Quint visits ILM with Jon Favreau and sees some IRON MAN stuff!!
Published at: April 21, 2008, 8:09 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. It’s been a life-long dream for me to visit ILM, Skywalker Ranch and Pixar Animation Studios (well, with Pixar maybe not life-long, but it feels like they’ve been in my life forever). In one trip to San Francisco I got to achieve a couple of those dreams. Two out of three ain’t bad, right?
I was excited when my exclusive visit got approved, but it wasn’t until I was in the cab with the lovely Tamar from Paramount and she called for directions that the geek-out really began. “Okay… building B… Behind the Yoda Fountain…” she told the cabbie. “Behind the Yoda Fountain.” Yeah. My excitement level sky-rocketed.
On the way, the driver pointed out a triangular building saying, “That’s Francis Ford Coppola’s office.” I turned to look as we passed and sure enough there was an awning that declared “Café Zoetrope.” Then the driver pointed at a diner across the street and said he often saw George Lucas and Coppola having coffee over there. I didn’t get the name of the place, sorry… but it’s across the street from Café Zoetrope.
Just past the Zoetrop offices were some really awesome looking titty bars. I wish all the skeazy areas looked like this. It was like old time Vegas, with bright neon signs and electric girls in the middle of a strip-tease, lights flashing “girls, girls, girls!” out from the windows.
It wasn’t long after that we hit the Presidio where ILM is now located. Sure enough there was a Yoda fountain.
We entered the lobby and we beat Favreau by a few minutes, so we had a look around. Yeah, there were cool Star Wars things around, like a full sized Boba Fett and Darth Vader, but what really caught my eye was a giant statue dedicated to the legendary Willis O’Brien. I took a few pics of it. Check it out:
Tamar and I took turns doing silly poses with Darth Vader… me holding his hand like we were BFFs and she pretending to be choked by him.
We were acting the fool pretty hardcore when the ILM heads came down to meet us. A little red-faced I shook their hands. I asked them how they were doing and they said a little depressed. The Oscars were the day before and they were a little gut-punched that TRANSFORMERS got beaten out by THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Almost on cue, Jon Favreau came in with his assistant.
I said hello and we caught up a little bit before heading in through security. They have these little poles set up that have green lights. If you pass through them without a badge those green lights turn red and alarms sound. Someone tripped the alarm when our group went through. I wish it was the Death Star alert soun... that would have been great. It was a regular alarm sound, though, and we just got waved through. I was frankly a little disappointed when no Stormtroopers came running.
You’ll find this report to have only a few tidbits of IRON MAN stuff in it. Favreau later told me that he was only given one tour of ILM when he first came down to check on his effects and he couldn’t get another one, so he used me as an excuse to tour it again. We both just kinda geeked out.
That said, we did go into the screening room and rewatched the WonderCon reel and trailer. By now everybody will have seen the trailer, but what was interesting was that, because I’d just seen them both, Favreau sat next to me and kind of commented on the footage and trailer.
I told him he should release a commentary on the footage or the new trailer, that fans would get a kick out of it. It’s the little things that get us excited. Like knowing in that sequence where Stark is testing out the thrusters and is floating around the garage… that they only had one arm device built. Originally it was just going to be one hand and the two feet thrusters, but at the last minute they decided they wanted both hands to have prototypes, so one arm device is practical and the other is completely digital. Watching it I couldn’t pick out which was which.
I’ll go ahead and jump ahead a bit to meat of the visit, a sit down with Favreau and digital demi-god Ben Snow (who brought Kong to life with Weta) where we watched a few sequences from the flick.
Most of them have been seen by now. One was a detailed look at the machine Stark uses to assemble his suit. I asked Favreau when we were walking the halls and gawking at the awesome history around every corner (more on that in a minute) how he was going to handle the suit-up. I said, “Surely, it won’t be like in the early comics when he walked around with his suit in a briefcase, right?” He laughed and said he always loved that, but no.
Stark can’t just turn into a superhero. There can’t be any spur of the moment changes. Stark has to go to his lab and suit up. There are a half-dozen machines that put the suit on him. Stark stands like DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man (minus the nakedness) as different machines assemble his suit. One puts his right arm on, the other his left, another the backplate, another the chestplate, etc. It’s a complicated system.
Favreau loved that Stark couldn’t be an off-the-cuff superhero. In fact, Ben Snow pointed out that Tony Stark very much has to put on the armor like a knight would. It’s a long process.
Favreau will definitely consider making it more compact and easier to assemble later on.
“I guess the idea is that if we get to do a few of these it’ll get easier and easier for him to get the suit on,” Favreau said. “But now he needs a whole automated assembly line.”
That said, he didn’t like the idea of nanotechnology or “the suit comes out of his bone marrow” stuff from the recent books. Personally, I’d keep it the way it is, but start having Stark send out the fully automated suits, which he controls from his home.
Keeping the Superman comparisons going, Favreau said he didn’t want Stark to be able to jump into a phone booth like Superman and be on his way, but he also liked the added reality of the machinery. He takes off slow and lands fast, the opposite of Superman.
Snow said that Favreau put a lot of rules on him and the ILM guys. He’d rather sacrifice cool for realism’s sake.
Speaking of realism, Favreau wanted to show me some of the dog fight sequence (read Iron Man vs. Jets) to show how he really wanted the effects grounded in realism. Favreau said he was adamant that actual background plates were used for this sequence, that it wasn’t all just CGI.
So they sent up real planes with film cameras to get POVs and background plates. He said they didn’t want it to be like STEALTH where everything was perfectly framed all the time with extremely dynamic camera movements. Instead they looked at the aerial photography for TOP GUN and pulled those apart, figuring out what made it feel real.
There was a realism to the bumpiness of the camera and little things, like little sparkles of frost that gathered on the camera’s lens for this shot of Iron Man flying through clouds… I was shown the original plate and the final scene and there’s a moment where the sun is behind the clouds and peeks over and really shows every flawed detail on the lens, results of actually shooting at these heights.
They also ran a shot you can see in the latest trailer of Iron Man hugging the bottom of a jet… it’s a close-up as Iron Man hangs on… starting at the top of his head and he the he looks up right at camera.
Favreau said that even though 90% of the shot was CG (Iron Man and the jet) he still wanted ILM to use the original clear plate so when they plugged in the CG elements there was already a great lighting reference and a jitteriness to the camera that sells the shot.
I had to stop them there because I thought the suit in that shot was the practical suit. Listen… I’m not one of those people who thinks everything is practical. I’m very, very discerning when it comes to CG work. Usually when people tell me I won’t be able to tell the difference between a CG shot and a practical shot, I do. Not because I have a brilliantly trained eye or anything, I’ve just spent my whole life fascinated with effects and watch out for tell-tale signs of practical work and CG work.
Here, even though they replayed it 3 or 4 times, I couldn’t believe the suit was CG. Of course, this is one shot, but still… it moved within the shot. You can take still frames of Jar Jar from Episode 1 and it looks photoreal, but then they move him and it’s a cartoon.
Favreau agreed that ILM’s work on this has been phenomenal so far and that there have even been times when he’s given them notes saying the work needs to be done only to have them thrown back at him.
“I’d go, ‘Guys, people are going to judge me on this stuff. To you guys it looks good because you’re used to looking at CG. I don’t like CG.’ Then Ben would go, ‘Um… I believe that’s practical.’”
The suit also adjusts during flight. Flaps would come up, tilting him left or right as he flew… You can see these flaps in action in the first trailer when he throws on the brakes and the jets fly past him… The flaps shoot up. I told him I really liked that detail because it gives the suit a personality as well as keeping it in some kind of reality.
Favreau said his main inspiration for the flaps were the snow speeders in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. “Now, there was probably no aerodynamic purpose for those, but something told you it was cool when you saw those flaps moving.”
Motion Capture was brought up and I found out that even though they did do some mo-cap work (with a guy in a wind tunnel) it was really only good for reference and most of the actual flight stuff was completely digital without mocap work.
Favreau did say that on the next film he’d want to do more mo-cap work Peter Jackson style for the animatic stages.
The next shot was Iron Man rolling away from the jets. Favreau told me to keep an eye on the shoulder flaps. The flap on his shoulder goes up and he immediately shoots away in a roll. That’s cool, but my favorite part was seeing the tiny alterations in the flaps as he was flying, like a bird’s wing making minute corrections while flying. Quick stuff, but the devil’s in the details, right?
It was about this point when I said, “I wonder which crappy New Line movie will beat this work at next year’s Oscars?” There was a chorus of “Awwww…” and “Too soon” and “You’re rubbing salt in the wound,” from the ILM techs in the room. This was before the New Line absorption into WB, so maybe they’ll have a shot next year.
I took this time to compliment Snow’s work on Kong and told him that in my opinion, one of the best CG shots ever created is in that movie… when you see that close-up of Kong’s eyes.
Favreau said that it was Kong and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest that took away a lot of his cynicism for CGI. He said especially because he was doing Iron Man he was willing to give the technology a chance, saying that making a machine move was easier than something with hair or a human body by itself. Favreau cited DAREDEVIL, a film he was in, as having glaring CGI and he didn’t want that.
Snow corrected him and said the Mark 2, the silver suit, was just as difficult as Kong was. Favreau was like, “Really? Well, it looks great. I think it’s still my favorite suit. That’s why we gotta do War Machine!” Snow took a deep breath and said, meekly, “Okay.”
I asked about the power supply problem, which goes back to those early ‘60s issues. If you remember, in the early days Stark had to pretty much plug himself in every few hours or his heart would stop.
Favreau said they do play with that a little bit in the movie. He said Iron Man’s power running down is Iron Man’s main weakness, his Achilles heel. Favreau didn’t want to make him invulnerable or else he’d become boring.
We left the theater at this point and looked around ILM a bit. Lucas apparently collects foreign posters and there large framed Italian posters up everywhere. Everything from early Kurosawa movies to obscure Italian noirs to the Sergio Leone Man With No Name Trilogy. I myself collect foreign posters and have many Italian posters, so I was, of course, drawn to them.
Also along the walls were display boxes featuring props (everything from INNERSPACE maquettes to Cocoon miniatures (this was disintegrating a bit… it was the boat and little teeny doll versions of the old people… Favreau said, “This is what they’d look like if it didn’t work.”) to ships used in Wrath of Khan to Howard The Duck props) and matte paintings. The famous matte painting of the Los Angeles suburb at night from the beginning of ET was there as was stuff from HOOK and Akira Kurosawa’s DREAMS.
I was taken to Javva The Hutt, the ILM in-house coffee shop and given an Iron Man Javva Buck. They give out Javva Bucks to workers who do a good job and it can be used as currency. They make them specific to specific projects. The Iron Man one had Iron Man where a president’s face would be and said something like “Iron Standard” on it. I saw a board where the operator had past Javva Bucks for everything from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones 4 (it was a photo from Raiders of the room where they keep the ark). I opted to keep mine instead of spending it, but I did get a really good hot chocolate.
The rest of the tour comprised of visits to the computer animation cubicles, a photo-op with the Han Solo in Carbonite prop as well as a constructed Jar Jar in Carbonite piece, the merchandising department and, finally, the gift shop where I picked up Lucasfilm and ILM shirts for friends and family.
Going to the computer animators area was pretty cool. Their cubicles were set up like you’d imagine… some were Transformers geeks and had toys hanging everywhere, some were GI Joe, some were Star Wars.
When I first got there and met with the 4 or 5 animators working, Favreau introduced me and said “... he's from Ain’t It Cool News… so hit your safety screens!” That got a laugh, but that didn’t stop me from seeing one little bit of animation on a screen… it was from the Iron Monger fight was a bird’s eye view. It had Iron Man taking off, flying at camera, and Iron Monger blasting off, too, giving chase.
It was pretty sweet seeing these guys work… crunching numbers and seeing it work on the screen. You don’t often get looks at this kind of thing. As I was looking at one of these pages of numbers and code Favreau said, “If you could read computer language you’d know everything that happens in the movie.”
My favorite part of this segment of the visit, possibly of the whole visit, was watching Favreau walk into another cubicle across the way from the Iron Man peeps, thinking it was more of his movie. The guy working at his desk was deep in thought and when Favreau walked in, the dude’s eyes widened and he jumped up. Literally. He jumped out of his chair and blocked his monitor.
I asked Favreau what he saw later and he said the only thing he saw were ruins, so I had to guess it was from KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.
The trip to merchandising was odd. The walls were now covered with pages from Star Wars comic books and advertising posters. Everybody was nice and being a pack rat myself I saw a lot of cool stuff I’d love to have at my house (there was even a room of Star Wars merchandise… everything from Japanese Darth Vader figures to Stormtrooper Golf Club Bags). I’m told there was a rush to hide certain things before we got there. I can only imagine it was Indiana Jones related.
As it was, I saw a standee of Ford swinging his whip around and that cool Bronze maquette of Indy riding a horse that’s on sale now.
That was pretty much my trip. I hope you guys enjoyed reading about my adventures. I’m salivating for IRON MAN at this point. I hope it can live up to the anticipation now.
Many thanks to the always lovely Tamar for setting up the visit, to Ben Snow for entertaining us, to Favreau for showing me around and to ILM in general for letting me infiltrate the place.