"X-Men: The Last Stand" – John Bruno, VFX Supervisor - Making Mutant Magic Happen

Thu, February 23rd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
George A. Tramountanas, Staff Writer

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  • "X-Men: The Last Stand" Production Designer Ed Verreaux
  • "X-Men: The Last Stand" Associate Producer Dave Gorder
  • "X-Men: The Last Stand" Visual Effects Superviser John Bruno
  • "X-Men: The Last Stand" Director Brett Ratner & Cast (Part One)
  • "X-Men: The Last Stand" Director Brett Ratner & Cast (Part Two)
  • "X-Men: The Last Stand" star Kelsey Grammer

  • As a teenager, I often wished more superhero movies would get made. I grew up watching Superman, Batman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but where were the other heroes I loved to read in comic books? Where were Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men?

    Although it disappointed me at the time, in retrospect, it's okay those movies didn't get made back then. The film world wasn't ready for characters of this scope, mainly because the technology to showcase their super-powers hadn't been developed yet. If you disagree, try watching a bootleg copy of Roger Corman's "Fantastic Four."

    While many members of a film crew contribute to making your superhero seem "super" on the big screen, the work of the visual effects supervisor is crucial in bringing these aspects to life. And the person who holds this position on "X-Men: The Last Stand" is John Bruno.

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    Suffice it to say, your favorite mutants are in good hands with Bruno, whose visual effects credits include "Terminator 2," "True Lies," "Titanic," and "AVP: Aliens Vs. Predator." In addition, he has also directed "T2 3-D: Battle Across Time," "Virus," and episodes of "Star Trek: Voyager." On a set visit to the X-Men's latest outing, CBR News (along with other journalists) had the opportunity to discuss what sort of mutant madness fans can look forward to in X3.

    You will believe a man can fly…with the help of oversized angel wings.

    All the other people we've interviewed have mentioned how this is the biggest film emotionally, visually and design-wise. Is it the same with regards to the visual effects (VFX) when comparing them to the first two films?

    Yeah, we have quite a few more visual effects in this movie compared to the first two. The difficult part of this film is that the story is much more complicated than the last two combined, and the visuals are equally as complicated. What makes it a little more difficult is that we have to sort of "lock" it to reality. The reasons the stories worked and the movies worked is that they're locked more into reality, not fantasy - we're not doing "Lord of the Rings."

    Everybody's mutant powers are based on something in the physical world. So trying to keep everything realistic is, in fact, more difficult. Realism is the goal of the film. And in our sort of compressed schedule now - we've run into winter - it's just…try to keep everything realistic and maintain parity with the other two films. We're not trying to do a different film; we're trying to keep them all looking similar. We're just going with a larger story in this one.

    We've also heard quite a bit about the tight schedule on this film. What does that mean to you as the supervisor? Is it a seven-days-a-week grind? Are you always on the go?

    I've been here seven months, and have had two days off. Because if it's not first unit [we're working on], it's second unit. And the problem we've got now…not "problem," but the issue we have now is the biggest sequence, visual effects-wise, is the entire end of the movie, which we're shooting now. Usually, you try and schedule that in the beginning.

    The original approach to the film was to try to get as much done in camera as possible, because there are so many visual effects shots. So we built a full-sized section of the Golden Gate Bridge and a one-to-one section of Alcatraz that matches Alcatraz, and we have to basically line it up digitally with photographs and real helicopter footage (in the computer). It's very complicated, and part of the concept, even working with second-unit director Simon Crane, is that if we can do as much as possible in camera, we should - like Angel flying for real on location. Can I talk about that? [Looks to Fox representative, who nods with approval.]

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    Part of the idea that Simon's been really helping with is putting the actors in the real environment - flying them on wires, dropping them off the roof… We took our Angel character, pulled him two hundred feet up in the air, and swung him over the street out here, which is standing in for downtown San Francisco. We really did it, and basically, what we have to do now is take the cable and the rigs out and add wings to him with CG. The lighting's going to be right, we know what all the shadows are supposed to look like, and it will advance us in the schedule. And we'll also not have to composite him into the shot, just add wings.

    That approach, on a lot of levels throughout this film, will take it to another level. The whole goal in studying the first two films, because I wasn't involved with the first two, is realism. It's not fantasy - these people don't do magic. They really have some strange power, and what it has to do is lock somewhere in reality. Whatever we do has to be based in nature. That's the goal and we're trying to stick to that.

    Regarding Angel, is there an actual physical pair of wings that Angel walks around with ever?

    At this point, [the physical wings] are more of a guide. When we first see him, he's got a jacket on. He takes it off and then they open up - and that's us.

    What has been the biggest challenge for this production?

    The Golden Gate Bridge - we built a full-size section of it - and we have a whole sequence where we actually move it. So we've been doing that. We have a lot of detailed storyboards, a lot of detailed pre-viz, and we had a crew in San Francisco shooting plate shots. I went in July, and we built the bridge here in April/May. And just trying to match the lighting, the scenario - we have plates that we have to get first, and then light the bridge accordingly. So that's been a lot of long-distance communication.

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    We were told yesterday that there are templates for the visual effects from the previous films. You're using several of the same effects houses that worked on X1 and X2, is that correct?

    Wherever something worked really well, we don't want to change it, so the company that was doing Mystique is doing Mystique. We are doing a couple of sequences with London houses, and we've now brought on Weta [director Peter Jackson's VFX company]. They were a bit late because they were delayed on delivering on "King Kong," but they're here tonight, actually. And they're going to take on the bulk of the end of this movie, just because of our schedule. We can really amp it up.

    Were there things in the first two films that maybe didn't meet your standards and you thought you could improve upon?

    Our approach is to start with whatever everybody knows, and see if we can enhance it a little bit. We're not altering things entirely. For example, we're going to try to make the rays from Cyclops' visor a little more visceral, a little more realistic looking. But we do have all these new characters too. We have Beast, who, in the books, is supposed to be very agile. So we have Kelsey Grammer out there - who's freezing [laughs] - so we'll be adding some moves based on some style that's described in the books of what he has to do, and that'll be digital. But we have done visual digital scans of every member of the cast, in case they have to do something that's impossible. We don't even know what that is yet, but we're ready.

    Did you have a moment as you read the script, when you first came aboard the project, where you said, "I have no idea how we're going to bring it to life…"?

    Well, there's nothing now that does that to me. In my career, there have been certain things that panic me, but nothing here. It's just "Can I move this bridge from where it is to this location in this amount of time?" And we're doing that by building gigantic miniatures and then using them as much as possible. Working with the art department, and Ed Verreaux [the film's production designer], we designed all of the rubble on this bridge to match what we've been doing on the miniatures. And we've been pretty much in synch the whole time. We're so well in tune that it's made that job manageable.

    Dante Spinotti, the DP [Director of Photography], has helped, too. We're in complete synch on how to do interactive lighting, how many passes we have to make. And we're working with Jimmy Murrow, who I worked with on "Titanic" and "True Lies." I've worked with these guys before, so we hand off things back and forth, and if I need something, they do it. They'll ask me if they can do something and try to help out that way. It's pretty collaborative at this point.

    When you say gigantic miniatures, are these the biggest you've ever worked with?

    Just the section of the Golden Gate that we used to film, from the tower forward to where it breaks off, is sixty feet. We couldn't break it, because it was as hard as the real thing. So, we had to weaken it somehow. Then we took the Fort Ross side and built that at similar scale and collapsed that, so…pretty big. Not the biggest though - on "Alien Vs Predator" everything was a third scale.

    Are you using many miniatures?

    Yeah, the San Francisco stuff was miniature. There's some stuff happening to the house - Jean Grey's house - which will be a big chunk of miniature stuff there.

    We heard a little bit yesterday about a Danger Room sequence. Without giving away story details, what can you say about how you addressed it?

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    It's a full-size practical. It really is. You'll be able to see the set out there. Simon flew Halle, and flew Wolverine in some sequences. We have something called a "Fastball Special" that's part of the Marvel universe, and it's done for real. Basically, it's like the "Terminator 2" landscape. I've been [on that set] and I was having some flashbacks when we were shooting it. [Shakes his head and laughs]

    How do you safeguard yourself so you're not breaking the rules of the Marvel universe?

    We have Kevin Feige here who tells us script-wise [if we're okay]. They run it by Marvel and by him, and if I have any questions like "Can Kitty Pryde rise up out of the ground?" Any technical stuff like that I don't know, he'll advise us on that. So we're constantly checking on that stuff.

    Beast was one of those characters where we didn't know how he moved, and they got information to us. As far as the other characters, they've been pretty much established. Plus the actors themselves know what they can do. When I talked to Pyro about how you throw fireballs, he goes, "Like this." [Mimics throwing a baseball] And I say, "Okay! We'll do that!"

    Is there a lot of digital extension?

    I start out saying "90% practical so we only add 10% digital." We're using all the tools to complete this film on schedule. And I've seen a lot of the sequences now, and it's all cut together and it's working. We're just trying to shoot this out [i.e. complete the filming portion], but as you've seen tonight, it doesn't help when it snows. Especially when you're supposed to be in San Francisco at sunset. [Grins and shakes his head]

    What's more fun - doing this sort of effects work or directing a movie?

    Directing or this? This one I'm having a good time on. When I directed "Virus," I was in hell…but it doesn't have to be. This is okay. I just wish we had more time, as usual.

    Can you talk about how you might do an effects scene with Kitty Pryde?

    Did you guys see the rig? [FOX REP: "They saw it yesterday."] Ok. You want me to explain the finished look of it?

    The "Kitty Pryde-Juggernaut chase" [see CBR's interview with Associate Producer Dave Gorder for details] through the building is based on the idea that she can phase through things and not be stopped. Juggernaut, however, just sort of smashes through things like a bulldozer. That pairing up, I think, is pretty funny.

    We had seen a commercial where somebody crashed through a wall, and we basically got that company [who did the commercial's effects] to expand it into an exponential chase scene. [In creating this sequence], there's two parts to it. Kitty phasing - generally, you would green screen somebody like that and have them disappear in a particular location. But what we're doing is we're moving the camera - we're following them as though you would do it if it was really happening. And part of that process is to actually have the walls already broken out, and, with the aid of computers these days, we can "fill" the holes back make a normal wall there.

    For example, Kitty runs through a wall, and in the next room there's a desk against the wall. Well, we will create a CG desk and she can run through that. But Juggernaut, when he breaks through the wall, will also break through the desk. And all the debris will all be created in a computer. That way, you can basically pan with them - follow them at real speed. It's not motion control, and it puts more reality back into it. But where the hole is - there's a hole in the wall, which you probably all saw - we have lasers there that are sort of scanning, so when the person comes through the wall, we can slow that down and see actually where they're coming past the wall. We will then create CG of cement exploding.

    What were those cylinders in the wall for?

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    There are some cylinders around the hole that shoot out some cork and debris so we can physically see how far things go. That's just a guide. But there will be a lot more damage. I mean, one of those walls is going to have a stacked bookshelf and that will explode, but it will all be created in CG. We pre-visualized that very, very carefully and we shot it to the "pre-vizes." It's going to be pretty funny, I think. It's going to look really good.

    Can you describe effects you created for the new characters?

    Juggernaut is our new character. Basically, he physically wrecks things, so we sort of enhance debris or make debris that he runs through. We only have one place where he's taken over in CG, and that's when comes through this outside wall, because it physically can't be done safely.

    What about Beast? Was there ever any thought of going all-CG with the character?

    Doing CG with Beast is basically only when we can't get physical stunts to do what he needs to do. There's some specific things that he does - he has some trademark "moves" that he does in the comic. Well, that will have to be CG, because it would hurt somebody if we had to do that. We try to get as much practical as possible, so we'll start something, take it over in CG, and finish it in reality.

    How are you creating the acrobatics of Beast?

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    We have a guide that was sent to us from Marvel. For Beast, it's some patented "move" that he does. He stands on his hands and spins his legs. They just sent us a reference to that from the animated series. There's so much reference material; we're trying to incorporate that into what we can do. We don't want it to be a cartoon, so we basically have to judge as we shoot things live-action - "Can we get in and out of those with some interesting animated CG action?"

    What about Storm flying?

    Yeah, Storm's flying a lot in this movie, actually. Lightning, tornados - she's creating a lot of stuff that she's at the core of. And so far, we've done that at all practical locations. She's done it - Halle's done it herself. She hasn't been doubled, which is a pretty spectacular feat for her. The tornado is a pretty wild thing that she did. She did it three times, that I saw. So basically we're just taking out wires…and her eyes spinning because she was so dizzy. [Laughs]

    What about Colossus?

    Colossus is an interesting character. I remember him from the second movie, and he was only in it for twenty-four frames. [Laughs] And I went, "Who was that guy?" But you remember that. So, what we've done is we've digitally scanned him - the actor - and we've got some reference again from Marvel as to what he's supposed to look like. And every time we've filmed him close up, we've put all these tracking markers on him.

    I guess the concept of Colossus is that his skin disappears and you see this sinuous muscles and he becomes some solid, steel guy. We basically have a CG version of him, but we mostly are tracking the actor with a CG "skin," keeping it away from the Terminator [silver robot-look]. We see his muscle tissue. It's a pretty interesting look.

    We also built a suit that sits on a stunt guy. And as long as he's in the background and other characters are in the foreground, you can't tell the difference. It's actually a very good suit. It also gives us a guide to lighting. There's a lot of reference to lighting. Lighting, in the CG world, is the key to making the shot look real or not.

    Are there any other characters that are particularly challenging to render? Like Iceman?

    We're taking Iceman to the level of the comics. He "ices up," for real. That will all be CG. You'll see through him, actually.

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    width="230" height="98" alt="" align="left" border="0">We've been told that the opening of the movie contains a "groundbreaking" effect. Can you tell us about it?

    The opening scene of the movie takes place in 1985 with Magneto - Dr. Lensherr - and Charles Xavier going to meet Jean Grey, so they have to be twenty years younger. So we just filmed them normally, and we have a company that has come up with this [special visual effects] technique. We've already seen the first scene - we actually took them back [in appearance of their age] five years, ten years and thirty years - thirty years was really creepy. [Laughs]

    All the references as far as Xavier come from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." We studied what he looked like twenty years ago, and Ian McKellen gave us some photographs of him as an actor in England twenty years ago as well. And what we've gotten back is absolutely spectacular, and hasn't been seen in a film previous to this.

    Jean is nine at the opening of the movie, but that's just a young actress.

    Thanks for your time, John!

    CBR's coverage of the "X-Men: The Last Stand" set visit is co-produced with help from our friends at Comics2Film.com.

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