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September 2014
Issue: April 1, 2009

VISUAL EFFECTS: 'WATCHMEN'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — Imagine an alternate reality, where Nixon is still president of America (in 1985), the Vietnam War was won, not lost, and the USA and the Soviet Union are still fighting the Cold War.

Welcome to the noir superhero world of  Watchmen, based on the acclaimed graphic novel, directed by Zack Snyder (300). It stars Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan; Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach; Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre; Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II; Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias; Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake, aka The Comedian; and Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl II.

Joining Snyder behind the scenes were director of photography Larry Fong, who also shot 300, production designer Alex McDowell (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), editor William Hoy (300), costume designer Michael Wilkinson (300), and visual effects supervisor John "DJ" DesJardin, whose extensive credits include The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Fantastic Four and The Kingdom.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, DesJardin talks about the challenges of creating and posting the visually and thematically ambitious Watchmen, which is being distributed by Warners in both 35mm and IMAX.

POST: How did you become involved in this project?
JOHN DESJARDIN: "The studio asked me to come in back in January 2007, but never told me it was Watchmen and Zack — they often keep these projects hush-hush. So when Zack and I met, he asked me if I'd ever read Watchmen, and I told him I'd been a fan since '87, when it first came out. We bonded over that and graphic novels, and talked for an hour about how we'd deal with Dr. Manhattan and how to shoot him, and also Rorschach. He showed me some boards he'd drawn to get everyone into the alternate reality of this world, and I loved the whole idea."

POST: What were the biggest challenges facing you?

DESJARDIN: "The first was how to deal with Dr. Manhattan and make him into a CG character that'd survive through the whole film, as if he were a real character there. Then it was Rorschach's mask, and how we were going to handle and shoot that, and animate the ink blots. From there, it broke down into handling all the city extensions, as we were building a New York back lot, so what were we going to do there? And how were we going to do scenes like the big tenement fire and big rescue sequence?

"For a while, we were going to build a huge rooftop set where a lot of this stuff would happen, but ultimately we went [in] another direction. So initially I split my time between developing the Manhattan suit and methodology, doing some tests for Rorschach, and doing a lot of previz for the big action scenes, so we could figure out what parts we'd have to shoot and what we didn't need to."

POST: Is it fair to say that the visual effects are a partner in the movie?
DESJARDIN: "Absolutely, and that's how everyone approached it, which was what was so great about this project. The visual effects weren't an afterthought or added late in the day to save something. Even production designer Alex McDowell, who's done a lot of visual effects films, started off from the same point, and we all talked a lot as we went along.

"For instance, Alex would say, 'We have the budget to build this, what do you think?' And I'd go, 'Yes, we can extend the city up and out,' and Zack would say, 'I can do this whole scene contained in this building but I'm going to want to look down here now and again,' so we were all on the same page as to what elements we needed to shoot and what we could build CG. So it was a real partnership, and a lot of films benefit from having visual effects in very early on, to help production solve problems in pre production and in the shoot."

POST: What was the approach you and Zack took on visual effects?
DESJARDIN: "To stay as true as possible to the source material, however difficult that might make it for us."

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
DESJARDIN: "We began pre-production in April '07 in LA, then moved to Vancouver in June and began shooting there in September until February '08, and we did most of our visual effects and post from March through November. Then we did some extra stuff at the end for the DVD version."

POST: How many VFX shots are there and how did you go about dealing with them?
DESJARDIN: "About 1,100 total. I'd worked with Pete Travers at Sony Imageworks on the Matrix films, so I began talking to him right away about Dr. Manhattan. I targeted them as I'd followed their performance capture CG movies, particularly Beowulf, as the characters there were extensively rigged human characters — probably the most extensive at the time, in terms of facially, and I was really worried about Dr. Manhattan delivering dialogue and being in a lot of close-ups.

"Then I thought, Weta and ILM were able to bring this capture idea onto the set, with characters like Davey Jones and Gollum, but I didn't want Sony to think they could just move their huge rig onto our set. So I told them, I want to take the process and really dumb it down so it's very production-friendly. So Pete and I discussed having just two witness cameras, no more.

"The key to everything was, Crudup was playing Dr. Manhattan, but we'd replace him with CG later, and he has to emit light. And it hit me that LED lights were the answer, as they're low power and give off little heat. So if we made a suit with LEDs, we could get a very interactive performance where the light glows and dims as needed. And as his performance was driving the CG character, it'd match that exactly, meaning that Pete and me and the Sony team wouldn't have to figure out all the complexities of the interactive lighting after the fact."

POST: Was that solution considered?

DESJARDIN: "Yes, we thought, what if we just put a tracking marker suit on him so we can optically track him and then do all the lighting in post? But it's too messy and really costly, and depends on a lot of simulation to do a lot of heavy lifting in post, when with LEDs we could get the look we wanted, and that also helped the DP, Zack and the other actors. So we did tests with a stunt guy and a suit with thousands of LEDs all over it, and it was very successful. Then we replaced him with the Beowulf character shaded to look like what we thought Dr. Manhattan was going to look like, and that test is what sold Zack and the producers on the idea that this was the way to shoot it."

POST: Was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?
DESJARDIN: "Yes, as it was the most difficult concept to work out, between shooting it and posting it — and such a leap of faith. I guess erasing this guy completely is going to work! But Zack's obviously very savvy about visual effects, and it was more of an extension of things we'd done before."

POST: Talk about the range of effects. Who else worked on them?
DESJARDIN: "Sony did all the Dr. Manhattan shots and anything related to him, such as him on Mars and the destruction of the city using his energy, and they did some of the post destruction stuff as they had the big views of New York and could do matte paintings.

MPC [Moving Picture Company] opened a Vancouver office while we were shooting there and they became our main facility for New York City extensions and everything to do with the Owlship, which included Antarctica and the tenement fire rescue. Intelligent Creatures of Toronto did the Rorschach mask and certain other matte paintings. CIS Hollywood did the big title sequence, because as Zack drew it, it's a series of one-off big shots, such as recreating the JFK assassination, the first man on the moon, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. They also did rig removal and some other smaller effects, like blood spurts and smoke and shells coming out of guns."

POST: Obviously, Rorschach and creating Rorschach's mask was another very complicated effect. How was that all done?
DESJARDIN: "Jackie Earle Haley wore a mask that was the proper texture and so on, and then he had eye-holes cut so that he could see and so that we could also see his eyes emoting. The acting is in the eyes in this case, and in the body. Then I put little tracking markers on specific places on the mask, so Intelligent Creatures could track the orientation of his head and then put all the blots on.

"In the end, Intelligent Creatures decided that they wanted to replace the whole masked head with a CG version of the head, instead of having to paint the eyes back in and the tracking markers. But they did keep the hat and the scarf and all the elements around the head from the photography. That's how about 98 percent of all those head shots were done. There were a couple of shots that were a tracking nightmare, so they ended up putting the eyes back in and then painting out the dots and putting the CG blots on, and that worked a little better in those cases. They did a really great job on all the headshots, though, and it definitely wasn't easy."

POST: How did this film compare with working on The Matrix films or Fantastic Four?
DESJARDIN: "It's funny, as it wasn't a big leap forward so much as extensions of all the effects we'd done before. The Matrix movies were pretty hefty, so it's hard to make comparisons. But what I really liked about Watchmen is how it seems like a leap forward in terms of how everyone thought about the effects integrating into the story right from the very start of the project. And it's also an honor to be able to take this type of classic material, which is loved by so many people, and figure out how to translate it into a real-world motion picture."

POST: What's next?
DESJARDIN: "I'm going to keep on working with Zack and the whole team and we're all getting together again in Vancouver to do this new film, a fantasy-adventure called Sucker Punch that Zack has written. It's going to be an even bigger challenge than Watchmen in terms of the effects, so I'm pretty excited about taking it on."