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Talking with John “DJ” Des Jardin

Recently, we had a chance to speak to Watchmen visual effects supervisor John “DJ” Des Jardin. DJ has worked on films such as X-Men: The Last Stand, The Matrix Reloaded, and Fantastic Four to name a few.

The following is the complete interview that we had with DJ that day.

The two big visual effects with Watchmen, I’m guessing are Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach’s mask. What were the challenges with doing a full CG Dr. Manhattan?

John “DJ” Des Jardin: What I like about the Dr. Manhattan story is it wasn’t like we wanted to do a CG character, just to do a CG character. I think the way that effect evolved was the way you want it to evolve, which is one of the problems in itself.

For example, when Zack [Snyder] and I first talked about it which was as far back as January of 2007, Zack’s concern was, was it even possible to find an actor, who is a really good actor and can pull off the performance. By shaving his head, painting him blue and giving him some kind of treatment. That’s a cheap way to do that effect and make it come out right.

There was actually a test from another studio where they had tried to do that. We looked at that and thought, “Yeah, we probably don’t want to do that”. Look at all the things Manhattan has to do, he’s 50 feet tall and he has to be 200 feet tall in Vietnam, has to split himself into 4 people or 4 Manhattan’s in a love scene in a laboratory and he has to be a light source. Even if you did paint a guy blue and have him walk around in a scene, I don’t know how you would solve that problem when you have that guy there in the way.

Dr. Manhattan

What it came down to was if he were a CG guy would that take care of these problems? The CG guy you get to do the shrinking and growing bit. It also allows us to be able to deal with him splitting him up into four of himself and be in multiple places at once and it’s one thing to be a light source we know that we are replacing the actor. We could have the actor do a really good performance that we can then target back to the CG character. The actor himself could be suited up with a light source and become the light source for the scene so we wouldn’t have to generate all that stuff in post effects, because I think that would add a lot of extent to the effects, having to refigure out everywhere that the light is casting and do it all in effects. It’s very possible, but it’s very arduous and time consuming and probably not very efficient so, I think that once we converge on that as the possible solution then it became clear that yes it’s a challenge but, it solves more problems than it creates.

Yes, and it is interesting that Dr. Manhattan becomes a CGI effect and a practical effect, because like you said that light suit, that probably solves a lot of issues. If he’s emanating light, you don’t have to worry about matching that in post.

DJ: It’s always a mixed bag when you try to do that. You try to make it look like defused light coming out of nothing. Sometimes in areas where there’s no light being cast at all, that’s the problem, it’s really nice when you have it already there in the scene. It’s honestly there. It’s hard reflected in metal surfaces and glass and got refraction to it in the glass and soft reflected in areas such as in a wooden desktop or the soft areas of the face. You don’t have to figure all that out. It’s already there with the photography.

What you have to do is make it look like the CG that your generating has kind of some internal glow to it but it matches the effect and interaction that’s already there. It’s already moving the way you want the character to move because the performance has already been approved on the set by the director and the actor that’s giving the performance. So as long as we copy that we are going to marry into the scene pretty well.

I was talking to Pete Travers and I said in the first 30 seconds that you're looking at Dr. Manhattan, you examine him closely because you really want to see how well you pulled it off. After that, you never noticed the effect.

DJ: Right, once you're past being startled that one of the major characters in the movie is supposed to be a big glowing blue guy, it just becomes the fabric of the film. That’s the most you can hope for in that case. I agree with you too, I think that the first time you actually see him, he’s sixty feet tall and I think it’s cool and startling, the earlier shots are in that zone. I wish that we had a little more time to grasp that first bit of dialog. But once you start walking around the room and teleporting Rorschach and doing things at the reactor, I think you just buy it after that.

Now, in the comic book, Rorschach’s mask is described as two thin layers of latex with the viscous fluid in it. In the film it is more like a burlap sack with inkblots that look likewatercolors on paper. Why the change?

DJ: The main thing I remember about that is, it was another initial conversation that Zack and I had, and he had a really strong idea about how he wanted that inkblot to look. When you look at the actual Rorschach inkblot, it’s not just high contrast black and white, it’s a lot of shades of gray and subtleties to the edges and how the ink or water color are really made and reacts to the paper. He wanted to preserve that in the mask that Rorschach wears and he thought it would be a really nice real detail to have it be, I think the way Zack described it was like blood in cloth, even though it was ink.

He wanted that saturated cloth look and I thought it was a really interesting take on it. It’s a little more magical, but I think even in the graphic novel, it’s saying that this is another byproduct of bio lab research or a Dr. Manhattan research kind of. It lends itself to become some kind of science fiction, science fantasy that it just exists like that. It’s just what that fabric is supposed to be. We don’t ever really know what it is for.

I know you’re a huge fan of the graphic novel so you’ve probably seen the Ultimate Watchmen explanation of that where it is actually over his whole body. It’s not just a mask; if you open up his coat it covers his entire body. It’s not really a good explanation beyond the two fluids can’t mix kind of thing. There is no good reason why you would ever get a symmetrical pattern out of it. That’s sort of the leap of faith you take with the explanation that is there in the graphic novel. I think Zack just pushed it just a little bit further, into a slightly different type of mask surface.

I think it’s a grittier effect. That’s what I’ll call it. It ends up being a grittier effect and I think the subtly is good in it, It’s still got the same movement, It’s still got the symmetry, It’s still very much the Rorschach idea, so I think he’s been very faithful to that. I think there was just a little more subtle detail he wanted to bring to the mask itself.

We actually looked at a test that was close to that fluid idea that you were talking about, with the membrane, and it’s really a strange look because the mask itself is really shiny. It’s almost fetishistic to do that because there’s a shiny leather mask with moving blots in it, it’s almost a lava lamp type movement.

It almost feels like to be done that way his face would be too distracting.

DJ: It could be. It really could be. I’m sure the cloth would be easier to deal with. I don’t think that’s why we did it. I think Zack just wanted to see the blot interact with the weave of the fabric and I think that was really what he was going for. I will say one byproduct of it is, it’s probably easier for Jackie to be in a mask he could at least breathe through because it was made out of cloth and not plastic. I think you’re familiar with the way we shot that, where we had the eye whole cut out so that Jackie could see and we could see his performance. We could animate through that in post.

For Jackie’s performance, did you have an angry blot, a surprised blot? How do you decide which blot to map and how to transition that blot and how fast or slow they should be moving? What was the thought process that went into that?

DJ: I had Intelligent Creatures in Toronto spearhead the Rorschach development for the movie. What I told them was, the thing I was most concerned about was not just to get the patterns digitized so you knew what they were, but how fast we could turn around iterations because it was really going to be hard to judge whether or not the sequence worked. Actually, It would be hard to judge how the shot would work without looking at the whole sequence.

Animations depend so much on how Jackie’s performance changes in a particular scene that unless you looked at the whole scene together you couldn’t say whether this is working or this is not. We have to get pretty close to a final in each of the shots before we could start animation wise, tweaking them, and I wanted to make sure their pipeline was robust enough on the front end in terms of animation to be able to accommodate a quick turn around even though it almost looked like every other aspect of it was done.

Rorschach

In other words, the mask details looked right the way it was flowing through the cloth and the lighting looked right. You actually almost end up replacing most of Jackie’s head in the final version of what we made and composite into it because the blots and the detail wrap so far around the head that you just need to replace all of it to make it work. I think with that in mind what we tried to do was we said here are 15 blots that the art department created. I can’t remember if you know this detail, but the actual Rorschach blots themselves are copywrited so we couldn’t use those. We had to basically make fake ones that looked a lot like them but not the actual Rorschach blots. We did identify some as angry faced, we tried to do that angry or surprised or whatever.

There was really only one I did early on, the first time you see Rorschach come up to a window in a close up where he reveals his moving mask, that was one of our first tests, and I only identified one blot that I never wanted to use, it was the smiley face. I think it looked like a jack-o-lantern. It was one of the first animations Intelligent Creatures had done and we went to an angry thing and as it moved to the next transition it went to sort of this smiley face version which is very corny, so I said “let’s stay away from that from now on” and we did. The rest of the blot designs came from all the Dave Gibbons artwork, which we tried to keep within their appropriate scenes to be really faithful to what he drew.

What Zack was always worried about was the speed, how fast it was going in and out and that was what we tweaked the most. At the end of the day, Lon and I tried to do a lot of the work and tailor the speed to the dialog and the emotion. I think Zack backed us away from that to keep it a little more consistent and a little slower. He did let us keep, for example, when he gets hit; the blots do a specific animation where they scatter all over his head. Right out of the graphic novel you see some evidence of that. When he shoves Moloch against the wall there’s a couple of animations where the blots change rapidly from what he’s learning from Moloch’s speech about the Comedian, or the last example I can think of, is when Rorschach is about to bludgeon the child molester. He’s going through a lot of conflicting emotions in his performance and we try to reflect that in quicker movements in the blots there. But those are the main areas where Zack let us keep the wild chorography but he really toned it down through out the movie.

What were some of the other more challenging CGI aspects of the film that fans may not be aware of?

DJ: We had a lot of environments we had to create completely within the confines of the art department. We didn’t have the budget to go out and do a lot of New York aerial photography, like Manhattan, or focus on certain buildings, like Veidt’s tower which had to be created out of nothing, and we had to just get the whole Watchmen vibe into New York City. We just decided to make the city as a CG environment. NPC in Vancouver did that, pretty much every big city shot that you see of New York and a lot of the set extensions we did off the back lot, NPC created those.

Sony Image works shared some of that task in scenes that were related to effects that were derived from Dr. Manhattan’s power. For example the, what I call the big Akira ball of energy, that appears at the end of the movie to kill everybody in New York, that’s all CG cities that Sony created. It’s all the same idea, we’re creating, Sony’s creating the CG cities to destroy it, NPC is creating the cities to get all the blimps and talent to get that Watchmen feeling to get the big live views in the movie.

NPC in Vancouver also tackled the task of creating Antarctica and the structure of Karnak. My job was to decide between miniature effects and CG effects and I decided to do Karnak in Antarctica as a CG environment. Mainly because of the chorography involved. We already had a CG Owl ship we were going to be working with and I didn’t have the budget to build a duplicate version of it as a miniature, because it would have to be highly detailed for the crash in the snow, and realized you know what I can do the animation in the computer and tie it all together and really choreograph the camera to it very accurately and that’s what we ended up doing. So all that crashing into the snow and stuff is all CG.

It’s normally like “hey, that’s really interactive so I’m going to do it as a miniature, but I had a couple of CG destructions in past films that were pretty successful so I decided to push this one with NPC. Same thing with when the Owl Ship comes out of the water in the New York harbor. I really wanted to really amp that up as a dynamic simulation. NPC has a lot of nice water effects with Poseidon and I just wanted to push it to get that iconic graphic novel panel where the ship comes out of the harbor and get that kind of feeling to it which I think worked pretty well. Those are real challenges because, you’re making it out of whole cloth, you use physical reference for it but you’re creating something that’s faithful to that feeling in the graphic novel as well so there is a style. You try to use the pure art department concept and arrive at a unified look of the whole thing through visual effects. So there’s a pretty big challenge there.

Was Dr. Manhattan’s clockwork palace on Mars difficult to pull off? Did Billy Crudup and Malin Akerman have anything dropped on them when it shattered or did they simply pantomime the whole thing and everything was CG?

DJ: Yes, basically, it’s just them on the little piece of set with green all around them and they’re just ducking. Part of the story too is, if this stuff was really supposed to be hitting Laurie, who would actually be throwing things on her? She’s in a little protective bubble. There is a radius, or perimeter that the destruction is going to lie beyond. We knew we were going to make that up after the fact, knowing we sort of looked at the shot and knew that this is how far away from them that is. The glass palace is a whole thing too. That was a major figuring out between Pete Travers, Alex McDowell (the art Director), and me. Alex had already started, based on conversations with Zack, working on the design that had taken off from the graphic novel.

Mars Set

The design is given a literal kind of internal clockwork, and I remember Alex telling me to try to get that into the design but also have it reflect more of how Manhattan is able to visualize things that are beyond what people can normally see. He was able to grasp a lot of physics concepts and put them into a construction of some sort and have it make sense more than we can. That’s the design that the movie is a result of and he and I didn’t have any moving artwork.

Before Pete [Travers] was on the show I kept staring at the artwork in the war room going “I have to make this move, how am I going to do that?” I talked to Alex a few times just staring at the print outs that he had saying “okay, well, this figurine does this, and this figurine does this and they both move in these directions, but they are going to hit right here. What happens to the glass to keep them smashing into each other?” We talked about a couple of conceptual things like, Manhattan can make matter move through other matter and I kept thinking that can be good if it’s magic. It can’t be too much magic; it has to be visually understandable or perceived through the movement that there is a control over all this in the design.

I think that Pete and I looked at each other and I said, “what if we just did simple collision avoidance?” Easy is always a tough word to use in visual effects, but it’s an understandable thing in computer graphics if we’ve already got simple algorithm movements we can go around simple collision avoidance and it’s not a huge task, you just have to put it in as a minor plug-in for how these pieces are going to animate, and what you get is figurine X is coming over here and the pieces look like they are about to come into big piece Y, the pieces that are in immediate conflict move out of the way of each other for a moment and then move back to their original path once they are out of the way of each other and keep going. That’s the essence of how the glass palace moves. It doesn’t collide with itself and what you get is, some really nice fluttering movements to the point of collision and goes back to calm movement when it’s working its way around the curve.

I really liked the effect and I think that Zack really loved it too. It solves the problem in a logical way that came out of the design parameters. We didn’t have to break the design to come up with something new. It was already there and I think that’s what felt good about having that as a solution because you get a nice animation effect in a finished film. It seems complicated, because it layers up so nicely with the textures, it’s like look at that crazy complicated clockwork thing.

How upset were you that you were not going to be able to animate a giant squid?

DJ: [Laughing] Here’s my personal journey with the giant squid. I know that I will get some flack for this, when I first read the graphic novel in 1987, I remember getting to the big white out moment on the city street and thinking “That’s cool”, also thinking that one of the coolest things was — and I think in the graphic novel avoided was — “I’m not an old republic movie studio villain; I would have never told you my plan if there was a way you could stop it. I did it thirty-five minutes ago.” Then you see the white out thing happen to the news vendor and the kid and I thought, “that was really cool.” I had never seen that in a movie or a comic book at all, where the “villain” has already done the thing that the hero is supposed to stop. I’m feeling really good, and then the squid is sitting there and I’m thinking, “wait a minute” [laughing]. I wasn’t all that enamored with it way back then

I liked the graphic novel and I was totally impressed, being a comic book fan myself, I was immediately impressed with what it was doing to you in the genre of media I was really quite fond of. It was obvious that this was heavy duty stuff. I can’t say that, to me, the squid was very important stuff. To me that was never the climax of the story, the climax was a bunch of people just got killed and this is in result of that, and this is the dilemma now, and now what are we going to do about it? That to me is the story, it’s the moral ambiguity of what is caused by this event. For me the squid thing actually sidelined a major character, which is Dr. Manhattan. I didn’t really care about him at the end of the graphic novel. Even though he was made to be a major presence early in the story, he’s kind of not at that point.

I liked the movie's ending. In fact, some great stuff happened in Zack’s ending that didn’t happen in the graphic novel, especially when Dan rushes Veidt and he doesn’t do anything. The thing is if you analyze the ending of the graphic novel with a microscope, you’ll find a half a dozen flaws in that end game. So, I don’t think there were any more flaws in the movie's ending than were in the graphic novel.

DJ: I really appreciate what you’re saying about Dan rushing Veidt. I’ll tell you exactly what happened to me when I read the script. I read the script after I had met with Zack. I finished the script and even though I had read the graphic novel way back in 1987, or maybe because I read the novel way back in 1987, I didn’t feel like anything was missing. I turned the last page and was thinking “Man, that was pretty good!” I was surprised by that because knowing the density of the material, I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into reading that script, I thought how can you have this story make sense and it did.

It was way after the fact; it hit me, “Hey, that squid’s not in it. That squid thing that used to annoy me from before, what happened to that?” Then I went back and read the graphic novel and was like, “Wow.” Because what I ended up liking about it was, now that Dr. Manhattan is around he becomes a vital concern to you about Veidt’s plan to make a statement to threaten the world made more sense to me and also the fact they attack multiple cities, I never got the idea of the big squid that’s in New York, that everyone in the world is worried about. I didn’t know why that would bug everybody. I would think it would bug the people of New York, the people in the United States, but maybe not everybody. I don’t know how you would get the word out fast enough that this is an alien from another dimension, and it’s going to attack us and that’s the reason the world would be crazy worried.

But, it does make sense, when you’ve been talking about the power of Dr. Manhattan and suddenly you use that to bring the world together to unite, that’s a very tangible thing in the story that you have already set up. It just felt like the proper pay-off for the story you’ve been trying to sell. That’s why it slid by, the original script, to me, it was so tight that way. That’s why I didn’t notice that anything was wrong. Then when I heard Zack talk about it at several other gatherings, he’s made a couple of really good points, one of which was, if he was going to tell the squid story, then he would have to do it right, he would want to tell the back story of the squid and in the confines, of the movie's running time, then what are you going to sacrifice to sell that story? How many Rorschach shots, how many Dr. Manhattan shots, how many other things are going to have to go away to accommodate that back-story? You can’t just spring it on people at the end, and then it is going to be WTF where did that come from? It needs one or two mentions of where it is coming from.

I think that the strongest argument is that the true heart and themes in Watchmen don’t rely on a squid. That’s not what the themes are about. As long as your true thematically to what that story is about, then I think that you’re good.

I’m actually really happy with the effects work we did bringing about the catastrophe, to visualize the catastrophe that happens in New York but I think it’s really complicated, and yet it has a visual similarity to it. We all admit it; it’s the Akira thing, actually the likeness of it happens to tie into the graphic novel’s white out effect. It happens with the characters right there at street level. We also tied it into Dr. Manhattan’s teleportation effect. I think it all makes sense together visually and sort of effect wise. It always felt like a Manhattan type of thing. We would never loose sight of that type of thing. I think it’s really nice to see all those buildings, not to be too detailed or geeky about this, but it could have just been an atomic bomb and it wasn’t. We really struggled hard with the movie physics of how this thing worked.

Climax in New York City

I remember the day we really got it all to make sense, it was like “sphere appears, starts to shrink (like it does in Akira), comes down to singularity, there’s a pause, then boom, the teleportation ring comes out. But, it’s not just going out into nowhere, it’s splicing the building, so that when you cut to that wide view, actually the buildings start to slide on their incline before the secondary sphere comes out and pushes them all away. There was elegance to that and a difference to it that makes it really cool, like something you could really try to make look great. It is only moments, but when I see that, I am like “yes we really got what we were trying to get out of that”. People floating in air and getting zapped, so it’s all right there and consistent through out that theme.

At the end of the graphic novel, aside from the squid, the other thing that was very distinctive about Gibbons' full-page panels were the piles of dead bodies. I was surprised that the movie ending didn’t have that — that when Laurie and Dr. Manhattan appear in New York there weren’t just bodies everywhere.

DJ: You are going to laugh when I tell you this, but there are tons of bodies in those shots. It’s just that everything is full of stuff, and charred, and smoked up, you just can’t see them. There were bodies in the set that Laurie and Dr. Manhattan are standing in. There are at least six bodies just lying there. I think it was the shot where they appear, there was a dead body right there in front of the camera, it was so charred up and screwed up that you can’t tell that’s what it is.

That became a problem visual effects wise when we tried to extend that visual effects wise, because the guy I was talking about said, “Man, I wish you could see those piles of bodies.” But I didn’t know how to because they are so colored like all the other texture of the concrete and steel, it becomes texture to the rest of the set and you couldn’t take it out. That’s the truth of what that is. Alex McDowell designed bodies to be put into the sets and the body guys that were making those kinds of prosthetics and made a bunch of charred ones. Do you remember the TV monitor in the title sequence that has burning monk in Vietnam in it?

Yes, they recycled him? [laughs]

DJ: Yes, we had three of those that we burned and they were all in the set [laughing]. For anybody reading your website, and by the way, I think your website kicks ass.

Thank you, thank you very much.

DJ: I’m really glad that you are doing it and that Zack and those guys really embrace it, because it’s really a cool site, but for anybody reading it, the bodies are there. I’m sorry you can’t see them as well as you probably should be able to. Things evolve as your designing these things and once we got to that point we realized that it has to look like this because of the type of event that it is, and if we try to pull them out too much, it won’t make any sense.

I’m glad that they are there though. The fans will be happy that they are there.

DJ: If we had other news footage of people excavating things you would you would see dead bodies and they would be really messed up.

Save that for the 2019 special edition.

DJ: Yeah right, where we go back and redo that part.

Seriously, I can’t wait to see the Director’s cut. I was excited to hear Zack say that the three hour ten minute cut breathes a little more. That’s the exact problem I thought the two-hour thirty-six cut had. Part of me feels like I just saw two hours and thirty-six minutes of footage and I haven’t seen Zack Snyder’s three hour and ten minute movie yet.

DJ: You will get that all there. Zack was so determined to make sure that version existed and to the studios credit, they stood behind that for the DVD and they spent money on it. I’ve worked on a lot of films where DVD versions will come out and they never ask us to do visual effects work to finish things. In this particular movie we stuck around for another two months to finish all the extra Mars shots, to do all the Black Freighter ins and outs, and all the set extensions that have to go into the New York City street scenes there

We did a lot of extra work for the Director’s cut DVD of the movie. It’s not insignificant, it’s not a throw away, and I guess is the way I want to put it. It’s very much supposed to be a special version, be very fan oriented, and very true to all the other stuff. I remember Zack really struggling with what to cut to make theatrical cut to be where everyone, time wise, wanted it to be. I felt that it was rushed, but I also felt that it had a decent flow to it. I’ve seen versions to try to make it better, where it would yank you back and forth a little bit. That was what they realized was the biggest problem. It’s kind of like the three hours one, you’ll notice that the layout of the graphic novel is not the ideal layout for a film. To read is different than watching it on the screen. You’re definitely going to get every thing in that version of the DVD it’s extraordinary.

I am definitely excited to see that.

DJ: I haven’t seen the ultimate version, with the Black Freighter layered in; I’ve only worked on the shots that had to be done to make it work together. I’m anxious to see that. It will be long, man. There’s your whole night right there.

Give me a call when they are showing that and I’ll fly out. [laughs]

DJ: I don’t know if they are going to be able to do it, but I know Zack really wants to be able to screen that somewhere.

The DVD is being released in July and they want to release the three hour ten minute film in theaters in New York and L.A. then too. But if the version with the Black Freighter was released into theaters? I would be first in line if it were going to be shown.

DJ: A lot of people would. If they pick the right venue, they should just do it. Make one print of that whole thing and just do it.

4.20.09 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com

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