What science fiction fan wouldn’t want to be Grady Cofer? As a visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic, Cofer has gotten to work with some of Hollywood’s biggest sci fi film properties: Star Trek, Star Wars and Avatar, to name just a few. Now he can add another name to the list: Battleship. Cofer spoke with me yesterday about how a childhood fascination with AT-ATs led to a dream job in special effects, and the challenge of depicting the US Navy at war with an implacable alien menace in Battleship.
Where does the story of your work in movies begin? Were you always interested in doing so?
It’s almost a familiar story, you know? For me it started with seeing Star Wars for the first time many years ago and being swept away by the story, of course, and the amazing imagery, but I was also really fascinated with the mechanics of bringing that imagery to the screen. I was really enamored with all of those “Making Of” shows, if you remember those, and how seeing them animate a miniature AT-AT frame by frame and seeing how that turned into those monstrous AT-ATs walking on Hoth. It really struck a chord with me and kind of struck with me through the years. Along the way I gravitated toward anything having to do with computers or graphic design, and then I dabbled in 3-D as well.
My career in visual effects for movies really started when I got into compositing. I learned the Flame, or Inferno, software and started doing compositing work down in Los Angeles. I worked on Titanic in LA, and then I got a phone call from ILM and they asked if I’d like to come up and help them work on Star Wars. That was kind of a dream come true. Since then I’ve worked on some of the Star Wars movies, all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Star Trek, and Avatar and lots of others, so it’s been about 15 years of effects work now.
What’s the work environment like at ILM? It sounds like a geek’s dream come true.
It’s a great culture up here. One of hte great aspects of working at ILM, especially on a big project like Battleship, is that you get to work with so many creative people. It’s extremely collaborative; a great, creative work space.
We’re in San Francisco in the Presidio, and when George (Lucas) built out the facility and ILM moved into it, we were able to showcase a lot of the old miniatures from ILM’s past. You walk down the hallways and you’re looking at old, traditional matte paintings and miniatures displayed as works of art. It really connects you to the history of the effects, and it’s pretty inspiring.
You worked on Avatar prior to Battleship. Were you able to bring anything from that experience to this production?
I really had different roles on those shows. A good friend of mine, John Knoll, was working on Avatar. It looked interesting, so I asked him if there was something I could do. I got to composite some shots from it and work on that imagery. Battleship was a completely different experience for me. I started Battleship in 2009 when I flew down to LA to meet Peter Berg. At that time, Battleship was really just an idea. I was very intrigued because it was a Peter Berg movie, and I admire him as a filmmaker and an actor, but I was also intrigued by the idea of what kind of storyline you would attach to the board game. How do you adapt that and where do you take it? I flew to LA, and was maybe a bit skeptical, but I sat down and Peter walked in and pitched the first 30 minutes of the movie. I was totally floored. I was hooked. It was a great, unique story, and he brought his own unique take to it. It was informed by his own history. He’s a big military buff, and his dad was a Navy historian, so he’s very interested in having a certain kind of representation of the military aspects of the story, but then he brought in the alien invasion aspect, and that mash-up sounded like a great challenge. He wanted to have a lot of the elements of a traditional naval war film, and be very realistic in that way, but he also wanted to have these fantastic elements from the science fiction part of the story. That would kind of describe our effects work on this movie. We wanted to have these fantastic elements, but to ground them in reality. We wanted everything we did to seem just as real as everything else that we filmed for the movie: the ships, the ocean, everything.
Is it one of those things where I wouldn’t actually recognize the effects unless there was something wrong?
There are lots of different kinds of effects in the movie, and definitely, the large percentage of them are what you would hope to be invisible effects. Pete’s mandate from the very beginning was authenticity. That translated to filming real ships for reference. He wanted real destroyers; real aircraft carriers. We had a lot of collaboration with the U.S Navy and were able to film at the 2010 RIMPAC, which is the Rim Pacific Maritime Exercises. It’s really interesting: about 14 countries and 40 ships collect around the Hawaiian islands and engage in naval exercises, anything from live weapons fire to submarine hunts. We had incredible access to this, and were able to film from helicopters and from ships. I embedded with a crew for nine days on various destroyers at sea and were able to capture a lot of footage out there. We had a lot of footage of real ships at sea, but we weren’t able to direct what the Navy was doing. We were just capturing it.
There were certain story points in the script that we weren’t actually able to film, of course, so the hard part was to keep the audience guessing (between the actual ships and digital imagery). I like to give the audience something real to look at, so there might be shots where one out of three ships is real, or some of a ship is real, but we worked on top of the ship to enhance or change its appearance. That aspect of the movie was to be as photo-real and have effects that were as invisible as possible.
The flip side of that, of course, is that there is a lot in this movie that is obviously created: alien ships, creatures, lots of spectacle and large-scale destruction. For that, you want to hold yourself to that same standard: How does a big destroyer reflect light? How does it accept light bouncing off from the ocean? When you look at the hull of a real ship you see discoloration, and areas of the ship are oxidized from being in the water for so long. We were able to reference from reality and apply all of that to our alien ships.
What is like as an artist to work so hard on something and know that people will just see it as part of a cohesive hole; that it’s practically invisible to them? Do you feel satisfied or do you want them to know how much work went into it?
It’s a little bit of both. My main goal is to help Peter Berg tell his story. Creatively, he’s kind of a madman – the ideas just keep coming. The best thing I could do as his supervisor was to stay in earshot, listen to his ideas, and try to translate those ideas to the screen. At the end of the day, really, the imagery you’re creating is all in the service of telling that story and being a part of that whole. We try to be cognizant of that here at ILM. There might be a shot you’re working on for six months, and you watch it over and over again and analyze it and look at it separately but we all try to be aware of it in context and inside of the movie. We’re always cutting our things in and see how they play in a timeline, not only for the obvious reasons of continuity, but also for storytelling: Are you telling the story as effectively as you can, not only for the movie but for each of the beats of the story? That said, I also enjoy talking about the mechanics of what goes into making it. I enjoy both sides. You want the movie to be entertaining and enjoyable as one story, but it’s great when people take an interest in the creation of the imagery and how it’s done.
I know that you probably can’t tell me a whole lot about the aliens and their ships, but I’d love to hear whatever you can say! What do I have to look forward to when I see this movie?
A lot of thought went into the design of things and the technology of the invading force. All of that got started three years ago with the production designer Neil Spisak and art director Aaron Haye. The alien ships, which we call “stingers,” are inspired by water bugs. You can see that in their silhouettes: they have these long, outstretched wingspans that intercept the water at a certain point on the tip of the wings, but has the ability to hold itself up above the water. That said, Pete wanted these ships to start underwater, and wanted them to do so realistically, so we found a way of building the ship up and covering the artillery like a submarine, so the weapon launchers retract and pull back into the hull like a submarine. That way, the ship can submerge without taking on a lot of water. That said, once they rise out of the water, Pete had the idea that these ships could recycle the ocean’s water, so we dropped these CG hoses under the ship that suck water out of the ocean, and then we added all of these surface ports that shoot water out of these spouts that cascades along the sides of the ship. That became kind of a constant feature: that constant cycling that always washes over the ship. As we were getting into the shot, we found that we were able to use that to get into the personality of these ships, so if Pete wanted a beat where a particular “stinger” was very threatening, we might over the course of that shot open up a lot of water ports that shoot a lot of water out in an antagonizing move. We used it as a bit of a character trait for some of them. It’s interesting, a unique aspect to these ships.
For the aliens, our creature designer generated a lot of concept art, casting a wide net with a lot of options from the familiar to the whimsical. Pete tended to gravitate to the more familiar. The creatures that were a bit more sympathetic; not different from us to be repulsive. In fact, he wanted aspects of them to be kind of attractive: grizzled, sea-faring warriors from another planet. We honed in on that look and Jose Fernandez at Ironhead Studios started creating the casts and suit designs of armor for these creatures. Pete is a director, but he’s also an actor, and he’s not interested in one-dimensional alien creatures. He wanted us to humanize them with these interesting traits. He’d tell Glen MacIntosh, our animation director, to let this creature be confident, or that one be curious, or afraid. We really got to give them a variety of different personalities as opposed to hitting the same notes and creating the same kind of evil alien force. He was less interested in that. He wanted these characters to be a bit more complex, and in that way, more like ourselves. He drew a lot of parallels between the Earthlings and the invading creatures.
What kind of challenge does working with water present? Is it difficult to render?
When we started this project we had done a couple of water shows. We had a pretty good tool set for recreating CG water and oceans, but when we looked at the scope of the work, and the intensity and complexity of the simulations that were going to have to be done in this movie, we knew we were going to have to raise our game. We started what we called the Battleship Water Project. We completely changed the way we handle large-scale water simulations here at ILM. The result of that led to some very striking and photorealistic water simulations in this movie. The aim sometimes is to raise the level of an effect to an art form. There are certain shots in this movie where there is so much to the water, the splashing and the interaction of the water with the ships that I think that it can look like a piece of art.
Thanks to Grady Cover, Industrial Light & Magic, Universal and Brian at Zoomerwerks for helping to set up this interview. Look for Battleship in your local theater on May 18. Can’t wait until then? Read Peter David’s official novelization of the movie, available now!