Visual effects supervisor Greg McMurry’s career actually began some 30 years ago, trying to salvage an epic case of VFX mis-management on 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the employ of effects maestro Douglas Trumbull, McMurry helped to devise and implement COMPSY, the stretch-limo-cum-Humvee of animation stands, through which that film’s V’Ger cloud was realized with dozens of motion-control passes. His association with Trumbull continued through Blade Runner and Brainstorm, the latter for which he created video imagery for on-set playback. In the years following, McMurry cofounded Video Image, generating scene-specific 24-frame video graphics for several films, including 2010,writer/director Peter Hyams’ sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Video Image evolved into VIFX (later Blue Sky|VIFX), a full-service visual effects vendor that was acquired by Rhythm & Hues in 1999. Over the past two decades, McMurry worked on three more Hyams projects, as well as James Cameron’s The Abyss, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and a pair of John Woo films. A 2006 member of the ASC, McMurry most recently supervised visual effects for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra before tackling D. J. Caruso’s adaptation of the juvenile novel I Am Number Four. Kevin Martin talked to McMurry about his passion for epic moviemaking, and why great digital effects should never overwhelm storytelling.

ICG: I Am Number Four had an unusually compressed development and production schedule. Did this affect the way you went through prep and dealt with your collaborators? McMurry: I’m a cinematographer myself, so understanding how a DP puts his images together affects what I do and how I do it. I sought out Guillermo [Navarro] very early, to let him know exactly what steps I was going to take and to assure him I would be able to match to what he shot. You want to work in concert with the vision in a cinematographer’s mind, helping him realize his choices – not by being the guy altering his stuff down the line.

So some of it has to do with making sure production’s perception of visual effects isn’t what it once was, that you’re the guy … the guy who comes in with a list of things they can’t do. Yeah, they like VFX people who understand production issues. On pictures that are big enough to have you on the set all the time, it helps, because you’re not perceived as so much of an outsider. I look for every possible way to allow a cinematographer to shoot effects-related shots the same way he’d choose to shoot the rest of a film. And the communication goes both ways. If we’re shooting a night scene and the area I’m going to be adding an element is very dark, I can go to Guillermo and say it would be very helpful if he’d go a stop over while shooting, so I can see what is there and how best to add my element. Then I’m on the hook to correct that, bringing it back down to what he originally wanted and shot for the rest of the scene.

Was there a concerted effort to achieve as many practical effects as possible? Both the stunt coordinator and the physical-effects group worked with us to move people and objects during shooting. Every visual-effects shot had its base in some kind of live-action event, and it often helped story wise. We wanted more of an analog looking shot coming out of the guns. We found the performances were just so much better when the actors were firing dummy loads that shook the weapon, so our weapons had more of an analog, tactile effect than might be considered standard these days. We had to do cleanup to lose shells these weapons ejected, but D.J. [Caruso] was happy with how that worked out.

You elected to use several VFX vendors on the film rather than just one major house. Is that usually your preference, or is it project-specific? When you rally around one effects house to provide most of the shots in a show, you’re often depending on its size and talent pool to provide a lot of answers. From a technical standpoint, dealing with a single facility it is like doing everything at one lab – the same color space considerations are maintained. But if you break the show up, it is very much on you as visual effects supervisor to make sure that the disparate pieces all remain compatible, even if the workflow is different among the vendors, so that pieces can drop into the DI as expected. Most supervisors have a circle of vendors with whom they’re most familiar. There are always new vendors to consider, or reconsider, since the crews of companies and their availabilities are always changing. Since I like to see energetic fresh approaches, most multi-vendor shows will include one or two new facilities. Allocating a scene or series of scenes that engages each vendor in a creative way really lets them sink their teeth into the work, and often it pays off with their developing an approach that satisfies.

How did you separate out the work on I Am Number Four? The main character’s special powers include telekinesis and the Lumen, a light-energy effect deployed from his hand, so I kept all those shots with Hammerhead. Another character, our “number six,” can teleport and move very fast, and those went to Entity FX of Santa Monica, while DIVE in Philadelphia handled weapon glows and hand-touched enhancements. Shade VFX did our alien weaponry, which had to look unique and leave distinctive blast damage. A small company I’ve used before, Pixel Playground, is great for tackling very specific and difficult shots, and they did about a hundred cuts for us, while Kelvin McIlwain handled matte paintings. ILM’s Bill George, with whom I hadn’t worked since Blade Runner, supervised high-end creature animation. Bill has an exceptional understanding of how additional elements can embellish a shot, and we had a real meeting of minds on this show. He’d have a brainstorm about how to sweeten a creature shot with some particular kind of element, and I’d try to sneak that onto a separate greenscreen shoot later on.

And as far as rig-removals and what might be considered bread-and-butter work? My philosophy is “every frame is precious,” so even simpler shots aren’t what I’d call bread and butter. You need the enthusiasm and professionalism maintained on the work, regardless of what goes into achieving it. Also, a given shot may change in importance as editorial evolves the cut. So if you have people who understand how such changes can impact their work, they are prepared to make alterations while bringing the same level of creativity to it that they had on the original notion. We made a huge, almost astronomical attempt on I Am Number Four to temp the entire movie for the director’s first cut. The day shooting wrapped, we had almost everything roughed in, because it was so important to see the way these bits would go together as early as possible. We don’t often have this luxury, but on this film we organized in a way that permitted it.

Do you use previsualization primarily as a bidding tool, or is it becoming more of a benefit to mainstream production? It helps with bidding, but it gives the editor and director a chance to figure things out early, and is very important in demonstrating to collaborators on-set and in post how their work is going to fit into the whole. The essence of making a visual effects-oriented movie is to gather data and elements, fact-finding all the way to the last day of shooting to go into post with as much knowledge as possible. Previs really helps us check off every little thing we need, from a hole in the wall on set to a puff of smoke that can be shot live or done after the fact. We don’t always have time to address a ton of fixes in post, so it behooves us to get it right on set.

Do you see one specific major drawback with overreliance on CGI? Yeah, the general notion that anything can be done with effects. Effects have to work within the framework of their story, and be limited by budget and time issues. So a big part of our job is often to get people clued back into the reality of what their picture is about, and not going off on tangents with some big visual that doesn’t really help that film along.

What’s your perspective on the 3D gold rush? I’ve done 3D for special venues/theme parks in the past but not features, though for years I’ve been building 3D still cameras for myself. Some folks are just trying to capitalize on it as a gimmick, but I think future projects will often benefit from 3D, since we can now look at a lot of 3D material and study what works. We’ve seen conversions on films that weren’t shot with 3D in mind, and that will also inform how we use it. I think a hybrid approach may evolve, where you use conversion for some parts but for scenes requiring actual 3D shooting, you plan those sequences and shoot them accordingly. But that isn’t for every project; some movies you just want to watch, you don’t need the immersive aspect.

Early in your career you worked with Douglas Trumbull while he tried unsuccessfully to get ultra-high resolution systems like Showscan™ Entertainment into the mainstream. Have you had any concerns relating to image quality and the cinema-going experience in recent years? I’ve been feeling pretty good lately, but five years ago I was very concerned with how the industry seemed to be contributing to a dumbing-down of the film audience with HD blowups. A lot of what attracted me to work in movies relates to pictures with great scope and unforgettable visual aspects, like a Lawrence of Arabia or a Blade Runner. Even when you work on a modest-sized film, the memory of wonderful cinematic experiences is still deep in your psyche, driving you to put something really special up there. A movie is a year or more out of your life, and if you didn’t love it and want it to be epic and spectacular you wouldn’t keep doing it. So when the expectations were so low that people would pay to watch video blown up on the big screen, I wondered where the incentive would come from to make a great epic landmark. Those first HD features suggested the industry was going another way due to economics.

And you still feel that way? Well, right now that does not seem as likely, thanks to those forward-thinking filmmakers who have pushed the envelope and to audiences who proved their hunger for high-quality imagery. I suppose you could say I don’t fear the future as I once did. [Laughs.]

Interview by Kevin H. Martin. Photo by John Bramley.

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