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CGI Fridays

CGI Fridays | Adam Howard on Playing Palpatine and the Secret CG of Birdman

In part two of his interview, digital painter and animator Adam Howard tells Ed Kramer about Star Wars and Birdman in CGI Fridays Episode 7.

Our first two-part episode of CGI Fridays – and if you’ve caught up with Episode 6, you’ll understand why – Australian-born veteran of small and large screen CG is, like many Aussies, a natural raconteur. When we left him he was recalling work on James Cameron’s epic Titanic – which in 1997 overtook Star Wars’ box office records – so it’s appropriate that we rejoin him for CGI Fridays Episode 7 in the climatic final chapter of the Prequel Trilogy.

CGI Fridays | Adam Howard Made Phasers Pop on Star Trek: The Next Generation

From a firefighter’s mosaic to phasers and photon torpedoes, digital painter and animator Adam Howard reveals a passion for pyro in CGI Fridays Episode 6.

Sabre Artist on Revenge of the Sith

Now an engineer of the impossible at Industrial Light & Magic, Adam Howard worked on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and as a “SABRE artist” – ILM’s high-speed compositing department was known as the SABRE Department in honor of its best-known contribution to cinematic history, the snap-hiss and brilliant glow of the Jedi lightsabre.

Howard’s core responsibility was the “scan-line glitchy” hologram effect in the movie as various Jedi Masters report in to the council remotely, emphasizing the galactic spread of the Clone Wars and the strain they’ve put on the routine business of the council.

The Star Wars Prequels might have been highly technical (something even the most ardent critics can agree on), but that didn’t mean they were efficient – even when it came to lining up one of the film’s many shot/reverse scenes where the camera jumps from over one character’s shoulder to the other as they speak.

“I had one shot, it should have been a pretty standard shot,” he tells Ed. “It’s a shot of Padmé telling Anakin she’s pregnant. So they’re in this big hallway, big columns over his shoulder looking at her, and he puts his hand up to her face and holds her face as she’s telling him ‘I’m so happy, this is wonderful.’ The problem with the shot was that George [Lucas] had shot it three times and when he got into editorial, he decided well, I want to use Hayden from one and Natalie from the other and the hand from another, and none of them lined up. The hand that he wanted to use and the timing that he wanted to use it occluded her face in its own take, but in the face that he was using of [Padmé], Her face was back here, instead of her face cutting the fingers off here. Her face was back here in the final comp. So when the hand went in, [it] vanished. 

The Industrial Light & Magic VFX crew – with friends – on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Good luck spotting Adam. | Courtesy of Adam Howard.

“I went to [production visual effects supervisor] John Knoll, I said, ‘Mate, what am I going to do?’ He goes ‘I don’t know, you’ll come up with something.’ I said, ‘Can I use my hand?’ And he goes. ‘Sure.’ John had just bought this brand spanking new 12-megapixel DSLR camera, which was just a magnificent piece of equipment. And I said, ‘Can I borrow your camera?’ And so I drove into the parking lot and taped some green screen to the back of my jeep. I printed out different frames of the hand, so I knew what the lighting was and what the position of the hand was relative to the camera. And then I literally held the camera, just moving my hand into frame all these times until I knew that I had something that was roughly approximate Hayden Christensen’s hand.”

The still frames were then loaded into compositing software called Inferno, the green screen was removed, and the ‘matching’ hand worked into the shot

“In the final shot when the hand comes sliding in, it’s my hand, except for this part, which is Hayden, and the thumb, which is Hayden, It’s my hand that goes behind her face – when it comes out. It’s his hand. Switcho-chango.

Adam Howard

The rest of Howard would receive its moment of Star Wars immortality in good time – and clad in the severe Sith robes of the movie’s menacing Ian McDiarmid no less.

“We had another shot of Emperor Palpatine as a hologram on one of the war tables toward the end of the film,” says Howard. “They had either not shot that element, or it had been forgotten, ordered and lost, or whatever. And there was so much stuff going on that it felt like a miracle that ILM was able to keep track of it.

“I said, ‘Well, do we have the costume?’ and amazingly, the costumes have just arrived back from Sydney where they’ve been shooting the movie. They dug out the costume, and I put it on, [Inferno artist] Sam Edwards got his video camera and he put it on a tripod and I stood on the picnic table outside of the building against the white wall. That became the element of Palpatine. And then I made it a hologram and stuck it on there. And so I’m in the movie twice.”

Star Wars | What Will it Take For the Sequels to be Re-Appraised?

The Star Wars Prequels were loudly derided on release, but time has transformed their fortunes. Will The Last Jedi or Solo be remembered more fondly too?

VFX Supervisor on Birdman

After ILM, Howard went on to serve as the co-VFX supervisor on Jackie Chan action comedy Rush Hour 3 (2007) and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando Resort, before being called in at a moment’s notice to “redo all the blades” in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). That’s a lot of blades.

“There were maybe 50 shots that had to be done from scratch. I pulled all of my crew off Harry Potter for three weeks with Universal’s approval. We just hunkered down. We had to track all the shots and render the animation and work out how to make it look like the metal that it needed to be.

“We did every single blade shot in that film and big shots like him on the motorcycle exploding out of the barn – that was a fun film.”

Adam Howard

After The Wizarding World of Harry Potter came a VFX supervisor role on The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011) and Part 2 (2012), and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 take on Cosmos. Then came Howard’s “Oscar movie” –  the surreal superhero-referencing comedy-drama Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Granted none of the awards were for visual effects (not like Howard’s four Emmys, lest we forget), but Birdman is a film where (giant bird monster aside) the visual effects aren’t supposed to be seen, giving him a part-share in that Best Cinematography win.

“From a challenging point of view – right alongside the challenges of TitanicBirdman was an unbelievably complex film. For people who have not seen the film. The entire film is one continuous shot – it was based on a Russian film that had been made many years ago that tried to do the same thing [2002’s experimental journey through the Winter Palace in Russian Ark]. And Hitchcock had done the same kind of thing, I think in Rear Window [1954] and Rope [1948] [but] this was an entire movie that was one continuous shot. The director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki was the guy really driving the process of that. Alejandro G. Iñárritu was the director and it was his vision to make it all happen. So I was on as the supervisor of the film to work out how we made that happen.

“The biggest challenge that we had on Birdman was that there was no motion control on the film at all. The entire film was handheld.

Adam Howard

“For example is a shot with Michael Keaton walking out of his dressing room down a corridor, down the stairs through the backstage, onto the stage across the stage, out the door, into the street, up the street… The dressing room that he walks out of was built on a soundstage underneath the stage they use as Sesame Street in Queens. The staircase that he’s walking down is a small staircase in the St. James Theater in New York, the stage is in a completely separate part of that theater. Then he walks straight across that through the backstage area on the other side, walks out the door, and as he walks out the door, there’s a hookup in there as well to a different take.

“So we had to blend all these pieces. Traditionally what you do in shows like that is you use old-school techniques. So you go behind somebody’s back and you can cut and dissolve to another dark subject and it looks like you’ve done a continuous move. [But in Birdman] everything was all right there in front of you – you had no way to cheat. [Lubezki] would hold the camera with his viewfinder and I would stand next to him with a little playback monitor and say ‘We’re going shot A to shot B.’ I would have shot A on a loop and he’d be watching, especially toward the end of the shot [and] he would just optically match his camera to what he was seeing on the view screen next to me, then we get into post and we blend them all together.”

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.

VFX in a Time of Covid

Adam Howard, who is a talented digital artist, is still very much at the top of his game and this article only nibbles at the surface of his full CGI Fridays appearance. One thing is certain, we’ll have the material for a third installment sooner rather than later…

“42 years later,” he concludes, “I’m still a visual effects supervisor. I did a great little psychological thriller last year called Fear of Rain that we shot here in Florida. We did all the visual effects work at MELS [Studios] up in Montreal. But I ran all that from here because it was all during COVID We had to work out a whole new way of working where we couldn’t be on set, we couldn’t be in post, we couldn’t travel. So we did everything remotely.

“Most recently I was in the Dominican Republic shooting a movie [The Black Demon], which I won’t mention now. We shot in the water tank at Pinewood Studios in the Dominican Republic for three and a half months. And that was an amazing experience building a huge set piece in the middle of this 20-foot deep water tank, working with scuba camera crews and really extraordinary people.”

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