Monday, 10 March 2014

interview: Alan Marques

Alan Marques was Digital Effects Supervisor on Strange. I met him when I went on set in October 2002, when a scene was being shot involving a giant, demonic tree inside a house.

What does your role as Digital Effects Supervisor entail?
"I’m basically looking after all of the computer graphics and the post production for the whole series."

How does your work integrate with the on-set effects like this tree demon?
"As you’ve probably noticed, they’ve got puppeteers wearing green costumes, and also the animatronics are controlled by poles which have been painted green that are being operated by those puppeteers. So basically what we’re doing is we’re using that green colour to remove the puppeteers from the environment that they’re in. So for every shoot that we do, we have a clean background plate that we shoot afterwards which has nobody in the shot. We’re able then to use that green colour to remove them completely through the clear plate. In addition to that, there’s stuff we’re adding in post-production that you won’t see today, which is we’re adding actual tree roots that are growing out of the floorboards in the shot. So those are going to be on top of the shot to give it a bit of life. So there will also be things growing up around the camera and stuff like that - that’s computer-generated."

Do you and Neill Gorton’s team have to work together?
"Yes, we do. We go up and take lots and lots of reference photographs of the animatronic under construction, so we know what its surface textures are like. And I’ve taken lots and lots of reference photographs today. So yes, we do it in conjunction because when we come to our side we need to make sure that our CGI elements look the same, so we need as much reference as possible for that."

What attracted you to working on this show?
"The subject matter and the fact that the writing’s really good. Obviously Andrew Marshall has a good reputation, and when I read the script I thought, ‘Great, these are absolutely brilliant scripts.’ I see lots of scripts in my time, and these ones I really like. So I think that was what really got me - as soon as I saw the scripts I said, ‘We’ve got to do this show’."

When you’re reading a script and get to an effects sequence, do you immediately start thinking, ‘Oh, I could see how that would work.’ and start working it out?
"You can do, but typically you do it in conjunction with the director. Our first move was to have a meeting with the director who had already actually done some storyboards for the script. He has a vision and our job is to try and get his vision. You can read in a script what’s going on, but what you don’t know is how many cuts he’s going to use and from what angle. And from our point of view, that’s the important bit: we need to know what angle he’s shooting from, and how to achieve the effect from that camera angle. So basically it’s a combination, but typically we’re working with the director and his vision of the script."

Apart from helping with the tree here, what other effects are you doing?
"Quite a wide range. We have a number of big green-screen shoots. There’s a sequence which takes place on a London bus at night, as it’s travelling fast along a road. That’s all going to be shot inside on a green-screen stage and the backplates for that are being shot elsewhere. We also have an episode with a thing called the Death Coach which has to explode through a wall, from Hell. So it has to come out of this wall and the burning fires of Hell are behind it. It comes into this courtyard and basically the whole sequence takes place using a lot of green-screen and computer graphics to help that sequence be really dynamic.

"With this sequence there‘s going to be a lot of flames in the room but they can’t actually have flames in the room apart from a small flame-fork. So we’re going to be adding a whole load of extra flames in post-production from library footage. And also we have to make the tree creature burn but we can’t really burn it because it’s made of rubber. So we’re going to be adding flames on top of the tree and that will be done completely in post-production. We’re getting these lighting effects on it to make it look like it’s on fire, then we’ll work on it in post-production."

Are there CGI creatures?
"No, there aren’t - and the reason for that is cost. These budgets aren’t great and we’re basically set up to try and be as creative as possible. So the idea on the show is to do as much in camera as possible - Neill Gorton’s work. To actually build the creatures as much as possible, and where they need augmenting, then my side will augment them and actually add things to them. With this tree creature we’re adding branches that are digital. So that’s kind of the way we’re going with this show, simply because to build CG creatures takes a lot of time, and these shows are being turned round really rapidly. We have to do an entire episode in ten days, so that’s a very fast turnaround. Although we’re preparing for it upfront with a lot of planning, that’s still quite a tight turnaround and we have to work with that. Ten days to do the post-production for each episode - that’s enough time for us to do all our effects, to do our green-screen composites and remove the puppeteers from those shots."

Neill was saying it’s more like a film than TV work. Do you find that?
"Yes, absolutely. What they’re trying to achieve is quite wide-ranging, so yes."

Did you work on the pilot?
"No. This is probably the first major TV project we’ve worked on because my company’s fairly new, but I’ve worked on about 14 features over the years in various capacities, things like GoldenEye and Lost in Space. So I’ve worked on quite a wide range. My company’s been set up to try and help facilitate smaller productions who can’t afford big effects houses. We’re set up as a very different kind of business, one that allows us to produce this type of work very cost-effectively, and that’s why we’re able to work on shows like this."

Do you start work as soon as the rushes are through or do you wait until the whole episode is in the can?
"It’s a bit of both. Key sequences we’re given early because we need them as soon as possible. But typically, once the main cut’s done, we’ll be given the effects rolls to work on and we’ll have that ten-day period. But stuff that’s quite tricky to do, we’re going to be given specific shots early so we’ll have plenty of time to crack some of the more difficult sequences. This one today, for example, is probably one of the trickiest things. Removing the puppeteers is quite difficult. You have to have a clean background plate behind them, and sometimes, because the creature’s already in the shot, it’s very difficult to keep the shot clear. So there’s probably going to be a lot of paint work and retouch work.”

review originally posted 17th May 2006

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