VFX supervisor — Luma Pictures • Venice, California (www.luma-pictures.com)
by Christine Bunish
Markee: Luma Pictures does VFX almost exclusively for motion pictures. How has that work changed in your six years with the company?
Mr. Cirelli: "Feature-film effects have become more complex, there are a lot more of them, the breadth of the work is larger and the talent pool has increased significantly. We're doing more shots at the last minute as the technology gets faster, and we're doing a lot more per-shot color grading to beautify shots or represent what wasn't in the photography. But not with Roger Deakins's work on True Grit! He's an unbelievable cinematographer and so meticulous; we only enhanced what the environment didn't allow him to capture in camera."
Markee: True Grit is your fourth picture with the Coen Brothers?
Mr. Cirelli: "And by far our largest VFX job with them. We did over 350 shots, all 'invisible' effects meant to control the environment or incorporate what was almost impossible to capture plausibly in camera.
"We did quite a few scenes with Mattie crossing the river with Blackie: You'd never be able to get an actor and horse safely across the turbulent river we wanted to portray, so we replaced the river with water simulations. We used RealFlow software and toolsets we wrote to calculate very detailed simulations for individual splashes with such granularity that it makes them believable.
"We also did some horse head replacements when a rig was pulling Blackie and Mattie across the river; we added a digital horse head with ears flicking and twitching. For the scene where Blackie is dying, he's completely digital: The timing, pacing, the way he falls had to be digital. Making digital horse hair has gotten a bit easier — we used a variety of tools for it, primarily [Joseph Alter, Inc.'s] Shave and a Haircut and [Autodesk] Maya's built-in fur and hair system."
Markee: You also crafted digital snakes.
Mr. Cirelli: "It wasn't practical to use real snakes, but everything [in the live action] was very well choreographed and timed: Jeff [Bridges] would point his gun and we'd put a snake there. Usually we're fighting shots like that and have to skew the actor because he's just not right on cue. But Jeff had the snakes in his head; every time he pointed his gun we were able to position them perfectly in place. We had snake handlers and rattlers sliding across our theater here — they scared everybody but gave us great animation reference and textures."
Markee: What's it like working with the Coen Brothers?
Mr. Cirelli: "It's always something different with the Coens. We're never sure what we have to create or augment to help tell the story. The effects they ask for are some of the most complicated: They're intriguing and different at the same time. Getting the lighting and rendering perfect on a horse is one thing, but if you don't capture the subtle movements — the ear twitches, snarls, breaths — it's not a real horse. For No Country For Old Men, we created a field of antelope in 4K that had to hold up close to the camera. Many times, real animals are harder to make believable than aliens!"
Markee: Luma Pictures was the primary VFX house for The Green Hornet movie, too.
Mr. Cirelli: "We did about 240 shots in stereo 3D. We created a digital Black Beauty [car] for hero shots where the actors are interacting with it; those were tricky composites. We had to project the actors or their 3D doubles for reflections on the car paint. The practical car's paint had a very deep luster; we had to come up with our own car paint shader to replicate that. We also did a version of Black Beauty that was heavily damaged and created the entire printing press enclosure, The Daily Sentinel interior and machine gun fire."
Markee: Was that your first stereo 3D experience?
Mr. Cirelli: "We did stuff for Michael Jackson's This Is It stage performance in 3D and the movie Gamer. It's a different challenge: We have a great bag of tricks for cheating in 2D but all that is thrown out the window for stereo. There's no cheating inside stereo 3D space."
Markee: What's next?
Mr. Cirelli: "There's always going to be more to achieve. The human imagination is limitless, and we'll have to [devise] the tools to execute the dreams that writers and directors come up with."