But without that in place it would be very difficult to actually get that level of realism and that's really what Neill's after.
What about having actors in grey suits on set instead of droids?
So the grey suit actors are basically stand-ins for these droids. Neill is basically saying well I want this actor who plays this droid and I want to direct him in the way that I want on set, so that later on in post, we're simply copying that behaviour exactly, not interpreting what this droid should be doing or how fast. It's very important for Neill to see all of that action and interaction on set and he'll take multiple takes and then he'll say this is the one I want to edit. Then when he gives it to us in VFX, we can then just literally place on top of that basic actor our digital droid because for the most part Neil was happy with that performance.
You're working with Neill Blomkamp again on Chappie. It's started shooting in Johannesburg recently. Have you been on set? Is Sharlto Copley doing mo-cap? What can you tell us about it?
I believe it is another film that obviously will have Neil's stamp on it. It's going to be either similar to Elysium or District 9. He's shooting in a similar location to where District 9 was shot so it's kind of like that's where he comes from and the nitty-grittiness of Africa I can imagine is going to contribute to the visual impact that Chappie is going to have. I haven't seen anything of the footage of what they're shooting. One of my colleagues is on the ground there this time around so I have managed to weasel out of the harsh conditions that Neill tends to put me in. Sharlto gets to play this crazy droid I guess, this robot adopted by this criminal family. Even just that sentence right there is a recipe for some crazy stuff. I'm quite curious to see how this is all going to play out.
ELYSIUM is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.