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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.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Looper"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Looper"

Meanwhile, Atomic Fiction, which completed nearly 100 shots of cities (including Shanghai) and vehicles, offers a lower-cost business model utilizing cloud computing and other measures. Atomic has been working with a company called ZYNC to utilize Amazon's EC2 cloud services. By moving rendering to the cloud instead of owning the computers, they treat rendering like a utility and only pay for what they use.This means that rendering can literally be scaled from as many cores as you need for a particular job, back down to the Macs on the artists' desks between gigs.

"We established some new ground rules for the look of things," offers Atomic co-owner and VFX supervisor Ryan Tudhope. "This included finding common elements such as graffiti, shelters/tents, antennas, and camp fires to tie our shots together and, more importantly, give 'Looper's' cityscapes their own signature feel.

"Rian chose to shoot the film on anamorphic 35mm, which was (mostly) a blessing. The plates are beautiful and grungy, with blue anamorphic lens stripes, lens distortion, and heavy chromatic aberration around the edges of the frame. The downside, of course, is that all these lens artifacts made the work more complicated. For example, the lenses produce an extreme warping and 'scaling' at the edge of frame during focus pulls, while the center of the image remains unaffected. In the end, we tackled each challenge by building custom scripts (in Nuke) that would re-create these artifacts on our CG elements or matte paintings and could be rolled out to the entire team."

Working on "Looper" was a smart move for these VFXers and it's only going to mean the opportunity for bigger and bigger films with the director down the road.

"And it turned out to be a good movie," Goulekas says. "Quite often, we work on big movies and the visual effects are good but the movie isn't received well for whatever reason and it gets disheartening. It's one of those movies where you're still thinking about it and you talk to your friends. 'So when this happened, did you think it was because of this, or was it meant to be that?' It prompts discussion afterwards, which is cool."

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

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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.