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November 2014
Issue: July 1, 2007

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: TIM STORY - 'FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — It’s a very long way from the broad urban comedy Barbershop, director Tim Story’s 2002 feature studio debut, to the big budget, high-profile Fantastic Four sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer. But Story, who also helmed the first Fantastic Four film, seems unfazed by the demands of the franchise, demands that this time around include the creation of the all-CG Silver Surfer, a storyline that takes the superheroes around the world as well as high above it in their Fantasticar, and cutting edge visual effects to bring it all to life.
Here, in an exclusive interview, Story, who at press time was still deep in post, talks about making the film, and his love of post production and visual effects.

POST: What was the biggest challenge of making this sequel more visually exciting and spectacular than the first film?

TIM STORY: “This time we brought the whole world into it. In the first we went to space for a second but didn’t really venture out of New York, so we wanted to expand the world, and in the comic book the Four go everywhere — back in time, alternate universes — and we felt the next great step would be if we could involve world issues. But the big thing was how do we travel round the world when we weren’t all really flying off to Egypt and Morocco and London and Shanghai? How do we technically manage all that and never leave Vancouver, where we shot?

“We did what we did in the first film, where we built the bridge and never really went to New York but just shot plates. So we built sections of London and then brought that into film, and most of the traveling was done with plates, but we also did a lot of greenscreen, especially as the Fantasticar comes to life and the audience is in the car, miles above Earth.”

POST: How did you create the Fantasticar?

STORY: “It was designed by Reed Richards early on and we then constructed a tenth-scale model so we could really study it. Then we designed how the pods would look when the car breaks up and again built models. Then we built full-scale models, put them on gimbals and shot them on stage with greenscreen. Then we did scans of the models, took that to Weta [in New Zealand], and got that to a digital point, including digital characters, and began to bring it all to life. So Weta was a key part of all this, because we knew although we’d be capturing a lot of live action, there was no way we could really do some of the moves we had planned. We looked at Harrier jets and all kinds of vehicles to see how they moved, and then used all that.”

POST: Creating the Silver Surfer must have also been a big challenge?

STORY: “Huge. To do a chrome character that literally reflects everything around him, even people talking to him?! That took us a while to figure out. The first step was to decide to do him as a CG character using Weta Digital, then we brought in Doug Jones, a master of movement who also did Pan’s Labyrinth, and started doing motion capture from every possible angle. At the same time we did animatics to see how he’d move this way or that, and then we’d marry both ideas. So we had the animatics of what he might do while he’s flying, but we then also took the motion capture of the exact movements he’d make, and those specific movements and poses, just like with Spider-Man, are crucial. So it’s a big leap forward from what Weta did with Gollum [in Lord of the Rings], and they sent a team to Vancouver, and then we did a few more things in post when we got back to LA. We had to get him exactly right since he’s one of the coolest characters in all comic books; I wanted him to look very striking.”

POST: There are a lot of very striking visual effects shots. How many total?

STORY: “We have about 850 shots, and some are very complex.”

POST: Did Weta do all the VFX shots?

STORY: “Most of them. But we also used Hydraulx out of Santa Monica to do the big London Eye sequence, where it tips over; they did an amazing job. We also used The Orphanage, who worked on ‘the Army Base’ sequence, which is full of gags. At one point there’s an explosion that sends a door and half a wall down a hallway that then hits the Fan 4, so they did a lot of the action sequences, and Digiscope did [94 shots, including recreating the Silver Surfer's eyes and facial movements and creating the flirtatious steam that Johnny Storm emits in the shower scene. They used Flame, Inferno and Combustion for compositing and 3DS Max and Maya for 3D. Rendering was via VRay and Mental Ray.]

“What was the most difficult visual effects sequence? They’ve all been pretty crazy but I guess the London Eye was the toughest, even just in terms of scale. It’s so huge in relation to a person, so I could never have a person in the same shot as the whole wheel — it’s so big. It was one of those sequences where we all went, ‘How do we tip over the London Eye and have the Fantastic 4 save it? And do it knowing we weren’t going to London.’ That was tough.” (Giant Killer Robots and Hammerhead also provided a significant amount of visual effects shots.)

POST: Do you like working with VFX?

STORY: “I love it. I’ve been around it for a few years now and you really get into it and what’s possible. Same with editing. I’ve scared [editors] William Hoy and Peter Elliott because I told them I want to get a system on my Mac so I can dabble more in the editing.”

POST: Talk about working with the film’s VFX supervisor from Weta, Scott Squires. He’s a three-time Oscar nominee whose credits include Star Wars Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace while at ILM.

STORY: “Scott was on set every day and we’d go over every effects shot and how we were going to do it, how it worked with the storytelling. Then he coordinated all the vendors and their effects supervisors with the DP. He also coordinated how it was all going to be shot and the type of lighting needed.”

POST: Where did you do post?

STORY: “We edited on the Sony lot and used the new Technicolor lab there, and we’re also mixing on the lot. Obviously with Hydraulx we can easily go over there, but with Weta and The Orphanage [in San Francisco] we’ve mainly been using Cinesync. It allows us to use iChat, and through the Mac cameras we’re able to see who we’re talking to in New Zealand.
“And the shots that are up on our computer screen are linked to their computer screen in realtime. So if I draw a description or say, ‘Get rid of this or take down that highlight,’ they’re seeing it at the same time I’m drawing, and vice versa. It’s a technical wonder and so fantastic for post. If I want to hit a scene, let a shot go and stop it on a point, they’re looking at it just like I am  here in LA. They send us digital files, we check it all, and then we speak every day at 2pm, their 9am, and go over all the shots frame by frame These advances are making the post process totally global today, and even just 10 years ago it would have been impossible for a company like Weta to exist and function. How could you talk to them when you can’t really explain what you want on the phone? So technology has made New Zealand feel like it’s next door in Santa Monica.”

POST: Do you like the post?

STORY: “I absolutely love it. The only down side for me is when you don’t have enough time to use all the opportunities, and it’s amazing when you realize that today you can do pretty much anything you can dream up...if you have the time. So with the Surfer, you’re literally directing the film all over again in post, as you’re taking this character who wasn’t there and then directing him in all these scenes. It’s awesome!”

POST: You used two editors — William Hoy, who cut Fantastic Four, I, Robot and 300, and Peter Elliott who was visual effects editor on Fantastic Four, Godzilla and Independence Day. How did that work?

STORY: “When we realized what our post was going to need, with all these action scenes and an emotional storyline, it made sense to use two, and it worked out great since we’d all done the last one. We cut it all on Avid [Meridiens] and they were on set the first day I began shooting. We’d all look at dailies together, I’d give them notes, and they’d go off and cut. And sometimes I was able to look at scenes just three days after I’d shot them. We screened most of the dailies in traditional film, but since we shot our visual effects plates with the [Panavision] Genesis, we’d then screen those digitally.” (Media Composer Adrenalines were used for HD outputs for screening purposes, sound mixing and for reviewing VFX.)

POST: Will you do a DI?

STORY: “Definitely. It’s so crucial for a film like this, especially when you have effects coming from different houses that may all go into one sequence. So you have to make a lot of shots match, and it’s not easy. We’re doing the DI at Technicolor [with senior digital colorist Steven Nakamura using da Vinci Resolve], and it’s so great to be able to tweak things. But we don’t want to tweak the color as much on an effects shot since we want to be able to go into the DI and bring it down so we can match it to the shots around it. Normally we want to have it a little bit overblown so when we go into telecine we can bring it down to the color we want — if it’s too dark, you can’t bring it up because it gets very milky.” (The film-out was done at TDI in Burbank using ArriLasers for the domestic release print and the new Cinevator for the international release prints. The printing was done at Deluxe.)

POST: How important is music and audio?

STORY: “It’s half the film for me. There were a lot of times with effects shots where we actually went for less in terms of the visual since we knew we could take it to the next level with the sound. That was the case with the Surfer. He’s a very simple, classic design, but once we put up the sound of his board as he flies past you, it brought him to life. And that’s how it’s been with so many areas of the film. We started the audio at Fox and now we’re mixing on the Sony lot.”

POST: Will you do a third Fantastic Four?

STORY: “Oh yeah! There’s still one more story I really want to tell, with some characters you’ve just got to bring to the screen. I’m a huge fan myself, and it’d be awesome!”