After KNOWING, GODS OF EGYPT marks the second collaboration between Eric Durst and director Alex Proyas. Before that he had supervised the visual effects of a large number of movies such as BATMAN FOREVER BATMAN & ROBIN, SPIDER-MAN 2 or SNOWPIERCER.
What is your background?
I grew up in Arkansas and my dad was a professor of art, which I think set me on the path to being an artist. It was an interesting time, because my dad had built this Art Center at the University where he taught, and what was unique about it was that it housed all the arts. There was a school of architecture, as well as a school of music, dance, painting, sculpture and theater all housed under one roof. It was a great environment to be in when I was a kid, because there were so many things going on and all the arts represented. It was based on the Bauhaus, a very famous German school of the 1930s that had the philosophy that since all the arts were related, they needed to be taught together.
Growing up around all the arts was confusing also, because even though I knew I wanted to be an artist, I wasn’t really sure which area to specialize in. So I spent a couple of years in architecture school, because I just loved great buildings and wonderful houses and wanted to be part of that. Then the reality of what architecture really was, and that only a handful of people got to do that kind of thing swayed me to go into painting, so I did that for another year. Then one night I was watching television, and there is a documentary on Cal arts. That school seem to have all the same things that I had grown up with in Arkansas, all the arts put together in one place, it seemed like the perfect place to complete my college career.
So I applied to the school and fortunately got in, this time with a major in photography. The first day I was there, I met some people who were studying animation, so I went into the animation room and sat down, really just looking around. Jules Engle, who was the great teacher of that department, came over and I guess assumed that I was a new animation student, so he gave me a stack of paper and pencil and said “okay there you go start drawing and make a film”, and that’s how it started.
I loved experimental animation, and creating movement that blended abstract as well as figurative material, so I did a number of films like that. They were pretty successful on the film festival front, so I was able to support myself with various grants from the government and corporations which allowed artists to do their work. After graduation I lived in New York City and continued in the independent animation world, while also dabbling in the commercials with animations for public television and commercials.
I moved back to Los Angeles, and met a number of people who were in the visual effects world, which seemed like it was a great blending of both live-action photography and animation, so I was really excited by the field. I spent a number of years at DreamQuest Images, a visual effects house, mainly directing commercials, but I always wanted to work in features.
The first big film I had a chance to work on as a visual effects supervisor, was BATMAN FOREVER in 1995. It was a great break, because I was in charge of Gotham City, which at that time was all miniature work, I was just amazed at the scale of everything, and the incredible talent that you’re surrounded with a feature film. It was a terrific way to begin on the feature side. From there on is been pretty nonstop, leading up to where we are today.
How was your collaboration with director Alex Proyas?
It really helped that I had worked with Alex before, and I think that’s true with all projects where you’re working with people you have experience with, because there’s a shorthand that happens in your communication, and you also know what to expect. Alex loves visual effects and has a complete trust in what is possible, so he was always pushing, always asking for a bit more than what we thought we were capable of… and that’s the role of the director, to really push everything to its limits.
What was his approach about the visual effects?
Alex feels that visual effects can do about anything. So in this film, which was so virtual, so large in its vision and what it needed to accomplish, visual effects had to really build most of the world that was being shown in the film. Because the visual effects it were such a the key component in everything, Alex trusted us to deliver, and focused most of his attention on the acting and storytelling.
Can you describe one of your typical days on-set and then during the post?
There were no down days for VFX on this production. We had two crews shooting simultaneously on several stages at the Fox lot in Sydney for 16 weeks. While we were shooting on one stage, often another stage was being prepped for the next day’s work. Derek Wentworth, who was the 2nd unit VFX supervisor, handled one of the crews, while I would be on set at all times covering the 1st unit work.
We started every day with a walk through of the day’s action with all the actors. Because basically ever shot in the film was a VFX shot, there would often be many questions that would come up up during this period that would ripple out to the work of the day. During photography, often times even a slight change in camera angle from what was planned during the Pre-Vis process would have an impact in what would be needed, since most everything beyond the actors and their immediate set pieces was all VFX, so you had to be very heads-up at all times. Basically it was nonstop for 10-12 hours a day.
I like to have the VFX supervisor or a representative from each of the facilities there when we’re shooting their scenes for many reasons, mainly so they can become introduced and fully integrated into the production during the photographic phase, but also so they can make sure that they come away with all the elements that they need. Often times, what happens is we come up short because of time or the resources needed to complete the wish list, so they’re part of the conversation of deriving with solutions or what is absolutely necessary and what can be cheated.
Because we were in Sydney, it was a bit difficult to make the journey, but Andy Morley from Cinesite, Robert Bock from Rodeo and Matt Jacobs and Tom “Gibby” Gibbons from Tippett were able to be there while their company’s plates were being photographed. It was easier for Andrew Hellen and Julian Dempsey from Iloura and Tim Crosbie from Rising Sun to be present as they were already in Australia.
This show has massive VFX work including CG characters and lots of CG sets. How did you prepare a show like this?
First of all, hats off to Owen Paterson, the great Production Designer and his immensely talented team of artists. They really laid down the framework for everything, with intricate designs for all the creatures and environments. So we were starting from a strong foundation. As solid as that visual foundation is, when things start to move, all kinds of adjustments need to be put in place to keep the original vision intact. I’ve been through this many many times, but it’s always amazing the differences between a still image and moving one. Two different universes, and exponential needs for the latter.
Because we had previs for essentially the entire film, we had a good idea of how the virtual backgrounds and scenes worked in the edit, so even though the live-action was essentially actors against blue, there was extremely good guidance.
There was a huge mix of so many different kinds of visual effects in this show, from characters to massive CG environments, water, lots of atmospherics, really everything in the book, so a big part of the show’s preparation was finding and putting the right team of visual effects players and companies in place to achieve all the work we had on our plate. Because of the Australian production incentives, we needed to have a majority of the work accomplished by Australian visual effects companies. VFX producer Jack Geist and I spoke to many of the worlds VFX companies, and put together a roster of what we felt was a good combination for the needs of the show.
Iloura, who have offices in Melbourne and Sydney, Rising Sun Pictures in Adelaide and Fin out of Sydney handled the work from the Australian side. Raynault and Rodeo FX from Montreal, Cinesite in London, UPP in Prague, Tippett in Berkeley and Comen VFX in LA represented the other half of the world. We also had an In House team that worked out of our VFX Department in Sydney, and Derek Wentworth, after his work on 2nd Unit, lead a compositing team in Montreal.
Can you tell us more about the previz process?
Because we were working with partial sets, to truly understand the action, it was essential to Previs the entire production. Alex also wanted to direct actors as a foundation for the Previs of the film, rather than rely entirely on animators to develop the story.
I had known Ron Frankel for some time and his company Proof, and was very interested in working with Ron and his team. Proof, who is an LA company, was also set up as an Australian Corporation, so they were set up to hire out the team of artists and start any time. David Peers, who is an immensely talented director and storyteller, was hired as the Previs Supervisor. This was a great decision, because David was able to always keep the storytelling in central focus as he journeyed with his team through all the worlds created in the film.
With so many blue screens, how did you help the actors and the crew to imagine what will come many months later?
The previs was the biggest asset we had, because it was very true to the framing and final result of the film. This gave everyone the best idea of what was later to come. This helped not only the crew and everyone setting up the scene, but also the actors. Contributing to this, was the SolidTrack system that enabled us, in real time, to composite backgrounds into the live-action shots, furthering the preview of the final composite. The SolidTrack system would track every movement of the camera in relation to the stage background, apply this through the computer to the 3D backgrounds derived from the assets built for the Previs, and provide us foreground and background elements that fit together.
What was the most complicated sequence to shoot and to create in post?
That’s a difficult question to answer, because there were so many shots in the movie, and many of them were quite complex. So to have one singled out is something that I really can’t do.
One of the most difficult parts of the process though, was the fact that a large number of the shots, 721 to be exact, needed to be shared between facilities. The shared shots were usually between 2 or 3 houses, but in some instances, it would need to filter through 5 and in one case, 6 houses. So the logistics of this, mixed in with the overall show, which had 2550 shots, became pretty mind-boggling.
What was the size of your team?
Our VFX team in Sydney was really small for a show of this size. Along with Jack Geist, the VFX Producer, and Jodie Weston, the VFX Production Manager, we had a team that varied depending on what stage we were in, but anywhere from 8 to 12 people.
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