Paging Dr. Manhattan: The Future of Digital Characters

Watchmen's VFX guru Pete Travers talks to RT about his work on the film and the challenges of creating synthetic humans

by | July 28, 2009 | Comments

Peter G. Travers knows his digital effects: he’s worked on the first Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and the Matrix, and most recently supervised many of the key effects sequences on Watchmen. We spoke to Travers about the movie’s most difficult visual challenge –creating a realistic Dr. Manhattan — and talked about the future of synthetic characters more human than human. (Correct: he also worked on Blade Runner: The Final Cut.)

What was the biggest challenge of the visual effects on Watchmen?

Well the main one was Doc [Dr. Manhattan]. That was the biggest challenge, but we knew that up front. So we certainly dedicated a lot of time to making that work. A lot of it’s just about providing an environment where you can create good CG — when you have CG that you’re uncomfortable with, it’s typically because the environment is not right. With Doc we knew really early on that that’s the thing we needed to focus on, so before we started shooting a lot of planning went into how we were going to shoot Doc; and all of that just tremendously paid off in the end. Without that, if all we were being handed were plates with nobody in the scene, it wouldn’t have looked nearly as good.

Because Billy was actually in the scenes, on set.

In almost every single shot — like, about 99 per cent of the shots. There were a few shots where he was gigantic where we had to make it up — Billy couldn’t scale himself, which was fortunate for him [laughs]. But almost every shot — and any interaction. That was the trick of the whole thing. There’s something in that you’re getting the actor Billy to act within the environment; you’re getting the actors to react to him. The real trick with all of it is the light suit we developed for Billy, so that he could cast light into the scene and that light would change as he moved. He literally had 2000 LEDs sewn on to his suit. It kind of started as a motion-capture suit, and then Company Global Effects sewed in the LEDs from helmet to gloves to the rest of the body to the soles of the shoe.

So the light would reflect on the rest of the scene?

Yes. In particular, there are some key moments, like the love scene with Silk Spectre when he replicates himself, where you can actually see when his hand is moving across her face. It’s like with anything with light in the scene — even if you’re not physically seeing the light source, you’re seeing what the light source is doing.

There were early — probably silly — rumours that Manhattan’s underwear was added. Did you have any concerns with the nudity of the character?

Well, it’s the way it was written by Alan Moore, in that the character’s losing his touch with humanity. At first he wears a kind of body suit and then it turns into shorts, and by the end he’s walking around completely naked. It’s like, if a character’s losing his touch with humanity, would he even care about wearing clothes? It’s a tough thing for an American audience to deal with. In America, we’re completely fine with people’s heads getting blown off, but the minute we see naked genitalia we have a problem with that. So it was a tough call, I think, whether people would embrace it or not — but the whole thing was that it was important to the character; to say, “If Superman had really existed, what would he really be like?”

Did you consult with Dave Gibbons on the visuals?

Yeah, he was there on set, but not every day. I guess it’s a little unfortunate that Alan Moore rejected it because I think Zack actually did a really good job of replicating the comic book. Zack really got what the story was about, so it’s surprising that Alan Moore kind of rejected the whole thing — but I think he got burned on other movies.

Looking over your CV — you’ve worked on Spawn, the first Harry Potter, The Two Towers, Matrix Reloaded — what do you think has been the major change in CG during that period?

The major change is that we need to do a lot more for less. I think budgets have gotten a lot tighter than what they were, and in a way we have made it harder on ourselves by coming up with these advancements and always succeeding and I guess it’s almost treated like, “Oh it’ll be fixed in post and you guys will make it work”. But I can see that the one thing for Watchmen that was kind of a reminder to me was that the set up makes or breaks the CGI in the film. If you don’t get what you need from the environment — whether it’s a big effect or a character — it’s not gonna work.

It’s like with Dr. Manhattan. To me, the digital human, there’s a lot of technology out there that’s been there for a little while, but it’s gluing it all together and giving yourself an opportunity to put it all together to make it work. There’s so many different aspects to Dr. Manhattan: we put peach fuzz on him, we had to put hair all over his body and in most shots you wouldn’t see it — ’cause I’m talking about the little tiny hairs, like even on a man’s cheek. When you light someone in a movie you light them in this kind of three-quarter back-light and you get this bright rim on them. Well that rim on a person’s skin is activated by a person’s hairs that the light is reaching, even though the skin isn’t getting the light. So we’re like, “Let’s put it on Doc and see what it does” — and after doing some before and afters with him being absolutely hairless and then with a little bit of peach fuzz, it was like, well, the peach fuzz makes him look that much more real.

Next: resurrecting The Crow, cloning John Wayne and locking lips with Harrison Ford — the future of digital actors.

How far do you think CG can go now — with Dr. Manhattan and stuff like Benjamin Button, is there a point where we can have digitally-replicated actors who’ll go on performing long after the actor is gone?

I think there will be. It’ll come down to the need. Honestly, one of the first needs that came up, that most people forget about, was The Crow. When Brandon Lee died I was at DreamQuest, when they had to finish the shot. I didn’t work on the movie but I remember them going, “Oh god what do we do?!” and they patched some other shot together. That was just basic compositing, but nevertheless, the need arose. So that’s the thing. If at a certain point there is a demand out there where people think they’re gonna really wanna see another John Wayne movie, then we might make a John Wayne. And imagine the Hollywood studios had their actors locked in time, and they had it as an asset; meaning, they can make a movie with the young John Wayne opposite a Clark Gable opposite a Tom Cruise, you know, from different times, merging them together. Could it happen? It’s a question of whether or not the audience would embrace it, because it comes from the need or the desire to see it. If the audience is curious to see what kind of movie that would be like, then Hollywood will make it.

But you gotta be careful that you have the money to do it. You don’t wanna short change it — you don’t wanna have a crappy version of John Wayne out there. And the other thing — getting back to Dr. Manhattan — Dr. Manhattan was essentially an extension of Billy Crudup. Now, you take Billy out of that, or you try to make Watchmen 2 50 years from now when you don’t have Billy doing it, well, we’re not gonna have a direct reference as to how he moves. And I can tell you that in each and every shot, the ones that are the most successful are the ones that are closest to his performance. Like an eye twitch that we never would have thought of putting it in there, but Billy did it — and every time we added some subtle thing, in a way we weren’t expecting, it added to the realism.

So that’s gonna be the trick with synthetic humans — what do you get as references? Especially if it’s a posthumous thing. If an actor died a long time ago, you’re gonna have problems trying to perfect it. If I was to do John Wayne, I’d get someone who looks a lot like John Wayne and have someone impersonate John Wayne and then you’d go in and make it the John Wayne.

Like in Superman Returns with Marlon Brando, didn’t someone else perform his lips?

Yes. And that’s kind of the methodology, you know. When we did the remake stuff for Blade Runner there was one shot in there—

With Harrison Ford’s son doing the mouth double?

Yes. That’s the process. That’s intelligent solutions. Why not get Harrison Ford’s son, who looks similar? It’s not perfect, but it’s similar, and that gives you so much more of a head start for whatever you’re doing, and you can post-augment it.

Getting back to budgets, are budgets getting to a point where they’re too high to justify?

I think the cost per shot is getting lower — the demands are getting higher for the dollars being spent. Buit you’re right: there’s a diminishing returns point. Like, I don’t even know what the budget of Avatar is, but I remember before Titanic came out everyone was saying, “My god, how much are they spending on that movie, they’re never gonna make their money back” — and it happened to make its money back. But you don’t know if you can bank on that every time. That’s the thing: your risk is so high when your budget is running so high. You better be damned sure that you’re gonna make it all back on opening weekend.

Watchmen is out now on DVD.