Kevin Rafferty Interviewed

     March 7, 2007

Opening this Friday is Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant film The Host. If you have never heard of the film you are definitely not from Korea as it’s the biggest film to ever be released in that country and one that has been watched by over 25% of the population. Yeah, it’s kind of popular.

The film is a new take on the monster genre except unlike most this is worth watching. The Host is kind of like Shaun of the Dead as it pushes the genre forward by telling a great story with characters that you actually care about. And unlike some movies that rely on special effects to take the place of story, The Host uses effects to make the story better.

While it is up against some stiff competition this weekend at the box office I strongly recommend checking it out.

To help promote the film I got to sit in with a few other journalists and ask Kevin Rafferty (from The Orphanage – they did the effects) some questions about bringing The Host to life. And to give you some background on Kevin….

The Orphanage’s, Kevin Rafferty, has been a leading force in visual effects and computer animation for more than 20 years. In addition to THE HOST’s creature, he has also supervised a number of commercial campaigns for The Orphanage including a four spot campaign for PG&ampE out of Venables, Bell &amp Partners directed by Philippe Andre as well as a Sprint/BMW spot out of Publicis Hal Riney directed by Oskar Holmedal and Henry Moore Selder of StyleWar. Previously, he was enlisted by Dreamworks Animation to design, implement and oversee the entire computer graphics pipeline used to create the blockbuster CG feature Shark Tale, at the company’s Southern California computer animation studio. During his nine years as digital effects supervisor and senior visual effects artist at Industrial Light + Magic, Rafferty contributed to nine major films, Star Wars: Episode One, The Perfect Storm, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and Dragonheart all of which received Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects.

And a few times during the interview you’ll notice Rama Dunayevich’s name. She is the head of Public Relations for The Orphanage and answered a few things.

I’m also going to be posting an exclusive interview I did with Bong Joon-ho in the next hour or so. He’s the one who wrote and directed the film.

The Host opens in select release this Friday.

Can you start by telling us exactly what you do in the film?

Kevin Rafferty: Ok. Well, this was a traditional creature film done in a very untraditional way being that it was in South Korea. I’m just saying that because the visual FX supervisor for The Host was the quintessential definition of a visual FX supervisor. I was working with the production, with director Bong, with the editor, with the cinematographer, pouring over story boards during pre-production talking about how the best way to set up a shot would be to get what director Bong’s vision was as well as cinematographically as well as set it up so we could really achieve the effects he wanted as well.

And your job was to design the creature and then animate it.

Actually no. The Orphanage brought the creature to life. We didn’t take part in the creature design other than bringing it into digital life.

How many shots are there?

Approximately 125.

How long did it take to do?

We worked on it for about 6 months or 7 months.

Rama Dunayevich: When you were on the set and before you started to do the work…

Oh yeah, it was closer to a year then, if you include principal photography.

What was the greatest challenge on the film?

Greatest challenge of the film? It was a creature film so the greatest challenge to me was making the creature believable. And we wanted during these pre-production meetings we had decided upfront to not use green screen, blue screen not use motion control to give the director and cinematographer as much freedom in camera movement as possible. So the big challenge was to make this creature believable, bring her to life in all of these plates that had to be manually tracked and manually rotoed.

One of the amazing things about this film is that the creature is introduced in about the 12 minute mark and it’s in broad daylight in the middle of a festival almost. When was that decision made and what was the back and forth on that.

Right up front. It was right upfront. Director Bong said I want to introduce the creature early. I want to introduce her in broad daylight.

It’s a she?

Yeah, I was talking about that a little earlier. Her gender kind of evolved during principal photography. It’s basically this shot on the left and the shot following it when she’s swimming across the Hong River. We were setting up the shot and I was talking to director Bong about the camera angles and how to best achieve this shot and moreover the shot where she’s swimming in the water. Director Bong is looking up towards the bridge and then she jumps off oh about here and then lands in the water and then he stops and looks at me and says “I guess its’ a she” and then kept going from there. So that’s how her gender evolved basically.

Now I’m presuming this is relatively low budget compared with something like Pirates of The Caribbean?

Oh gosh yes.

It’s got 125 shots vs. 800 or something.

Exactly.

So were there sort of things you were called upon creatively to maximize what you were given and the time you had to make this as good as…..

Yes, that also happened during pre-production and evolved during principal photography. What we did during pre-production is we looked at all the story boards, all the shots, we had the shot list and we did the…we kind of categorized each shot into easy, medium, hard, epic. We knew that with this budget you can do so many easy shots, so many medium shots, so many hard shots and a few epic shots. We basically massaged the number of those categories until it fit the budget and it forced director Bong and myself to really, really concentrate on what’s important, what’s important visually and what’s important for him to still get the story across. It turned out that he had about 10 to 14 shots that he really thought were epic and really, really needed to be in the film as he envisioned them. No cutting corners. Those are basically….if you’ve seen the film, most of those are about 30-45 seconds long. That in itself creates a challenge to the digital realm. Those shots also were the shots he pre-vised. He went one step beyond the storyboard and actually had a previst artist actually sketch out the whole movement the whole timing. So basically that’s how we forced the round peg into the square hole.

Are there things that no one’s seen before that you were able to do?

There were…everything that we did in this film you’ve probably seen in other films. The challenge was to bring….to make her believable within the budget we had. And there were other things we did that were huge challenges FX wise, too, digital smoke and fire. We tried during development time while I was over in Korea filming we had our CG back in San Francisco working on all of the more difficult parts of the film. We went through 4 different smoke and fire pipe lines until we came across one that actually worked for us. It’s still digital fire. Digital fire hasn’t hit the mark yet and no matter what film you see, no matter what. So basically what we did was we got the most realistic fire that we could get and kind of adjusted how its behavior was to the behavior of the creature then during the DI we kind of we worked the look of the whole sequence to be this amberish bleach bypass to kind of help to help everything along. The smoke was awesome. The smoke that was kind of born of the fire was awesome but the fire itself, you know….I’m still real proud of it but I still….I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and I’ve never seen a 100% real digital fire.

The creature have name that you used that you used for shorthand?

Well, that’s kind of joke and a story in itself. Throughout the production, throughout principal photography I wanted to learn all the Korean, as much Korean as possible and the Korean title is Gwoemul.

What does that mean?

It means sea monster or water monster. I would always call her that in dailies and everybody to begin with, all the crew is going “what did you call her?” How do you spell it? And I didn’t know the proper spelling at the very beginning because everybody just told me phonetically. I think in one of these reels….oh not it’s not this reel it was our…..

Would you have a couple of funny……?

When we had our wrap party we had the opening title sequence to our wrap party was all the variations of the word Gwoemul. Then one person said I can’t pronounce that. I’m going to call her Ginger (laughter).

One of the famous stories about Jaws that everybody knows is that because the shark didn’t work Spielberg was forced not to reveal it until late in the film which actually created a better film. Did you have a similar challenge here that actually contributed to making the film better than everybody envisioned it because of the technical limitations or budget limitations or something like that?

What we ended up doing in the 3rd act, there was a very pivotal point where there was intense interaction between the lead actor, Song Kang-ho and the creature as he pulls his daughter out of her mouth. During pre-production director Bong was envisioning all 125 shots digital and I actually talked him into building a full scale puppet of the head for those 10 shots because it’s such a pivotal moment there would be the cameras so close to all the action. The digital interaction would not hold up on the big screen. I convinced him that it would not and so I then had the extra responsibility….

Rama Dunayevich: The 3 continent work?

Yes, the 3 continent work to actually help them find a creature house that would work and then they wanted me to supervise the manufacturing….the creature build and help director Bong with puppeteers once we actually got her on set. And we went through the whole bidding process with a whole bunch of creature shops and we ended up using John Cox in Australia.

Rama Dunayevich: They won an Oscar for Babe.

It brought a lot more to the table in the 3rd act. They were very, very happy that we did build that model. He wanted low tech, he didn’t want animatronics. The only animatronics were the eyes having the eyes look…the good eye and the bad eye and then the linticular membrane that’s the only thing that was remote control. There is this guy in a harness with 4 levers and it took 4 puppeteers to do and so it was literally a puppet. It wasn’t an animatronic.

So would you say he used 124 shots?

True.

Rama Dunayevich: But still the puppet….it’s still takes a tremendous amount of work to make that work.

Did it end up being cheaper doing it that way?

No it was about the same. The cost ended up to be about the same, it’s just that the payoff was much better. I don’t think any would have been cheaper. Those would have been the 10 last shots. If we went digital those would have been the 10 last shots finished on the show and nobody would have been happy with them, we would have just been out of time.

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Working so many hours on this, do you gain a certain attachment, certain affection for the creature? Do you find yourself rooting for it?

Well, we were actually afraid that the audience would start rooting for the creature. That’s how close we were to her. Director Bong, he has such a playful nature in his directorial style and there was ….the part in the 3rd act where she’s doused with gas, she’s set on fire and Gang-Du finally rams the….kills her by ramming the pole down her throat. He was afraid the audience at that point would start rooting for the creature. It’s like awww she’s getting hurt.

Were there pranks on set with the puppet or anything like that? Like people running around chasing people with the puppet?

Oh you couldn’t. The puppet and the rig was a ton.

Mostly just for her to come out of the mouth?

Yes. It’s all for the whole tug of war thing.

Are there any differences you noticed with the crew on a Korean film vs. America?

Oh yeah, that’s the biggest difference in this whole situation. The post production was pretty much the same across the board because we had shots and we had deadlines and we had approvals, the only difference was the person doing the approving was on the other side of the world and we did it all via teleconferencing. For the principal photography there is a world of difference between a South Korean crew and a Hollywood crew. A South Korean crew there’s no unions over there. It’s more….I walked away from that experience feeling I was part of a family with a passion for filmmaking rather than a bunch of people who were counting their meal penalties. It was so true. Everybody pitched in to do things that it didn’t have to be their line of specialty. Sure there was the camera crew, the lighting crew and the director, script supervisor, cinematographer. Everybody else was just part of the production crew. The lines are very, very gray between the grips and the gaffers and all that stuff. You’d see the director fill a need. We were building up this kind of sand bag tail for the shop where Kim Su runs up the tail of the creature and we just formed this fire brigade to fill up sand bags and build up the whole thing. I have this photograph of the director, the cinematographer, the producer, and myself we were all in there in the chain gang just to get everything done. It was nice if you saw a need you filled it.

Rama Dunayevich: That runs over to the cast, too.

Yeah, the cast as well. It wouldn’t matter if they had a call time even if they weren’t shooting that day they’d come by set to hang out and see what’s going on. You never see that here.

Rama Dunayevich: You have to talk about the old guy. In an American movie you’d never have the actors playing….

Doing the stunts unless they insisted.

Rama Dunayevich: Getting knocked over repeatedly and get back up and give me another chance. Even in the scene where she’s…the little girl is being dragged through the water…..she’s being dragged through the water–not by the creature.

Basically we had a crane–we had a barge out for that shot. We had a barge out in the river, a crane with a wire, she had a harness in some pick points and basically the crane swung across the water to literally drag her through the water.

Rama Dunayevich: And a 10 year old in America and drag her with a crane through the water?

Especially in the Hung River. The Hung River is not the cleanest of rivers. But we did have stunt doubles too for things that if the actors really didn’t want to do it we had stunt doubles to cover for them.

You said there were pick points on her?

Yeah.

You said that very few blue screen, green screen sort of things. So, there was like a very little bit of like mapping for you guys.

Well, what we did in our situations like take for instance that shot, what we would do is get the performance the director wanted of the girl and we’d have a lot of the rippling water in there for free and then what we’d do is take some tiled footage of the whole area so our paint and roto crew could paint out the rig, whatever rig, and cables and harnesses that got into the scene we could paint out. Then we added, once we got the creature in, we added more water and wake around her to get the interaction with the water and that much more believable but that’s kind of the way we did things when there were practical effect rigs or anything we had to paint out we would…director Bong would turn to me and smile and he goes this another human moco shot. What we would do is we would shoot the action and roughly match the action with the clean plate and then tile.

Rama Dunayevich: I think that’s one of those things, I think that’s also sort of The Orphanage company value system I think as a company if we can do it real and we know it looks better, I mean for Superman Returns whatever that shot where he gets shot in the eyeball that’s us and we had to blow up the plate 180% which is insane, so the camera move, it was hand-held, the camera move was wrong now. Just the shake of the camera it didn’t work. Rather than writing some very complicated algorithm that would never quite make the camera shake right we go out, small digital camera go shoot the Golden Gate Bridge, hand-held, and now we’ve got exactly what a digital camera shake would look at, at the exact distance we wanted to, we go out and we map that and we apply that to the movie. And if we can do it practically I think that Orphanage goes out of their way to say is this the best solution. We want the best solution so it looks the best when its’ done as opposed to digital is always the answer. Same thing for Sin City when the old bastard is getting his head beat in the fluids just didn’t look good enough. The blood is yellow, it’s more viscous than regular blood and how are you going to do that. Again, we said how about egg nog? So we put egg nog into bowls and threw hockey pucks into the egg nog. It spurted out perfectly and we used that in the film. I think that’s one of the things as a company you really stand behind it. You make it look more real by using it practically it’s better to do it.

It seems like fire and smoke are still the hardest to do. It seems like you guys are starting to get water down pretty well.

Yeah, water….along the lines of what Rama was mentioning, director Bong gave me his lighting crew and his camera crew for a day when we were …we filmed on stage for about a week and a half for all of the creature’s lair sequence you know when she goes down there with the little boy, but that was actually on an FX stage so once we were done and could strike that set we actually built….they actually built a black screen for me back in the back of the studio and they all moved back into Seoul to start setting up for more location work while the lighting crew, the camera crew and FX guys, practical FX and I stayed behind and I had a full day to shoot elements so we did a lot of smoke and we did a lot of fire. We did kind of put comp real fire in with the CG fire and real smoke in with the CG smoke but it just adds to the believability. But we did not shoot any water elements to that effect. We knew we could do rain, we could do splashes, we could do surface.

The opening credit sequence? Were you guy’s part of that or was that all…

The opening credits?

Where the guy jumps in and then there the….

No that’s all real.

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