The art of visual effects

We spoke to visual effects and animatronics man Matt Sloan, whose credits include X-Men and Star Wars films, Avatar, The Martian and The Hobbit.

X-Men Quicksilver scene

X-Men’s Quicksilver in action

I’ll be the first to cop to the fact that I don’t even notice special effects anymore. With the proliferation of tentpole films and the sharp increase in the quality of CGI, it’s easy to assume that every movie is painted with CGI. Looking at behind-the-scenes footage would probably further that assumption; the Avatar-esque image of the cast rolling around green screens with tennis balls glued to their bodies is often bandied about as everything that’s “wrong” with modern filmmaking. That having been said, it’s undeniable that a tremendous amount of ingenuity and manpower is being put forth to bring those worlds to life — and that a surprising amount of those worlds are still created using practical effects.

I had the chance to sit down with Matt Sloan, a special effects professional who served as additional visual effect supervisor on X-Men: Apocalypse. Sloan is in town to participate in a couple of Q&A sessions as part of EffectsMTL 2016, the largest visual effects and animation conference on the East Coast, but he’s no stranger to Montreal, having shot the last two X-Men films here. (Sloan has also worked on a highly impressive line-up of films that include the Star Wars prequels, The Martian, Avatar, The Avengers, Prometheus, The Hobbit and Man of Steel.)

“I studied geology in university,” explains Sloan. “I had an explosives licence to do seismic testing. (…) My first movie was Fortress, with Christopher Lambert. I started in special effects, blowing stuff up, as an assistant pyrotechnician. I spent about seven years in pyrotechnics, then I moved into special effects engineering, then from there building a couple of robotic animals, and then into animatronics. It was basically on Star Wars that… I was sitting with John Knoll from ILM and he was going ‘That’ll be digital, that’ll be digital, this’ll be digital…’ that I thought ‘Shit, I should start learning this digital thing!’ I transitioned around 2000 and have been doing that since then.”

Matt Sloan on Star Wars

Matt Sloan (right) on the set of one of the Star Wars prequels

“I was the additional visual effects supervisor on Apocalypse; the primary supervisor was John Dykstra,” explains Sloan. (Dykstra was one of the founders of Industrial Light & Magic, worked on the original Star Wars and is generally considered to be one of the top guys in VFX.) “During the shoot, I looked after all second-unit shooting and during post-production, John and I would go back and forth on the shots. He’d deal with some vendors, I’d deal with others — it’s a lot of work, so I’m just keeping on top of things.”

“I come in about three months before shooting. That way we start breaking down the script, see the way the scenes are being put together and figure how to shoot it. The second unit was in charge of the Quicksilver sequence, so a lot of my prep time was spent on that.”

The Quicksilver sequence he speaks of actually appears in both films; in Days of Future Past, the young mutant “stops time” in order to prevent the X-Men from being on the losing end of a kitchen shootout, while in Apocalypse he uses his powers to prevent any casualties when the academy is destroyed. The sequences are idiosyncratic within the context of the film; the first one was seen as one of Days of Future Past’s high points, and the second one is considerably longer and more elaborate than the first.

“It was about two weeks of shooting for that sequence,” Sloan says, referring to the sequence in DoFP. “It was just about figuring out how to get the effects. The big complex one, of course, was him coming off the wall. (In the sequence, Quicksilver runs along the wall horizontally then jumps back up vertically, all in one shot.) We’d worked out that we had him on two treadmills that were at different heights and he was running. It was tricky for the actor because he had to jump from the high treadmill to the lower treadmill, which were both running at the same speed. As he jumped from one treadmill to the other, the light rotated and the camera tilted over at the same time. That’s how we got the illusion of him jumping down. It’s that kind of stuff that you don’t think about initially when you’re looking at it.”

Bringing up the climactic scene of X-Men: Apocalypse where the X-Men battle Apocalypse as Cairo is destroyed around them, Sloan brings up that less of it is CGI than you’d assume.”We’d try to get as much of it in camera as possible,” he says. “Primarily, in the final sequence, all the midgrounds were practical. We had a set that was about 50 metres by 120 metres of destroyed Cairo with large green screens around them. All the actors are there with their practical costumes.”

As an example of a mix of practical and special effects, he points to Mystique, as played by Jennifer Lawrence. (For those not in the know, Mystique “transforms” into what essentially amounts to naked blue skin.) “It used to be prosthetics,” Sloan explains. “Now, it’s like a nylon bodystocking with the prosthetics glued on and we’d go in and blend the areas where the stocking ended. She has prosthetics on her face and she’s painted down to her neckline. In a situation like that, we let them shoot merrily away, then in post-production we’ll go over the seams that are stitched together down her side and down her arms.” ■

Matt Sloan is participating in The VFX of X-Men Apocalypse: Atomizing Cairo keynote speech as part of EffectsMTL ‘16 on June 2, 9:30 a.m. The film is also screening as part of EffectsMTL today, June 1, 4:30. For more information on sessions and tickets, visit the EffectsMTL website.