The Creator VFX Team Breaks Down Its Oscar-Nominated Secrets

Gareth Edwards, the director of “The Creator,” is defiant.

He went about making his original science fiction epic about a man (John David Washington) sent to destroy an artificial intelligence weapon, only to learn it is in the form of a young child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), in a way completely different than most visual effects extravaganzas.

Instead of designing everything beforehand, he shot the plates that he knew he would use and then did the design and execution work after the fact. Not only did it bring the film in well below the astronomical budgets of similar movies, but it also lent it a unique look that is impossible to shake. There’s a reason it has garnered a Oscar nomination for visual effects.

And when asked why he chose to make the film like this, he stood firm.

“I feel like I would prefer all of the filmmakers to explain why they do it the other way, because this felt so natural,” Edwards told TheWrap. “When you start making films and you don’t know how they’re supposed to really be done, there [are] certain instincts that say, ‘I think we should do it like this.’ And then suddenly you get to somewhere like Hollywood and there is this set process that’s been going for a century and you go, ‘Oh, right. Okay, I guess there is reasons for this.’ And you get sucked in and told this is the only way it can happen.

He continued: “Now and again you get lucky and you get to try a different technique, or ‘How about we don’t do that, we try this instead?’ It’s a unique aspect to the film because of that. On this one, it was very much like, ‘Well let’s just go for broke a little bit more and try and combine this indie film with the ambition scale of a blockbuster.’”

Edwards describes his thinking as if your budget is 100 units, they normally take 10 units and put it in the bank as a safety net. What the team behind “The Creator” asked was: can we make the movie with the 10 units and keep 90 for visual effects and post? While he admits that isn’t how it totally worked out, mostly because of the pandemic, that was the premise they were working from.

“What it meant was that we would have a plan and everyone would understand what the intention was. But as we were filming we’d have absolute freedom, so anything could be a VFX shot. We could shoot in 360 degrees, there would be no tracking markers and weird green screen,” Edwards said. And while he admitted there were pros and cons to the process, he believes the pros “in the end, completely outweighed the cons.”

Jay Cooper, the visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic, has a succinct answer for why films aren’t made the way that Edwards made “The Creator.” “I know why movies aren’t made this way. It’s because it’s scary. It’s scary for the people who put up the money, that you’re taking this amazing leap of faith,” Cooper said. “Because what you come away from set was you have a lot of footage, but not necessarily a knowledge of what’s going to go into them. And you’re doing it in such a way that the people down the line can figure out how it will all go together.” Lucky, Cooper said, Edwards knew how it would all fit.

Cooper said the thought amongst the team was, “Listen, if we had a big pot of money, what’s the best visual effects movie we could make? And let’s not think about where it’s going.” They looked at the film as a whole, pinpointing where they could find commonalities in the robot personalities to reduce cost. (In case you were wondering, the robot kits included seven heads with 15 paint variations in an effort to “fill out the world.”) Cooper described the three challenges – technique, aesthetic and budget – as “the three spinning plates that we’re always trying to keep in mind while we are doing this endeavor.”

The key to understanding how to tackle “The Creator” was test footage that Edwards shot and ILM augmented during what was ostensibly a location scouting trip. Edwards went on a trip with one of his producers to seven different countries. “We cherry-picked them to have the most beautiful locations,” Edwards said.

Along for the trip was a prosumer camera and an anamorphic lens from the 1970s. “We just shot everything that we saw and we didn’t get any data or any clever VFX information,” Edwards said. They were in Angkor Wat, in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, shooting monks reciting prayers in front of ancient ruins. They would take the footage back to ILM and ask to turn the monk into a robot and insert a “really weird, monolithic, futuristic building” where there was nothing before.

“They had no data and they had no information, but because they knew exactly what it was for you didn’t have to build the model around the back because you never would see it. It’s literally this shot, it’s never anything but this shot,” Edwards said. This philosophy informed the production of “The Creator” in that shots that would be from one angle would require infinitely less computing and design than normal, since digital artists are used to rendering things completely in 3D in case a filmmaker changes their mind and wants a different angle.

ILM would paint things in 2D and then project them onto simple geography. “It gave that illusion of parallax,” Edwards said. “What would normally take a month to do we would do in two or three days. Everybody knew how little money we had to do this test and how amazing the results were with ILM that they were like, ‘Oh, my God. If you can do that for a feature, we’re in.’ And that basically got the film greenlit.”

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The test was also instrumental in establishing the funky, beat-up anamorphic look of the film that would be actualized by cinematographers Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer. Earlier movies with visual effects would be discouraged from using anamorphic lenses because it is more difficult for the team. (This is the reason early groundbreakers like “Jurassic Park” were flat.) “It’s harder for our tracking folks, for sure. Because what you have to do is you have to remove the lens distortion from the images in order to match it and to fill up with the computer graphics,” Cooper said. “We’ve become pretty good at it.”

Andrew Roberts, who was the on-set visual effects supervisor, said, “When we got to Pinewood we set aside a day where we grabbed all of the lenses and primarily the 75 millimeter anamorphic that Gareth shot about 90% of the film on. There were three of those because we had an A, B and C camera. And, as Jay said, we do have a process with the lens grids and one that’s specifically designed to capture some of the characteristics of an anamorphic lens. We went through profiling all of them, and capturing those distortion characteristics that we could pass on to the comp team so that any VFX would get re-distorted and would look like they were shot with that same lens on location.” Simple as that.

The Creator BTS

“It’s a better choice to shoot with lenses that have personality,” Cooper said. “It’s so much better for the production, and it makes it look so much cooler. I wouldn’t want to go the other way.”

And while most of the movie captured, as Edwards said, “a very run-and-gun find-the-shot-in-the-moment approach,” a large chunk of the movie’s third act takes place in a futuristic space station (and in outer space). In order to figure those moments out, ILM built a “virtual reality version of the space station.” Instead of a prosumer camera, Edwards was outfitted with a VR system.

“Trying to get the visual style of the Nomad [the evil space station] in act three to marry with the gorgeous photography of the first two acts was a huge thing for sure,” said visual effects supervisor Ian Comely. “The camera work was a big part of that. Gareth was keen that we always felt the presence of a human behind the virtual cameras as well. In the case with many exterior Nomad shots we imagined an operator who might be discovering this unfolding action, all the explosions, ‘Hey, there is something over here’ but perhaps they’re riding on a platform which is on a fast-moving plane or something, which is limited. We were trying to get this natural quality to the camera work.”

In order to describe some of the more complicated shots Edwards acted them out with a water flask and a LEGO figure. Incredibly, the team at ILM knew exactly what he was talking about. The finished shot is in the movie and, mercifully, LEGO-free.

After the movie opened this past fall, Edwards said he was inundated with calls and filmmaker friends asking to take him out to coffee to pick his brain. “How did you do that?” they would ask him. “There is nothing better than that. That’s the ultimate accolade,” Edwards said. When answering that question, he would simply point to the incredible work of Industrial Light & Magic. “The very long answer is, ‘It was a fucking nightmare and good luck to you,’” Edwards joked.

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“Our phone was ringing off the hook because it was the same thing. There were questions like, ‘What are we doing differently?’ Or ‘What are we doing wrong that our movie cost 200 million dollars and this one cost so much less?’” Cooper said. “Someone said, and it was a very lovely compliment, ‘If you guys are cutting corners I can’t see where they’re getting cut.’”

Cooper was quick to point out to anybody who asked that it wasn’t merely cutting corners; Edwards leaned into real-world locations, which gave the film a tactile feeling, and everything was based on a just-in-time production workflow. “In terms of our design, not spending the money multiple times where we would build a set and then we wouldn’t use the set, shooting everyone as robots and then figuring out who was going to be a robot later, and then giving us the freedom of making sure that the ones that you see the most and care about the most show up in the frame,” Cooper said. All of these things “conspired to elevate your production value at a lower cost.”

“I’d just say that we probably saved money not by cutting corners, but by not building the corners in the first place,” Edwards said.

To this end, Edwards is moving beyond defiant. He’s downright emboldened.

“I really want to push it further next time. It makes everyone here scared. You’re not contractually obliged to have to do it. It’s very simple. You have a set process, you do the same process every time. The end result is the same every time. And if you create a unique process then you get a unique result,” Edwards said. “Basically we had a win. Anyone that points at something in the movie and goes, ‘That was really cool. How did that happen?’ usually there is a backstory. ‘Oh, yeah, what we didn’t do is this and what, instead, we did was that.’ All it taught me is [to] just go even further. It’s very exciting, what’s around the corner and what you could do next.”

“I was really out of my comfort zone on this film, as well. You get dragged, kicking and screaming sometimes, to do things that you’re just not ready to do or you had not thought about enough. But every time you do something that you’re proud of you look back and, typically, you were in a really uncomfortable place doing it so you shouldn’t fear that,” Edwards explained. “As a filmmaker, what happens is you start trying to protect yourself and you build walls around you and you say, ‘Next time, I’m not going to have that. Next time I’m going to do this.’ You make it more and more comfortable and easier and then, suddenly, your films aren’t as interesting or you’re not challenging yourself as much. At some point you just go out and run, and jump off a cliff and just swim, because it will be a better result that way. I’m just excited about going for broke, even more so, in the next film if we can.”

(Shortly after this interview, Edwards was named as the director of an upcoming “Jurassic World” film set for release next summer. Given the compact timeline, maybe he can implement some of these techniques into that film. ILM, of course, will be back to provide the prehistoric beasts.)

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