Bryan Singer Talks Big Visual Effects, 3D, Bringing a Fairy Tale to Life on a Grand Scale, and More on the Set of JACK THE GIANT SLAYER

     January 31, 2013


Over the past seventeen years, Bryan Singer been able to jump from genre to genre with great results.  And while he’s previously made superhero movies (X-Men, Superman Returns), thrillers (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil), and a film about trying to assassinate Hitler during WWII (Valkyrie), in his upcoming Warner Bros. movie Jack the Giant Slayer, he’s tackling the classic children’s fairy tale with a modern twist.

Back in the summer of 2011, when Singer and his team were filming outside London, I got to visit the set with a few other online reporters.  While Singer was busy trying to shoot an important scene involving a giant, during a break in filming he let us come over to his director’s area to talk about the film.  During our extended interview we talked about the challenge of making the film, how pre-viz was a very important part of the production, the look and design of the giants, the 3D, the casting, and a lot more.  Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.

Before getting to the interview, if you haven’t seen the trailer for Jack the Giant Slayer, I’d watch that first:

If you’d like to listen to this interview, click here.  Otherwise the full transcript is below.

jack-the-giant-slayer-ewan-mcgregor-bryan-singer-nicholas-houltCREW MEMBER: I just wonder if he should have done that with his left.  He just covered her mouth with is right.

He’s using his right?

CREW MEMBER: Well he must be, mustn’t he?  You can’t see his hand, but he wouldn’t be holding it with his left would he?

SINGER:  No.  Can I be honest?  They put this in the previz, I always imagined you would be inside with them, and then you’d see from over their shoulder and that’s what you’d use.

CREW MEMBER: Yeah, I think you could do that.

SINGER:  Play it back, the last take we just shot.  Just the last take.  You don’t know which hand he’s using.  So he’s using this device that projects the king’s image onto a canvas and then traces it upside down, so now we’ve revisited this location, the giant is lurking about.  They opened the thing and there’s a canvas there and the giants pops out.  Play the previz, back it up to the right here, play the sound.  [previz plays]  That’s the device, that’s the canvas but you can’t see because it’s a visual effect.  And when we shoot these it’s kind of interesting, we pre-cap, or performance capture all the giant’s action earlier and then we have all that information of what the actors did and we put it in the computer and then we actually project the actor’s performances on the set, which is called Simul-Cam, he used a little in Avatar in some of the scenes that involve humans and the other characters together, we use a lot more of it because we more humans interacting.

Is that a necessity for a project of this kind of scope?

bryan-singer-jack-the-giant-slayerSINGER:  I’d say it’s helpful, I don’t think it’s a necessity.  In the old days they were doing it, just putting the camera there and having actors act to tennis balls and hope that they’re framing up.  What’s helpful is you know you have a shot like that again, [to crew member] play, just play the scene.  I know what to do with the camera because I see the giant in the camera when I’m operating it live on the set.  The actors can’t, they see tennis balls, but I can through the lens, I know to tilt up like that if I want to capture that.  For this shot I’m actually- when I’m shooting it, I’m seeing a giant chasing them.  I pan up to the giant, I know it’s there but, it’s not recorded on this particular plate, but when we’re operating.  see here it’s a very big camera move it’s like, follow this larger character, lift way up into the location to create the plate, I know my plates will be usable, because then I have the giant.  [to crew member] Can we show Stanley on the monitor? 

See here’s another thing, we program these giants and they just do this action based on this location that we’ve already mapped knowing what it is and then I know I can put the camera framing up into the sky.  Then for the next piece of coverage I drop the camera off the edge of a crane, the giants will still always do the same thing in their location they’ve always done.  It also maps where the cameras are, and.

We noticed on the second unit that they were trying to match with your previz, how long did it take you to previz?  Because it seems like you prevized the entire movie.

Singer: A lot of it.

How long did you spend previzing it, and was it more challenging than you expected?

jack-the-giant-slayer-nicholas-houltSINGER:  Months, I guess, months.  No, it was just about what I expected, I just tried different scenes out.  These kind of effects are very expensive because of the nature of rendering fully real looking CG characters, which is probably the most expensive kind of visual effect, so I had to be really judicious about how many shots involve giants, and be really careful about what I was doing.  So I prevized things that I would cut and re-previz and just really be sure of my shots and that’s why this really helps too, the Simul-Cam really helps too.  But yeah, I work with Third Floor, they’re a good company.  Our average shot on X-Men: First Class, for instance, costs us like 25-30 grand.  On a movie like this they’re like 80 thousand dollars, a giant goes like this, “hey”, that’s 80 thousand dollars because of the eyes and everything.

Can I ask then how many shots of giants are we getting?

SINGER:  A lot, shots of lots of giants.  There’s a lot.  But I just want to be careful so I previz a scene and really figure it out, as opposed to just writing it, previzing it but sort of committing to it.  As I’m previzing I want to be really sure about the sequence.  Also especially when you’re running a second unit or a third unit you want to make sure they’re doing exactly what I want to the shot and the composition so it’s still my film.  I’d be happy not to be in the smoke (7:16)

Are you showing some of your actors the previz material?

SINGER:  Sure, I’ll show it all to them if they want to see it.  Sometimes I show it to them, the joke is they’re like, “Right, we’ll do exactly that.”   Yeah, I try to.  And also Simul-Cam, again I can say “Ok, you did a take, a scene and now here’s what it looks like with the giant.”  and they look at it and go, “Ok, I wasn’t doing exactly- I didn’t realize he was there or what he was doing.”

jack-the-giant-slayer-poster-fallonIs this the first time we get a look at that double-headed giant?

SINGER:  No, that’s earlier and this is later toward the end of the movie, you get to know earlier.

Just in the design of the giants in general, what kind of things you wanted to maybe avoid from other giants we’ve seen before?

SINGER:  I wanted the giants to be- usually giants are very lumbering [makes groaning noise] kind of things; these are very agile, very fast moving, very almost athletic, some are different sizes and shapes but definitely the agility and the movement was something that’s different.

With this being very previz, and obviously being visual effects heavy, how much freedom do you have on set to change things that aren’t working exactly the way you expected?

SINGER:  In the sense that, during shooting I knew I was scheduling some post-cap, post capture, I could change things and then I would have the actors come in in post cap, but the other day, even in this sequence, there’s a big beat that I just decided to change because it’s just funnier and cooler and a more fun beat, and for that either I have Bill [Nighy] and John Kassir, the two heads, come in and do another capture session or I’ll just rely on the key frame animators to animate.  So you have the freedom that they’re animated characters, you’re not a slave to the performance capture, but you are a slave to the plates, meaning what I did on the live set, that we can’t change, so those are your commitments. 

How does all this work together for the 3D?  When you’re doing previz and all the preparation what kind of things were you keeping in mind at that point?

SINGER:  Size, perspective- large objects, when you make them too 3D, you dimensionalize them too much, they appear tiny, so you have to be careful about things like that.  We actually render a lot of our previz in 3D so that was a nice luxury we had.  Third Floor is, again, a really good company. 

This is your first 3D adventure.

jack-the-giant-slayer-nicholas-hoult-eleanor-tomlinsonSINGER:  First 3D, first fairy tale, first movie with fully rendered CG characters, creature characters, first movie that takes place in a time before there was electricity, first movie with horses, third movie with cats.  They’re very difficult to direct, they look everywhere but where you want them to look.

Out of all those elements was there anything in particular you had to really adjust to, that threw you off?

SINGER:  The 3D, yeah, it changes the way you shoot in a way, especially when you’re shooting live action 3D elements.  I mean for Jim Cameron he’s in the virtual world with a movie like Avatar, so you can adjust those things, ultimately you’re post dimentionalizing.  But when you’re dealing with shooting a lot of live action in 3D, you’re committed to how much 3D you’re giving the audience.  Also, if the camera’s moving around too much it strobes.  If you put people too much into the side of the frame here, they look like a blob that’s sort of there and it’s kind of aggravating.  So it’s compositional, I can’t just pop two cameras in, have a close camera, and just grab things.  I have to be more committed to the shots.

I’ve spoken to some filmmakers that say you pick your moments for 3D, and that when there’s a lot of action and you want to do quick chasing, you just dial down the 3D, is that what you’re doing?

SINGER:  Our action’s not that frenetic.  There’s other movies I’ve made where the action’s more frenetic, like you’d have in Transformers or something like that.  Ours is just different it’s more…I don’t know, there wasn’t a lot of dialing down.  I was just very clear, I’m making a 3D movie, I want it to be a great 3D experience, I want to be very conscious with every shot.  But if there’s some that are using long lenses for instance, you just pull back on it, but we’re pretty consistent.  There won’t be times when you want to take your glasses off and be like, “It doesn’t matter.”

What do you have to say to audiences that are expecting a friendly “Jack and the Beanstalk” kind of movie?

jack-the-giant-slayer-ian-mcshane-ewan-mcgregor-eleanor-tomlinson-nicholas-hoult.SINGER:  The giants are not friendly but they weren’t friendly in “Jack and the Beanstalk”, in fact it was sort of a brutal tale, I go up, steal your shit, and cut it down.  So this actually does have some violence and some scary bits, but there’s a kind of a wink to the audience, a humor to the characters, and all the characters are quite heightened a bit in the fairy tale sense, the way they play the role.  You’ll see they’re very whimsical characters, so it kind of takes the edge off the body count.  So I think younger people and parents will be okay with it, provided I just pull the camera away from certain things.

Can you talk about how the script might have evolved?  Christopher [McQuarrie] came on board and he’s kind of your lucky charm.

SINGER:  I love working with him, we’ve grown up together as kids.  It was originally a script that Darren Lemke wrote, ultimately I decided to make a radical change to the script so I brought in Chris to do that, and then we got Dan Studney writing on it as my day to day writer.  That’s how it’s evolved.

I’m going to ask a geeky question, why did you chose the camera that you use?

SINGER:  The RED Epic?  It’s got an 18 stop latitude, it’s got a lot of flexibility in terms of light and that was a big thing.  it’s a small camera, so I knew I wanted to do some you know Steadicam, and it worked well with the reality rig, I mean both rigs, I think it’s one and six dozens of the other, whatever, they’re just, they’re all good equipment but the epic is new, very light, small camera, works best with the reality rig and so that was my choice.  I know Peter’s using them in The Hobbit and I think Spider-Man, I think we were the first 3 movies. 

jack-the-giant-slayer-set-photoCREW MEMBER: Yeah, we were the third; they were just a couple weeks ahead of us.

SINGER:  And I’m friends with Peter and I knew he had done some successful tests with it and felt confident in it, that helped.

It also has the bigger sensor, right?  The 5D.

SINGER:  Oh, yeah, the resolution is extraordinary, far beyond, and they did a demonstration at Oakley.  I actually watched the demonstration; it’s quite stunning what the camera can achieve.

I know Peter’s shooting The Hobbit in 48 frames per second.

SINGER:  We didn’t do that, and ultimately he’s going to be in a place where to project at 48 will exist down the line, somewhat for The Hobbit, but more maybe for the second part, for us we’re coming out 6 months before that, there would be no benefit.  If we shot 48 we’d just be dropping frames, you’d be watching it at 24 so we chose not to do it.  If I was making the movie to come out 2 years from now, I would definitely have been like we have to do this you know, but it’d be like making a 3D movie a year before Avatar.

Can you tell me about the tools you’ve come with to set; you’ve got a couple pairs of glasses here.

SINGER:  It’s a joke, I have my sunglasses, then I’ve got my regular glasses, then I’ve got my 3D glasses, and then Simon my assistant has his own glasses, so he’s carrying around all these glasses and I’m usually running from unit to unit to unit to the editing room to unit to unit and I always- these I like cause they fit around my glasses.  Martin Scorsese- did you guys visit Hugo, I went over to visit him on Hugo, he’s got these cool like Miami flip-ups, on his Scorsese glasses, I tried them, I didn’t like the clip on the side so I went with these.

Not all of us got that invite.

nicholas-hoult-eleanor-tomlinson-jack-the-giant-slayer.SINGER:  [Laughs] It happened to be next door.

What is some of the weaponry the characters are working with and what are some of the challenges?

SINGER:  Virtual weaponry, the mace with the face, and all these different giant weapons, the notion is the giants were created in Druid times so we have these savage weapons of that period.  Our characters are more- I made a decision also to not slave our story to any particular period, it’s that kind of fantastical England, a mythical kingdom within England, so we have some cool stuff.  We have a Gatling gun that shoots arrows, stuff like that that’s interesting.  But mostly it’s bows, arrows, swords, and sandals.  Johanna did an amazing job on costumes, some of them are really outrageous and they’re not, again, it’s not like Robin Hood, we’re not stuck in a particular time frame.  I just said pick a period somewhere between 11 and 14th century that’s just fun.

We haven’t spoken on certain casting choices, can you talk about why you wanted certain people in the film?

SINGER:  Well I had been aware of Nick [Hoult] for years because of Skins, I was instrumental in casting him in X-Men: First Class, I kind of watched him really do well in that one for us, and so it was a natural thing for him to be on the front-runner list for me.  Eleanor [Tomlinson] just came in and gave a really terrific audition.  I’ve been a fan of Ewan [McGregor] and Stanley [Tucci] for years so they were natural for their roles.  Roderick, the character Stanley plays is a very whimsical, flamboyant character.  Ewan McGregor’s very much Errol Flynn, this good knight and they were just very right for these roles.  Ian McShane, Rick Kingley, and Bill Nighy, I worked with in Valkyrie and he’s phenomenal, one of the sweetest most hard working, talented, brilliant actors, he did this voice, the voice he creates for this Fallon character, he literally went in his car for the read through, shut the doors and windows, laid on the floor and screamed for 20 minutes and came in and that’s how he does the voice, that’s what he did every day.

Wow, how many takes did he do?

jack-the-giant-slayer-eleanor-tomlinson-nicholas-hoult.SINGER:  Fortunately, the magic of performance capture, we don’t have to get coverage, we just do the scene, we capture it in volume.  So he did a week and came back for another week.

It’s interesting that you have Ian McShane playing the good king because usually…

SINGER:  He plays a prick on that show, I know.  We almost wrote a few like profanities for him to say in the script just for fun, but it didn’t quite go with his character.

Can you talk about the previz, is there a team that does this?  Are you sitting there designing this in the editing room?  Can you take us through how the previz comes together?

SINGER:  It begins with the story board artist, I’ve worked with a couple of artists, Doug Lefler this one guy Doug’s worked with Sam Raimi for years, he’s a really good guy.  We sit down and talk through story points, talk through the scene and he draws pictures and from those pictures, the team at Third Floor which is this previz company, it’s a whole company, I had been working on this and X-Men: First Class at the same time, they do tons of movies, they’re probably one of the top in their field, I’ve known the guy who runs it since the company only had three people so I always go to them.  They take the storyboards and they embellish them to some degree and they craft it into a sequence and I look at the sequence animated and I go, “Ok, that’s too slow, that’s too fast, or can you speed up this?  Lose that shot, give me a better composition.”  And they do performance capture too, when they do their previz, they put on Moven suits, which are basically suits with a very high-grade sophisticated oscillator that you have in your iPhone, like a military grade version, and then they act out the scene.  Do you have another previz you want to show?  Show that.  [Previz clip plays]  So these are all people in Moven suits, that are acting out the scenes, that’s not a cat, the cat is animated, fucking cat.  You have no idea.  The bane of our existence, the cat’s in water and rain, you’re like come on, come on.  Don’t listen to that.  Stick with the action. 

It’s very good.

jack-the-giant-slayer-poster-foeSINGER:  So there’s the bean growing.  This is one of the beanstalk.  They’re just actors acting it out. 

Are you going to have the cat do that in the movie?

SINGER:  Yes, I did do it.  It’s the second movie I’ve done where a cat has to jump out the window, and same shot almost.  The horse is obviously animated.  It’s fun seeing it, if I actually showed you that scene now it looks like a scene from Poltergeist cause there’s no stalks in it, there’s just objects moving and barrels exploding.

How about the music that goes along with that?

SINGER:  That’s just temp score, in fact that’s not even my editor’s temp that’s Third Floor’s temp.

Have you decided who’s doing the score?

SINGER:  Yeah like my editor’s also my composer, John Ottman, he scores all my movies. 

What’s been most fun about directing a movie this complicated?

SINGER:  Nothing is fun about it.  It’s complicated.   

CREW MEMBER: It’s only fun when you finish it.

SINGER:  Yeah, it’s fun when you know what it’s going to be when it’s done when you’re shooting an element and you cut together a sequence, and it’s green screen everywhere and there’s no this and that, but you know that when you fill in all those spaces with effects, and with giants, and with scenery, and with all that specter and stuff, you know that it’s going to be that’s kind of fun, that idea.  So very often I like screening scenes for the cast like I screened them all a scene where there’s no effects in it, so it’s just weird to watch.

CREW MEMBER: It’s fun to watch the big sets though, when we walked into the throne room that was fun.

SINGER:  That’s true, we built this giant throne, walking around giant objects is kind of fun, like big barrels and things, that’s neat.

Shooting at live locations with big crowds.

SINGER:  That’s true.  Do you want to see my cameo?  Here, play my cameo.  You need 3D glasses.  See if you can spot me. 

bryan-singerDo you cameo in all your movies?

CREW MEMBER: This is not a deliberate cameo. 

SINGER:  This is humorous, a mistake.  [Previz plays]

I think I see him.  That’s a DVD moment there.

SINGER:  We dressed one of the prop guys, stood inside of a suit of armor for 45 minutes one day, while Ellie rehearsed just so we could do this to her, can we show that?  This is where she gets found by the giant.  [Previz plays]  Can we show Nick getting his foot stepped on by the horse?  Don’t tell Nick I showed you this.  It wasn’t funny, but it was kind of funny.

These are going in the DVD right.

SINGER:  Sure, everything.  The hazards of horses.  [Previz plays]

He seemed to take that better than I would.

SINGER:  Yeah, he was fine.

Have there been many accidents?

SINGER:  No we’re very fortunate.  That is a worry going out, the idea of having all the horses and we had scenes with high speed galloping and a whole chase scene, and anything can happen, we had one horse go straight into one of our 3D rigs and destroy it, you can watch it come right into the camera and that was-

That horse got fired.

SINGER: [Laughs] Yeah, the horse was fine, but the camera was destroyed.  No fortunately we have some of the best people; we have all the people from War Horse are now on this movie, one of the best crews in the industry.  we benefitted a lot by Harry Potter finishing, my AD has done all the Harry Potter films and he’s great at organizing this kind of movie so everyone’s been good that way.

Is War Horse in this movie?

SINGER:  Is one of the War Horses in this movie?

CREW MEMBER: I doubt it, but I don’t know the answer to that.  Our hero horse is only the white horse.

jack-the-giant-slayer-eleanor-tomlinsonSINGER:  He’s the one Russell Crowe rides in Robin Hood, he’s the only horse Russell Crowe rides is that white one.

He’s a famous horse.

SINGER:  Some of these are continuously used; they’re like race horses for movies.

You’ve been working on this film for a while now, what got you involved?  What was the spark that made you really want to make this?

SINGER:  I wanted to see a fairy tale, this is all before the Alice in Wonderland or any of that.  I wanted to see a fairy tale brought to life on a full grand scale.  What if a beanstalk grew miles high in the sky?  What if giants were real?  I wanted to see a fairy tale done on a large, large budget film as a big fantasy film.  This was a way to take the simplest fairy tale, and embellish it and kind of make an original fairy tale, but one that I was read when I was a kid.  So that was the first thing.  Secondly, I wanted to explore this new space of fully rendered CG characters, creature characters, performance capture, it’s part of the business and part of the craft that interests me, that I want to explore.  And I also liked the essence of it; it’s sort of about storytelling.  That interests me, the story’s always interesting.  This is all about; if that’s a story you told your children, where did that story come from?  What if it came from some real thing that happened, and what if that story came from another story?  In the movie you’ll see it.  There’s a tale about the giants, which is just legend and myth, and then suddenly the reality hits them and then you see how that tale gets told.

Could you have made this film even 3 or 4 years ago?

SINGER:  No, not in the same way, no.  Not in the same way.  Not in 3D—not in 3D and not in Simul-Cam, with performance capture in Simul-Cam. 

jack-the-giant-slayer-bryan-singer.It would have been a very tortured process.

SINGER:  Yeah I’ll show you on my iPhone.  I may have erased it.  This is Nick on a stick.  so Nick is now being grabbed by a giant and held up and all this, so what happens is Bill picked up a doll and acted with it, and did things with it, Bill Nighy, holding this doll like a cat.  He’s talking to it, and he’s holding and squeezing and stuff like that.  You feed that pre-cap information into the computer, the computer then drives a gimbal with the actor on it and a mo-co camera simultaneously to create- and it looks like this when you’re shooting it- to create the exact same visual look on film.  And when you put it together it looks like that, it’s a rough rehearsal.  And it matches your pre-cap so to have all those technologies all working together, to be able to have all that technology so when an actor picks up a doll and now have the real actor moving around the exact way, that that actor picked up that doll 5 months ago, all computerized, that’s a great asset.  We weren’t using all that 3 years ago.  Like I had breakfast with Peter the other day and he’s doing this amazing thing with well you have to ask him if you go to The Hobbit or whatever, but we were sharing technology, cause he was shooting here for a couple days and it’s interesting cause there’s some stuff that we’re doing that you know, they don’t have a use for, but it was interesting the new ways you can do these kinds of movies where you’re combining fantastic characters with real ones.  It’s a long way since Roger Rabbit and Song of the South and things like that.

When do you think we can expect the first trailer?

SINGER:  When does it come out?  In June?  So when would they release the trailer?

CREW MEMBER: Probably fourth quarter.  Whenever we get the giant rendered.

SINGER:  That is true; you could cut a cliffhanger with no giants. 

CREW MEMBER: Unless they do a real teaser kind of thing without a giant.  We’ll have some good stuff to show.

jack-the-giant-slayer-posterWas it a big appeal that giants are sort of a supernatural creature that we’ve yet to see?  When we get a different things like werewolves, vampires, and all those types of things.

SINGER:  No I just think it was the story more, I was more driven by the idea of a fairy tale romance, bean stalk, giant land of giants, and the threat of giants, that kind of interested me, less so than trying it—but no, there is trying to create the monster or the new thing.  Obviously giants and vampires are not new, but a new take on them is always welcome I think, I’ll always go to see vampire movies.

It does seem like the fantasy film is coming back in a big way.

SINGER:  I think so, yeah, I think after that it will be science fiction coming back again, real science fiction, there hasn’t been much of that.  But, yeah because you have all these tools now, and also there’s another reason, big budget movies are tougher gambles business wise, so you’re either going to take a gamble with a smaller independent movie, and hoping it takes off, or you’re going to make sure you’re making an event picture.  An event picture is usually something either comic book based, franchise based, or a fantasy based, the kind of movie that people have to go to the theater to see in IMAX and all that stuff.

Is this being released IMAX?

SINGER: I don’t know.  It would be right for it, giants.  Big tall screens, I don’t know. 

CREW MEMBER: They’ve mentioned it, yeah.

SINGER:  What’s great about the 5K, the epic 5K images, it’s more genetic material.

Jack the Giant Slayer opens March 1.  Here’s more from my set visit:


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