Next stop was a back production meeting room, where we would meet with Producer Ralph Winter, Production Designer Kirk Petruccelli and Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Squires.
The walls of the long and narrow room were lined with various pieces of concept art from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and on the table were concept models at various levels of detail. The identifiable images included:
– Sue Storm inside a Baxter Building loft, dressed in a wedding dress and looking at herself in a mirror
– Some kind of night club environment
– A series of outer space images, featuring the Silver Surfer passing planetary landmarks and getting closer and closer to Earth
– A boat in the middle of the ocean, with an impact blast from the Surfer
– The pyramids in Egypt, now covered with snow
– Reed’s fancy new lab, redesigned for this film
– A Reed-designed device used to track the Surfer, standing approximately 10 feet tall with a central cylinder and two pointed extrusions, all on an observatory-like swivel. At some point, the Surfer “has his way with it”.
– An ice-field with a center strip being melted away from underground heat
– The Fantasticar in a wind tunnel
– Images and diorama of an encounter with the Surfer in a forest setting
– Shanghai streets
– Many concept poses of the Surfer
– Images and a model of the London Eye, the famous 400-foot-tall observation wheel in London
– Something streaking past Big Ben in London
– Fantasticar model
– A model of Doctor Doom’s elaborate chair on a large base with a ramp (possibly a power transference machine). At some point, the surfer will cover it with frost.
Winter — a producer with a long list of credits dating back to TV’s “Happy Days” through the “Star Trek” films and the recent Marvel hits X-Men, X2, Fantastic Four and X-Men: The Last Stand — started off with a basic introduction of the familiar idea and benefits of concept art and its role in film.
“From the script in the earliest stages,” Winter explained, “even before the script is ready, it’s about concept. What is that world going to look like? A gentleman like Kirk [Petruccelli], who’s done Tomb Raider and lots of other movies, starts with the art on the wall, fleshes them out to story boards and the art department starts to put together these practical models so that the the other filmmakers can start to see what we’re doing, because not everyone can read blueprints. Then we go to make little cartoons we call animatics that help us do blocking and staging for the action beats and determine how big and how wide and how many cameras and how many angles and how difficult and how impossible it will be to do.”
As is the job of any producer, designer or effects supervisor, the team is focused on maximizing resources to get the best possible result on screen without waste. Often, this goal can be best accomplished when adapting something existing, rather than creating it from scratch. Winter cited examples like Doctor Doom’s lair, where a downtown Vancouver theater with Baroque design sensibility was adapted. A snow-covered military base was provided courtesy of British Columbia’s recent storms, and a “very specific” wooded area layout was easily created adding 200 trees to one of the many nearby forests.
“One of the few locations we can’t find in Vancouver is beaches and desert,” said Winter. “Yet we found ourselves where we had to have a desert scene, so Kirk and his team put together the model to show what we could shoot if we put greenscreen around the set and a certain amount of sand we’d bring in. So we found sand, brought it in. We found the only camel in the zoo here, and we brought her in and she did fine. Then we went down to California in Bakersfield — where it’s nothing but sand — and we comped in the shot.”
That desert scene was part of what Winter described as a deliberate effort to set scenes all over the world, to make the threat of Silver Surfer feel global and not just a threat to America. At least two major action sequences take place overseas — one in Shanghai and another in Britain at the London Eye.
According to Winter, the London Eye portion “is a very important sequence and a multi-layered objective”. Due to the nature of the stunts and helicopter work needed, the London Parliament would likely not allow full shooting at the actual wheel. Petruccelli and his team did work with people from the Eye to pull off “a really cool sequence”, but “the only way to do it in North America was to pre-viz and to have a great model.” For example, that pre-planning allowed Winter to identify which portions of the pod were in frame at any given time, and manufacture only enough of the complicated and expensive glass sections that would appear at once. “We could flip them over to the other side when we had to,” recalled Winter.
The sequence is going so well, that the crew is now putting together a mini-documentary about the London Eye’s role in “Rise of the Silver Surfer” that will play to entertain and inform the visitors in the queue at the actual attraction starting this summer.
Working from a deep library of existing images like on Fantastic Four is blessing, but one with its own unique set of challenges. “We had a book of about 500 images from comic books that we put together,” Petruccelli recalled. “Then it’s a matter of culling that down with the director. How does Surfer act? How does he move? What does he look like in each scene, and using that do break it down to achieve some of those shots. Surfing along the Chrysler Building is almost precisely a comic book recreation.”
“However, one of the challenges of making these comic book movies is that you can draw anything. Think about the white bit of hair on Reed. You look at the comics and it’s all over the place. One of the things a director has to do is make very specific choices… literally counting hairs in terms of how much white hair should be there and what it would look like. Does Thing have a watch? What kind of fabric are the uniforms made of? What are the style choices of clothes they wear?”
Another such challenge was figuring out the look of the Silver Surfer — and more importantly, the Surfer’s powers. “The definition of what the Silver Surfer does in the comics has been pretty vague,” said Petruccelli. “We know some things, but we don’t know much. In bringing him to life, it was figuring out here we have a character that can pretty much control mass. When you have that kind of control, where do you want to go?”
“We do take advantage of the fact that he can change matter,” Petruccelli revealed, “which allows him to have some really cool power. He does have some very powerful projectiles he can throw. Johnny has the fireball, but Surfer has a power blast as well. We’ll be doing some interesting things with his board that we won’t give away.”
Later, Squires elaborated on some of the new visuals for the Fantastic Four heroes. “From the first one, we’re taking all of their powers to the next level,” he said. “We see Sue having more control of her powers, more like the comic where she can solidify and make walls and other types of things. She may be making other things invisible, she may be seeing through things, her force fields will be more controlled and doing specific types of actions.”
“Just the sheer complexity and variation in effects is one of the most involved processes on the project,” Squires said. “We have quite a few big action packed scenes and so we’re trying to accomplish that in a fairly small amount of time and make them visually spectacular and take it to the next level. With all of these characters who all have their super powers, even in a normal sequence we’ll see those added into it in some cases, so quite a large number of shots.”