With more than 20 years industry experience, Christopher Townsend is one of the most respected and sought after visual effects supervisors around. During his time at Industrial Light & Magic he worked on the Star War prequels and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and recently has been closely involved with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most recently Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Starburst: You’ve worked on several Marvel films now, so is the challenge becoming greater to surpass previous achievement, or do advances in technology open up new options?
Christopher Townsend: I think the first thing that’s interesting, and challenging with these films, is that visual effects are there to support the narrative. Even on a film like Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, where almost 98% of the film features visual effects, – I mean we have virtual worlds and there are two virtual characters - even with a film like this the effects are supporting the story. Each film requires something different; creatively, artistically and technologically. Some films you come against problems you can only solve with new technology, and some you use what’s available. So, it’s not a matter of “What new cool thing can we do?”, it’s always “What does the film require or what does the director want?” That then drives us towards what we’re going to create. With a new film I’m starting soon I’ve no idea yet what challenges I’ll face. With Guardians 2 it was creating worlds that are so dense and massive.
You mentioned world building, so is it freeing to work on a film like Guardians 2 where you have the entire universe to work with?
One of the things we really wanted to do, and it sounds like a cliché now, was create worlds no-one had seen before. We didn’t just want to go to Morocco say and film there, as everyone would say “That’s Morocco!” Or go to a forest and just make it red. We wanted it to be different and not just a twist. Take The Martian for example. To me, while it looked great, it still looked like Earth and we didn’t want that. That said, we wanted it to look real enough that the audience could hang their hat on it that was grounded enough so as to be believable. That was the big challenge.
You don’t want audiences just to think the film looks great though, so is a close working relationship with the director and writers becoming more and more important?
Absolutely. James Gunn was phenomenal to work with. He’s very committed as a director, and as he wrote the script he was very attached to it. He’s also a visionary; he knew the story he wanted to tell and how to tell it. We worked very closely for two years, and that’s one of the advantages of my job – I’m one of the first on set and one of the first off at the end. He was also open to ideas and very collaborative on the film.
We have to talk about the opening scene. How do you even begin with something like that?
It took over a year just to do that shot, with many, many people working on it. You start with the script, and James was very specific. When he wrote the script, he wrote in the camera moves and was very descriptive with what was happening in the background. From there we started with story boards and pre-vis, which is a low-resolution version of animation. And the pre-vis took four to five months! Then we started with principal photography, and set up the moves and then you’re into post-vis and putting everything together. Only the do you send it to Framestore who finished it off, and they worked on it for ten to eleven months. For a three-minute scene it’s a huge shot.
Where do you see the future of practical and visual effects?
I think the advantage of shooting something real is, you have something real. If we can get something done practically then I’m an exponent of it. But some things you can’t do that with. We’re always looking for the best way of doing things, and I think a combination of the two will always be that.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray