The "Men in Black" franchise has always been a live-action "Looney Tunes" cartoon, a wacky mix of old school and new school. The "Alienbusters" premise is totally unique and practically imitation-proof, as director Barry Sonnenfeld reminds us. So it was probably inevitable that they would embrace time travel as the trippy plot device of the latest installment, "Men in Black 3" (in 3-D, of course). It's been a decade since the disappointing "Men in Black 2," so why not go comically existential in a nod to "No Country for Old Men" by having Josh Brolin playing K in 1969 and the fate of the world resting with some sort of catharsis between Will Smith's energetic Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones' curmudgeonly Agent K?
The challenge was sustaining the right old school/new school balance in every respect, including Rick Baker's legendary creature makeup and the VFX prowess of Sony Pictures Imageworks. "We might have some new toys and new technology, but isn't it a mistake to make it look totally different than the other films? It's got to have a sensibility that makes it look part of the trio, so to speak," suggests VFX supervisor Jay Redd, who collaborated with Ken Ralston, the dean of supervisors at Sony.
It's all about seamless integration. To this effect, Sony used its new HDRI technique for set lighting and better integration of animated characters by shooting with the Spheron digital camera, which spins 360 degrees and shoots at 26 stops of exposure. At the same time, Sony built an entire digital New York and Cape Canaveral along with other CG enhancements. But the flashiest sequence is J's Time Jump off the Chrysler Building, an intricate integration of practical and virtual elements coalescing into a bravura 3-D experience that leaves both J and the viewer breathless.
"There's a certain stylization that goes on in a 'Men in Black' movie and Ken is always nudging me about not being so real all the time," Redd adds. "And Barry was the same way. There's a whimsy to 'Men in Black.'"
Ralston, who got pulled into the movie completely by Sonnenfield after thinking he was only going to consult on 3-D conversion, says it's a full-blown cartoon that nonetheless has to look real. "It was a tough thing for Jay and me to get. It has a crazy look but you don't want to pull the audience out of it."
For Smith's return to acting after a three-year hiatus producing movies with his kids, "Men in Black 3" was like putting on shoes that he knew would be a comfortable fit. Yet the idea of jumping into the past for an African American was one of the best jokes. "Right now it's like the best it's ever been," Smith cracks.
"My first concern with 3-D was my ears because I could see them taking up the whole screen. Once they didn't look like satellite dishes, I was fine with it. With [effects], there are no limitations. It's funny because it's the same thing that happened with the music business when it went digital. As soon as it exploded, it had a weird, opposite effect where it gets worse for a while, which is strange. As soon as you get the tool to do anything, all of a sudden now the movies aren't as good. How the hell did that happen? I think we're about to turn that corner, particularly with the 'Men in Black' in 3-D that Barry did. He found the balance which is more pleasing to the eye."
Meanwhile, Brolin was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the 3-D. It was no scratch and sniff to him. "And I felt it made it more beautiful and enhances it."
Not surprisingly, Brolin was most concerned about getting the younger Jones right. He agonized over it. "There are a lot of hives that start to happen. I was so pleased that it seemed seamless as an experience. The intention was that within 10 minutes we are not aware of my doing a caricature of Tommy. The tough thing about Tommy is that he's all over [the place]. It's like he's improvising his voice and it's still cultivating into something that we won't know until later. It's like an instrument that's been played by nobody that somebody says not only will you learn how to play this but make an album in two months."
But what most intrigued Brolin was stepping back to 1969, especially entering the Factory with Andy Warhol. He's fascinated by the experimentation and cultural explosion of the period. He found it a surreal flashback. "You thought [the experimentation] would carry over into the '70s and yet it turned into something else completely. So it was really isolated in breaking that great façade of the '50s."
As for Jones, who doesn't suffer foolish questions from journalists gladly, this was just another job: pointing ray guns at aliens and watching them turn to goo and re-establishing a seemingly effortless rapport with Smith. He doesn't believe acting is instinct; it's hard work. But what was 1969 like for him?
"It was the year I graduated from college. And that was interesting and it was a different era. For most of 1969, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the only way to describe it is the best of times…and the worst of times."