Gareth Edwards’ The Creator is a beautiful film that, filmed on a modest budget, costs around a third of what the typical effects-heavy film might cost these days. An original sci-fi film (rare enough these days, especially one that will be in theaters) about a war between humans and artificial intelligence.
Ahead, Jay Cooper, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, takes us through why making The Creator was such a unique experience. Cooper has worked on probably every movie you’d expect – a lot of Marvel movies and a lot of Star Wars projects that you’ve seen. Honestly, maybe The Creator was, for him, just another day at the office? It turns out it wasn’t and Cooper says, the way The Creator was made, with this low of a budget, it could change how movies are made going forward. However, he adds, it would take a director who is, let’s say, eager enough to get out in the world and be “uncomfortable” for an extended amount of time like Gareth Edwards.
From the outside, this movie seems very unique in how it was made. Or for you was this just another day at the office?
I think it’s unique on a number of different levels. The part that’s the most important to me is it’s unique in terms of story, and visual ask. We’re living in a time when there’s not a lot of individual sci-fi movies that are being made.
Then, the other components that are really unique, are in Gareth you have a filmmaker that’s trying to navigate the studio system in a way where he wants to hold onto parts of the independent film structure, the way he constructs the movie, but also has the budget and the resources of a larger film. That part is also unique and really interesting to see. And then in terms of the way that we approached the work, it was also unique in the sense that the way that Gareth partnered with ILM to create the visual effects where he would get as much stuff on set, have incredibly long takes, and then bring all of it back and go, “All right, here’s the frame. How are we going to make this look amazing? What structures can we add here? What is the visual impact to plus this up?”
Gareth mentioned he’d bring footage back from shooting on location and it wasn’t really set up to have effects added, but he would say let’s just add them.
So the goal was, and this was from the conversation that we had really early on, Gareth wanted to have as much time as he could with his actors. One of his actors is very young, and with a very young actress comes constraints on how much time she can be on set. He didn’t want her in a makeup chair for three hours. He didn’t want her to have to wear an appliance that would make her self-conscious. He didn’t want anything that was going to get in the way of her being able to find these emotional places that she needed to go. And so we said, “All right, we’re going to partner with you. We’re going to just put on minimal tracking dots and then we’ll figure it out later.” And that was a little stressful, but we figured that out. And the same could be said for a number of the other components.
Well, does that change things going forward in other movies? If you figured that out and you can just do that now, that seems like a big thing.
Yeah, absolutely. And there’s sort of a difficult trade-off, but I have a feeling it’s something that we’ll probably be asked to do again and again.
What’s that mean, difficult trade-off? Because obviously, this movie didn’t cost as much as a lot of movies, so is it just more time-consuming?
Well, I mean we did some things that were really smart. We did a CG construction of Madeleine Yuna Voyles and a number of the primary actors. So we had a grounded truth for what the topography of their faces were and their heads, which helped us. But a lot of the stuff is man-hours, sort of locking things. And we did some clever things, too. And there were conversations about what parts are easier and what parts are harder and we tried to find a good equilibrium. There were times that we had designs where we were replacing the neck, and then we sort of talked about whether it was worth it to replace the neck even though it was harder to do that.
So again, one of the benefits of working with Gareth and his knowledge as a visual effects artist is that we were able to talk through some of these points and say, listen, this is really hard. This is a lot easier but gets you 80 percent of what you’re looking for. And so we tried to find opportunities where if it previously it was a ten on the difficulty scale and we took it down to a five, but it was still an eight on the visual scale. You know what I mean?
So you’re trying to look for opportunities throughout the entire film where we can maximize visual impact with lower costs because ultimately that’s what it really is. Everything, all of these things – it’s people’s time, ultimately. That’s where it all sort adds up to. And that extended to which robots we were replacing. That extended to which cars we were replacing. It also extended to technique.
One of the things that we talked about a lot was that, normally in visual effects when you’re doing environment work, the temptation is to replace everything with a 3-D model. And that 3-D model goes and gets textured and lit. There are places where we’re cheating, where it’s really 2-D artwork that we’ve pasted back there. And so these are techniques that he’s very familiar with. His work on Monsters, and earlier in his career, and he was advocating for these things. He’s not advocating for the most expensive technique. He’s advocating for how to get the largest amount of visual impact while keeping some money in the tank for more and more shops.
Well, speaking of visual impact, there’s one scene that stands out for me of just a terrifying scene and sure looked expensive…
I can’t wait see what you’re saying? I’m really excited about this moment. What’s the one that had the impact?
The bomb robot running at full speed at people. It’s just, that guy is terrifying.
So the G14, so that’s funny, because that robot leaving the tank was an incredibly simple set. There was an actor on the day that, obviously, all your framing decisions are based on doing that. So we had an actor on the day. And then there was a lot of work with Chris Potter in London to get that walk cycle or that run cycle working. Yeah, it’s cool. It’s cool work. There’s no doubt about it. It’s really fun.
So explain to me in layman’s terms why a movie that costs three times as much as this one, I can walk out and think that kind of just looked like a cartoon. And I can watch and this movie that didn’t cost that much and was gorgeous. How does that work? How did that happen?
I think a lot of that success is owed to Greig Fraser, Oren Soffer, and Gareth.
Well, I already spoke to all of them, it’s time for you to take some credit on this. too.
Well, here’s what I’ll say. In visual effects, you kind of are standing on the shoulders of other departments. And if your production makes choices that your movie is going to be shot entirely on the back lot, for example, and you’re going to tense the entire environment in blue, that is one kind of look. And if you make the choice that no, no, we’re going to be uncomfortable and we’re going to shoot in eight different countries in 80 different locations?
So there’s a level of discomfort that comes with it, and that’s the thing that Gareth is willing to put himself through. And I don’t think it’s that other movies aren’t, it’s just that he believes so strongly that the look is better if you go to these different locations. You wait for the right time of day, you shoot really long, uninterrupted takes so you come back from set with just hours and hours of footage. There’s a natural beauty and a natural realism that’s embedded in these locations that becomes the cornerstone of our work.
Well, let me ask you, you said he believes this is the way to do it. Is he right?
I mean, to me, I think it’s all about the kind of movie you want to make. And the movie that you want to make…
So if you want to make a gorgeous movie, he’s right?
No, no, no. I wouldn’t even say “gorgeous movie.” I think I’ve worked on gorgeous movies that…
Well, of course you have. You know what I mean. For every gorgeous movie, there’s one that’s not.
I think I’m getting to what you’re asking, which is, if you want a movie that feels like it’s got connective tissue with Apocalypse Now and Baraka and these almost travel log films? Like The Thin Red Line? This is kind of the approach that makes sense for me. And I love that. And I think there’s a lot of movies that do a certain amount of travel, also, that also have similar scope, but they may not be sci-fi or may not be just sort of visual effects films in that sense.
After the screening I was at, a friend of mine said, “I can’t remember the last time I watched a sci-fi movie that looks like it was shot on planet Earth.”
Yeah, it does. It absolutely does. And it’s a lot of time in the van and a lot of time at different locations and a lot of different countries. And that is his super strength as a filmmaker is finding out a way to squeeze in massive amounts of production value with a very small footprint. I think that extends everywhere.
Can this change how movies are made going forward? Or is the answer yes, but you’d kind of need a person like Gareth as director?
I think there’s a leap of faith that has to be taken. There’s a level of discomfort that comes with that, right? There’s a level of discomfort that comes with it’s going to be 15 people and not having all the trappings of a large movie. And you have to be comfortable with those drawbacks. Gareth is a very talented guy. He knows what things he’s giving up when he does those things and is able to do it. And the studio, they came along for the ride. I mean, I think there was probably some discomfort there where the idea of like, no, no, no, we’re going to shoot all this stuff and then we’re going to figure it out afterwards.
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