As actors are cast for roles, so are visual effects vendors according to their specialties. “When you’re in the design phase, the single most important thing is making sure that you’re thinking of the right vendors for the right type of work because the skillsets are not across the board,” states Morrison. “You’re looking at Weta Digital, ILM and Digital Domain for digital human work. At the same time. there are hundreds of other vendors out there who are great. I used Fin Design + Effects in Sydney on Thor: Ragnorak for the ‘Willy Wonka’ sequence where we shot Chris Hemsworth in a wheelchair that didn’t move on a bluescreen set, with a guy holding a little fan. Fin sketched out this whole two-minute sequence out of absolutely nothing. The bigger houses won’t necessarily be able to afford to do something that is so bespoke and not pipeline. You go to the big houses because they can take the final battle, which can easily be 400 or 500 shots. You need to know that the machine has been created in order to be able to create the characters, environments, lighting and effects, and be able to work in parallel with 1,000 artists.”
Shots are constantly rebid as the photography and edit evolve. “You build this shot list for what you think the movie will be [based on storyboards and the script],” explains Morrison. “For each of the big sequences or any world or creatures, I will do a two-page synopsis with some concept art to explain, ‘This is what the creature does and how it moves. This is what it is made of, and these are its powers. This is what production is going to build, this is what we’re going to get, and this what you can expect to happen.’ I will send that over to the vendors, and it answers a lot of the questions before we even get on the phone. But then you do the shoot. Some of it happens and some of it doesn’t. If it’s Taika, we’re doing a lot of improv and the entire script can change. The editor gets two weeks followed by 10 weeks of director’s cut. The studio is going to have a look at it and send some notes. We’re doing postvis, filling in the bluescreen and putting in CG characters. It’s a whole other round of the previs into postvis. Only at that stage do you really know what the movie is going to be.
“When you’re shooting, you’ll often refer to the ‘circle take,’” remarks Morrison. “The script supervisor notes that and it goes to the edit suite. It’s the quickest way for the editor to know what the director thought was the best take. And the further you get through principal photography, there are more and more requests for specific shots or coverage from the editor. It’s quite intuitive. I prefer for the editor to cut the previs because there is a certain amount of ownership to that. Some editors are very cutty while others are much more relaxed and the shots are longer.” The visual effects editor acts as an intermediate between visual effects and editorial. “They’re usually part of our crew. For a director’s cut, they’ll get rid of bluescreens and put in temporary backgrounds alongside the postvis crew. When I’m doing presentations at the end of the process and showing stuff for final to the director and studio, I’ll show it in context. You never show character animation as a single shot. I’ll show a six or 10 shot run, especially if it’s a funny scene you’ve got to have the context to see if it plays. The visual effects editor is driving that stuff in the back of the visual effects screening room. That relationship doesn’t tend to kick in until just before the shoot.”
It’s like a marathon at the end of post-production. “We had 2,700 visual effects shots on Thor: Ragnorak and finaled 2,500 of them in the last month. In the end there were 18 vendors on Thor: Ragnorak. We would start our day in L.A. with a cineSync and a Polycom. I have a big projection screen hooked up to a Mac, plus a Wacom tablet with a pen. There’s a row for my reviews – my producer is sitting across the room – and then I have a row of coordinators with each one looking after three visual effects vendors. I would start off with Munich followed by London, New York City, Montreal, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In the beginning I would have reviews with the key vendors on a Tuesday and Thursday, and closer to final delivery I will have reviews with each of the vendors every day.
“Marvel has built tools to enable me to quickly and easily review shots offline,” Morrison continues. “This means I can leave at a reasonable hour, go home, get some exercise in, have dinner with my wife and then send further notes out. If, for example, I’m working with Weta Digital, which is five hours back from tomorrow, they might send a delivery at the end of the Los Angeles day, but still afternoon in New Zealand. If I can get notes out in a timely manner, an artist can implement them and set off an overnight render thus saving us a day. I’m either on the phone directly so people can hear me, ask questions and get clarification, or I write the notes with annotated stills because it is important to convey the proper tone.”