There are few people in Hollywood who know more about special effects than Joe Letteri – which is probably why he’s earned five Oscars in the past eight years and worked in some capacity on almost every major blockbuster released in Hollywood. Predictably, Letteri has a full slate in front of him with two “Hobbit” movies, an “Avatar” sequel, and a potential “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” follow-up forthcoming. But during a recent conversation with the effects guru (in which he also discussed working with Andy Serkis on the first 'Apes'; read that here), Letteri revealed that he’s also working on Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman film “Man of Steel.” And despite reports that the title character would be brought to life (so to speak) largely via CGI, Letteri told The Playlist that Snyder has been focusing heavily on practical rather than digital effects.
“Zack’s going for pretty much everything in-camera as much as he can,” Letteri said in an interview Monday in New York. “I mean, the reason to think about Superman in CGI, you don’t need him full CGI as a character, because he’s basically a full person. But you just don’t want the flying scenes to look like he’s on a wire. So [the question is] how do you use CG to make that happen, and that’s still kind of being played with right now.”
Several years ago before the release of “The Matrix Reloaded,” the Wachowskis argued that their aerial sequences would show a human character flying in the most accurate way possible, which, at that time, they probably did. (Certainly the absence of wires and rear projection helped their cause.) But with “Man of Steel” no doubt featuring some of its own air time, Letteri suggested that there are still advances left to be made in that particular area. “I think it could still be refined,” Letteri said. “Because there’s always room for interpretation there. The idea of a human flying, because you can’t actually tell how they’re powering themselves, leaves it open to trying different things.”
While Letteri didn’t reveal exactly how they were depicting Superman’s flying sequences, he said that they were primarily focusing on what was in the script and what Snyder wanted rather than referring to the decades upon decades of comic book images they could potentially draw upon as a reference point. “That’s completely story-driven,” he confessed. “That’s going to depend on your shot and your composition, and the performance, and in that case, that’s kind of Zack’s call – what is he looking for there?”
As its (undeservedly) maligned predecessor, Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” was dismissed as an emotional reinvention of Superman that was too loyal to the Donner films of the 1980s, and perhaps more importantly, featured too little action except for when the character was lifting enormous pieces of rock. Letteri revealed that although the film will feature more action than its predecessor, Snyder was still focusing on character over pure spectacle. “There is a bit of that to set it up and to kick it off, but actually it feels like it’s more character-driven, yeah.”
In terms of “Avatar 2,” meanwhile, Letteri, like most the other actors and filmmakers who will be involved, is just waiting for a script, although he’s making sure that the production’s technical infrastructure is up-to-date for the moment when writer-director James Cameron delivers it. “We’re really just waiting to see what the script is going to be,” Letteri explained. “I mean, because the technology has been evolving since the time we’ve done it, we keep everything we have up to date; we’re updating the characters and keeping things sort of in a state of readiness, because I think one of the things Jim will probably want to do as he’s writing is to start pre-visualizing some of the scenes and start working things out. So we’re making sure that’s all ready to go, but we don’t have an actual start date.”
In recent interviews, Cameron hinted at the possibility of exploring the underwater world of Pandora. With so many other projects in front of him, he said he hasn’t jumped the gun on what locales might be involved, although they did flirt with that possibility during production on the first “Avatar.” “We did a little bit of it in the first film, the bits under the river, but not enough to do what it sounds like he’s describing,” he said. But as with any of the filmmakers he’s worked with, he’s relying on a specific and collaborative relationship with Cameron to guide him, even if he’s seasoned enough to be ready for action, regardless what the filmmaker throws at him.
“We have techniques in place to do that, so we know where we’ll start,” he said. “But we’re waiting to see what specifically he’s asking for before we figure out how deeply we need to get into it.”