Jon Thum, VFX supervisor
Screen talks to Thum about his work on Dredd 3D.
Jon Thum has worked at the forefront of the visual effects field since his work on the original Matrix movie. Dredd 3D tries to capture the dystopian grit of the original British comic 2000AD, and brings Thom, in some ways, full circle back to The Matrix. Where The Matrix introduced the “bullet-time” effect, which allowed the camera to move in and around slowed down or frozen moments of action. Dredd 3D features “Slo Mo” shots, depicting the experience of a futuristic drug, Slo Mo, which effectively slows down time for those under its influence.
Screen spoke to Jon Thum about his work supervising the team at Prime Focus World to deliver 650 stereo visual effects shots for the film.
Prime Focus World was involved at a very early stage in the design of the film. How did that affect the outcome of the film?
Yes. We were involved very early on with the producers, DNA Films, and Alex Garland, the writer. We started with concept designs for the city and buildings very early on and then coordinating with the production design team. When they were designing sets and interiors, we were designing the exteriors of buildings, so it’s very much collaboration. In terms of the visual effects budget being relatively small – and the overall budget for the film being small – and trying to get the most out of that budget, we were very much involved in helping to make decisions about where to spend the money, what sets to build and what not to, where to put a backdrop in or not. And I think, when you see the film, it’s a very tight film and a lot of it has to do with that unity of vision that came from that early process involving absolutely everybody with everybody on the same page.
Did visual effects decisions have an influence on the storytelling at all?
A little. We had done some pre-vis and pitch-vis early on and some concepts to try and get the film green lit, and the script was around for a while, but then when we were designing the buildings, the megablocks, something did come up that was incorporated. We wanted to stick some exterior spaces on them and it turned out to be quite a cool idea to have them jutting out from the sides, which created these interesting shapes for the buildings. Instead of having flat sides, we could break it up into shapes. Originally, we thought we might have a basketball court or some open space for these people to go, then we had the idea for a skate park for our hero building. That skate park became a story point for the film and the script was changed. In the original script, there was a moment when Dredd was out on the ledge of the building and that ledge then became the skate park and the skate park became the introduction to Peach Tree and seeing the city below and getting the scale of things. Then it’s used again in another part of the film. So that part of the design became part of the story.
Is early involvement with a production, even from the script stage, becoming more common with effects companies?
I think it’s happening more and more. I don’t think it’s something new. And I think visual effects have often been involved in the design stage early on. But I have to say, in my own experience, it’s kind of few and far between. I worked on the original Matrix with the Wachowskis and they embraced visual effects from day one. In the pre-production meetings they had all the supervisors from all the facilities there, and we were all completely working towards the same thing. That was fifteen years ago, and Dredd is probably the first movie since then that I’ve been able to have that same kind of involvement with. Most of the time, I’ve been working on studio films where you have this huge hierarchy of staff and sometimes the director isn’t accessible. As a visual effects supervisor you may not really have an opportunity to understand the creative reasoning behind decisions that are made. Very early involvement is probably more the exception than the rule.
Were there any advantages to Dredd 3D being a smaller, independent production?
Yeah. And also because it was independently financed. And so I think the filmmakers decided that the only way to get the visual effects to work was to have a collaboration of this sort, because what they were trying to achieve was quite difficult. In my opinion, it’s a process that works. At every stage, we could make sure that they weren’t going to make any big mistakes or waste huge amounts of money on unnecessary things. It worked out very well, I think.
Did shooting in stereo present any challenges?
Absolutely. It was shot in native 3D. It was a huge challenge. None of the main creative on the film had worked in stereo before, so we were all novices to a certain extent. Shooting 3D, from a visual effects point of view, presents a number of complications. The accuracy and amount of detail you need is that much greater. So it was another challenge to add to the many, but it’s also a really interesting process to make a stereo film, especially a different genre of film that probably hasn’t been shot in stereo before. It was a great experience really.
How did you develop the “Slow Mo” effect for the film?
Slow Mo was an integral part of the script, and it was the bit that Alex Garland was most worried about in terms of making it work. We did a lot of research and found a lot of stock footage and reference that we liked or thought would really work well and we tried to use those in the storytelling that we wanted to do. But there was also something different that we wanted to do, and that was to show violence in slow motion. The idea behind that was that the violence would somehow look beautiful, that this “Slo Mo” drug the characters were taking would turn this experience into something beautiful and hypnotic. But in going back to our reference, we discovered the most amazing thing about slow motion photography is the unexpected, the things that you don’t see in real time. We were just amazed. Then going forward from that, we were keen to shoot as much as possible in camera so we could capture those interesting details that you don’t expect. If you choreograph stuff in CG, it’s just not as likely you’re going to come up with something like that. And also we knew that for stereo, it would be something new and different. Stereo lends itself to slow motion – water and particulates in the air are all things that work really well. So we would shoot layers of this stuff and then layer it up as much as possible and add CG particulates to fill the space and create that depth. For the violence, we would shoot compressed air into people’s mouths or into their faces to get a rippling effect on their skin of impact. We recorded a lot of reference too for the violence. So we shot blood bags and prosthetics with live ammunition, which the special effects department did for us. And we could see how the blood would stream in quite beautiful ways or how a bullet impacted a prosthetic. When we finally did the CG blood we had quite a good reference. Then there is a look to the “Slow Mo” that we developed over time. When you see the image there are a lot of different colours going on in there and there are a lot of sparkles added to add to that drugged, hypnotic look.