With the Blu-ray and DVD release of LONE SURVIVOR this month, I had the chance to talk to Steve Garrad, the Senior Visual Effects Producer of the film.
LONE SURVIVOR tells the true story of the failed mission ‘Operation Red Wings’ in Afghanistan. Marcus Luttrell and his team set out to capture or kill notorious Al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd, in late June 2005. After running into mountain herders and capturing them, they were left with no choice but to follow their rules of engagement or be imprisoned. Now Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.
Directed by Peter Berg (Battleship, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom,) LONE SURVIVOR stars two time Academy-Award nominee Mark Wahlberg (Ted, The Fighter) as brave and courageous Navy seal Marcus Luttrell. Marcus is accompanied by his fearless band of brothers including; Taylor Kitsch (Savages, Battleship, Friday Night Lights), who plays Lieutenant Michael Murphy; Emile Hirsch (Savages, Killer Joe, Milk), who stars as Danny Dietz; Ben Foster (Contraband, The Mechanic), who is Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson and Eric Bana (Hanna, Troy, Munich), who plays Erik Kristensen.
Bringing over 16 years of industry experience and a wealth of production know-how, Steve joined Image Engine as Senior Visual Effects Producer at the start of 2009. Since beginning his career in Visual Effects in 1995, Steve has worked for some of the UK’s leading studios, with credits including 28 Days Later; The Dark; Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Mission Impossible 1 & 2 for Cinesite and Clear (now Prime Focus). His most recent UK post at Double Negative, which saw him garner credits for high profile productions including The Da Vinci Code; Hot Fuzz and The Reaping, culminated in his leading their largest production Hellboy 2: The Golden Army as Senior Visual Effects Producer.
The interview took place Monday 14th April 2014.
Andrew Edney (AE): Thank you for taking the time to talk to use Steve. Would you like to introduce yourself?
Steve Gerrad (SG): Absolutely, my name is Steve Garrad, I’m one of two executive producers here at Image Engine in Vancouver. So obviously we’ve been around as a company for 15 years. We started predominately in TV. And then about five years ago we made a push into film. I’ve been with the company five years now. So basically, for our first film project we started with a couple of small projects like The Incredible Hulk. And then the project that really kicked us off was District 9. So I joined the company just as the company was gearing up to that project. And then we’ve moved on ever since and touch wood are still rolling.
AE Excellent. I like the way you said the small film, The Incredible Hulk!
SG Yeah (laughs). Well, we only did very little bit of it.
AE Take all the credit. That’s fine.
SG (Laughs) No.
AE So do you want to tell us what you guys did for Lone Survivor?
SG Yeah. So for Lone Survivor, we basically got involved very early on. The visual effects producer, co-producer, Petra Holtorf, we’d worked with her previously on ‘The Thing’ for Universal. So she got the script obviously, it was one of Peter Berg’s passion projects. He’s been wanted to take this for a long time. So basically we got involved very early on with providing the visual effects for the film. So, I mean, obviously, you know, in the ideal world you would have no visual effects in a film like Lone Survivor. But obviously you have actors and locations. You know, they shot in New Mexico; it wasn’t in Afghanistan. So you have all of the different things we add, but at the same time in a film like this, you don’t want to see. It’s not like the Hulk, there is no big, green eight-foot man. You don’t want any of our work to be seen at all.
AE No, that’s true. So could you tell us about some of the different effects you did then?
SG Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, I would say the biggest shots we did would be the establishing shots. So like for example, like I said, they shot in New Mexico. So they were able to shoot in airports but they’re not military bases. So it starts off with basically a shot that is about an airport in New Mexico. And then obviously we have to add all of the…so, you know, we have to add military planes, military helicopters, military personnel. We have a variety of methods, be it matte paintings, CG elements, and basically just fill out the frame. So it ended up like a bustling military base. And the other examples of shots would be we did do some full CG helicopters. I mean, most of the film, they were able to get support from the American government. They got actual military helicopters. But for example the plane, the C-130. They weren’t able to get a plane. So that is full CG.
AE Okay – I wouldn’t have believed that was entirely full CG. So well done!
SG Yeah. And that one, which is that’s what we want. I mean it’s always interesting, I think because every film and every director brings their own style to it as well. So with this, Pete was very insistent from the start. “If I noticed anything in CG, I’m going to have your heads people.” Which is fair enough.
AE You can respect that. Yeah. (Laughs)
SG Yeah. Well especially on this kind of film. You don’t want to ruin it, it breaks the very similitude of the whole situation. So that’s what Pete was trying to make. He wanted an authentic war because it’s based on a real-life story as well that makes it much more real as it were.
AE Definitely. So how long did all of the effects take you guys to do then?
SG So as an example, I sent out our supervisor and our 2D supervisor. They were on the shoot to advise when needed. So the shoot was about two months. Then they go away and they edit. So, that usually takes 10-12 weeks. At which point, we can start building the computer graphic assets. And then, when they stopped turning over, that was probably about another 10 weeks. So all in all, it was probably about half a year on the whole project.
AE And what were some of the challenges that you guys had to face doing it?
SG It was keeping it real. That was the whole point, it had to be real, because you are augmenting reality, you can’t go over the top. And like I said stylistically, this wasn’t a Quentin Tarantino blood and kapow everywhere. This had to be authentic. So I think it’s almost trying to do less. Do you know what I mean?
SG So I think that was the main challenge. And like I said the main thing for us is that you don’t want people to see any effects in the film at all.
AE What would you say was the single hardest effect that you guys did then, or the one that maybe took the most time?
SG I would say the biggest were obviously the matte paintings because there’s so much going on in them. Effectively you get delivered a plate which is live action footage of this airport. And effectively, we’re really working on top of 90% of that frame. So 90% of that frame becomes open fitted. So I think there the shots usually take 10-12 weeks just because there’s so much involved with them. And in many ways, like I said, you can keep going; you can just add and add and add and add. So it’s a type of hauling yourself back just to make it, okay, that’s enough.
AE What technology do you guys use to do a lot of your effects? Is it all the same or do you use different technology?
SG We run on PCs. It’s pretty standardised software. We used Maya for our modelling software. Our renderer uses 3Delight. And then we composite it in Nuke. We do have an R&D team in-house as well so we can write little buttons and clever little things. I mean again, Lone Survivor is the kind of project that needed too much R&D just purely because, you know. I mean, we’re building on work we’ve done before so I mean it’s very similar to Zero Dark Thirty which we did as well.
AE Good film.
SG Yeah, great film. I mean both of these are really good films. So once you have for example, some of the tents that you see in a big wide shot, we used in both projects. So, you know, you can say like matte and pixels on the frame. But you just have to build up a whole library. So I mean trying to make it as real as you can make it.
AE Definitely. And I think it’s come across really well. So what’s next for you guys then?
SG Well currently, we’re working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which obviously its putting in big, seven-foot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, you know, that’s one…that’s the other kind of project. Then we’re also working on Chappie which is Neill Blomkamp’s new film. And then another project we’re doing is called Child 44, which is very similar in vein of work to this. Just that one is set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. So for example, that one they shot in Prague and obviously, again, it’s making Prague into 1950s Soviet Russia.
AE And what advice could you give to someone who might want to get into the business?
SG Personally, I always think that it’s all about images. It’s about framing. It’s a combination of art and science. It’s a very funny hybrid, what we do. But for example, my favourite supervisors, they always have a really good eye. So they can frame. They know what looks right in the frame. Look at framing, you know. In many ways, I think they’re, like a DP, like a Director of Photography. I think it’s what looks right in the frame, what’s not. Like I said, it’s almost taking stuff out so it’s not too much. And that’s very hard because we are making up stuff that completely doesn’t exist. So I will say that it’s a combination of art and science. But don’t forget the art. Look at photography, look at good frames, look at pictures. Art. Art that’s the key for me.
AE Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
SG Thank you as well.
LONE SURVIVOR will be released on Blu-ray and DVD – both with UltraViolet – from June 9th 2014 from Universal Pictures (UK).