Live in the CGI trenches: Interview with Artist Eric Leven

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Scott Weinberg, Nov 9, 2002.

  1. Scott Weinberg

    Scott Weinberg Lead Actor

    Oct 3, 2000
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    Hey guys. Here's an interview I did for one of my outlets. I thought some of you might enjoy it!
    Being a smarmy and sarcastic wise-ass, I wasn't very popular in high school. But I did have a small and close-knit group of friends that made my high school years tolerable, and Eric Leven was one of those friends. Eric and I shared similar passions for film, fried food, and hateful sarcasm. We graduated high school in 1990, went to college (myself to Temple University; Eric to a good college), and went on to pursue careers on the fringes of the film industry. I became the galaxy's lowest-paid movie critic, while Eric has since become a CGI genius.
    Yes, that's right; if you were amazed by the armies of killer bugs in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, Eric deserves a portion of the acclaim. While many critics (myself included) moan about how CGI technologies have contributed to the 'dumbing down' of the modern Popcorn Movie, Eric's job is simply to create the right doo-hickeys and stick 'em where the director wants. (In other words: if you're suffering from CGI overload, blame the producers and the directors.)
    These days Eric is in New Zealand working on some Tolkien adaptation, so I thought now would be a good time to peg him down for a conversation.
    Scott: According to the IMDb, you've only worked on Armageddon! What gives?
    Eric: The IMDb data is mostly entered by the people who worked on the movies themselves (or by their agents). I never bothered to enter any of my info into the IMDb, but on some occasions, you get internet geeks who are bored (or something) and they sit and enter all the data themselves. I guess someone REALLY liked Armageddon and entered every credit, including mine.
    S: Let's get a rundown of all the movies you've worked on, and some specifics on what you worked on for each flick.
    Starship Troopers (effects animator) - Animating the bug swarms, as well as particle animation; plasma explosions, tanker bug fire, etc, etc.
    My Favorite Martian (character animator) - Animating "Zoot" the space suit.
    Armageddon (effects animator) - Exploding rocks and fire during the "rock storm" sequence.
    Practical Magic (effects animator) - One or two shots of a magically growing rose bush.
    Komodo (effects animation supervisor) - Oversaw a lot of the Komodo effects; dripping poisonous drool, blowing up his head at the end, etc.
    The Haunting (effects animation supervisor) - Oversaw the freaky haunted curtain and cloth effects, exploding glass windows, eerie cold breath, etc.
    Mission To Mars (assoc. visual effects supervisor) - Helped design and implement the sand and rock flow effects during the first encounter with the aliens.
    Hollow Man (CG supervisor; effects) designed and implemented the invisible effects for Kevin Bacon when he was killing folks at the end; dripping water, blood; moving through smoke, steam, etc. More cold breath.
    Evolution (CG Supervisor) responsible for the CG pipeline for just about all the creature effects.
    The One (effects animator) helped turned Jet Li into particles and back again.
    The Two Towers (creature/effects TD) - Helped animate some troll chains and also created some CG water for a flood sequence (water which was later cut).
    S: What was it that allowed you to make the leap from college graduate to CGI guru? (i.e. your first 'big break')
    E: While in college, I was making lots of short films; some live action, some CG on my Mac. One of the CG shorts was entered into a festival where staff at a small CG "boutique" saw it and called me up. I didn't even send them a resume; it was a dream situation. I didn't know much about CGI, but they offered me a job and I learned a lot doing commercials and industrial (corporate) video graphics. I was there two years, which gave me the experience to send out reels to the film companies in the bay area. Tippett Studio was hiring at the time for Troopers, so they hired me. It was all a matter of timing and lots of luck.
    S: Explain how a guy in your position goes from job to job. Are you part of a 'crew' or is a mammoth talent like yours leased out on an individual basis?
    E: It's a strange situation, because usually we all work for companies (like ILM or Sony Imageworks), and are usually employees of those companies. But often, we're only hired for specific projects and let go immediately after the project is finished...UNLESS there's more work right away at the same company. The studios are still trying to figure out the best way to hold onto employees without spending lots of money on overhead between shows, because its painful for them to have to continually re-hire for each show. Sometimes folks bounce from company to company, but other people (like myself) have been at one company long enough to be part of the smaller "full-time" staff. I was hired as a contract worker for Troopers at Tippett, but was asked to stay on afterwards, and sort of found a niche for myself after that. I stayed at Tippett for six years as a full-time employee before leaving for Weta in New Zealand.
    S: What's your opinion on how CGI is used (or overused) in modern movies?
    E: Part of this is because I was raised at Tippett (which has been around for 20 years and is rooted in traditional effects work rather than newcomers to the CGI world like Sony or Digital Domain), but I find that a lot of CGI is distracting compared to traditional effects work. Often, even the BEST CGI produces comments of, "Wow, that's amazing CG!" compared to earlier films where you never stopped to even realize that you were watching effects.
    Obviously, this is because there are so many MORE effects now, and thats really where the problem lies. Because you CAN do anything with CG these days, directors often do, whereas in the old days, you had to think of creative solutions to problems so you could fool the audience. A lot of times, no one bothers to try to fool the audience anymore, and as a result, even if the shots look great (which they sometimes don't), they're still immediately recognizable as fake, because your brain is smart enough to know things like, "there's no way you could get a camera up there," or "nothing that weighs that much could move that quickly."
    The other problem you run into is that because of the unlimited "undo" nature of computers, you find people tweaking EVERY single LITTLE detail of EVERY single effects shot. Over and over, again, and again, could that be a HAIR more to the right, or a TINY bit more green. And that type of thinking tends to take out some of the spontaneity and dare I say "magic" of traditional effects. Once you blow up the model with pyro explosives, it better look good, or you've got to build a new one all over again in order to blow it up again.
    That said, the seamlessness of many effects these days is remarkable, and gives the filmmaker unprecedented freedom on set. A lot of the digital wire-removal stuff is amazing, too; how many people thought Tom Cruise was climbing in Utah with no support in Mission Impossible 2?
    S: Is there any 'glamour' involved in working in such a specialized segment of the movie world? (Rarely do you see CGI artists on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.)
    E: I would say the glamour is pretty limited down here in the cogs of the great machine. Even some of the top players in the effects industry are ONLY known in this industry. Everyone knows Spielberg and Cameron, but does anyone know the FX supervisors for Jurassic Park or T2? You do this work 'cause you love it, not to make money, and not to get famous. You really need to love the work and want to put the time into it. I did get to go to a couple of movie premieres and their parties, though. Chatting with a drunk Liam Neeson or Lili Taylor's mom is about as glamorous as it's likely to get for me, I think.
    S: What's the work you're most proud of? Anything great you created that ended up on the cutting room floor?
    E: I'm definitely proud of my work in Starship Troopers; though a lot of that is due to the fact that it was my first film, and that I was young, and things were so exciting. The industry, and I supposed my idea about what I want to do with my life, has changed quite a bit since then. I think you end up being proud of everything you've done, though, because you spend so much time being so close to it. However, I'm particularly fond of the curtains and glass work in The Haunting; but like everything in CG, there are a lot of people who contribute to every shot, so its never just "my" work.
    Because CGI is SO expensive, you don't get a lot of stuff that gets thrown away, but occasionally it happens. I was a little disappointed when my water was cut from the Two Towers flood, but this project is SO big that you can't help feeling a little small and insignificant because of it; when stuff gets cut, you figure its for the greater good and you need to roll with it. [Note from me: Don't feel too bad Eric! I bet your 'flood footage' sees the light of day when the inevitable "Two Towers Extended Edition" DVD hits stores next year!] In Armageddon, I made some cool tracer bullets shooting up some rocks that got cut. It was from the gun that Rockhound plays with earlier in the film, and that stuff was pretty neat. I was kinda sorry to see that stuff go.
    S: I read somewhere that your ugly mug is interviewed on a DVD somewhere. What's the story there?
    E: They're always interviewing CG folks for specials on cable channels or the Electronic Press Kit that ships out with movies, because these days, effects are almost as important (or more so, sometimes) as the actors or directors. So every once in a while I'll pop up on the Discovery Channel or something. A cable channel owned by Disney (who made Evolution) made a 30-minute documentary about the making of the effects on Evolution, and as one of the four big supervisors on that film, I was thrown on camera a few times. Now that people expect all kinds of extra crap on their DVDs, Disney decided to throw that doc on there as well, so I've been immortalized.
    S: I know you worked for Phil Tippett [FX immortal behind the best parts of Star Wars, Robocop, and Jurassic Park]. How'd you swing that gig, and do you still work on his crew?
    E: Basically, Phil's studio was gearing up for Troopers, and my reel just happened to arrive at the right time. Phil has always tried to keep his shop relatively small and focus the importance on traditional approaches to effects and picture-making in general rather than technology, which is sort of how I happen to feel about the whole industry. So I just seemed to fit in with everyone else, and stayed around after Starship Troopers for a while. I took a break after Evolution and The One to work at Weta, but I do hope to work with Phil again. Its great being able to ask him things like "Hey, how did they do that thing with the snow walkers in Empire?"
    S: OK, give us all the dirt (that you're legally allowed to give) on The Two Towers. How did you end up working on the project; what section you're working on; any sort of behind-the-scenes goodies you can divulge. Oh, and what's New Zealand like?
    E: I ended up on this project basically because I had a reasonable amount of experience in the field, a few friends willing to 'vouch' for me, and a desire to move to New Zealand for a while. I was hired in the creature department, which creates and deals with all the digital characters - which are later animated by the animators or motion capture artists. My work dealt mainly with the mountain trolls, who in this film are used as muscle to open these gigantic doors. They're chained (with digital chains, of course) to the door levers, and I ended up doing lots of work to get the chains to look right, which was actually lots of fun. And I later did lots of water, but you know what happened to that.
    As for behind-the-scenes goodies, I'm pretty sure that I'm not allowed to say anything about the film, except that all the work is pretty amazing. There are lots of shots in this film that are jaw-dropping, especially the epic battles. The sheer scale of everything is overwhelming. And as far as New Zealand goes; well its fantastic. Every location from the LOTR movies was filmed here (though most of them were made even more pretty using digital means), so you get an idea of how beautiful it is. The people are friendly, the traffic is almost non-existent, and you don't have to leave tips.
    S: I know you're a big movie fan, but does working on special effects in such minute detail strip away some of that 'movie magic'?
    E: It does and it doesn't. If the movie is good, then there's usually not time to look around and think, "Hmmm, I wonder how they did that?". When the movie gets boring, that's when you're distracted, checking for mistakes, etc. But most of the time, you just need to switch off your brain and you can watch the flick. A lot of times, you don't even know what is CG and what isn't.
    S: Give your opinion on the CGI work in:
    Spider-Man - I thought the CG was really great; there are shots of Spidey swinging through NYC and you're never really aware that EVERYTHING is digital, including the city. That stuff was pretty amazing. I thought it was a good use of the technology.
    Minority Report - The spider sequence was fantastic, but all those guys on jet packs? Whoo. You can add all the digital heat distortion you want, but it still looks like a guy hanging on wires.
    The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones - A lot of what I didn't like about these films was the production design; so that in turn influences my opinion about that effects. The pod-race stuff was really great, and some of the big battles were good; though particularly in Clones, a lot of ILM's stuff tends to look washed out and low contrast...I'm not sure if that was due to the digital film or not, but some of the work looked like a video game. The habit of ILM to make completely digital characters like Jar-Jar and designing them like humans in masks boggles my mind. They're DIGITAL, you can make them look ANY WAY YOU WANT!
    The Pixar Flicks - Not sure you can compare these to the others; but I still love Pixar's films. I really didn't like Shrek because it was too sarcastic and filled with dated references, whereas Pixar's stuff is timeless.
    S: What do you consider the finest usage of CGI work in an existing feature? The sloppiest?
    E: That's a good question; I never really thought about it. I still think that Troopers has some of the best CG we've ever seen...stuff rarely jumps out as being fake like it does in other films. The Matrix was great because they used CG in a way that perfectly matched the story and the tone of the film. And again, not to go all "old school" but the raptors in the kitchen in Jurassic Park? Damn near perfect.
    As for sloppy CG; this just popped into my head, but I think Cats & Dogs had some really awful effects because the filmmakers tried to marry fully-animated, lifelike CG with awkward, stuttering animatronics. No matter how well your CG Cat looks, you instantly give it away when you cut to the same cat moving at half the speed. That's the kind of thing you need to be responsive to when you're working in CG; ultimately, you're just part of a film and you need to fit into it.
    S: Fill in the blank: "Hey, Eric! We're working on a new movie and we need you to create a ________. You interested?" In other words, what's your dream project?
    E: I think I'm jaded and cynical enough at this point that very little in the effects world jumps out at me as incredibly interesting in terms of one project over another. Its great when the film you're working on is successful, but whether its The Two Towers or Komodo, the day to day work is often very similar. I was never really into the science of specular models or subdivision surface modeling; I came to this industry as a filmmaker, and I'd like to get back into that mode. So a film that would give me the chance to help design shots and editing would be very interesting to me, but often that's outside the realm of visual effects.
    People who start in this industry at the bottom are always trying to climb higher and higher on the FX ladder, or changing departments, because they think it will bring them more creative freedom. But ultimately, its the director, or the DP, or the production designer who has that freedom, and there's not a lot left over for others. Which is not to say that the FX world isn't filled with its own sets of challenges and creative outlets, but personally, I think I'm more interested these days in the way movies are put together from the top down, rather than the bottom up.
    S: I'll wrap things up with this old chestnut: What practical advice would you give someone looking to succeed in your field?
    E: It's interesting, because the advice seems to change as the industry changes. Usually, the most important thing is to get experience with our tools; either from an art school or computer design class, or something like that. And experience in the industry is also key; before you break into the movies, you might need to spend some time making those crappy corporate videos, or work on some game titles. But the most important thing seems to be to focus on the aspect of the industry that you're most interested in. If you want to be an animator, then learn to do that, and get REALLY good at it. If you want to be a lighter, then learn how to light; study photography, etc. If you're into the graphics end of things, learn UNIX, read the SIGGRAPH papers. But stand out in SOMETHING. Don't spend three years of your life putting together a short opus for your reel where you've done everything from animate to scoring the music (unless you want to win film festivals). If that reel does get you a job, you'll most likely be either an animator, a compositor, a technical director (lighter/renderer), a modeler, etc; so focus on what you'd like to do, and get a reel together that shows you can do it.
    S: Oh, and don't you miss good ol' Philadelphia??
    E: I can get a decent cheesesteak from this one place in Berkeley, but man, I could sure go for a Greenman's Hoagie right about now.
    [Note from me: Greenman's Hoagies are universally known as the finest sandwich ever created...and they can't be duplicated on a computer terminal.]
  2. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

    Nov 5, 1998
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  3. Evan Case

    Evan Case Screenwriter

    Jan 22, 2000
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    Thanks, Scott! A very good read! [​IMG]
    Now I'm hungry for a hoagie, though.
    P.S. If you weren't aware already: Panthers 29, Owls 22. [​IMG] [​IMG]
  4. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    May 19, 2002
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    Thanks, Scott. [​IMG]
    I really enjoyed reading this. Another reason I like this forum.
  5. Andrew Chong

    Andrew Chong Supporting Actor

    May 7, 2002
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    Thanks for sharing this with us. A lot of interesting and insightful comments.
  6. Scott Weinberg

    Scott Weinberg Lead Actor

    Oct 3, 2000
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    Thanks very much, guys! I know this is sort of a 'specialized topic', but I figured some of you would enjoy it.

    Here's a little scoop for those kind enough to have read the interview. Next year, Eric's most likely going to be working on

    Starship Troopers 2!!!

    (Hope I don't get him in trouble for mentioning that!)
  7. Ted Lee

    Ted Lee Lead Actor

    May 8, 2001
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    very cool read! [​IMG]

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