Eugen Olsen, creative director at The Refinery, spoke to me about the role visual effects play in movies, specifically in My Father's War. From creating underwater explosions, crocodile attacks and replacing an entire sky, Eugen takes us on a journey showing what visual effects adds to a feaure film.
Take us through the process, which scenes required the most planning visually?
Eugen Olsen: We had a few key discussions, one of them was about the binocular scene to the end of the movie, that was probably the smallest one. The other one was the attack at night. Approaching the bridge, laying the charges, blowing up the bridge and then the guy getting attacked by the crocodile. I mean, that's pretty big. My approach has always been - get as much as you can on set.
There were a few decisions also made, we wanted to shoot it at night to make it look as realistic as possible. When it comes to the set design, we decided to only build three or four metres of the bridge and then what we'll do in visual effects is extend the rest of the bridge. It's really helpful to have a real element on set, and on top of that they wanted some performance of the guys who were on the bridge to feel like they were there. The set design guys did a great job, they actually built about ten or twelve meters of the bridge.
“...At times visual effects are there to completely rebuild and sometimes to enhance what is there...” - Eugen Olsen
When does visual effects really come into play?
Eugen Olsen: At times visual effects are there to completely rebuild and sometimes to enhance what is there, and sometimes just to fill things out. There were things like the first moment when he realises he is in Angola, in that dream is when he looks up at the sky and a jet flies over and that was a very, very quick visual effect. You know it would be extraordinarily expensive to hire a jet and fly one over but it literally took about a day. If you look at the crocodile, that one took about four weeks of work.
Remember, you're always working against a computer system that creates straight lines and is not realistic. Everything on the computer is digital, it's ones and zeros. And to try and make it feel realistic you are often adding a lot of visual flaws or things that just grunge up the image to make it look like it's real.
Do you work from story boards?
Eugen Olsen:Yes, sometimes the thing with story boards is that they're there to visually guide people because the moment you read a script, your mind fills in the images that are being described, but we each want our own version. A movie can't be made up from a thousand people's imagination so the story board artist will often sit with the director and they will construct panels that will bring people on to the same page, visually.
But it's also very helpful in post production because it gives us a sense of what the shot is supposed to look like later on. Let's say we shoot an extensive sequences on green screen, the whole background is completely up to post-production, that's where story boards are tremendously helpful because you actually use it on set and you show it to the actors and say I know you're just in a green screen studio but behind you there's going to be this magnificent city and this is what's going to happen and they'll get a sense of how the story is going to develop around them.
But then for us in post-production, to then use that as a template, a starting point. We often use story boards as a way of creating a bit of a story before we actually shoot and to see if it's going to work.
How often do you use green screens?
Eugen Olsen: We actually do more of that in our advertising because there's a lot more money in advertising than films. It just is that way, and you'll find that even overseas. There was a huge post-production company called The Mill in England, they won an Oscar for the visual effects for Black Hawk Down. Then literally a few months after winning the Oscar they announced they were shutting down their film division and only work on commercials and so on because the money was just not worth it for them.
Fortunately what they did is, there were a number of people in the company who were eager to continue doing feature film work and they formed a second company called Milk. They've done some amazing work and recently The Mill has done some feature film work as well again, they got back into it.
It's not just a South African thing, it's world wide. The issue with feature films is that, if you look at most movies is that their budgets are limited and so to do visual effects you'll often find that you're doing amazing work for less money than you'll do for the same amount of work on commercials. Another company, Rythm and Hues, they did the visual effects for Life of Pi, which was absolutely spectacular but what happened was that the budget was limited and every body wanted to work on that film for a number of reasons.
What happened is they landed the contract because they gave the best quote to the production company as well as showing the type of work they've done. They budgeted for let's say nine months of work, and then as it progressed the production company added three more months to it without adding to the budget. So suddenly they had to stretch themselves out over more months on the same budget on the same project, and that literally killed the company. By the time they won the Oscar for Life of Pi, the company was completely bankrupt and they had to let go of most of their staff. It was a disaster.
That's unfortunately the reality of this business. There is a bit of redemption to that story, a large post-production company in India bought Rythm and Hues and allows them to continue working as a company.
The thing about post production is that you are often making decisions on how you are going to do a shot, how to fullfill the vision of the director and all of that wrapped into a budget. You have to figure out how much time you can spend on something. The artists here love doing what they do and want to produce the best type of work but sometimes they're limited.
What was great about My Father's War, we were able to go quite a lot further than what we had anticipated, we put a lot of passion into the project and we're very happy with the results.
You are involved in music as well, please tell us more about that?
Benedikt: I released my debut album, Jy Weet Ek Weet, with a mixture of Afrikaans, English and Xhosa songs. It was produced by Gabi Le Roux, famed for the Nkhalakatha hit with the late Mandoza. My acting and writing keeps me very busy these days, but when I find time I work on new material. I am always exploring new directions so the next music project will be very different.