By KEVIN H. MARTIN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By KEVIN H. MARTIN
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure experienced a torturous birthing. During production, VFX house Omnibus Computer Graphics [under the short-lived moniker Omnibus Simulation] went belly-up, requiring Perpetual Motion Pictures to complete the post work with a mix of traditional and digital solutions. After going unreleased for more than a year, the film opened to surprisingly strong box office in early 1989, later inspiring the sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as well as comic books, video games and both cartoon and live-action TV series.
Given its place in pop culture, the development of a third film featuring this lovable but dysfunctional duo (played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeve) seemed – like Bill and Ted themselves – a no-brainer. But while Bill & Ted Face the Music did not go into production until 2019, it answered the question of how these time-traveling misfits became responsible for the creation of a song that unifies future humanity.
Director Dean Parisot was no stranger to comedy and science fiction, having helmed Galaxy Quest. “Dean was a dream,” VFX Producer Nancy St. John reports. “While there was a very clear vision for what he wanted to see, Dean remained very collaborative and solicitous of our opinions.”
With credits on the Oscar-winning effects for Babe and Gladiator as well as 2017’s A Series of Unfortunate Events series, St. John brought a wealth of experience to the New Orleans-based production, her efforts supported by On-set Supervisor Jean-Louis Darville. “The last few weeks of shooting were spent on large greenscreen setups,” says St. John, “with limited set pieces built by Production Designer Melanie Jones that actors could walk on or be in physical contact with. Director of Photography Shelley Johnson had a very gritty look in mind, so even greenscreens were shot with smoke, because he felt that would help with any too-synthetic feel, which is common with VFX-oriented futures.” The film’s comedic aspects were driven by performance rather than effects. “The takes were approved based on comedic achievement, so we could see funny/not-funny right away. It was always ‘comedy rules: effects come second.’”
The film’s 460 VFX shots were divided among three vendors: BUF and MELS in Montreal, plus Shade VFX in Santa Monica. “Shade handled the big freeway scenes,” says St. John, “which involved set extensions and people popping in and out. They also did the future, which was in the vein of [architect] Santiago Calatrava’s City of Lights in Valencia [seen in Tomorrowland and Season 3 of HBO’s Westworld.] Aping the look of something that exists for real without actually going there meant the bar was pretty high for VFX, especially since we extended that vision to create a much grander scale.
“When [Director] Dean [Parisot] discussed designing the circuits of time, I wanted it to reflected properly back on the original while delivering a contemporary look, and suggested treating the effects from the first movie as previs. So instead of a redesign, we accepted the originals as our approved look, but took that to the next, more finished level.”
—Bill George, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM
“Shade handled the big freeway scenes, which involved set extensions and people popping in and out. They also did the future, which was in the vein of [architect] Santiago Calatrava’s City of Lights in Valencia/ Aping the look of something that exists for real without actually going there meant the bar was pretty high for VFX, especially since we extended that vision to create a much grander scale.”
—Nancy St. John, VFX Producer
“BUF had 120 shots for Hell and a killer robot,” St. John continues, “while MELS did the remaining 170 shots, which ranged from a stadium and background people at the 1932 World Series to flying robots in the future. MELS also handled facial reconstruction and prosthetic fixes, plus many split-screens for when Bill and Ted talking to other Bills and Teds.”
A serendipitous development gave the film an unexpected boost as it headed into post when ILM’s Bill George, who had supervised Galaxy Quest’s effects, came on as a consultant. “I have to give a lot of credit to him as our conceptual designer,” states St. John. “Dean had enjoyed his previous collaboration with Bill, and the images Bill drew for us made it just so clear to everybody what Dean wanted. The improvements in the work coming back to us was immediate, because the vendors now saw how the light was supposed to give a certain specific feel.”
George’s career began as a model maker and art director, but he advanced to effects supervision after a stint in ILM’s commercial division. “That got me experience dealing with clients and ad agencies,” George recalls, “and when I came out the other side, I had so much better of an understanding of process. I could communicate Dean’s intentions in visual effects terms to the vendors.” George’s initial three-week consultancy wound up extending through to the end of post. “The original movies were low-budget films, but people loved them and how they looked, so they’re going to be wanting something in that vein, without it being a low-rez look.
“The takes were approved based on comedic achievement, so we could see funny/not-funny right away. It was always ‘comedy rules: effects come second.’”
—Nancy St. John, VFX Producer
“When Dean discussed designing the circuits of time,” George continues, “I wanted it to reflected properly back on the original while delivering a contemporary look, and suggested treating the effects from the first movie as previs. So instead of a redesign, we accepted the originals as our approved look, but took that to the next, more finished level.” George began that process by building a model of the circuits in Maya, then rendered them out as separate elements before taking them into Photoshop.
The duo’s means for temporal transport was the same as ever – an old phone booth. “Dean was very clear in wanting us to portray the phone booth like an antique car,” St. John reveals, “so you wouldn’t be sure if it was still going to be able to start up the next time you got in. Storywise, that erratic quality translated into a time machine that didn’t always made textbook landings.” MELS and Shade split up the phone booth shots for their specific sequences.
The freeway scenes required heavy extensions. “We wanted to really open things up there,” notes George, “with San Dimas in the background. So again it was a matter of Photoshopping in various approaches for Dean to pick from. However, there wasn’t always a lot of light on characters in the foreground. I’ve worked on various movies with similar plate situations, and found that you need to create other opportunities for light when adding depth through an extension. We had to go through some visual contortions to create the necessary dimension while matching production’s lighting.”
The vortex opening up above Earth required the most finessing. “That vexed us right up till the end of post,” explains George. “Dean wanted to be able to see the circuits of time within, and there were only a limited number of shots revealing the vortex, but a lot of shots around those had people running around. To make the vortex presence carry through those meant affecting every shot in the sequence.” George also had to create new shots not originally planned for. “Editorially, you sometimes find that a wide shot nobody made is needed, so you put one together out of whatever was shot plus your own invention.”
“The last few weeks of shooting were spent on large greenscreen setups, with limited set pieces built by Production Designer Melanie Jones that actors could walk on or be in physical contact with. Director of Photography Shelley Johnson had a very gritty look in mind, so even greenscreens were shot with smoke, because he felt that would help with any too-synthetic feel, which is common with VFX-oriented futures.”
—Nancy St. John, VFX Producer
The coronavirus also impacted post. “COVID hit just as we came out of our first preview screening, but our facilities were able to scramble and reset quickly at their homes,” recalls St. John. “LUTs had been provided to vendors for every scene, letting VFX bring the looks along as far as we could with the vendor resources. Then we did something that was new to me in my 30 years, handling the whole DI with Efilm colorist Skip Kimball remotely. He was in a room alone, with a support team blocks away, while Dean, Bill and I were each at our own houses, using Streambox to let us review in real-time at fairly high-rez. Colorspace was a problem, as each sequence had its own unique look and lighting. Dean made some changes from the original plan to lock in a color rhythm for the whole film.”
George thinks that by playing to the franchise’s strengths, the VFX contributed more than in other situations. “We weren’t trying to one-up anybody,” he admits. “Sometimes the live-action had too much stuff happening, so it became a matter of dialing things back. Introducing limitations helped convey a sense of reality into things that could distract and overwhelm. The characters are the film’s attraction; that is part of the film’s charm. If we just started doing ‘powers of 10’ pullbacks … well, that just wouldn’t have been Bill and Ted language.”