Q&A Interview with Bill George, Visual Effects Supervisor of “I Am Number Four” (J!-ENT Interviews and Articles)
May 29, 2011 by Dennis Amith
Images courtesy of ©2011 DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
With the upcoming release of “I Am Number Four” on Blu-ray and DVD on May 24th, 2011, J!-ENT will be featuring Q&A interviews with the cast and crew of the film.
We began with actor Alex Pettyfer, who plays the main protagonist, John Smith (or Number Four). Our second Q&A, we featured Dianna Agron, followed by our third Q&A with Teresa Palmer and actor Callan McAuliffe.
This time, our fifth and final Q&A is with Bill George, of Industrial Light and Magic and the Visual Effects Supervisor for “I Am Number Four” (handling the chimera scenes).
Bill George has an impressive resume. He has won an Oscar for his work on “Inner Space” (1987), was nominated for another Oscar for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. Films that Bill George has worked on includes several of the “Star Trek” films, a few of the “Star Wars” films, “Indiana Jones and the Temples of Doom”, “The Goonies”, “Ghostbustres II”, “Galaxy Quest”, “Planet of the Apes” and many more.
J!-ENT’s Dennis A. Amith recently participated in a Q&A media roundtable with Bill George. Here is a transcript from the roundtable.
J!-ENT: What advice would you give to someone who dreams about wanting to get a job in the visual effects industry?
A – Bill George: There is a tremendous power in doing. Years before I got my first job in the industry building models, I built them as a hobby. I’d advise someone to do what they dream of doing and they will learn so much from the experience.
J!-ENT: What was the most challenging aspect for the team when it came to the visual effects of “I Am Number Four”?
A – Bill George: The design of Bernie was our biggest challenge. He needed to be both aggressive and appealing at the same time. DJ wanted him to be able to kick the Piken’s ass but still have the audience go “Awwwww”. We revised his design a lot.
Q – You have such a spectacular curriculum, and have been involved in some of the most talked-about movies lately. That does not come easy does it? What would you say has been the key factor to your success?
A – Bill George: ILM has such a long and successful history and it’s really nice to have been a part of that. As a supervisor my job as a creative is pretty visible but there are so many production people on our shows that are more hidden and their contributions are just as important. Being one of the industry leaders, large effect projects are drawn to ILM.
Q – What’s the most fun part of your job?
A – Bill George: I LOVE leading the creative team on a show. It’s like having the best toys! There is a lot of planning that goes into a project like “I am Number Four” but my favorite part is when you are on the set and things change, or the director comes up with a new idea, and you have to shoot form the hip for a solution. That flash of creative “on the spot” problem solving is when things get really fun for me.
Q – Since you worked on Blade Runner and Harry Potter/Azkaban, did those experiences help you for this film?
A – Bill George: Absolutely! On every show I learn something and I bring all those lessons with me when I show up on set. The experience of seeing how directors and DPs work is something I really value. My job is always to get inside the director’s head to provide from them the shots they need for their movie and my past experience really helps with that.
Q – How did you start out working with visual effects?
A – Bill George: I started out making models for a hobby after Star Wars came out in 1977. Two years later I got a job in LA building models for movies. In 1981, I got a job at ILM in the model shop working on Return of the Jedi. After that show, ILM allowed me to try new things and expand my abilities. I was lucky in that as the company grew, so did I.
Q – What was the most significant factor or challenge in creating the proper imagery from the book?
A – Bill George: That was left up to our director DJ Caruso. It was his movie and my focus was to create the visuals he wanted.
Q – Besides the digital creatures in the film we also can see digital doubles and other really spectacular effects, such as Number 6 fighting against the bad guys in high school, with her appearing and disappearing. What can you tell us about these shots?
A – Bill George: There were over 700 visual effects shots in the film. The majority of those were supervised by Greg McMurray. I supervised the sequences with the CG creatures (Piken/Bernie) and the Mog blast in the end of the film. I do know there was a huge amount of complex stunt work that went into those shots.
Q – How did you work through some challenges of CGI to make sure that the characters were always real?
A – Bill George: When we are working on our CG creature shots, they usually take a few weeks to create. During that time, our entire team views them daily as they progress. Everyone is welcome to offer their view of what is working and what needs improvement. This method really helps us to get a realist result. It’s all about observation and refinement.
Q – In this film we can see several digital creatures, like those two of the bad guys and the chimera, who helps John. What could you explain to us about these digital creatures and the shots where they appear? Which were the main challenges with them?
A – Bill George: When you are adding a CG creature into a shot, the key to its success is the interaction it has in the scene. We spent a lot of time with the cameraman lining up the shots with cut-outs of the creatures to help them compose the shots and blocking in the action so the actors got their movements right. It’s important to always be looking ahead to what the final shot will look like when shooting the actors to make sure their performance will work in the shot. Things like shadows, debris and camera shake are all little factors that add up to a shot being realistic and dynamic.
Q – Is there still room for practical effects, or are there restraints that make CGI a better solution?
A – Bill George: Having come from a practical background I love using miniatures when possible. CG effects do have the benefit of being more changeable and are more “production friendly” If you blow up a practical miniature you only get one chance at it. If you do a CG explosion you can make changes up until the end. We really like to give the directors we work with the maximum amount of control so CG is many times the preferred solution.
Q – What type of impact did the film’s rating have on the visual effects as a whole?
A – Bill George: Very little. Never were we asked to pull back on anything like that because those types of decisions are really made in the edit.
Q – What was the most challenging scene to create with IMAX in mind?
A – Bill George: Good question. ILM is a tool that adapts to each director we work with. Working with DJ and watching him film non-effects shots gave us a guide as far as what our FX shots should look like. We wanted to make something unique that would show the audience a glimpse of what Lorian was like.
Q – In the film we can see the transformation of the dog in the chimera and later from the chimera in the dog. Were these particularly complicated shots? What can you tell us about them?
A – Bill George: The transformation of Bernie in the car was quite a challenge. We didn’t build a CG version of the dog so we had to get the “dog actor” to act mean for the lead in to the transformation. The problem was that the real dog was so dang cute! The trainer was able to train him to act aggressive (by taking away a juicy bone) but we had to shoot him against a blue screen. We then had to shrink our “big Bernie” CG model down to fit the real dog. That took a lot of digital pounding.
Q – What was the most dangerous scene to film and how brave were the actors?
A – Bill George: I was shocked to see Theresa hanging 60 feet in the air for the scene where the Piken picks her up off of the Football field. She was amazing and fearless! That stunt was really impressive.
Q – How long did it take to get the right effects for the movie, and do you feel like some good ideas had to be lost?
A – Bill George: Our post-production schedule was a short 3 months. We had to slam out rough animation quickly so DJ could get it in the first cut of the film. The editorial process has to be fluid because the film as a whole will evolve over time. We tried to be adaptable as possible with our shots to make the movie as great as it could be and I don’t believe we compromised in any way.
Q – Which visual effect in I Am Number Four are you the most proud of?
A – Bill George: I really love the shot of Number 6 riding the Piken down the stadium stairs. It was a real design challenge. The first animation I saw I burst out laughing! In the end I thought it looked really great.
Q – Is it hard to find the right balance between CGI and ‘real’ effects? And does the balance change for every film you work on?
A – Bill George: My approach is to always try to get as much as you can practically. At the very least you are going to be getting a good reference take. So much time is spent making a CG asset look real so if you can get something practically you can use that time elsewhere.
Q – You have a long, illustrious history in visual effects. Which film are you the most proud of?
A – Bill George: Bladerunner, Innerspace and Galaxy Quest.
Q – Was D.J. Caruso a hands-on director or did he hand you and your team the keys to the sandbox?
A – Bill George: I Am Number Four is DJ’s movie. He gave us freedom to try different things and was very supportive of us creatively, but every shot and animation he directed.
Q – Is there a director working today who you’d love to work with, or whose creative vision you really admire?
A – Bill George: John Waters, probably because what he does is so different from our regular genre of filmmaking.
Q – How much time do you have to spend on set when working on a big effects movie such as I am Number Four?
A – Bill George: I was there in Pittsburgh for 6 weeks. In that we shot the “plates” that would be used for all the creature work. Being there on set is so important for me to be able to see how the director shoot his movie and how the DP lights the scenes so when we create our CG effects we can match their looks.
Q – With a sequel planned, did you have a variety of different effects that you wanted to keep in reserve for the next film?
A – Bill George: Nope. We went all out on this one. However, I was very excited about the idea of flashbacks where we get to see the destruction of Lorian. That was in the first script I read but was omitted. That is something I would love to see!
Q – How many weeks did it take to complete all the visual effects for this movie?
A – Bill George: Our post schedule was about 3 months. While the film was being shot though we were building Bernie and the Piken and working on walk cycles and look development. We had to be ready to go as soon as DJ turned over the sequences to us to get the movie done. Personally, I was on the show about 11 months.
Q – Can you tell us what kinds of projects are you involved now?
A – Bill George: I’m just finishing up the re-boot of Star Tours for Disney. The ride opens in Orlando this Friday. I’m really looking forward to seeing the project done. It’s in 3D and has a “branching” storyline. Quite a step up from the beloved original.
Q – I am looking at the trivia written about you on IMDb.com and it says: “As a teenager, he used to forage through the dumpsters outside the Van Nuys facility of Industrial Light and Magic, looking for souvenirs.” – Is this a true story?
A – Bill George: Yep, I still have some of the artwork, film and model pieces I got out of that dumpster. I also learned by going through their trash that the folks at ILM drank a LOT of beer!
J!-ENT: So, if a teenager was to go through ILM’s dumpsters today, can they still make out with cool artwork or model pieces or is everything these days, shredded and destroyed?
A – Bill George: It’s all shredded and destroyed and you’d probably be arrested! It was a different time back in 1978.
Q – Star Wars or Star Trek? You’ve been intimately involved in the creation of both film universes, after all. Which do you prefer?
A – Bill George: Sophie’s choice! I love them both. Seriously, they both have their own unique charms.
Q – Have you turned down work on a movie and regretted it later?
A – Bill George: Never. There have been shows we really tried to get and were disappointed to lose and then later, when the film came out, were relieved we didn’t get. I’m not saying which ones though….
J!-ENT: For those not familiar with your job, on a film like “I Am Number Four”, what were your responsibilities on the film?
A – Bill George: I oversaw the creation of the shots involving the Piken, Bernie and the stadium explosion. I was there when the backgrounds were shot in Pittsburgh to make sure that when the CG characters were added all the pieces would fit together. I then led the team of artists here at ILM that worked on the shots and interfaced with DJ to get his input and feedback.
J!-ENT: With many films going 3D lately, does that change your approach to visual effects and that visual effects will need to be planned with 3D in mind?
A – Bill George: 3D is another level of design that needs to be considered when working on shots, so ideally we need to know ahead of time if the film is going to be released in 3D.
Q – How was the process to create the visual effects on HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban? What were your references? How different was it to creating visual effects for I Am Number Four?
A – Bill George: For both of these films we looked more toward the directors than the books for guidance. Of course the books are always hovering out there, but movies are a different medium and have to stand on their own. The sparkle effect in Twilight was something that the studio did want us to match the description in the book. They didn’t want all the fans to be thrown by something different than the “diamond skin”.
J!-ENT: Bill, you have worked with some of the greatest sci-films in America but I was wondering, as many films are become released on Blu-ray and seeing how visual effects look so much better on HD such as “Blade Runner” and “Galaxy Quest”, which look absolutely great on Blu-ray, do you watch your films on Blu-ray?
A – Bill George: Many of them I do. Mostly I want to make sure that our effects look OK. For the older films there was a “film finish” that tends to degrade the image quality. Nowadays most all big films have a digital finish so that digital file goes directly to the Blu-ray with no loss of quality.
Q – Was this your first picture with director D.J. Caruso? – and having worked on films with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest), Alfonso Cuaron (Prisoner of Azkaban), Richard Donner and others, are you left to your own devices or does each director have a different need and make different demands?
A – Bill George: We don’t work in a vacuum here at ILM. We always adjust our shot style to match whichever director we are working with. Our goal is to have our work fit seamlessly into third film without standing out.
Q – Bill, any final thoughts on I AM NUMBER FOUR?
A – Bill George: I am Number Four was a really fun project to work on. DJ has such and infectious enthusiasm that pushed us all to do our very best work. It was a real pleasure to be a part of.
I AM NUMBER FOUR is Available on Blu-ray & DVD May 24th!
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