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Immersed in Movies: Talking 'Looper' VFX

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood September 28, 2012 at 11:54AM

Rian Johnson, like many directors, hated CG without really understanding it. But no more, thanks to "Looper's" VFX supervisor, Karen Goulekas ("Green Lantern," "The Day After Tomorrow," "Spider-Man"). In fact, she made it her mission to turn Johnson into a convert. But then Goulekas had no choice: she needed A-list VFXers to create convincing work for the futuristic thriller about time traveling hit man Joseph Gordon-Levitt confronting his older self (Bruce Willis) in an existential showdown.
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Looper gun

Rian Johnson, like many directors, hated CG without really understanding it. But no more, thanks to "Looper"'s VFX supervisor, Karen Goulekas ("Green Lantern," "The Day After Tomorrow," "Spider-Man"). In fact, she made it her mission to turn Johnson into a convert. But then Goulekas had no choice: she needed A-list VFXers to create convincing work for the futuristic thriller about time traveling hit man Joseph Gordon-Levitt confronting his older self (Bruce Willis) in an existential showdown.

"I kind of understand where Rian was coming from," Goulekas suggests, "because there's so much bad CG that gets done out there and that's the stuff you notice unless it's a really good, in your face, CG character. But when it's done seamlessly, you don't notice it. That's why it was so important to me that we got good vendors, obviously for my own personal craft, but also in support of Rian's vision."

In the end, Johnson was pleased; he thought the VFX looked real. "He was even picking up the lingo," Goulekas adds. "'Hey, Karen, let's give it a little comping: Is that a halo I see?' Then we'd be comping dust and he'd say, 'It doesn't look like they comp'd it based on the luminance of the plate.' So I'd make a note of it and I'd line up all the shots and show Rian the changes and I'd follow up."

In fact, "Looper" was Goulekas' first indie experience and she found it refreshing. She got to work in the trenches again and got her first taste of globalization. She even got to collaborate with some old pals and new people she's admired that she didn't think she could afford at first. But thanks to scheduling and flexibility, she top of the line companies. Of course, it helped that everyone was a fan of Johnson's neo-noir, "Brick," and wanted to work with him.

Scanline VFX's Munich division handled the tricky telekinesis; Hydraulx did impressive decomposition of victims; and Atomic Fiction took on futuristic cityscapes. Indeed, I featured both Scanline and Atomic Fiction in my recent column to counter some of the prevailing industry gloom and doom.

"CG effects work included the initial telekinesis shockwave as it radiates out and knocks over a van, the big telekinesis effects of rising and swirling debris, telekinetically affected debris that breaks out of the soil and CG sugar cane set extensions," explains Scanline CG supervisor Ivo Klaus. "The main idea we received from the production was that the effects were going into the telekinesis shots to convey a sense of drama. There was to be a progression of ever faster flying debris until finally something important happens and everything slows down again until the telekinetic effect falters and stops.

"To make those individual shots into parts of the same shockwave we had to develop some concepts that would be carried over from shot to shot. The main body of the shockwave would consist of an atmospheric dust fluid simulation driven by controllable geometric helper objects."

This article is related to: Rian Johnson, Immersed In Movies, Looper, Interviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.