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CGI Fridays

CGI Fridays | Matchmove Master Alia Agha Touched The Abyss

From answering the phones at ILM to previs on The Phantom Menace, Alia Agha tells Ed Kramer how she became a “matchmove master” in CGI Fridays Episode 5.

It’s hardly surprising when Ed Kramer introduces us to someone with a hand in one of the landmark visual effects sequences in science fiction cinema. What is surprising is that when it comes to James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), Alia Agha literally had a hand in the eerie funnel of sentient water.

“It was a Friday afternoon I was on the phone trying to take a message down when Camille Cellucci, the show’s PA [production assistant] for The Abyss, came running up, grabbed my hand held it up to a Polaroid of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s hand and said, ‘Great. What are you doing Monday morning? Be here at 7.30 and don’t cut your hand up over the weekend.’ I had no idea what she was asking me to do. She just said ‘Be there at 7.30 – don’t cut your hand up.’”

Sure enough, Monday morning came around and Agha found herself the hand model in a jaw-dropping VFX spectacle – reaching out to probe the surface of the pseudopod as it mimics the facial expressions of  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Dr. Lindsey Brigman.

“They put some dirt on my fingers to make it look like I’ve been, you know, working in grease and then they just did a drop of glycerin on the finger. Because it’s you know, when the finger comes out, there’s a little bit of drop, that’s glycerin, and then they just had me do this kind of thing over and over again till they got the performance they wanted. I got paid $50 for it and went back to the reception desk and worked the rest of my day.”

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Getting a Foot in the Door at ILM

Agha is an anomaly for CGI Fridays in a few other ways too – “Although I have no evidence of this, I was probably the first Arab American woman to work in CGI,” she observes – and her journey towards Industrial Light & Magic offers an insight into just how male-dominated CG was, with its background in computer programming. Agha meanwhile was an arts graduate so whilst many of our guests switched lanes from the lucrative world of commercial animation, Agha’s game plan was to sneak in through the, well, front door actually as a receptionist. 

“I was at a party and I met a woman there named Jenny Oz, who was a foley artist at Skywalker Sound. So I asked her ‘How did you get in? How did you get in? She goes, ‘Well, I started as a receptionist.’ Now at that point, I had never taken a typing class because I did not want to get stuck at a clerical position. And after speaking with her, I immediately signed up for a typing class, got a job at a real estate company as a receptionist.” It wasn’t long before she saw her chance. Decoding the address in a job ad for a receptionist in a “fast-paced creative environment,”she realized it was ILM.

Alia Agha at Industrial Light and Magic, surrounded by props from Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and more, in the 1980s. | Courtesy of Alia Agha.

“There was a commitment to stay a year on the phones, which I did. But that actually turned out to be one of the most interesting times at ILM, because I got to meet everybody. I got to meet all their families calling in all the people who came through the facility at that time. And as you know, they were shooting inserts on the main stage. So principal actors and directors were always coming through the studio. So it was it was extraordinary to be able to have that experience. And then after a year, I became a PA – the first show I was on was Back to the Future Part III as the effects production assistant.”

Alia’s tenure as a production assistant was short lived. ILM underwent a painful downsizing and she took the opportunity to travel. By the time she returned from Europe, the dust had settled and she was recommended for the role of stage coordinator (“pretty much coordinating everything that would go into a stop motion shoot from set dressing the puppets to camera”) on Henry Sellick’s gothic fable The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

“The year that I was away from ILM working on Nightmare was the year that they did Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump,” she notes. “So that was when CG was emerging as a tool for visual effects.” Returning to ILM as a visual effects coordinator, Alia looked at this emerging field and came up with another plan.

“I was as a coordinator walking around to people’s workstations, taking notes with the director or or the VFX supe, and I remember thinking, I really want to be behind a monitor, I want to be doing this, that just looks so much more fun than what I’m doing it.

Alia Agha

“Back then, you couldn’t just call unemployment and get visual effects artists. They just didn’t exist out in the world, so ILM was very generous about training people, and they had a workstation or a couple of training stations, rather, set up in the optical department. So after a day of coordinating, I would go to the training station and train in the roto software because I thought roto would be a nice in.”

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Matchmove and Men in Black

A technique over a century old, rotoscoping is the process of ‘tracing’ a live-action sequence frame by frame to create animated sequences – such as replacing Andy Serkis with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – or to remove an element frame by frame such as the wires on a stunt. In Alia’s case, her first project as a rotoscope artist was Congo (1995), adding lava to a blue screen, and then Twister (1996) where the brilliant blue skies were replaced by raging dark clouds, and she may or may not have accidentally erased Helen Hunt from shot.

As the technology grew more sophisticated, Agha moved along the production pipeline to matchmove, also called camera tracking. Often grouped with rotoscoping as they represent some of the earliest stages in the visual effects process, matchmove artists are responsible for matching computer-generated sequences with live-action footage, so that they can be combined into a single scene. This was an incredibly painstaking body of work in the early days of matchmove when it had to be done by hand, frame by frame.

“The way I got into matchmove was, again, they needed matchmovers and there were no matchmovers in the world to be had. So they offered training for anybody who wanted to learn how to matchmove and I signed up because I wanted to learn how to work in 3D. I think I had an ulterior motive of becoming an animator someday.”

Frank the Pug in Men in Black (1997). With no data available on the live-action shot, Alia Agha was able to model the dimensions of the kiosk based on a piece of two-by-four in the background. | Columbia Pictures, 1997.

Agha’s part in the rise of Men in Black (1997)’s breakout star is the perfect example of the challenges faced by what Ed justifiably calls a “matchmove master.”

“There wasn’t a lot of information in terms of lens information and measurements. Accurate camera information [and] accurate measurements are critical to getting an accurate matchmove then and taking the 3D world, smashing it into a 2D image, and then bringing it out into 3D in a virtual space. That’s really what matchmove is. So Frank the Pug, the ‘You can kiss my furry little but’ shot.

“I imagined that shot, we had no information for that – nothing. However, I was able to identify in the kiosk, a board that looked like it might be a two-by-four. So I built a two-by-four cube [and] placed it out in space till it lined up. And then from that simple cube was able to build out the kiosk [and] get my matchmove. And then we had the mask of Frank the Pug, the 3D mask. And then with that camera, I match animated Frank’s little face.”

Previsualisation on The Phantom Menace

Given ILM was born amid the sawdust and spaceships of A New Hope, it’s understandable that the prequel trilogy, which marked the beginning of a new era of CGI, is a career high. Ironically, for Alia Agha, her work in front of the camera on Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace sticks in her memory.

“I do remember matchmoving Tatooine and matchmoving a number of the landscapes, but it’s funny because the thing I remember most about Episode I is being an extra. I am in various street scenes of Tatooin, when you see the villagers scurrying around in the background. I’m probably two pixels high or something, but those are my pixels.”

Alia Agha

With a huge number of scenes “digital first” in the sense that George Lucas was building the live action around incredible environments and spectacle, Agha’s matchmove skills were deployed previsualizing the Battle for Naboo “taking storyboards or scripts and creating them in 3D in the 3D environment.

“I was given still frames. [Visual effects supervisor] Dennis Muren and [3D matchmove artist] Dave Hanks went out to Novato and the hills were still green, it was in the Spring and they shot a bunch of stills. So I was given the still photographs. I was given storyboards, and then the various assets of both Jar Jar and all the various creatures. And based on that I built out the cameras and walked in scenes. So that was my that was probably the best experience I had on Episode I was doing that because it was an opportunity to work one on one with Dennis Muren and there were times when he’d be at my desk operating the mouse and I’d be operating the keyboard just to get the right camera, the right position. That was very special.”

This is just a small part of the incredible story that Alia Agha she shares in the latest episode of CGI Fridays. So listen to the full episode for behind the scenes insights from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Men in Black II (2002), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Iron Man (2008), and so much more. 

Today, Alia Agha is camera matchmove lead at Laika, the studio behind such stop-motion delights as ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). 

“The job that I’m in now, I often will say, I liken it to ILM in the 90s. I’m working on a  puppet show – stop motion animation – and yet it’s being integrated with CG. It really does feel like I’ve come full circle in my career working at Laika because again, we are doing things that we haven’t done before. We’re using technology, or we’re developing technology to solve our problems that maybe haven’t been developed before, or using technology in different ways.

“It’s constant learning that I think I love about my career more than anything. It’s non-stop learning.”

Alia Agha

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James Hoare is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.

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