Last week the legendary Ed Kramer announced that he was joining The Companion as our man in the heart of the VFX industry, championing the unsung and overlooked pioneers of CGI. If you missed that, check it out here before you read on.
Ed Kramer’s first interview. With Ed Kramer. Kramer vs. Kramer.
Okay, sure, anyone who knows my history with painful puns will assume wrongly that the name was my idea, but since The Companion shelled out for this cool retro logo already, I’m good with it – no matter how hard TGI Fridays tries to take us all down.
I suppose you want to know, basically, okay, who the hell am I? So, in the spirit of a traditional interview, I’ve decided to ask myself that very question.
Okay, Ed. So, basically, who the hell are you?
Thanks for asking, Ed! Well, for more than a decade now, I’ve been a computer graphics professor in the States, currently, I’m in the Animation and Game Arts program at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver, Colorado. Yes, it’s just like you pictured it, with a glorious view of those snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks only a few short miles away. Plenty of snow to look at in the distance, even now in the heat of summer.
Sounds lovely! But why haven’t I ever heard of you?
Well, I’m not like the other fan favorites on The Companion who were the public faces of sci-fi shows – either running the whole show like the legendary Brad Wright or being good-looking and starring in them like the legendary Ben Browder. All I did every day was anonymously sit behind my computer and conjure up the actual on-screen CGI wizardry. My job was to make sure the visual effects shots made moviegoers’ jaws drop, and to make sure those shots got delivered on time. No matter what else was going on in my life – wife, kids, whatever – the movie always came first. Nobody knew who we were, but we were the ones in the digital trenches every day, creating the supercool money shots that made everybody else look so damn good!
Even though I’m not legendary, the company I worked for certainly is! For twelve years, from 1994 through 2006, I was a Senior Technical Director and Sequence Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. To CGI professionals, our yardstick of time passing isn’t years, it’s the shows we work on. So, a better way to say it is that I was at ILM from Jumanji through Pirates of the Caribbean II.
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ILM, of course, is the company George Lucas built to do visual effects work for his Star Wars films. So every geek wants to know – did you work on any Star Wars movies?
Why, yes I did! Thanks for asking! The years I was at ILM were really formative ones in the history of CGI visual effects, and I was really lucky to have been asked to work on all three of the Star Wars Prequels. My primary expertise was photographic lighting, so I was responsible for lighting and surfacing on CGI characters and objects, to make the virtual creations look like they were really in the same environment as the live-action actors.
On Episode I: The Phantom Menace, I have to admit, I lit and composited a number of Jar Jar Binks shots. So whenever someone gives me crap about it, I always tell them that no matter how they feel about Jar Jar, he paid my freaking Marin County mortgage for twelve years!
Probably my most well-known shot is the hero shot of Qui-Gon, which is funny because I finished another shot a day early, so they gave me this quick shot of Liam Neeson on green-screen that needed a background inserted behind him. I looked at the edited sequence to see what came before and what came after, found a good piece of a CGI wall that worked with both, lit it, composited it with blur and moving film grain, and sent the shot to be filmed out – all in about two hours. Now it’s the signature Qui-Gon Jinn shot when you google him.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones, is kind of a highlight of my career – it was the only time I was asked to Supervise on a Star Wars film. I was tasked with the Droid Factory sequence on the bug planet Geonosis, where Anakin and Padme run the spark-filled dirty conveyor belts while she remains pristine white.
I also supervised shots in the End Battle sequences. Supervising sequences often involved creating hero lighting the rest of the team used as a guide, figuring out techniques for making those shots work, and, in this case, supervising an amazing team of artists who barely needed supervision at all.
On Episode III: Revenge of the Sith I worked on the epic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar – the lightsaber duel while floating down a river of lava on a giant mechanical “collection arm.” They shot the actors on a hexagonal wooden model painted green, so they would seem to be holding onto ledges properly. Unfortunately, the model they used in the green-screen studio turned out to be way smaller than the scale of the actual CGI model in the final movie, so there was a ton of work nobody knows about trying to align the live-action Obi-Wan and Anakin to the CGI model they were fighting on.
I shared those shots with another amazing technical director named Peg Hunter. By the way, even in those early years, there were a significant number of women doing lighting, animating, compositing, texture painting, coding, and every other technical task in the entire pipeline. Even today, more than half of my college CGI students are women.
I’m sure that’s encouraging for our female subscribers. You mentioned Jumanji, was that the original one?
Yes, I’m talking about the Robin Williams Jumanji, the one actually based on Chris van Allsburg’s beautifully illustrated book.
I was asked to do CGI lighting and compositing work on the “Monkeys in the Kitchen” sequence. In fact, it was MK1, the first shot where the kids swing open the kitchen door and there’s a bunch of monkeys swinging from the chandelier and wreaking havoc everywhere.
Most people don’t realize this, but the monkeys – and also the lion – from Jumanji were the first characters in movie history to be covered in computer-generated fur. This was done almost six years before Pixar’s Monster’s Inc with that beautiful flowing blue and purple fur on Sully. Our whole fur R&D team – Jeff Yost, Christian Rouet, David Benson, and Florian Kainz – won a technical Oscar in 1997 for their hair and fur software, developed specifically for Jumanji.
Here’s how it works in CGI for movies. I was asked to do initial look development on the monkeys. It was exciting! When the R&D team finally had the fur software ready for lighting tests, I threw a spotlight at the monkey’s chest and hit the Render button on our proprietary lighting system. The monkey’s chest remained completely dark, but his back lit up brightly! To make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I pointed the spotlight at the monkey’s back. Sure enough, his chest lit up!
I called Jeff Yost to my desk and showed him the weirdness. He got on the computer at the next desk, looked intently through his code for a few minutes, and finally said “Ahhh.” I found out later that all he did was change a plus sign to a minus sign. When he recompiled the code, his matrix mathematics worked perfectly, and so did my next render!
Those monkey shots were great because of the incredible animation work of Kyle Balda, Jenn Emberlee, and Julija Learie, the Technical Direction of Christophe Hery, and the Computer Graphic Supervision of Doug Smythe. Our VFX Supervisor was the (yes) legendary Ken Ralston. Unlike today where loads of companies do VFX shots for every movie, in those days, VFX Supervisors were responsible for every visual effect shot in the entire film, so folks like Ken got to be legendary too. A sad sidenote is that Ken had to take over as VFX Supervisor for Steve Price, who tragically passed away shortly after the show began. I’m sure Steve would have gone on to be legendary too.
One more story while we’re still on Jumanji. I also did the lighting, compositing, and effects work on the “Car Crush” shot, where the police car is squeezed between two trees and dragged away into the woods by a computer-generated vine. Earlier in the show, my supervisor on that shot, Carl Frederick, had been doing the look development work on the CGI lion. The lion had short fur on his body, but he needed nice long fur for his mane. On one of Carl’s first overnight turntable renders of the lion, the mane looked way too puffed out, like he’d just pulled his head out of the hair drier at a beauty salon. Watching that render over and over and over in dailies that morning – it’s what CGI artists do – we realized that hair naturally clumps together. If we wanted it to look realistic, it needed some of that natural random clumping effect. So that day the R&D team got to work and implemented “clumping” as a parameter in their software. Carl ran the lion turntable again, this time with clumping enabled. But in CGI, of course, you have to set a numerical value for the amount of clumping, and nobody knew what value to dial in. So in dailies the next morning, there was Carl’s lion, turning round and round – with long dreadlocks! Not sure if that video still exists somewhere in the ancient tape libraries at ILM, but it certainly got a good laugh in dailies!
What do you consider your signature work from your time at Industrial Light & Magic? Are there any other projects that stand out?
In 1998, on the strength of my previous work on Jumanji, Twister, Jurassic Park II, and 101 Dalmatians, I lobbied really hard to be promoted to Sequence Supervisor on The Mummy, the Brendan Fraser action/horror/comedy from an awesomely cool director named Stephen Sommers. I convinced the legendary Visual Effects Supervisor John Berton to let me supervise the Scarab Beetle shots, and those chittering flesh-eating bugs became my best-known work at ILM. After the Mummy franchise, John went on to VFX Supe both Men in Black and Men in Black II, and is still recognized today for his cameo as the split alien guy postal worker in MIB2.
Just last month, the Universal Monsters Universe group on Instagram asked me to do a live podcast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Mummy Returns. I shared my memorabilia collection from both films, including both original scripts, rare ILM T-shirts, and crew gifts including a shoulder bag with the iridescent scarab logo and even a fez with the same cool scarab logo. The crowd favorite was when I held up to the camera an actual scarab from the movie set, one of the ones that had been pried out of the wall. They had sent it to me when I was writing the scarab shader so that I could match the sheen of my CGI scarabs to the practical scarabs.
Just for the record, the scarab iridescence effect actually owes something to Star Wars! Chris Townsend – who eventually became the legendary VFX Supervisor of a ton of Marvel mega-hits, including Captain Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – was working on Episode I: The Phantom Menace in the next office over. He was technical directing the Boss Nass shots in the Gungan underwater city. Chris had worked out an iridescence technique for Boss Nass’s shoulder pads. I “borrowed” that shader, stripped everything out except the bare minimum iridescence effect, and implemented it for the scarabs. (Had to keep the shader down in size because there were so damn many scarabs, and I didn’t want to exceed the memory limits and crash the rendering computers!) So the shiny scarabs in The Mummy owe their existence in part to Boss Nass’s shoulder pads!
Anyway, I had two amazing artists working with me on those scarab shots: Erik Krumrey who wrote code to make the scarabs orient themselves to whatever they were crawling over, and Indira Guerrieri, who figured out the technique to make it look like the scarabs were moving around under their victims’ flesh. She did that awesome shot of the scarab crawling inside that fat guy’s belly. BTW, John Berton recently told me that on set – while the camera was rolling – that fat guy’s pants fell down, and he was wearing nothing underneath! They all looked at John and asked if he could fix that in post. He told them “Of course not” and made them re-shoot the scene, with pants.
I do have two other projects that I’m particularly proud of. One of my favorite films of all time is Galaxy Quest, and it would still be – even if I hadn’t been asked to supervise the CGI Rock Monster that chases Tim Allen around on that alien planet. I worked out the hero lighting and figured out the particle techniques to generate dust and rock chips as the individual boulders of his body collide with each other. I also created the technique to crack the ground when Rocky takes heavy steps in the desert. Dan Goldman helped with some of the hardcore coding, James Tooley rigged the internal geometry to make the boulders collide, Jim Hourihan wrote the particle system interface, Sunny Wei modeled two different versions of Rocky (only one of them made it into the final film), Ron Woodall painted the rock textures, and “Huck” Wertz animated the creature. CGI, in case you didn’t realize it, is always a team effort, with lots of individual, specific jobs.
My other signature project was from before I started at ILM, when I was with a company called The Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company. Working with two VFX legends, Jeff Kleiser and Joel Hynek (famous for creating the Predator invisibility effect) I helped animate the Columbia Pictures “Lady with a Torch” logo that opens every movie from that legendary studio! I figured out how to use Wavefront software (the ancient DNA that Maya was born from) to create those opening light rays emanating from the torch. At one point during that project, Joel took Jeff and me for a flight in his small Cessna. Flying over Jeff’s house in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, we looked down at the clouds below us and were amazed to see a perfectly circular double rainbow, colorfully refracted onto the top of a cloud. All three of us had the same thought – that’s perfect for the Columbia Pictures logo! So I got right to work in Wavefront figuring out how to add that colorful double rainbow.
I should also mention that I worked with Jeff Kleiser’s company supervising one of the three Egyptian-themed attractions for the Luxor hotel when it opened in 1994 in Las Vegas. That project was the brainstorm of the truly legendary visual effects icon Douglas Trumbull! What an honor to work with the man who had created the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner! Last year, because I’m now the Chair of the SIGGRAPH Pioneers group, I had the incredible honor to interview Doug Trumbull about his career.
Based on Kleiser’s success with Egyptian-themed graphics for Luxor, he was able to snag the contract to do the VFX work for a new film from rising star director Roland Emmerich, a project titled simply Stargate. I was put in charge of the helmet morph shots. How incredibly lucky to actually be on set during some of the principal photography, watching James Spader and Kurt Russell work their magic for the movie that set the whole Stargate universe in motion!
Glad you brought that up, Ed. I’m sure our subscribers want to finish this post by asking about your future plans for CGI Fridays.
Sure Ed, great idea. I’ve been talking with Lawrence, Nick, Tommy, and James about that, and there are lots of ways to go. Please leave comments, I’m hoping to get some feedback from you guys, the members, about what you’re interested to hear. My “special sauce” is that I’m friends with many of the world’s top CGI artists, and can get in touch with almost anyone doing high-level CGI today. What do you guys want to hear about on CGI Fridays?
- Interviews with specific CGI artists about their careers (I’ve mentioned many of them in this blog, and there are literally thousands of artists making CGI for TV, movies and games) The cool thing is that these artists didn’t do just one amazing effect for one movie, they had entire careers on a number of films, shows or games. For instance, I could do a zoom chat with my friend Chris White, who started out at ILM as an intern on Twister and is now at Weta Digital making incredibly lifelike CGI apes for the Planet of the Apes franchise.
- Breakdowns and backstories about specific VFX shots, from the artists who created them. For instance, I could talk with Frank Vitz about how he made the signature CGI water effects for the Stargate ring in the movie, then compare that to how John Gajdecki dealt with the same effects on a TV budget for SG-1.
- More details about how CGI works, including images from inside various software packages like Maya, Substance, and the Unreal engine. Don’t worry, I won’t ever get too technical for the average fan. As a teacher, I’m used to explaining techie details in easy-to-understand ways. This could include blogs about particle system effects (like the scarabs from The Mummy or the dust and rock chips from Galaxy Quest’s Rock Monster) or a look at how fluid dynamics is used to create photorealistic fire, smoke and explosions, or how lighting is done in a CGI scene, or how cloth is simulated, or how CGI artists create photorealistic oceans, or …
- A mash-up of all of the above!
Please leave your comments and other ideas, looking forward to giving you guys the cool stuff you want to hear about under the catch-all banner of CGI Fridays!
Thanks, Ed, let’s hope we get some good feedback from our members.
And thanks to you too, Ed! This has been a blast! Hey, let’s go grab a beer!
CGI Wizard Ed Kramer: Why I’m Joining The Companion
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As a Senior Technical Director and Sequence Supervisor for George Lucas’ company, Industrial Light + Magic, Ed’s CGI effects appeared in Star Wars Episodes I, II and III, (1999, 2002, 2005) and Oscar-winner Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), as well as many others. He’s currently working on a documentary, Wizards of Hollywood: Movie Magic Secrets from the Artists who Invented CGI.Find out more at wizardsofhollywood.com