Technology with attitude

The Movie Magic Behind Disney’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ Now on Blu-ray and DVD

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Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has been released on DVD, Blu-ray and combo packs. Taking a different magical tact than the Harry Potter series, the film looks like the start of another franchise for producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

The movie stars Nicholas Cage and Dave Stutler (Tropic Thunder, Fanboys), plus Alfred Molina (Spider-Man II, Prince of Persia) in delightfully evil bad guy role. It really is a fun romp and while the story’s solid, the special effects take it all to another level.  The special features include a focus on how the film’s magical creations and conjuring was created.

CultureMob had a chance to take part in a special Q&A session with Visual Effects Supervisor John Nelson, whose vast credits include landmark work in Terminator 2 to the acclaimed across the board Iron Man.

Are today’s CG FX are more dependent upon a supervisor’s technical knowledge, artistic knowledge, or even, perhaps third field as well?

John Nelson: Being a good filmmaker is the most important, as you will know what will work cinematically. Next, knowing what you want creatively from the effect and how to achieve it technically. Finally, knowing the latest techniques and knowing what process is best to achieve your goal is also important (in addition to about a thousand other things).

Can you talk about the intersection of visual effects, acting, and direction?

JN: The director directs all components of the film including visual effects. Directing the actors in a big visual effect sequence is demanding in that you need to explain what the actors can see and what they can’t see — but will be added later so they can have a complete understanding of what it will ultimately look like. I particularly like to work the effects off the physical actions of the actors. It makes the effects more organic and character driven.

With “Terminator 2,” you were one of the pioneers with using CGI. How has the technology evolved?

JN: Computer generated imagery is much more real now. With the advent of image-based rendering (where we shoot high dynamic range stills of each background and used them to light the CG objects), realism has taken a large step forward.

How many of the effects in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” were CGI and how many were on-set practical effects and which type of effect do you prefer to work with?

JN: I love to mix up practical effects with visual effect (usually made from CGI). The mix gives the effects more realism and uses the best parts of each technique to make the finished effect more real while also being able to achieve the fantastic.

Why do some CGIs look convincing, while others look as if they’ve been made from a PlayStation 2?

JN: Usually realism depends on how well the backgrounds (and what reference) were shot combined with using CG techniques such as advanced lighting models that use high dynamic range imagery for image based rendering. Getting the specular reflections (the sheen reflected off the surface of an object) correct is the most important thing in making a CG object look real. Also keeping the digital camera moves looking like something a real camera could do is very important.

You worked on the visual effects for “Iron Man.” What steps did you take in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to up the visual effects ante?

JN: We were making a PG movie and that required us to make effects that were not too intense for younger viewers.  For example, when Alfred Molina comes out of the grimhold he is made of cockroaches that begin to form a human shape. We shot Alfred rising up into position even though at the beginning of the sequence the shape was not human but rather that of thousands of insects forming a mound. In each shot that follows, the transition takes place as the mound becomes more and more human shaped, ending with the insects crawling under Alfred’s skin and making him up. Making that effect without loosing our PG rating was very difficult but we did it.

The vehicle chases in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” were quite the ride and complicated. Were they tough to pull off?

JN: We had to shoot all of the car chases going no more that 25 MPH because on our first night of shooting, a car had a slight mishap and one of our cars slid into sandwich shop window at midnight. No one was seriously hurt. What we had to do was speed up all the chase stuff after that and add digital cars and props where necessary. In some sequences, we created totally digital sections of New York so we could destroy it and when necessary reverse explosions, etc. Mirror world was particularly difficult in this way. It was a tremendously complex task that worked upon the stunt driving of George Ruge’s stunt team driving backgrounds and that were passed off to the talented animators at Asylum VFX (where lots of fully digital shots were added) to pull it off.

What have today’s visual effects creators learned from cartoon animators, and what have they learned from the old masters of Hollywood stunt work?

JN: You can always learn from the masters and in many ways old techniques combined with new techniques can be very powerful. The cartoon masters’ new squash and stretch, anticipation, exaggeration and body language in addition to staging and the like. The best computer animators are usually the ones trained in classical animation techniques. The stuntmen always amaze me. On this film we had George Marshall Ruge who is absolutely one of the best. A good example is the magic swordfight where one of George’s stuntmen was in a green suit and fought Nick Cage with a sword that was hanging in mid-air. For that we removed the green suited stuntman or added a CG sword as needed. The key for all of this is to get as much practical as you can and let the VFX do the stuff you cannot do with practical effects.

Of the movies you HAVEN’T worked on, which do you think contain the most enviable visual effects, and why?

JN: I loved “2001,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters,” “Spartacus,” “Darby O’Gill,” “The Aviator,” “Pirates 3,” (Davy Jones’ face!) “District 9,” “Inception,” “Avatar,” in addition to many others, both old and new. What makes me like a film with VFX is when I see clever filmmaking combined with realistic visual effects in a package that is solid storytelling. That can mean using an old effect in a new way or using a new effect to show something that hasn’t been seen before. The key is to be like a master musician and play just the right notes at just the right time.