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90s Blockbusters

Gattaca to Gravity | Chris Watts on Faking it in VFX

You might not know the name Chris Watts, but, trust me, you know his work. He not only handled the visual effects for many of the most ground-breaking films of the ‘90s and beyond, but he also developed technologies and techniques that are still used in VFX to this day. Remember the beautiful shift from black and white to color in Pleasantville? That was Watts, creating technology that is still used in film now. Remember the gorgeous low-key effects of Gattaca? Watts. Remember 300 and Waterworld, or the weightless effects in Gravity? All Watts. I spoke to him via Zoom to find out more about his career, and the various developments he’s seen – and created – in VFX.

Back at the start of the 90s Watts was new to the world of VFX, coming off the back of working in the music industry, and briefly owning a microbrewery. He jokes that he moved into effects work because he “failed at everything else”, but he’s clearly being harsh on himself. Like many in the film industry, he began his career in commercials, working for DreamQuest where he met Mike McAlister, the VFX Supervisor who would eventually get Watts his first feature film work, on the Warner Bros movies The Hudsucker Proxy and Demolition Man. Watts found that while most commercials were using digital effects by the early ‘90s, film was lagging a little behind, and he was surprised to find that films like Hudsucker was still using optical rather than digital effects, achieved by simply overlaying one image over another on a frame.

“Even though I knew about optical effects and knew how to do them, from the moment I set foot into VFX, digital was always right there on the horizon and… it just seemed silly to pursue anything other than digital effects when I was early in my career.”

Chris Watts

Product (Re)Placement

At Warner Bros., Watts worked in the only department at the studio that was doing digital effects at the time, and so he was often working on multiple films simultaneously. He and his department worked on a mix of digital and practical effects, including the freezing effects in Demolition Man (1993). They were initially done practically, with “this lead acetate stuff that was supposed to solidify, this supersaturated solution of some chemical which solidified rather quickly,” but, as if often the case, it didn’t quite work as expected and had to be fixed digitally. More often, though, the effects work was of the more mundane variety, like swapping out one product placement for another.

“They wanted us to digitally replace the labels on a [Taco Bell] drink with a Pizza Hut drink, or something like that. They asked us to do that digitally, but we just went and shot it,” he laughs. “We got the props, went to a stage and we just shot them. They looked great! The producers were really happy with the work. ‘Perfect digital shots’!” He chuckles at the memory. “That’s something I often still do, whenever I’m tasked with a [digital] shot, I always ask myself, and I thank Mike McAlister for this: ‘Would it be easier to reshoot it?’ You can shoot something in an hour that it might take you a week to do digitally, and it won’t come out right anyway.”

Watts thinks that the digital effects of the very early ‘90s were held back by a lack of vision more than by a lack of ability. “It’s funny because we could have been there, it’s just people didn’t have high enough standards. They didn’t have the confidence that we could do it right, so they didn’t work hard and long enough on things to get it right. The tools didn’t change that much. Certainly [VFX software] Matador turned into something better, but it wasn’t like there was a giant sea-change in the ability to invent.” Watts was clearly, from even the earliest part of his career, keen on pushing the capabilities of the technology and inventing new ways of tackling effects. 

Following on from his Warner Bros. work, Watts took a job with The Computer Film Company and moved to the UK, working on films including Mary Reilly and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) among others. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ended up being a bigger job than anyone expected, with the film requiring far more digital effects shots than were originally planned for. The film’s bookend scenes in the frozen north were especially challenging. “There was no mist, none of the breath, none of the things you generally associate with the North Pole,” Watts laughs. “So that was all added digitally, mostly in 2D… [Luckily] all those guys were so good at 2D that they could do almost anything.”

Baby Got Gattaca

After that, Watts went on to Waterworld (1995), which we discussed at length here, before going on to Matilda (1996) and Gattaca (1997). By this time, in the mid-90s, digital effects were becoming increasingly prevalent in film, although only a small number of VFX houses had the know-how to do them. “I used to tell people don’t underestimate the difficulty of getting an image from film into a computer and then back onto film and have it look the same,” Watts says. “There are quite a few ‘gotchas!’ in that process, and I learned them all, most of them the hard way.” 
At the time, Watts says he was inspired by the work Michel Gondry was doing – especially in the video for The Rolling Stones’ ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which featured a precursor to bullet time. Watts had hoped to use a similar effect in Gattaca, the low-fi near-future film directed by Andrew Niccol, but found that it was simply out of their budget.

“Gattaca was a super low budget movie, we had no money at all. We did things like we would shoot looking in one direction at one side of the set, then we’d reset the whole set in the other direction and shoot from the other side to make it look like it was twice as big. A lot of it was accomplished practically, but there were some digital things in there too to make things look bigger and more spacious and more futuristic.”

Chris Watts

Gattaca was Watts’ first movie where he had full creative control over the effects. “I did everything, I was visual effects editor, visual effects supervisor, coordinator, I was the entire department. It was a great experience. I was so proud of the work, and I’m glad I didn’t screw up an otherwise great movie.” He was especially keen to make sure that the VFX complemented Jan Roelfs’ Oscar-nominated Art Decoration (“I worked extra hard not to screw it up with visual effects, as production designers often expect digital effects to do.”)

Most of the effects in Gattaca were practical, with the notable exception of the impressively photo-real shots of rockets taking off in the distance, which he developed alongside a company called 3DSite. “Andrew Niccol is a wildly creative guy, and a total perfectionist, so those rocket shots… I probably had 50 takes of each of them,” Watts says. In the end, Watts confesses to using an old take and passing it off as a new one to please Niccol.

“That’s another trick I learned in digital effects. You don’t necessarily need to make a new version, you can probably use a version you’ve already made. Those rockets were tough, but it was good for me to learn how to make something look that real.”

Chris Watts

Color Bleed

Shortly after finishing on Gattaca, Watts found his next gig literally in a bar, where he happened to meet the director’s assistant on Pleasantville (1998), Gary Ross’ fantasy about modern-day siblings being transported into a black and white ‘50s TV show. The film relied on a tricky device in which color slowly bleeds into the film, one character and location at a time, and Ross’ team had just been let down by the company they’d hired to do that. Watts got a meeting with Ross and “asked a lot of questions, that they had no idea what the answers were. I didn’t either, but I acted like I did. They ended up hiring me, amazingly.”

Watts put a team together and invented the Digital Intermediate process (commonly known as DI), whereby film is digitized and then manipulated to alter, for example, the color of the final film. It’s still used this day, although less frequently, as more and more people choose to shoot on digital rather than film. For something so complicated and original, the process went surprisingly smoothly. “Don’t tell them this, but I didn’t know what I was doing any more than anybody else did,” Watts chuckles. “I was still in my 20s, I think. But I had the vision for what I wanted it to look like, and eventually got that vision built. Gary Ross is a pretty strong personality too, so when I convinced him that we needed something, he was able to convince the studio on my behalf that we needed something. We didn’t really need that much, we used our resources very efficiently. To give you an idea, we did the entire movie on two terabytes of disk. Two terabytes in a quarter of the output of one artist per day these days in most visual effects facilities.”

The DI process used in Pleasantville is one of the most striking achievements in VFX history. | Gary Ross, 1998.

Watts holds Pleasantville up as an example of a film where everything on the VFX side of things went right. No-one even noticed the film’s other various digital effects, because they were so gobsmacked by the color shift, and because the effects were so good that they were more or less invisible. “Which is what happens when you have your own facility and you’re the boss and nobody’s telling you to finish right away,” Watts explains. “You can work on stuff until it looks good. Another valuable lesson.

Pleasantville was nice like that. It was one of the only movies I’ve ever said to myself ‘Okay, I’m done, I’m leaving’. It was done. We finished it. It was nice to have actually finished a movie rather than have it grabbed from my grasping hands.”

Chris Watts

Center of Gravity

Watts’ career continued to develop beyond the ‘90s. On Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) he chose to shoot the film on digital stills cameras rather than animation cameras, an approach later adopted by the stop-motion animation studio Laika. He was also brought in to solve problems on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013).

“Warner Bros. called up and said, ‘Hey Chris, go to London and make sure they’re not shooting a giant cardboard space shuttle with people hanging from wires around it’. So I went there and there was no cardboard space shuttle, but there were definitely people hanging from wires.”

Chris Watts

Watts worked on finding a way to recapture the dynamic lighting effects that the crew had painstakingly set up for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on their computed animated counterparts and also helped develop the custom-built robotic camera rig IRIS, which allowed Cuarón to follow the “people hanging from wires” with speed, range and accuracy.

The motion-control IRIS follows Sandra Bullock on the set of Gravity. | Bot&Dolly.

“That’s kind of my job a lot of times, just having really good ideas and letting other people take the credit for them.” Watts jokes, but it must be hard not to feel some small amount of resentment when an industry runs on your inventions. “Kodak tried to patent [DI] after I taught them how to do it, which was annoying. But hey, they’re out of business and I’m not,” Watts laughs, adding: “It would have been nice to get rich off that, but I didn’t, and I’m okay with it. It seems cool that I got to help invent something that everybody uses now.

“People look at me and say ‘He invented DI’. I guess I kind of did. But the way I see it I was just the only one dumb enough to try to do it on a whole movie all at once.”

Chris Watts

In Watts’ mind, while the tools for achieving digital effects are constantly changing and developing, the job itself pretty much remains the same. “Everybody wants to see something new and different that they’ve never seen before, and it looks real and it will engage the audience and won’t pull them out of the movie,” he says. “That’s never going to change, people are always going to want that, and I don’t think that comes from a computer yet, it comes from the artist and the editor and all the people who worked together on making the film. That’s what makes movies great, is that collaboration that you get between all the departments on the film and all the people and sets and things that go into a movie. Yeah, the computers and the tools and all that stuff are definitely part of that, but I don’t see that they are the soul of the industry or the movies, I just see them as a thing that makes it possible to get more work done in less time.” 

The tools of the VFX trade have changed, and so has the quality, especially now that people are more willing to put the time and money into doing the effects well, rather than just well enough. But one thing that has never changed throughout Watts’ career is the expectations put on the VFX department. “People will still ask for crazy stuff no matter what you do. Directors are always still out of their minds, asking for stuff that’s impossible,” he says, laughing. “But I’m grateful for that. It keeps me working.”

Shoutouts: A huge thanks to Daniel Colombini, Timothy B. Murphy Jr., and Laurence Clarke, three of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible! 

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Abigail is a journalist and writer currently living in Oxford. She can still quote late-90s films and TV shows at length but has forgotten everything she once knew about maths.

Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Chandler

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