Warner digital czar scripts vfx primacy

Every studio is grappling with an upheaval as the digital revolution changes the way movies are made.

But because of the work of Chris deFaria, Warner’s exec VP of digital production, animation and visual effects, Warner Bros. is taking an especially far-sighted look at the future.

Beyond the duties of a typical studio vfx chief — managing costs, helping match work to the right vendor — deFaria has also pushed a new approach to early story development that goes beyond the printed page and brings in digital imagery, helping the studio’s decisionmaking on everything from greenlighting to marketing.

Warner Bros. Pictures Group prexy Jeff Robinov points to the prototyping being done for “Green Lantern,” which still has two more years till release.

“How do you make the ring effective? Is the costume real, or digital, or enhanced digitally?” Robinov said. DeFaria “makes my life easier, and I think he’s doing the same for the filmmakers.”

“He’s one of the first to anticipate how the digital tools are going to affect storytelling,” said George Miller, director of Oscar-winning toon “Happy Feet,” who is working with deFaria on the pic’s 3-D sequel. “He’s the first who’s been able to articulate it,” said Miller.

By deFaria’s own account, the prototyping strategy comes out of three trends he sees arising from the digital revolution.

First, to state the obvious, digital graphics tools are inherently visual.

“Just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it any less profound,” said deFaria, who has been in his post since November 2006.

Because those tools are now cheap and easy to use, he said, the studio can do visual development alongside story development.

“We’ve forever been modeling movies based on screenplays and the written word. To take the wholesale leap and start to model movies and try them out in the visual realm is valuable and important.”

Second is the notion of “random access”: A good idea, he notes, can come from anywhere or anyone, from the director to an illustrator.

“And then the last thing,” he said, “is what we call ‘rapid prototyping of ideas.’ “

That means it’s now possible to explore a visual idea before the movie is greenlit, giving everyone more confidence that the director can realize his vision and that the picture can be marketed.

“It’s proof of concept is how I see it,” said helmer Zack Snyder.

On Snyder’s “Watchmen,” such prototyping included tests proving that the motion-capture data for “Dr. Manhattan” could be gathered on set.

“If that didn’t work,” said Snyder, “we didn’t have enough money and time to re-mo-cap Billy (Crudup)’s performance.”

DeFaria is helped by an eclectic background. As a boy, he was the voice of Peppermint Patty in several Charlie Brown TV specials. After graduating from UCLA he was a TV news producer in San Francisco, a screenwriter and a producer.

Physical production prexy Steve Papazian hired him to help with vfx. DeFaria had risen to head of that department when he found himself working on “Happy Feet,” which was being animated by vfx shop Animal Logic, and Snyder’s live-action/bluescreen “300.”

“They would seem to be completely different movies,” he recalled, “but I was seeing real similarities. I went to Jeff and Alan (Horn) and Steve Papazian and said that we might want to merge the two (animation and vfx).

Filmmakers and visual effects pros explain that deFaria has made the studio a partner rather than an adversary.

“From my perspective, he’s a creative producer,” said Zareh Nalbandian, who is producing the Snyder-helmed toon “Guardians of G’Hoole.”

Sometimes that just means finding the right fit between a project and vfx companies, which requires knowledge of those companies similar to a casting director‘s knowledge of actors.

For example, DeFaria saw the opportunity for big savings in taking visual effects on the “Harry Potter” series to London, where there was a big tax incentive for the taking.

At first, he said, “We literally couldn’t find a way to spend $1 million on visual effects in London. On (the last two ‘Potter’ films) we’ll spend virtually 100% there.”

Warner’s relationship with the London shops has grown to include the Batman franchise and other tentpoles, and there’s so much vfx work flocking there that its shops are booked solid.

But it’s his prototyping efforts that may prove to be his most salient contribution to the studio.

“It’s been great for us,” Robinov said. “It’s helped steer us down the right path, and it’s sent a signal we need to explore more on certain other movies.”

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