John Gaeta and Christopher Doyle

I attended a talk by John Gaeta at Microsoft today. Gaeta, as most everyone now knows, was the visual effects supervisor on the Matrix trilogy, and he's most well-known for bullet-time and virtual cinematography. After showing a montage of all the amazing visual effects clips from all three Matrix movies, Gaeta emerged in a patterned silk shirt, with hair and sunglasses straight out of Zoolander.
Gaeta attended NYU film school back when it had just opened its graduate program, and he lived in Greenwich Village. After working at several different companies after graduation, Gaeta got a job as a production assistant working for the legendary Douglas Trumbull in western Massachussetts, at a visual effects facility Trumbull built in an old textile mill. This was an experimental lab from which Trumbull developed technologies like Showscan (60 fps projection) and pioneered simulation rides (he built Back to the Future...The Ride). This sounded like a movie geek utopia. Employees rode mountain bikes to work and spent all day building robotics and camera systems.
It was at Gaeta's next job, at Mass Illusions, where he began experimenting with shooting and modeling physical objects, technology that would later become the basis of the backgrounds in bullet-time and virtual cinematography shots in The Matrix movies.
The moderator showed The Campanile movie, the now legendary short by some students at Berkeley that was the predecessor of bullet time. Download it--even now that bullet time is a movie staple, the short is still mind-blowing. Gaeta discussed many of the technical challenges that they had to overcome to render the visual effects the Wachowski brothers sought. Someone asked what the key chasms they had to cross, and he replied, "Everything Neo did." I won't delve into the detail, but it was interesting.
Some other interesting points from his talk: he was under a lot of pressure to turn Neo and Agent Smith into virtual humans in the second and third movies, a la Final Fantasy which was playing in theaters at the time. He resisted and instead turned to a technique he calls Universal Capture, using 5 high-def cameras to capture data of human actors making various facial expressions. He showed us a clip of Agent Smith rendered digitally using this technique, his face morphing from Hugo Weaving into Agent Smith, and the realism was staggering. He believes, and I agree, that this technique produces much more realistic facial movements.
When asked if virtual humans would ever render human actors superfluous, he said, "No." He used the example of the nuance that an actor like Anthony Hopkins brings to his various characters and the raw material that such an actor could bring to the screen as one reason why. He did note, however, that he once thought differently.
Someone asked what movies he admired, particularly for their visual effects. After a long silence, he confronted the elephant in the room and responded, with some reluctance, "I liked the last Lord of the Rings movie, mostly for the Gollum performance." He noted that it was a rare case of supreme animation, different from the facial capture they used for the Matrix movies. He then noted that he's bored by most visual-effects laden movies, preferring more subversive uses of technology as in the Charlie Kaufmann movies. He also cited Fight Club as a movie that was nearly subversive all the way through.
Someone asked why certain parts of the Burly Brawl looked more obviously artificial than others. Gaeta attributed it to clips where lighting wasn't baked into the DP's shots. For such shots, lighting had to be done later, and results with that had been mixed. For example, when Neo flies into the air like a helicopter, 3-point lighting hadn't been anticipated to be necessary some 30 feet in the air.
The only shot Gaeta liked in the first Spiderman was the last one, and he liked it a lot.
When asked how to avoid artificial-looking visual effects of people doing superhuman things, he recommended stylized camera speeds. Avoid 24fps special effects like the plague. If you go from slow-mo to high-speed, the shot is so stylized the audience can't process its artificiality. He cited one example from Hulk, when the Hulk is swinging a tank around. It's shown in 24fps, and while the Hulk looks realistic, the tank looks as if it has the consistency of a box of tissue paper. A wise tip.
Finally, Gaeta tossed out some thoughts on the future of entertainment and storytelling. He did believe in the primacy of a story crafted by a single storyteller, but thought it could be blended with more interactive stories. For example, you might have a story with several key, unchanging anchor plot points, but the story could be loaded up with expository bits that could be accessed by the viewer in any order. Each of those would still eventually take the viewer to the same basic points in the story, but the experience each time would be different. One example might be the ability to go back and watch a movie several times from the perspective of different characters.


At the Seattle Film Festival, I went to a Master Class with another movie technician I admire: Christopher Doyle, longtime DP for Wong Kar Wai, among others. For some reason, I assume Doyle would be like someone out of Wong Kar Wai's movies, a reserved man with an eye for beauty, like one of the Tony Leung characters.
Not even close. Doyle cussed like a sailor, dropping f-bombs and sexual innuendos and gleeful cackles every other sentence. It makes sense; he once was a sailor. The interviewer, Rachel Bosky (sp?) from American Cinematographer, managed to mask her exasperation with a wry smile the whole time. Doyle was conscious of his behavior, noting, "Most cinematographers are not like this."
He showed a few montages of clips from his movies. One in particular was amusing, showing some unseen footage of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung dancing very formally during the shoot of In The Mood for Love.
His is an organic movie-making process, a style he refers to as Eastern. He spoke of "finding the film": the image is there, it's the filmmaker's duty to find it as opposed to imposing or creating it. He opposed it to a more Western style, say that of Quentin Tarantino. Instead of removing the fourth wall for a shoot, he believed in appropriating a space. During In The Mood for Love, they shot in an actual apartment building and had to use mirrors to light in tight quarters. He believed that style was often how one responded to space.
"The East finds movies. The West buys them," he said. "Miramax, that is."
This philosophy of his was certainly influenced by his environment in Asia, and by his long-time collaborator Wong Kar Wai. For movies like In The Mood for Love or 2046, WKW shot without a script, just shooting tons of footage in search of that elusive moment (it's one reason movies like 2046 have taken so long to complete, and even at Cannes, it was rumored the final print was still in the editing room until the last minute). Doyle said that when he shoots with WKW, over 90% of the footage is just tossed out (he compared it to masturbating, or, as he said with a guffaw, "Goodbye my children!")
This is rare because in the West, film stock is one of the least expensive costs while in the East it's one of the chief costs. That means that in most shoots in the East, they could average at most 1.2 takes per shot. As a result, most scenes are rehearsed vigorously.
Doyle said Americans like to shoot with Kodak film stock because it more closely resembles a Norman Rockwell color scheme, the way American see the world. Fuji, in contrast, looked more like a Japanese woodcut.
Doyle was not formally trained. He had many friends who were making movies, and that's how he got his start. Over the years, he learned through trial by error. One of his first shoots was with 40 ASA Kodachrome (extremely slow film). The entire thing came out solid black.
Some other random tidbits:

  • Doyle on 2046: "It's the sequel to In The Mood For Love. In ITMFL, they talk about it. In 2046, they just f***."

  • Chungking Express took about 3 months to shoot, near where Doyle lived in Hong Kong

  • Happy Together was shot almost entirely with one lightbulb.

He's currently working on Last Life in the Universe with Pen-Ek. I really want to see it.