Interview with Pacific Rim CG supervisor, Julian Sarmiento

Pacific Rim CG supervisor, Julian Sarmiento, talks to us about the unique experience of making Guillermo del Toro's prologue for his latest film.

Pacific Rim CG supervisor, Julian Sarmiento, talks to us about the unique experience of making Guillermo del Toro's prologue for his latest film.

Hi Julian, thanks for talking to us! Youve worked on some amazing projects since we last spoke, what would you say were the highlights?

It is easy to say that being part of Guillermo del Toro's company, Mirada, for the past 18 months has been one of the most exiting things I have done in years. Mirada has a huge range of opportunities in multiple aspects of visual entertainment and storytelling; within my first 6 months we were already creating VES nominated CG work. After that, all my focus went into making Pacific Rim. I was extremely privileged to work directly with Mathew Cullen, John Fragomeni and of course, Guillermo del Toro - an opportunity only few get to experience in their lifetime.

Pacific Rim has been one of the most epic releases of the year. How did you find working as CG supervisor on a film with such colossal scale?

It was an amazing experience. There were so many new things we had the opportunity to work on and explore. Generally, as a VFX facility, you receive the footage and you add the VFX elements to the shot. But in this case, CG supervising for Mirada was a completely different experience.

"It was more of a creative development process in which the whole company was able to be a part of Pacific Rim"

With Mathew Cullen as prequel/prologue creative director and under the direction of Guillermo del Toro, we had the unique opportunity to conceptualize, film, edit and create the feel and mood of the prologue. I was able to work in-house with all the concept artists responsible for the conceptualization of the shots, and then once the frames were approved, we created loose 3D versions of them for edit. Once the shots in the edit were approved, the VFX supervisor, Zach Tucker and I had to figure out how to make the shots come to life.

As you can imagine, this was a very different process to the normal 'here are the shots, add VFX on it' workflow. It was more of a creative development process in which the whole company was able to be a part of Pacific Rim, with Mathew and John overseeing the story, creative and technical integrity.

As a completely new concept, Pacific Rim had to establish its own aesthetics; from a VFX point of view did this freedom make your role easier or harder?

It was a lot harder; usually we can hide behind the elements of live-action plates or use them to our advantage, but in this case we were dealing with a Jaeger (robot) or Kaiju (monster) 300 foot tall, so there wasn't that much room to hide. If we are looking at Jaeger's from far away, they can easily feel like toys, but if we are too close they become difficult to photograph and frame.

In the case of the prologue, it was especially tricky. The prologue takes place in current modern times, so this sequence was not able to be as stylized as the rest of the movie. We had to make sure it looked like the Jaeger and Kaijus were in our backyard at different times of the year, under different weather conditions. We shot in six key locations for this sequence: Thailand, Manila, Germany, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Considering the scale of the Jaegers and Kaiju, how much did you have to bend the laws of physics to maintain scale, yet still have a momentum and speed to the action?

We had to stay within the laws of physics but we learned really fast that the physics at Kaiju scale looks like they move a lot slower. As soon as we slow down the action, your brain quickly adjusts, giving things scale. Beyond character animation, dynamic simulations look a little slower as well, which means more details had to be included in the shot.

What were the main challenges you and your team came up against whilst making Pacific Rim and how did you resolve them?

Mirada's sequence takes place in modern days. So the world our Jaegers live in are familiar to all of us. The challenge was to integrate them in a way that made people believe they could exist among us. ILMs work was the quality benchmark but our sequence demanded its own look. This was a complex task in itself. We did work closely with VFX supervisor John Knoll to make sure we stayed inside the world of Pacific Rim.

" the prologue all of the shots are one-offs, so we had to create a whole world"

Generally when working on a movie as large as this one you get to re-use assets, but in the prologue all of the shots are one-offs, so we had to create a whole world for a specific location to be used only in a single shot. This meant we had to create hundreds of assets, which were only used in one shot, but this did not change the complexity of the shots because we still had to model, rig, texture, animate and light all of the characters as hero characters.

In order to be able to turn around the shots, we used different techniques; a few shots had a mix of CG onto the live action plate, other scenes were heavily enhanced with 3D matte paintings or projection paintings and then brought to life in compositing, and some other ones were 100% CG from corner to corner. We had to use a mix of Maya, Houdini and Nuke as our main software applications, with support from packages like ZBrush, Mari, Topogun and Photoshop.

What were the decisions behind the move to V-Ray as your render solution for Pacific Rim?

V-Ray was the logical solution for the needs of the show. It gave us the power to turn around a lot of renders very fast. V-Ray tends to gravitate towards arch-viz and is optimized for metals and it provides great HDRI support with a very robust render layer manager, which is basically the checklist for a show like Pacific Rim.

I was happily surprised to see V-Rays fast displacements and 3D motion blur, another key component for creating creatures. Usually 3D motion blur is very expensive when combined with displacements, but in the case of V-Ray we noticed that it was very well optimized and ready for high-end production.

"We never knew which angle was going to be used, so every part of the character had to be perfect"

How complex are the Jaegers compared to other models youve worked on?

The Jaegers were, by far, one of the most elaborate characters I have ever worked on. In the past, I have worked on other type of robots (I' Robot and Terminator Salvation) but they followed the same rules of human proportions and scale. In the case of Pacific Rim, the textures were extremely detailed and were challenging because of the size and their unique anatomy. At the same time, we were dealing with thousands of parts. We never knew which angle was going to be used, so every part of the character had to be perfect. At the same time, there are variations with different levels of damage. At the end of the day, the Jaegers were enormously complex and the details can only be appreciated at extreme close ups.

Guillermo del Toro is known for his affinity for practical effects. How has that meshed with the CG that was created for the film?

Guillermo is practical in the sense he will take any direction required to get the shot done. In our case, it was just about getting the look and feel he wanted, so we used a lot of different techniques from fully-CG shots to set extensions.

Mirada is a young studio with Guillermo del Toro being a big part of it, what can you tell us about Mirada?

Mirada is no shoestring operation; it's a 25,000-square-foot studio in Marina Del Rey. It was once Douglas Trumbulls studio so it has great DNA. Founded by Guillermo del Toro, Mathew Cullen, Guillermo Navarro and Javier Jimenez, the independently-financed studio employs about 180 animators, designers, digital artists, writers and filmmakers. Mirada has the capacity for many things - production, special effects, creature development and has an evolved and nimble VFX pipeline but more than anything else, it's intended to be a laboratory for the future of transmedia storytelling and filmmaking.

A film as awesome as Pacific Rim must inspire loads of people to want to work in the industry. What advice would you give to an aspiring VFX supervisor?

Films are all about capturing the moment in time and the way to achieve this is always through a lens. Learning how to freeze a moment in time is extremely important. So photography is a must for anyone who wants to create pretty pictures with foundations of reality. Technology changes but aesthetics, composition and color pallets are immune to changes of technology.

Then the next useful thing to do is watch VFX shots and imagine how you would break them down. Generally, it takes a few people to make a shot, so being able to dismantle and reassemble a shot is crucial for anyone wanting to supervise VFX.

Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to take part in our interview!

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