"I've been doing this for 25 years or so, and creating something like this is like catching lightning in a bottle," visual effects supervisor Jay Cooper says of his experience working on The Creator.

Set amidst a future war between humans and AI, The Creator follows an ex-special forces agent, Joshua (played by John David Washington), who is tasked with locating a secret weapon that is said to have the power to end all of mankind. The weapon, it turns out, is a robotic child named Alphie.

The sci-fi epic hails from writer, producer, and director Gareth Edwards, who began his career in visual effects before making his directorial debut with the 2010 micro-budget hit, Monsters. To realize his vision for The Creator, Edwards found himself returning to his roots: He shot the movie guerilla-style on location, using a small crew and natural light and operating the camera himself, and then reverse-engineering the VFX in post.

"You can say we're either the world's poorest blockbuster or the world's richest guerrilla film," Edwards tells A.frame. "And when you're the world's richest guerrilla film, you can do anything!"

The VFX come courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, with whom the filmmaker previously collaborated on 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The result is a movie that looks like a $200 million blockbuster but was made with a fraction of the budget.

At the 96th Oscars, The Creator is nominated for Best Sound and Best Visual Effects, the latter of which recognizes ILM's Jay Cooper, Ian Comley (visual effects supervisor), and Andrew Roberts (on-set VFX supervisor), as well as special effects supervisor Neil Corbould (who is also nominated this year for his visual effects work on both Napoleon and Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One.)

In conversation with A.frame, Edwards and his visual effects team discuss their unorthodox approach to creating The Creator.

A.frame: When people think about VFX, they tend to think about what happens in post-production. Andrew, you were on set working with Gareth throughout filming. How did that work?

Andrew Roberts: Given Gareth's background as a visual effects artist and his appreciation for the craft, I could discuss visual effects with him to a level of detail and granularity that I usually wouldn't. From the outset, Jay [Cooper], Gareth and I would be on calls together, going through the storyboards, discussing the action sequences and how those would be executed. Then, when we were on set, we were able to refer back to that. Also, when Gareth would film something, I'd look on QTAKE, the remote viewing software, and see what he'd captured. If I saw him pan over an empty area or up to the sky, I'd wander over when he cut, and we would talk about what he imagined or why he did that. He'd be like, 'Oh, there's going to be a building,' or, 'There's going to be some type of vehicle that passes overhead,' and I'd be able to make those notes.

Having that close relationship, having that shorthand between us, and being able to talk about visual effects helped a huge amount. Our DP, Oren Soffer, is also really into visual effects. Over breakfast, we would discuss the shots like, 'Okay, there's going to be this explosion, so let's cue these LED lights to make sure we capture something in camera that the VFX team will be able to pick up and run the rest of the way with.' Or, 'Let's connect our laptop to a projector so we can have a scan-in effect on John David Washington's hand or over a body at ground zero.' We would do as much as possible on location, knowing that these would be elements we could hand off to VFX. It ended up being a very small team but very collaborative, and it was great just having such a shallow hierarchy where we could all talk to each other.

Photo by Oren Soffer

The Creator looks like an expensive blockbuster. However, it sounds like the execution was less like Rogue One or Godzilla and more like Gareth's debut feature, Monsters?

Gareth Edwards: You can view it two ways. You can say we're either the world's poorest blockbuster or the world's richest guerrilla film. And when you're the world's richest guerrilla film, you can do anything! [Laughs] It was trying to find the holy grail of filmmaking where you get all the advantages of being opportunistic and organic — like an independent film — and having the scope and scale of a massive blockbuster. The crude way to explain that is that usually, on a film, you have a hundred units of budget, and you take ten of those units and put it in a bank, and that's your safety net. So, you make the film with 90 units. With The Creator, it was like, 'Can I take the ten units and make the movie with that and have the 90 units for post-production and visual effects?'

Also, if you get the crew small enough, it's cheaper to go anywhere in the world than it is to build a set, so suddenly you don't have to do green screen and you can cherry-pick all the great locations of the world, which is what we did. We went to Indonesia, Nepal, Japan, Cambodia and Thailand, and we found real-world locations that represented the closest thing to the final shot that we'd wanted. We knew that in post, ILM and the other VFX companies would be able to digitally augment that. When you shoot green screen, you've got the foreground actor, maybe, and then it's a free-for-all as to what the hell is behind them, which is a creative nightmare. If you've got everything in camera, the lighting is really nice, you've found a pretty shot, and it's all working, when you replace that mountain with a sci-fi building or a car with a futuristic vehicle, it's all going to work. I've never understood why people do it the other way around. It has never really made sense to me as a VFX person. The Creator was the first time I could actually grab the reins and say, 'No, we're going to do this, and this is how films like this should be done.' I'd definitely do it again.


Usually on a movie like this, there would be extensive storyboarding and previs in advance, but the shooting style sounds a little more freeform. Were there times when you would have idea of what the effects in a certain scene would be, but then have to evolve and adapt them when the final shots came in?

Jay Cooper: 100 percent. Obviously, we knew the set pieces. We had loose boards for the NOMAD sequence and NOMAD's destruction, and we had boards for the tank battle. But the boards get chucked out pretty quickly. That's where the discomfort comes from, is not knowing, and knowing that you don't know, and trying to plan and develop processes to build this world. There was this running joke where Gareth and James would take a frame and start circling parts to remove and fill with visual effects. Whenever I would check in with James, I would think, 'This is just going to be a little thing in the lower left-hand corner that's going to become a visual effects future something.' Then it would be the top of the frame, and then larger portions. And I remember there were multiple times where I'd leave like, 'Oh wow! That's a lot more than was in my head.' That's the scary part. But somehow, we were able to find ways to build those things. Now, it's nice to talk about as it's a humorous anecdote, but there was a large pit in my stomach at the time. [Laughs]

Edwards: What happened when digital films exploded is a lot of the animation and the technology came from the computer games industry. And one of the big things that happens on these massive movies is they give you previs. It allows you to plan out the film in a kind of PlayStation-type way before you shoot it, and I didn't want to do that on The Creator at all. That was the antithesis of this film to some extent. There's a film language to classic cinema entirely different from the cinematics you see in a PlayStation game. I wanted the movie to have the quality of masters like David Lean or Steven Spielberg. I'm not putting this film anywhere in that category, but those movies that I grew up falling in love with made me want to make films. So, it's crucial that, when you do the visual effects, they have the same language. They don't become a computer game. When there are limitations to the film, it feels real, because that's how everything else is. VFX means you can do anything you can imagine, but it may make it less realistic.


Aside from the main characters, there were discussions about who would and who wouldn't be a robot, but those choices were often made in post. How were those decisions made?

Cooper: We never knew exactly how many there would be. Some of it was about trying to deploy our resources the best way we could, but it was a brilliant choice, because we didn't spend the time or money on characters that weren't in the frame. Then, what happens is you create this unique magic trick where you think there are more robots than there are, because where your eye is looking, there is always someone in the frame that feels like it is from this world. But I think, if you went back and counted, it's probably less than you expected. That was a choice that Gareth made. 

Ian Comley: The other thing it did is it meant that the supporting cast and extras were performing entirely naturally on location. There was no notion of 'I'm a robot' versus 'I'm a human.' We just got brilliant natural reactions to things. So, we had shots turned over to us, and we would do annotation sessions. We'd sit down, scrub through the footage, pause on each shot, draw a ring around people, and say, 'She's going to be a robot variant number seven, and he's going to be a robot variant number three.' We'd try and map it out that way. We'd edge some shots into initial versions of cleanup and basic tracking, and if all things were going well, we would refine, integrate, and finish the deal. But in some instances, we would go back and circle a few more or someone different. Wherever we'd gone through the process, our wonderful tracking and paint teams did an incredible job trying to reconstruct the plate behind the robot heads, ready for us to insert something new. And equally our tracking team. In some instances, they did a lot of work on characters who then remained human, but luckily, their humor also remained. Hats off to them.

Edwards: I don't remember the director ever changing his mind! [Laughs] You must be mistaken.

Cooper: It must be a different guy!

Comley: Luckily, I've still got the annotations.


The Creator received two Oscar nominations, including for Best Visual Effects. What does that nomination mean to you?

Edwards: Honestly, it means the world to me; it genuinely does. I got into filmmaking via visual effects. Like everybody, I went to film school, tried to do the usual route, hit a brick wall, and couldn't get a job. So, I started learning computer graphics. Back in the early '90s, it seemed like that was the future of filmmaking. I grew up with Cinefex magazine and Star Wars, so VFX supervisors like Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren were my heroes more than anybody else. Because of that, to have a film that gets nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar is the ultimate accolade. I'm going to take full credit for all of it. [Laughs]

Cooper: You never really know how it's going to go. We're working away, and every two months or so, I'd get a text from one of the artists saying something like, 'What we're working on is really special.' I'd put it out of my mind, but then you put the movie out into the world, people responded the way they did, and you're enormously thankful and impressed that you pulled it off. It didn't always look like it would happen. A lot of us have been doing this for a long time. There's a certain amount of kismet that comes with it, too. The right project with the right director makes a huge difference. Honestly, it was like winning the lottery right out of the gate.

Roberts: I think Jay's analogy of the lottery is really apt. I felt that way on set. It felt special and different. Seeing the production design, and the art, and being there with the team and the crew on location felt like a really special moment, so it's super gratifying to be at this point.

Comley: It is hugely special. We've got many other artists in the studio constantly working on various projects, but they were all peering across at our desk, wanting to work on The Creator. They saw the stunning photography and wanted to get involved. We even had artists who moved on to other things but were still messaging production — which never happens — saying, 'Can I have another shot? Can you let me finish my tech check?' They couldn't let it go and poured their hearts into it. As well as being a personal honor, it's wonderful that we can represent such a vast body of talented artists within ILM and the other vendors who contributed. This creative melting pot was such a rarity, but it was a joyous place to be.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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