Back to reality

AUTHOR:  
Published:  January 14, 2010
Back to reality

From the first films ever set to screen, filmmakers have struggled to bring to life what they themselves see so easily in their mind’s eye, and until recently technology hasn’t been able to keep pace with our vivid imaginations. Visual effects and computer generated imagery have now come of age with the clunky VFX of yesteryear paving the way for the slick post-productions we have become so used to. Yet the art of visual effects is about so much more than creating giant transforming robots or scary winged monsters, and these days seamlessly blurring the line between the possible and impossible has become par for the course.

Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the production company brought to life by George Lucas, is one of the biggest players in the CGI (computer-generated imagery) and VFX (visual effects) game with credits such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, Speed Racer and the Indiana Jones series bearing its mark. Alex Jaeger is one of the amazing creative minds behind the work of ILM and here he is kind enough to take us behind the scenes and share with us what he does.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania (Clarion, USA) and I always liked to draw and build models. I was always ‘the art guy’ in school. At the Art Institute of Pittsburgh I studied animation, computers, and let loose my sci-fi side. About a month after graduation and a lot of prayers and phone calls later, I was on my way to California for a two week trial period in the ILM Model shop! I arrived with my little tool box for working on small models, Jeff Olson (Model Shop manager at the time) walked me back to meet Nelson Hall and Don Bies who where using large drills and sculpting tools to make 30 ft trees for the movie Congo. I set to work with them and people like Steve Gawley and Lorne Peterson who were my idols growing up. After about a week and a half they said I could make plans to stay. I worked in the model shop for over a year while also doing some storyboards for the Art department on some commercials. At one point though work slowed down and I was at another crossroads, do I stay in the modelshop and struggle through the slow times? Do I stay in California and look for work at another place or do I move back home? Then one day Jeff Olson (now a producer) and John Knoll (of Photoshop fame) approached me about art directing their next film, Star Trek First Contact. I said yes without knowing what an art director does. From there it was all trial by fire, learn it as you do it! And happy to say 14 years later I’m still here.

So what is you role now at ILM?
I am a Senior Visual Effects Art Director.

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

What drew you to the digital production field and how did you find your way into this competitive industry?
When I started it wasn’t so digital. It was just starting to become digital. I still drew on paper with markers and used Photoshop as a clean up tool only. In school I did have some training on various programs so I was at least familiar with the basics of Photoshop and some 3D programs. I found that in order to stay working, I needed to be a ‘jack of all trades’, so I knew about what the modelshop did and could always work there, I learned about what the CG artists did so I could work there, and I knew enough to work that into my current job so that I stayed useful to the company no matter what changes occurred.

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

What would you say were your greatest challenges in working with digital production/ VFX/ CGI? How do you overcome these?
The biggest challenge is always the one line in the script that says ‘and something we’ve never seen before happens!’ These are in just about every script. And every director wants something more amazing than the last blockbuster. My challenge is to come up with what  ‘that never seen before’ thing is and what it looks like.  For instance in Star Trek (2009), a planet implodes into a black hole….. er right. There was no way to show this in one frame, so I did a seven frame progression of images of the planet being sucked into it’s own core from a distance to help establish the overall look. That then served as a basis for the ground based shots and eventually the final shot turned out to be pretty darn close to the artwork. On Transformers the challenge was how do we go from car to robot while looking feasible? The main plan was to make what is in camera work and let the rest fall into place. If you give the eye a few good moments of believable action your mind will assume the rest is happening the same way. In order to keep fresh ideas we do a ton of reference searches, and look in places not related to our subject matter for cool micro ideas to project into our usually much grander effects sequences.

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

Which do you prefer to create realistic or fantasy characters/ scenarios? Why?
I prefer the more realistic realm myself, or at least when it comes to hardware. I’m not a fan of dragons and trolls. Since I still have a passion for car design, I like to think that what ever I design could be built and work if the technology is there. Plus the touch of reality into a fun fantasy makes things a bit more relatable to the viewer.

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

What differences are encountered in the production of both?
Well in fantasy you are free to use ‘magic’ as a science and therefore have things that just do weird stuff because it’s a fantasy. You set your own rules, and therefore are very free to explore. The realistic approach is far more challenging, you have set rules like gravity, mass, energy, even safety. So you have boundaries to design within. You can’t just design a floating car without some explanation or visual cue as to how or why it floats, the audience and the story world would not allow it. And since most of the productions I work on have real people as characters, everything has to live in that level of detail to fit in.

What is involved in compositing elements into a scene so that they work with the actor/s and existing props?
From a design standpoint our elements have to have a certain level of detail to fit in, otherwise no matter how good the compositing is it will look fake. So we need to pay attention to dirt, scratches, rivets, screws, seem lines, reflections, proportions, colour, textures, even the way the light pings the lens. These are all things we try and tackle in the art phase so they don’t get left out. Of course we always end up adding more in the end because reality demands it.

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

Copyright Industrial Light & Magic

What are some common problems you would encounter when working with VXF/ CGI and how would you overcome these?
Common problems working with CGI are things are always too perfect. We need to build in imperfections into everything from the model to the animation. With shooting real models you would get ‘happy accidents’ like the way the light bounced off a reflection, or the way a lens flares, but in CG there are no such things. So it’s a lot more effort to plan those imperfections and make things feel organic.

What software/ equipment do you use when creating?
Being in the art department I use a quad-core Mac tower and a Wacom Cintiq 21ux as my tablet/monitor. I mainly use Photshop CS4, Aftereffects for 2D animated concepts and screen graphics, Maya and Modo 401 for 3D concepts and rendering. I also have a linux machine for viewing shots.

What can we expect from you in the future?
Hopefully some more ‘never seen before’ moments, some cool movie hardware designs and since I still have a passion for car design, perhaps a Jaeger Design car in your driveway!

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