Jonathan Liebesman On Why CGI In 'Battle: Los Angeles' Isn't Crappy
I don’t usually get technical in my interviews with filmmakers. The details of visual effects aren’t usually as exciting as the end result, but the reality of Battle: Los Angeles seemed worth exploring. CGI usually gives itself away, but shots of L.A. burning under an alien attack held up with all the on set footage of the city.
Director Jonathan Liebesman was so engaging in explaining the effects, I went with him for a little while. He actually made me understand why other CGI looks fake but his looked real, so I hope that comes across to the reader. Oh yeah, and he’s going to do it for the sequel Wrath of the Titans too.
Q: Shouldn’t it be Battle: Santa Monica?
JL: It moves into Los Angeles, you’re on a freeway by about page 50 and then you are in downtown Los Angeles at the end. Right?
Q: But it’s the Santa Monica coastline invasion.
JL: Yeah, I think it’s a nice visual touchstone to start it off with.
Q: How do you make shots of burning Los Angeles look real?
JL: Okay, so you know what’s pretty amazing is you can actually take stills, literally. You can literally take still photos of Los Angeles.
Q: You just animate destruction on the still?
JL: Exactly but you can even go further. What you can do in break up the still. You Photoshop destruction onto the buildings and track that in, so if the camera pans, the destruction remains on the building it’s supposed to be no matter where the camera goes, in 2D space or 3D space. It’s amazing what you can do.
Q: So you do your camera move on a static photograph?
JL: You can do that. You can actually take a video camera and do a move, with a piece of paper with a grid. Track that move, put that move onto the still if that’s what you want to do. Or you can just do the move in the actual place and just track the move in the real place, but you can take a still and put a 2D move on the still.
Q: The CGI in your movie doesn’t look like CGI. What makes all the bad CGI look so fake?
JL: I think a big deal for me is CGI looks a lot better in daylight. CGI looks a lot better when you have highlights on it, like specular hits. For example, this table here in the sunlight would be fantastic in CGI. Did you see the new Harry Potter. Remember there’s the scene in that kitchen where there’s that creature that’s walking around on the table?
Q: Uh, sorry, I don’t remember which creature is which.
JL: I know, there’s so many but you see how my hand goes into the light and the light goes bright there? That will look great. Interaction is what makes CGI. My favorite is Jurassic Park when the dinosaur eats the leaves on the tree and they fall down. It’s the interaction that helps make it real plus putting it in sunlight I think very helpful. I think nighttime CGI is very difficult to make look good.
Q: That’s counterintuitive. Most artists think that night will hide it.
JL: And they do. To me, the best stuff, that’s why I think District 9 works so well is just broad, bright daylight. Look at Transformers. It looks so good when the glint’s coming. It’s also the textures you use. Someone asked me why did I make the [aliens] biomechanical, and there were a lot of story reasons, but I do remember now one of the reasons is the mechanical part of it is much easier to make realistic than the biology.
Q: Are you working on Wrath of the Titans now?
JL: Yes, and I will employ a lot of what we’re talking about into that. So there’s scenes with creatures, all of them I’m trying to play in broad daylight and bring the style that you saw in Battle: Los Angeles to that so it’s a grounded realistic style in a fantasy world. And redesign the costumes so that it feels more grounded and real.
Q: Would that be quite different than Louis Leterrier’s sweeping style?
JL: I keep saying this because it’s important. Louis was a mentor of mine and none of this is badmouthing Louis because I admire The [Incredible] Hulk, I love his stuff. I think my style is a much more subjective style. I want to be much more like there with Perseus and subjective. The extreme version is the Bourne movies of that kind of style. Chris Nolan, Aronofsky does that a lot. He’s always following his characters. So I love that kind of stuff and I like being with them. I think in Greek mythology film I have not seen that.
Q: Do you get to create new monsters?
JL: Yeah, absolutely. No, 100%. It’s just a continuation of the story. The story here is about how the gods die essentially. It’s the death of the gods and how we go from this fantastical world to something we recognize today which I like.
Q: But there are plenty of Greek characters we haven’t seen yet.
JL: Tons, huge and we’re going to use lots of them.
Q: Now that you’ve shown you can do a movie like Battle: Los Angeles, what can you do next?
JL: Dude, I don't know. Hopefully just have my idea taken more seriously by the studio and more input on the scripts, that kind of stuff. Not to sound unambitious but just to be able to do stuff better.
Q: That’s actually refreshing to emphasize the quality of script.
JL: No, I just haven’t had the chance to do a great script so it’s working towards that.