Man of Steel: Five Questions with Visual Effects Supervisor John DesJardin
Man of Steel is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and 3D Blu-Ray
With the Man of Steel’s home release, we jumped at the chance to ask Visual Effects Supervisor John DesJardin five questions about working on the film. It’s always a relief for many comic readers when the people working on bringing their beloved characters to the silver screen are also fans, and so we were pleased to hear about his history as a comic reader, just how invested he was in presenting Krypton coherently, his thoughts on Mark Millar’s Birthright and more. Head under the cut for the juicy stuff!
When did you first start reading comics?
1972, I think. Probably when I was in early middle school or late elementary school. I’m kind of old now, which I’m slowly coming to terms with! I started out reading a lot of horror comics and then segued into my first Avengers comic on a family trip. I went into the Marvel universe from there and branched out into DC much later in late high school. I really hit it hard in college, especially when Frank Miller did his Dark Knight Returns stories.
What was the biggest challenge of working on a new adaptation of Superman for you?
It’s a tough thing because now we’ve seen all the different ways it can go. A lot of people in various comic titles and comic book movies have played around with different tones and takes on what that particular character is in their stories.
It was a challenge of not going to Superman’s comic book world necessarily which is definitely what you have in the 1970s Richard Donner movies. They went into a very fictional universe that we all enjoy but it wasn’t necessarily trying to be our reality; it wasn’t even 70s reality, it was just another reality. What we needed to try to do – even in our visual effects roles – was bring Superman more into our reality so that it seemed more relevant and present. And that’s the whole science fiction angle: he’s not Superman first, he’s the alien and there’s certain potential threat that comes with that. That was basically our edict for how to handle the movie and what was most compelling to me is that I hadn’t seen many stories that were aimed that way. Although, funnily enough, on my vacation after Man of Steel I read Mark Millar’s Birthright and that had pretty much that tone of Clark being an alien fighting his way through the world. It was pretty interesting to read that after what we’d just been through because I like his work anyway. If you’re going to emulate anybody, that would be the way to go!
How did the collaboration between yourself, Zack Snyder and Production Designer Alex McDowell work in creating the look and tone of the world of Man of Steel?
Alex worked with Zack pretty early on, coming up with concepts for Krypton and what kind of universe that would be and what kind of technology it would have. Zack would then talk to me along the whole way about how that was going and then I’d have one-on-one meetings with Alex where he’d take me through the artwork. At any particular time we’d all ask questions of each other, which is a good way to work because you’re always cross-checking the logic of what’s going on.
I took off when Alex was talking to me about what type of sun Rao was. I suddenly realised “Oh, this isn’t the same story as the old one where it’s a red giant that’s going to engulf the planet some day and kill everybody; it’s a red dwarf”. I don’t know if Alex researched a lot about red dwarf stars – I think it was just sort of a change in terminology – and so I started reading a lot about that because I knew it was going to play a lot into how we handled Krypton blowing up and what the planet looked like on the surface. I found out all this stuff about how red dwarfs are the most plentiful stars in the universe and we don’t know what the lifespan is because they are such a slow-burning star. Then, I realised that the planets around it would have to be closer to the star if they’re going to sustain life the way we know it because red dwarves do burn cooler and they may not even rotate, they may just sit on their axis which means that unless they’re an atmosphere that can conduct the heat around – which obviously there is on Krypton – it means that there are certain areas that you an inhabit really successfully and certain others that you can’t. It also means that the sun is always visible maybe, so we’re saying from whatever that city is on Krypton – let’s say that it’s Kandor – that’s a unique spot where the sun is always on the horizon all the time, like being in the Arctic circle.
For the rest of the movie, it’s about what Superman can do and how real you get with that physically versus visual effects. That was actually a pretty early conversation between Damon Caro, the stunt supervisor, and Zack and me where we all agreed that that it almost didn’t matter what superman did, it was always going to be a visual effect because he didn’t ever want to have a car on a crane with Henry Cavill underneath pretending to hold it up – it just wasn’t going to work. So with that whole philosophy in mind, Damon, Zack and I would work together. Damon crafted all the stunts and fighting and all that kind of big stuff and I would say to Damon, “OK here’s what we’re going to go for, the character is going to move like this and on this frame we’re going to transition to a CG character” and that’s how we planned and choreographed basically all the big action sequences that you see in the movie.
A preview of one of the Blu-Ray extras of Man of Steel, featuring stunt co-ordinator Damon Caro
Tell us more about the envirocam and how it was used during production.
Another philosophy we came to his movie with was that we always wanted the physicality of a real person guiding the cameraman. In the Smallville battle in particular we had three Kryptonians fighting each other. We knew that the punches were going to be heavy and their results would cover large distances, hitting buildings and walls and creating bigger destruction. To preserve that philosophy, we did a test where we shot with some of Damon’s stunt people running though some of the moves of the fight so knew exactly where we were going to do CG takeovers and where we were going to pan off and do things in post.
I was like “We have a really good way to change from a real character to the digital character” – we have a lot of equipment to help us with that – “what I don’t have is a camera that allows me to capture the entire environment around the camera’s perspective so that when I need to go off to what’s up in the air or what’s behind me, I don’t have a visual record of that to use in post and put those CG characters into that captured moment of the world. If only we had a camera that could take a bunch of pictures that could form a dome or sphere around us”. We found out that there is a camera that does that, it’s called a roundshot but we called it the envirocam because we were capturing environments with it. Our First AD called it Elvira like it was a person and wanted us to put a wig on it. We never went that far because we had to shoot straight up!
The advantage of the roundshot is that it’s a still camera that produces an array of 72 still pictures. If you think about it, any still picture on a 50mm lens is already a higher resolution than what our film camera can produce, you end up with a super high-res sphere of the environment to play around in. It’s so hi-res that I still have room to move around and zoom in and out within that sphere.
Do you think we’re beginning to see an end point in terms of what can be achieved with CG?
The whole use of CG tools goes in plateaus. We get further and further along where we can create whole environments and can do ever more realistic humans and so forth. Look at Gravity: that’s a 98% CG movie except for actor’s faces. That’s what we’re trying to get to.
That kind of question comes and there’s always another question underneath it for me. The answer is “yes we can do amazing things in the CG world and we have the ability to do very nearly anything in a very convincing manner” but I think the underlying question is “what story are you going to tell with that?”. That’s the exciting part for me. We will keep doing amazing thing but lets hope that we have people informing us or allowing us to tell the stories that are satisfying thematically so that its not just all about the explosiveness and the sizzle we can bring to a single image.
I like the story of Man of Steel because I’m actually more of a Batman fan and coming from a more gritty Marvel universe I was never that much of a Superman fan. The first time I started to really like him was with what John Byrne did in his mini series Man of Steel back in the 80s. Byrne grounded him in some kind of pseudo-science reality that made sense to me especially at the time. I got excited about this new telling of Superman because it wasn’t just “Superman’s going to lift an island out of the water and save the day”. There are other things going on here as well as consequences: when gods war with each other, the rest of the planet pays the price. That was one of the things that we were trying to show with all the vast destruction that we knew we needed. It was a big challenge to do that and tell that version of the story which is satisfying to me as a comics fan. i think that’s what it comes down to for me in the work nowadays.
Huge thanks to John DesJardin for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out the fruits of his labour in the current home release of Man of Steel, available on 3D, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download now.