Interview with Rob Coleman

Published in February 2003.

We all gasped and looked on in awe when Jurassic Park hit our cinema screens in 1993 but little did we know, or still do, about the process that goes into creating such complicated special effects. These days effects sequences are subtle in their execution so as not to overpower the audience but they are equally astounding considering the work involved. One company has continued to break new ground in the area of digital effects and that company is Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). George Lucas first formed ILM in 1975 to work on the original Star Wars trilogy. On the eve of the Oscars, Technology Correspondent Anthony Mc Guinness, spoke with Rob Coleman, Animation Director at ILM. Rob is currently nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”.

One of the latest advancements in filmmaking has been that of digital sets. Pioneered by George Lucas on “Star Wars: Episode II”, these sets are completely virtual. Many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, argue that these sets cannot possibly hold up against a real set built on location. I asked Rob Coleman about the merits of digital sets and how he thinks they stack up against the real thing. “Well, I think we’re getting better. The real problem with creating digital sets is capturing the realism, getting the lighting and grittiness into it. In the virtual world we have to put a lot of care into ensuring it doesn’t look “digital”. Computer generated sets can look too clean and polished. The audience will pick up on that, they may not be able to put their finger on it but in their subconscious they’ll notice it.”?

I then asked him how they test such effects to see whether they are up to standard. “I use the term of ‘would my mother believe it?’. If she would be fooled then we move on.”

With the summer blockbuster season fast approaching I quizzed him about the films ILM is currently working on. “Ok, well we’re currently working on The Hulk, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Pirates of the Caribbean, Van Helsing, Peter Pan and Dreamcatcher.” With so many projects running concurrently how does ILM allocate staff? “We’ll typically be doing 5-10 movies at the one time, and they can be small as in a small number of shots or enormous like Episode II where we had up to 2000 shots. There were only 6 animators here that worked on Jurassic Park in 1993 but we now have something in the range of 80 animators at the facility. Each person has a skill set that we are sensitive to in making the teams the best that they can be.”

Advances in leading edge technology have made it easier for special effects teams to create many effects but there are some areas such as fire, which still create a challenge for animators. I asked Rob how ILM models these difficult effects. “There are a variety of packages out there at the moment that can handle sophisticated particle systems which can generate water, smoke, fire and dust. If we find that the off the shelf software cannot get us the imagery we need in the timeframe we have, then the R&D team gets called in to write a custom piece of code”. Being able to write custom software has helped the company enormously throughout the years as off-the-shelf software hasn’t always been available.

As someone who is about to finish college, I then asked him about the qualifications needed to join a company like ILM. “The best thing to do is probably look at our web site (http://www.ilm.com/) and the specs are listed there. Specifically for animation, we look for a demonstration reel about 3 minutes in length, which shows us that you have an understanding of the fundamentals of animation. From that, but we try to ascertain whether or not you have the raw talent.”

Digital sets and effects have evolved over the past few years but an area that is completely new to major budget films is that of digital photography. Traditionally, the picture has been captured on 35mm film but on George Lucas’s latest Star Wars movie “Attack of the Clones”, high definition (HD) digital camera equipment was used. I asked Rob how this alters the process for inserting digital effects. “With digital, there’s a shorter turnaround time and the amount of iterations we can do is higher (making the performances tighter and more expressive). With High Definition we can just render it at high resolution and immediately send it to the main theatre for five minutes and make a quick decision.” With so much progress having been made in the past couple of years, I asked Rob whether he thought digital characters would become mainstream in the future. “I think 2002 will go down as a big year because of Yoda, Gollum and Dobby because it has shown film directors and screenwriters that a digital character can sustain a performance on the screen. You may see a character such as Yoda take a more leading role opposed to a supporting role.”

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