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May 30
2019

ISSUE

Summer 2019

Jonathan Nolan: Making Things Realer Than Real

By IAN FAILES

Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan on location. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

 

Upon receiving the VES Visionary Award at the 17th Annual VES Awards earlier this year, writer/producer/director Jonathan Nolan spoke of growing up idolizing pioneering filmmakers who innovated in visual effects. The Westworld co-creator pledged that “VFX is movies.”

That comment certainly endeared the VFX-strong audience at the Awards, but as Nolan continued, it was clear he revered the entire visual effects process, its history and the artists involved in it. “It’s an extraordinary privilege for me to be honored by this group – this is the club that I always wanted to join,” he said.

Nolan is certainly part of that club, having been involved with some of the most significant visual effects films in recent years writing (with his brother Christopher Nolan) on The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Returns and Interstellar, and as a creator of the television shows Person of Interest and Westworld. His credits also include Memento and The Prestige.

HBO’s Westworld, in particular, which Nolan created with his wife, Lisa Joy, via their Kilter Films production company, arrived at a time when the bar had been set incredibly high for visual effects in television. The show has been recognized with both Emmy and VES Award accolades, and the showrunner is deeply embedded in the visual effects process.

EARLY BEGINNINGS

For Nolan, his exposure to the world of visual effects began early, as he and his brother made their own films. “We were trying to figure out, how could we emulate the filmmaking that we were seeing at the movie theater?” Nolan recounts. “Star Wars was obviously the single biggest influence for us. We were fascinated in unmasking the magic trick of those films, and trying to figure out how they did what they did.”

It turned out, too, that the movies Nolan wanted to make would be the sorts of films where visual effects would have to play a large part. “The kind of films and the kind of stories that [Chris and I] wanted to tell really didn’t map onto the physical world as it exists,” he says. “As much respect as I have for the more naturalistic kind of filmmaking, and the amazing stories that can be told right here on Earth, for me, I was always more interested in storytelling that created new realities.

“The only way to do that,” adds Nolan, “is that you have to get your hands dirty, and figure out how you’re going to make that work in front of a camera, and after the fact. And so, from the very, very beginning, that VFX challenge goes hand-in-hand with the writing, and with direction, and working with actors and music and everything else.”

Nolan on the set of Westworld with actress Thandie Newton, who plays host Maeve Millay. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Westworld is one of the few television series shot on film. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jonathan Nolan with Westworld Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Worth. (Image courtesy of HBO)

The original plate for an aerial shot of the Westworld control center called ‘The Mesa.’ (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The final shot took the plate photography and added in the sprawling control center. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The challenge for us was, ‘Okay, well, it better look pretty damn good. If all these people are paying all this money to experience a theme park, it better look pretty great.’”

—Jonathan Nolan

Live-action plate of a train arrival scene in Westworld. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Greenscreen elements of the plate were replaced with train and environment extensions. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“As much respect as I have for the more naturalistic kind of filmmaking, and the amazing stories that can be told right here on Earth, for me, I was always more interested in storytelling that created new realities.”

—Jonathan Nolan

WRITING AND VISUAL EFFECTS

Nolan is the first to acknowledge that, as a writer on the Dark Knight films and Interstellar, he was able to put almost anything on the page and then leave it to others to turn his words into imagery for the screen. “One great benefit as a writer on those projects, is not really being responsible in any way for, or on the line for, what you’d write,” he says. “It was Chris and [Visual Effects Supervisor] Paul Franklin’s problem to figure out how to make it work.”

A key observation Nolan made from watching his brother’s films come together was the combination of different filmmaking and effects methods to produce the final result. “Those films are meticulously, beautifully made, and they use all the different available techniques,” says Nolan. “You have miniatures work, and you have full computer graphics environments, and you have projection, and you have a lot of techniques that we then adapted into Westworld where we could.”

Indeed, on-set projection was something Nolan saw being used on Interstellar that he then became particularly fond of as a filmmaking and visual effects tool. “I remember being on the set of Interstellar and climbing into a spaceship. Production designer Nathan Crowley’s team built this beautiful interior for the spaceship, all practical, you climbed inside it, you’re in there with the actors. Then when it was time for takes, through-the-window projection starts and space appears. The pièce de résistance was the special effects team shaking the entire platform to give it movement. The thing I loved about it is that, for the actors, it requires no imagination on their part. They’re in space, you’re all there together.

“I think that’s one of the most exciting things that’s happening right now – the clawing back reality as much as possible from the greenscreen era that we’ve been in, and having those assets ready ahead of schedule so you can feed them directly to the camera. That allows everyone on set to know exactly the story that you’re telling.”

Projection was so influential, in fact, that Nolan specifically incorporated it as a story device in Westworld – for the central map – which was done as a live projection on set. “There were a lot of people watching, imagining that it’s computer graphics – and it is – but it’s beautifully prepared assets that are then live-projected onto the set,” explains Nolan. “That was actually quite an interesting challenge, because we wanted topography on that map, so that required working with a vendor to hand-carve and create the physical shape of the map and then working very closely with the vendors to supply them with the assets.”

“The map also lifted out of the ground and turned, and we had to marry that to the movement,” says Nolan. “It was an enormous technical challenge, but came off beautifully, really beautifully. So to be able to stand on a set, and instead of putting down a little green box for people to look at, they would look at a live rendering – the illusion is essentially complete on set.”

Audiences can expect to see that approach taken further in Westworld’s third season, according to Nolan, who is looking to “take that technology off of just the map and use it to extend sets in more sophisticated ways that had been impossible to do up to this point. That’s an area in which we’re very excited about the possibilities and, without breaking confidences, we’ve been very excited at some things that other people are doing right now, and we’re trying to see what we can do about them in Season 3.”

GOING OLD-SCHOOL

One reason Nolan was drawn to the live-projection technique, of course, is that it fit neatly into the type of world he imagined for Westworld’s characters to inhabit. “One of the ironies of Westworld,” comments Nolan, “was creating this artificial world, but one that you have to imagine that people would be willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars a day to experience.

“Our take was, it had to feel more real than real,” he continues. “There can’t be any sense that it’s an illusion, because that’s what the guests are paying a lot of money for. They want a tactile, lived-in, beautiful reality that they can experience that may feel more real than where they come from. So the challenge for us was, ‘Okay, well, it better look pretty damn good. If all these people are paying all this money to experience a theme park, it better look pretty great.’”

To make it look ‘pretty damn good,’ Nolan and his collaborators chose to film as much as they could for real, then use visual effects to flesh out what couldn’t be shot. For example, a common approach in the show has been to take advantage of existing architecture to shoot scenes in, at least to acquire one particular direction of action.

“Then,” notes Nolan, “we’d take the actors and re-build, practically, a piece of that set on the opposite direction. So you’d have basically both sides of the scene of reality – they’re married with a little bit of movie magic. Inevitably, with those sequences you’d have a couple of ‘stitching’ moments. You’d have an angle where you’ve got to extend the architecture or extend the landscape.

“Our goal from the very beginning was to try to find a hybrid approach to any of these challenges that honored what every system could do best. If you have the time and energy to recreate a part of your set in both places, to marry a piece of architecture to a location that you loved, if you do all that, then you’d know that you have an amazing team that can, in the moments in between, literally marry those two places together.”

Actor Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe in Westworld. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Live projection was an aspect of filmmaking Nolan had seen used on other films, including Interstellar. On Westworld it was used to help bring the central map to life. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“[The Dark Knight films and Interstellar] are meticulously, beautifully made, and they use all the different available techniques. You have miniatures work, and you have full computer graphics environments, and you have projection, and you have a lot of techniques that we then adapted into Westworld where we could.”

—Jonathan Nolan

A Super Bowl spot, in which synthetic bulls rampage, incorporated multi-pass plate photography. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

A robotic endoskeleton was then added to the bulls relatively late in the process. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Live-action plate for the ‘Door’ scene in Season 2 of Westworld. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The CG elements. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Final shot revealing the gateway to the ‘Sublime.’ (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jonathan Nolan (right) at the 17th Annual VES Awards with Westworld star Evan Rachael Wood, who presented him with the VES Visionary Award. (Photo by Phil McCarten)

VFX COLLABORATION

Those architectural or landscape extensions, and many other visual effects duties on Westworld, are overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Worth, who Nolan also worked with on Person of Interest. Worth was critical, says Nolan, in delivering on one incredibly complicated shot that was used for a scene of rampaging bulls in a Westworld Super Bowl spot. “It was a beautiful sequence,” Nolan outlines. “We used a robotically-controlled dolly with a robotically-controlled head so we could repeat camera nodal moves. We did these dolly moves over and over and over again as these live animals are running through the frame. It was an enormous amount of work for Jay and his team to marry all those things and elements together seamlessly.

“Then toward the end of the creative process, we said, ‘God, wouldn’t it look fantastic if one of those bulls was just opened up a little bit to reveal the sort of robotic structure underneath?’ That was a decision that happened relatively late in the process, but working with DNEG – they did an extraordinary job.”

Important Looking Pirates had already established for other shots what that kind of robotic endoskeleton look was, so DNEG – working around the clock to pull off the bull shots – took those ideas and delivered the VFX in time for the commercial. Nolan admits it was a tough scene, but, as he noted at the VES Awards, “Jay and I have made 123 episodes of television together and he has never, not a single time, complained within earshot of me about our process.

“We try to plan very carefully to know exactly what we’re doing,” says Nolan, “but sometimes we get a sequence back and you go, ‘There’s just this one little extra thing…’ And if you’ve been careful and you have the right assets and you’re working with the right people, we go just a little bit further to make something that looks great even better.”


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