Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview

As some established masters of cinema wade into an all-new world of advancing technology, their approach remains the same as people going out to buy a house. Or a car. Or a dress: “I’ll know it when I see it.” The job of the visual effects supervisor is to show them what they want.

“My role is get inside a director’s head and interpret what they’re seeing,” says visual effects man Dan Glass, who shares credit with Doug Trumbull on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” “With Malick, it was much more extreme, in the sense that he’s an incredible mind and you’re lucky if you can follow a fraction of his knowledge and imagination. But his relatively complete lack of visual-effects expertise certainly made it initially more challenging. But that was part of the appeal, too.”

Joe Letteri, who left his mark on two of this year’s more spectacular f/x showcases — “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Tintin” — agreed that educating directors is part of the process, but says the possibilities, once understood, are like a portal into — and out of — a helmer’s imagination. “When Steven (Spielberg) visited the ‘Avatar’ set, he got a sense of what he would be able to do on ‘Tintin.’ He got it right away.”

In a sense, Letteri says, the ultimate effects process on “Apes” and ‘Tintin” were the reverse of each other: “Apes” was acted out in the real world, with actors playing the roles of the apes that would be superimposed in post production; “Tintin” took place in a digital universe that the director could visit via special cameras. All of which raises the question of whether anyone outside the mathletes conjuring up all this movie wizardry actually get what’s going on.

“They may not fully appreciate it all,” Letteri says of awards-season voters, “but I’m not feeling underappreciated.”

One of the people attracting all that attention is Martin Scorsese, who said his 3D “Hugo” had him rethinking everything — except, of course, on-set collaboration.

“Every shot was new,” he told Variety. “(Cinematographer) Bob Richardson would look at me, Chris Surgent, my A.D., Martha Pinson, who’s my continuity person. We’d all look at each other, ‘Wait a minute. What if we … no … hey … no … we could do this. … What if we tried that? Oh no!’ ”

The whole experience was discovery on the go, he says, even though “a lot of the 3D was planned in advance. A lot of the images, the trains, certain sequences had certain 3D effects that I wanted.”

One involves the Chloe Grace Moretz character falling down in the train station in which the film is set, and the feet of hurrying commuters passing over her in an evocation of pure panic.

“It was a glass floor,” Scorsese says. “Basically, it’s an old silent film technique.”

The haunting of today’s brave new high-tech by cinema’s distant past is best exemplified by Trumbull’s contributions to the stupifyingly visual “Tree of Life,” which also illustrates how, in a world of massive crews and credit crawls, a movie’s signature can be the work of two or three people — in this case, Malick, Glass and Trumbull.

“With a heavy, digital, CG approach, you can’t get that naturalness very easily,” Glass says. “Terry was adamant that we use some of our shot design with the practical elements for which Doug is famous. We set up several shoots over a long weekend, set up experimental labs, mixed paints, liquid nitrogen, fluids, milk, cream, shot it with a variety of cameras and frame rates. It was endless fun, really.”

“A couple of years ago,” says Trumbull, “Terry told me the idea for this film and asked if I had any thoughts about how to solve the problems he had. He felt computer graphics were not looking convincing, and I agreed.”

At the same time, says Trumbull — whose credits include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner” — the cinema needs the new to survive, even if “it’s a sort of upward mobility that very few people will understand.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview
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