Episode 319 – F9 VFX Supervisor – Peter Chiang


 

Episode 319 — F9 VFX Supervisor – Peter Chiang

Peter Chiang is co-founder of DNEG and a prolific and critically acclaimed Visual Effects Supervisor. He is one of the leaders in his field with over 30 years experience in the industry.

Starting out as a graphic artist, animator and later visual effects art director, he moved quickly into visual effects supervision on films including Pitch Black (DNEG’s first project), Chronicles of Riddick, Flyboys, The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone, John Carter, Total Recall, Pacific Rim: Uprising, as well as Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings and Justin Lin’s Star Trek: Beyond.

DNEG (www.dneg.com) is one of the world’s leading visual effects (VFX) and animation studios for the creation of feature film, television and multiplatform content. DNEG employs nearly 7,000 people with worldwide offices and studios across North America (Los Angeles, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver), Europe (London) and Asia (Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Mumbai).

DNEG’s critically acclaimed work has earned the company six Academy Awards® for Best Visual Effects and numerous BAFTA and Primetime EMMY® Awards for its high-quality VFX work. Upcoming DNEG projects on behalf of its Hollywood and global studio and production company partners include Dune (October 2021), No Time To Die (October 2021), Ron’s Gone Wrong (October 2021), Last Night In Soho (October 2021), Ghostbusters: Afterlife (November 2021), The Matrix 4 (December 2021), Uncharted (2022), Borderlands (2022), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2022), The Flash (2022), and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023).

In this Podcast, Allan and Peter talk about the beginning of DNEG, the projects the studio has worked on, the rate of technological innovation, adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 and their most recent work on F9: The Fast Saga.

Peter Chiang on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0156979/

DNEG Website: https://www.dneg.com

DNEG on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dneg

IndieWire Interview with Peter Chiang: https://www.indiewire.com/2016/07/star-trek-beyond-visual-effects-peter-chiang-interview-justin-lin-1201709866/

F9: The Fast Saga: https://www.dneg.com/show/fast-furious-9/

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[03:40] Peter Chiang Introduces Himself

[04:54] The Beginnings of DNEG

[08:04] The Importances of Relationships in an Artist’s Career

[13:55] Growth of the Studio

[17:41] DNEG’s Work on Fast 9 

[22:31] Digi Doubles and the Speed of Innovation

[32:18] Visible and Non-Perceptible VFX in Film

[34:26] Adapting to a World-Wide Pandemic

[46:02] Upcoming Technology and Innovation 

 

EPISODE 319 — F9 VFX SUPERVISOR — PETER CHIANG

Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 319! I’m sitting down with Peter Chiang, the Co-Founder of DNEG and Critically Acclaimed VFX Supervisor who recently wrapped his work on Fast 9. We talk about DNEG: The studio and its projects, the rate of technological innovation, the challenges of COVID-19, and their most recent work on F9. Just to mention, Peter is the overall client-side Supervisor on this film so it’s not just DNEG, but also we talk about the overall scope of the film.

I’m super excited to talk with Peter! He has a huge amount of experience going back to the late 80s, including with the incredible success of DNEG.  

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[01:24]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[51:43] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

 

INTERVIEW WITH F9 VFX SUPERVISOR PETER CHIANG

[03:40] Peter: I’m Peter Chiang. I am the VFX Supervisor on Fast 9.

[03:43] Allan: Thanks so much for coming on! How did you first start out? I believe you started in a more traditional background and grew from there.

Peter: Yeah, it was really model making and Roy Field, miniatures and optical effects. I worked my way up until someone trusted me and said, “Hey, how would you like to supervise a film?” The first film I supervised was Hackers in 1995. From then on, I kept my head down and kept going.

[04:32] Allan: I have to ask: You worked with Thomas and Friends, didn’t you?

Peter: I did! It was just a shot. They needed an animation done. I started off in animation. It was a nice little thing to do!

[04:54] Allan: I had to go through your IMDb. Obviously, that’s a blast from my past. In terms of DNEG, how did you get started? You’ve been around for a long time and DNEG is one of the biggest [studios].

Peter: It came down to Michael Kuhn who was then running Polygram and Tim Bevin who is a Co-Chairman of Working Title. I’ve been working with them on The Borrowers. And straight after that, we were jumping into Peter Hewitt’s Thunderbirds. From that, they realized there was a need to service their productions to make them more efficient. They approached me and asked if I wanted to set up a company to make films. I said, “Yeah! That’d be great!” They funded the whole thing! They had the foresight into how post-production was becoming an integral part of the filmmaking process. They wanted to make it more efficient and get their own people to do it. I then approached Matt Holben and Alex Hope because I’d never set up a company before. The three of us took up setting up DNEG in ‘98 which led to our first production which was Pitch Black in ‘98. We were a team of 35 people, keen to get going. But it comes down to your reel, so we had to build up slowly. We managed to get into shows and do projects. We built it up to 1,500 people. That’s when Prime Focus took over. We got even bigger! It’s a great testament to the people at DNEG and the team that’s leading and guiding the people:

  • How to tackle shows;
  • How to deal with clients;
  • The standards of work that need to be done.

I’m really pleased with how people have latched onto DNEG and ran with it. 

[08:04] Allan: I feel like a lot more younger creatives really neglect the value of relationships. You mentioned someone believed in you enough to have you supervise a feature, and then again to finance your company. How valuable are relationships in terms of one’s career?

Peter: I think it’s absolutely key. You need to have some artistic ability. [08:44] But I’ve found that half the battle as a Sup is your relationship with the Director, with your key people. My job is to look at shots and tell people their work isn’t good enough. How do you give people criticism in a constructive way, to motivate them to do the shot better? As VFX artists, you’re constantly taking hits. My job is to filter that down and motivate the team to do it again and better. Relationships with those people — how you approach talking to them — you want a happy ship! You want to have the Director’s trust, and the Producers as well. They want to understand, “Why does he need a helicopter? Why does he need to go to Tbilisi, Georgia?” And you have to sit there and explain it. But the relationships between you and people are vital!

[10:51] Allan: So vital and so overlooked at the same time! The first time I heard of DNEG was Pitch Black. I believe you did the ship sequence.

Peter: We did the whole movie but Hunter Gratzner was ingeral to that opening sequence. We had a great big control rig. They were doing miniatures in LA and we were compositing them back in London. So the ship was in Australia. I remember downloading the dailies and looking at them on a VHS and talking to Ian over the phone. 

[12:12] Allan: Since you mentioned that project, what were some of the biggest challenges on it? Knowing that you’re a new studio?

Peter: Clearly the creature in the animation and the soft body stuff! All of that was the main focus. The film lived or died by that creature. Luckily, we had a fantastic design by Patrick Tatopoulos. He did an amazing design. He went such a long way to make sure it was represented on screen right. The collaboration between departments was so key. You need specialists and artists who do that. The creature work was the trickiest part of the job. We had 35 people working it all out. John Cox was the fabricator of the puppeteer inside of things. Which was fantastic! And then getting into the animation and making it as scary as possible.

[13:55] Allan: What about DNEG now? When did you feel it was time to expand internationally?

Peter: I think really the act of everyone deciding to have tax breaks all over the world. Australia, Montreal and Vancouver. There was this great international surge! That way, you can get a lot more work. You can make the numbers work. The world is a smaller place. And with COVID and everyone working remotely, it shows that you don’t need to be in a central location now to produce fantastic work. I flew back to the UK in March 2020 and we were due to finish Fast 9 in April. We actually finished it right before Christmas. It opened everyone’s eyes to, “Do you need that huge office? And aren’t people’s lives better when they can spend time with their families?” I found I’d do more work because I had no external distractions. I think it was driven by wanting to be represented in territories in order to gain work. And I think the world has caught onto that. All the major companies have stations everywhere. 

[16:33] Allan: It’s pretty amazing, especially as you mentioned with COVID, we’re all virtual these days. Even when we are in the same place, we’re communicating through Shotgun. 

Peter: And I think people’s attitudes toward work (given we were stuck at home), it made people think about their lives and what they want to do. They’re more at ease and they’ve worked out a pattern. People are more chilled. It’s reflected in their work.

[17:41] Allan: With Fast 9, how did you first get involved?

Peter: It must’ve been in May 2018, Justin flew over to London and he talked to me about the project. He said, “Do you want to do this?” One thing led to another, and we started production in January 2019. I heard about it 6 months before the show kicked off. 

[18:50] Allan: At least on paper, were there any specific sequences that stood out? “Oh, shit! How are we going to do this?”

Peter: There were quite a few, actually! I think the physicality of it all and making it believable was the hardest thing. You need to make sure that it was believable but not boring. And it’s a fast film! It’s a push! It’s a push in a nice way. It gets the adrenaline going. We were conscious of that. Sitting there, looking at this previs, even I was thinking, “Is that physically possible?” Digi Doubles have moved on a lot. None of the actors went to locations in Thailand or Tbilisi. We had to integrate it more seamlessly. There were several sequences where we needed to do face replacements. Digi Doubles were really important, even in the fight scenes. Vin is such a unique character! Even with stunt doubles, we had to replace those with Digi Doubles because the stunt doubles didn’t look like the man. We wanted to represent him properly. There was a push in that technology. Those were the two main areas. Environments were pretty straight forward. Space has been pretty straight forward. On that level, we were pretty much just NASA: Everything was NASA footage. That was based on some sort of reality.

[22:31] Allan: I wish I could’ve been part of that conversation! How confident are you about Digi Doubles? Fifteen years ago, Digi Doubles were for quick cuts or in the background. These days, how often is that part of the decision to just do a face replacement?

Peter: I think the technology nowadays, given by some fine examples like Gemini Man and Benjamin Button, it’s come a long way. Everyone has become more comfortable that a Digi Double can be imperceptible. There is one cut of Vin between two people. It’s driven by safety, believability that a stunt person can do that. But the physicality of a stunt person just doesn’t fit, but it’s a great tracking and lighting tool. But ultimately, the cloth and skin sliding, the muscles need to be spot on. We had great cooperation with Vin. He knew the importance of it! You build up this library and with that library you can do things. You can make the film more imperceptible. We want to protect the star. I think it’s a great tool, and no one should get hurt on set. I think they should be used more.

[26:20] Allan: I’m so excited to see where this all goes. When it comes to safety, even on the Walking Dead, there were knife fights that had to be separated. There is so much innovation now, there is no reason to not choose safety.

Peter: Spiro [Razatos] who shot 2nd Unit — we did a lot of car stunts — was talking to me. Although we need all those cars, they don’t need to be at the location. What if that car flips out? Let’s have two cast members do what they’re doing and no one will ever know! You come to those decisions because it’s just a lot safer. We don’t want anyone around to get injured. It extends to physical things, like helicopters flying closely. There is only one helicopter there the day of, the other one was put in in CG. It’s just easier. It’s nice to have the cameraman frame up on one. That physical dust swirl is actual. Don’t get me wrong, I always push. That armadillo flip, we talked to Alistair Williams who is a great VFX Supervisor. We had a great relationship with him! We asked if he could do some version of it. So we started doing some rigi body stuff and we’d show him what we’d want. Then he’d tell us if we could do it. We wanted specific physics of the thing. Upfront we did a lot of tests. We wanted it to zigzag. In the end he just did one carriage. 

[30:26] Allan: It’s a lot easier to get all the beats that the Director wants and you’re able to revise things. 

Peter: But it was great going through that process! One of my regrets was not doing the Tarzan sweep. There is a great shot in the Blues Brothers where they drop a car. When you watch it, there isn’t much going on. There was a constant choice between amping it up and reality. 

[31:09] Allan: I got into VFX around ‘94. Back then, if a movie had 250 VFX shots, that would be a lot. Phantom of Menace was the first film to hit 1,000. I believe Fast 9 had 2,000 shots, correct?

Peter: 2,294! Those were split between 1,214 in London DNEG, 551 in Montreal, 223 in ILM, 117 in Stereo D, Lola did 115. 

[32:18] Allan: It’s incredible! These days, almost every shot will have a small “V” in there somewhere. 

Peter: Look! Relatively, this film is small compared to a Marvel film. Black Widow, Avengers? Much higher than that! Star Wars, Avatar? Way higher than that! I guess we’re at a medium / large show. I wouldn’t say we’re a big show. 

[33:07] Allan: I guess it’s about how it’s positioned. In the whole Fast franchise, they push the limitations of a lot of things. With Star Wars, you’re expecting it. What’s been successful about this franchise is that it’s not perceived as visual effects films. It still holds onto that perception you’re looking at a car race film.

Peter: The editor grabbed footage together and suddenly, in Tbilisi the blue bus was in the wrong place. We had to paint it out and move it to where it worked for the cart. There were a lot of cars put in. Those were a lot of effects you didn’t even know were there. 

[34:26] Allan: To touch back about COVID, knowing this show was in production during all of this (just like Black Widow was), how did you pivot? What were some of the ways you’ve innovated because of this challenge?

Peter: It was a period where Universal was great and the whole world was reacting. We were due to deliver in April, and we delivered in the beginning of December. In a way, that gave Justin more time to think about things. The film was better for it. In terms of technology, workstations had to be out there, networks, safety. Universal was fantastic at understanding what the pandemic was doing to the VFX industry. Very patient about how much time we needed! Slowly the tools got set. Everyone got access remotely to servers. Internal supervisors were able to do reviews and send the files to me. My day was backended. I’d contact supervisors between [3:00] and [5:00]. LA would wake up at 6:00 p.m., I’d have reviews with them at [8:00]. Do the meetings with Justin at [10:00], [11:00] at night. I’d go until [4:00] in the morning sometimes. Technology has enabled us to keep going. God bless cineSync! 

[37:00] Allan: I actually had Rory McGregor, the CEO of cineSync a while back (www.allanmckay.com/167). It was fun to talk! There are so many tools we don’t even think about. But without them, we’d be carrying floppy desks to someone’s location.

Peter: I came from a drawing background. Everything to me is visual. I need to be able to draw on the frame, or sketch for Justin’s stuff. That tool has been invaluable in communicating with artists and the Director. 

[38:04] Allan: Is there any particular shot you could walk us through, from the script treatment to post-production?

Peter: One of the aspects of Fast and Furious is that you’re never going to get the actors in the car. You are going to shoot blue screen / green screen. We talked a lot about array vehicles which are vital in order to do that. We set up a system early on with Stephen Windon. If the 2nd Unit was shooting a shot and they had 4 cars, we’d then use the driver to run the array vehicle. In other instances where we needed stabilized heads, we’d have to split it up between 5 cameras at the back and 3 cameras at the front. Then stitch that together. We wanted to give the compositors the smoothest material so they could do all the shaking in green screen; and we could match move that with the plates. When we shot the plates, we had 360 lenses at the top which gave us a fisheye. We’d put that into QuickTime VR. At any time, Steve could stop on a frame on a plate and look at it 360, and know what the lighting was like. We’d have the cars with Alistair so we could turn the car to whatever direction we needed. He’d then simulate the shadows of trees. Further to that, we’d encode the plate in location so we could feed it into the gimbal. So they could at least feel the ride of the stunt guy at the location. We could sync that per frame. It was synced together. Alistair and his guys wrote a software that could smooth out the curves. The complexity of deciding how to shoot the array plates. For just one shot of the cars going down, we’d need 4 array plates. We shot the array plates with the cars in there. We did that for every setup! And then the ideal thing was to do it at the same time. The lighting would match the live action plates. For me, the process of determining all that was key in making sure that everything integrated. In post, whenever we cut to a shot, we knew the street, the lighting set-up, the plate, the cars around and how we should do everyone. 

And to further complicate it, we had different heights. The armadillos were 17 feet high. They need to be 4 feet when they’re inside the car. So not only did we need stabilized heads and different heights, we needed to be efficient. We had two vehicles. When they went back to zero, they could change the camera height of the array. Production asked why we needed so many array vehicles. Because I needed them at that time, in that minute, with the stunt drivers. The lighting changed, the crowd changed. Production understood it. We pushed forward with that technique. 

[44:15] Allan: It’s pretty amazing, especially with virtual production. It’s no longer post-production. It’s this much work going in during pre-prod, setting up a set. It’s a 360 environment.

Peter: The more we can educate the whole process, VFX touches on so many departments. The team on Fast 9 was fantastic. We had one aim: One simple driving shot needs this. When you explain that one goal, they get it. It’s the job of a Supervisor to have the relationships, to talk to them. The whole film is about driving. This is the blood of the film! Everyone was onboard!

[46:02] Allan: In terms of upcoming technology, is there anything you have your eye on?

Peter: Digital Humans! I think the next level is Digi Humans. The face action is there but there is still some way to go on that. The Unreal Engine thing is fantastic. I was talking with DNEG where we needed a helicopter shot. I suggested the second one be virtual. We did GPS the position of the helicopter, projected in the IP’s where the second tower is, so the DP could frame up. Where does Unreal Engine work? We were going nowhere near Baghdad. What they’re doing on The Mandalorian is fantastic! And it’s getting better that we don’t need composites. But the Digi Humans is what I’m waiting for! I’m excited to see that!

[48:40] Allan: I’m excited too! I had Doug Roble on the Podcast (www.allanmckay.com/290). He’s heading up all the digi humans at DD. He worked on Benjamin Button. That’s going to revolutionize everything. It’s exciting!

Peter: And to be able to do things! What’s the next bar that thrills the audience. You need those tools for Directors. I think once that tool set becomes available, face replacement will bring on some amazing things.

[50:00] Allan: Peter, thank you so much for taking the time to chat! Where can people go to find out more about you and DNEG?

Peter: We’re all over the web! There is a whole world of VFX out there. Delve deep! So many companies are doing great work. Small companies need to be represented. Smaller shows (on Amazon and Netflix) are getting greenlit, and they’re more daring. Artists are given an opportunity to do amazing things. Marvel will do its thing. But there is all this other stuff going on that’s cool. 

[51:28] Allan: Thank you again! I appreciate your time!

Peter: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure! Thank you for taking an interest!

 

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Peter for taking the time to chat! 

Next week, I will be doing a solo Episode about how the importance of niching down in order to stand out. I’ll be back next week! 

Until then —

Rock on!

 

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