Film

From Mass. to Mumbai

Visual effects guru Jeffrey Kleiser talks Hollywood, Bollywood and extreme telecommuting.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013
photo courtesy of synthespian studios
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You can always tell that someone is passionate about their work when they can’t wait to drag you right into the middle of it. It’s a characteristic that’s especially apparent in people who’ve succeeded in creative or constructive careers—an innate love of craft and of building things with competence and flair that keeps a catchy melody in a composer’s song, a magical rendering of light in an artist’s painting or a razor edge on an armorer’s sword.

It’s partly pride—when you do something well, you always want to show everybody how well—but it’s also just sheer joy, the almost mischievous feeling that comes with the unspoken thought: “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living.”

Such was the feeling when I drove up to Williamstown to interview longtime visual effects supervisor Jeff Kleiser, a man who clearly still has fun with his work despite having clocked untold hours of grueling film, video and still image processing.

Upon my arrival at his studio, Kleiser wasted no time before whisking me into his private screening room to show me some of the demo reels of what he’d been working on with his latest VFX company, Synthespian Studios. The focus of the reels was his work on the 2011 Bollywood film Ra.One, a bizarre hybrid of Bollywood traditions (some song and dance, among other things) and a Western-style sci-fi/superhero action film, which won a host of Indian and international film industry awards, including many for visual effects.

At $24 million, the film’s budget wasn’t quite as generous as the budget for a film like The Avengers, but it was the biggest film India has ever produced, and starred Shah Rukh Khan, who is apparently regarded as an earth-walking deity in Bollywood.

Kleiser heard about the opportunity to work on Ra.One through a headhunter friend of his who works at Dreamworks Animation. Through her international talent searches, she had come across the film’s Indian producers and had recommended Kleiser to them as being particularly skilled in transformative visualizations (his resume includes the “Mystique” transformation sequences in the first three X-Men movies, as well as work on Surrogates, Judge Dredd and The Fantastic Four). When they called him, he was intrigued; he’d never been to India, and it sounded like a new and exciting possibility. That was early in February.

On Feb. 20—about three weeks later—Kleiser was standing in the Mumbai airport, hired as VFX supervisor for the entire project, something that never would happen on a U.S.-produced film schedule. Amazed but up for the challenge, he spent six months in-country, plus another three in London, before returning home to Western Mass.

The plot of the film begins as a fairly mundane father-and-son story, and evolves as the father (Shekhar Subramaniam, played by Shah Rukh Khan), a video game designer, creates a virtual super-villain in the game he’s working on to please his 12-year-old son Prateek (Armaan Verma), who’s decided that villains are cooler than heroes.

Unfortunately, Subramaniam designs the villain too well, amalgamating all the most heinous bad guys from history into one entity that subsequently becomes self-aware and figures out how to manifest itself outside the game, in the physical world. After this villain, Random Access One or Ra.One (Arjun Rampal), kills Subramaniam and comes after Prateek, it’s determined by one of the lab assistants that the only way to stop him is to bring out G.One, the game’s hero, who is modeled after Subramaniam and becomes his reincarnation (Hindu allegories pop up from time to time). These two travel from London to Mumbai, causing much chaos and ultimately engaging in a climactic battle.

Some of the demo reels are cool to watch if you’re into VFX and film production (click on the 480p version for best results). There are shots of actors filming a giant action sequence on train cars, all on a soundstage with green screens, harnesses and fly-wires, back to back with the actual on-screen sequences, so you can see how it’s all pieced together. There are scenes showing arced scaffolds with 360-degree still cameras set up to achieve Matrix-like surround shots, and you start to see hints of how much fun these guys have in candid shots of people like Italian cinematographer and frequent Terry Gilliam collaborator Nicola Pecorini (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), whose smile and commentary could only come from someone accustomed to playing with a lot of other people’s money.

The most playful behind-the-scenes bit is footage of the crew launching cars into the air somewhere near London for shots that are later used in a composite of superhuman battle where the vehicles are tossed about like toys.

It’s not always a celebration, though. One segment of the reel shows a painstakingly crafted miniature model of Mumbai’s Victoria Station (“Victoria Terminus” to the locals) being filmed by 17 cameras while the special effects team blows it up—they have one try—and the effect comes out poorly. Ultimately, the shot is salvaged through digital enhancement and modified frame rate, but on the set there is a collective slumping of shoulders amongst the crew that the physical mini-demolition didn’t come out better.

There is a distinction between “special effects” and “visual effects” in the industry. “A ‘special effect’ is something that’s rigged up to happen onstage,” Kleiser explains, “an explosion, a lighting effect—something that the camera’s actually photographing, whereas a ‘visual effect’ is something that’s added to the film later in post-production—anything computer-generated, if there’s an explosion that’s enhanced with animation, or if there’s compositing, digital backgrounds, set extensions, split-screens.”

These days, many films even use “digital extras,” usually people in crowd scenes (or zombies in World War Z). Kleiser & Co. use a host of digital tools to achieve their end of the magic.

“We use a variety of mostly PCs, running [Autodesk] Maya and Softimage,” Kleiser says. “For rendering we use Mental Ray, Renderman and something new called Arnold, which is a great, out-of-the-box sort of environmental lighting program that makes really good pictures. We do textures with Photoshop.”

Synthespian also develops custom software by working with a global network of programmers in Sweden and Germany, among other places, writing programs like the one used in Ra.One to create the scenes where the digital characters assemble themselves in real space from zillions of tiny cubes. For these sequences, Kleiser says, the program developed what was essentially a kind of AI (artificial intelligence), running on rules that state objectives and limitations such as “Every cube must find a spot within this human shape and go there,” and “No cube may pass through another cube on its way to those coordinates.” The overall effect is, for lack of a better term, extremely cool.

****

Kleiser has been doing VFX work for about as long as there have been computers capable of performing the necessary operations, exhibiting a prescience in the field even as a freshman in college.

“The idea of using computers creatively really resonated with me,” he recalls. “I played drums and made films in high school. My older brother, Randal Kleiser, is a filmmaker. He directed Grease and The Blue Lagoon and a bunch of other movies—so I used to work on films with my brother, and this computer music course I took opened my eyes to creative computing.”

Eventually the young Kleiser, inspired by a professor at Syracuse who was using computers to make images, managed to lobby the administration of his alma mater, Colgate University, to create a department that combined art and computing, and allow him to major in “computer graphics” in 1974. After graduation, he formed a company in New York City called Digital Effects with the professor who had mentored him and some of his students. The company, one of very few that was capable of transferring visual effects onto actual film (still the industry standard at the time), was one of the contributors to Disney’s original Tron (1982).

Kleiser eventually moved on to a Canadian company called Omnibus, then on the lot at Paramount in L.A., which developed “reflection mapping” software for his brother’s 1986 film Filght of the Navigator. When that company went out of business, he formed his own with partner and wife Diana Walczak, a sculptor who had become interested in using computers to create digital human bodies. Eventually they changed the company name from Kleiser-Walczak to “Synthespian” (as in ‘synthetic thespian’), and moved to Western Mass. in 1992 to work for Doug Trumbull in Lenox, who was producing material for the Luxor hotels. They bought a house in Williamstown and stayed to raise their kids, though they still own a house right under the Hollywood sign, where Kleiser spends about one week of every month, to keep their company name out in the marketplace.

“It’s not ideal,” he says, “but the fact that we get to live here instead of Hollywood is, I think, a big plus, and our kids turned out great, so I think we did the right thing.”

Kleiser’s and Walczak’s company was the first commercial tenant to occupy a space at Mass MoCA.

“We met Joe Thompson [founder of MassMoCA] when we were finishing up in Lenox,” says Kleiser, “and we were looking for a place to work out of that was closer to home.”

The vast Mass MoCA campus, originally a textile mill and then a capacitor factory that closed down in the ’80s after the proliferation of transistors rendered it obsolete, has so much space that an operation like Synthespian can move in and set up an extraordinarily complex post-production facility if and when it needs to.

“What Ra.One really showed us was that you can operate from anywhere,” says Kleiser. “I was supervising 800 people directly from a screening room we set up at Mass MoCA with a 50-Megabit pipe [Internet connection] from Time Warner. It cost a lot of money, but it was really worth it because I could stay here and watch dailies come in from Mumbai.”

In addition, Kleiser says he was able to play scenes via a form of video-conferencing (with the aid of Skype) with Ra.One’s producers in India, then freeze frames and draw things on them to illustrate where and when he might be placing effects in real time.

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Kleiser is on the board of the Berkshire Film and Media Commission and the Williamstown Film Festival, and Walczak is on the board of Images Cinema. Both were previously on the board of directors for the Norman Rockwell Museum as well. “We’re pretty engaged [with the local community],” he says. Internationally, he’s on the board of the Visual Effects Society, and has presented at VFX conferences including the London Effects and Animation Festival, SIGGRAPH, INA Imagina, NAB, Opera Totale and the Virtual Humans Conference, and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Kleiser and Walczak have also worked on live multimedia performances at Mass MoCA with such luminaries as Philip Glass, and have done many projects—The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Corkscrew Hill, to name two—used in live-action theme park settings such as Busch Gardens and Universal Studios Orlando. Currently they’re engaged in work on (among other projects) the $100 million remake of Robocop, helmed by Brazilian director Jose Padilha (known for his extremely violent Elite Squad films). They’re also developing a sci-fi film with Kleiser’s brother that reunites the crew from Flight of the Navigator. The film, Probe, follows the story of a young man suffering the effects of an alien implant as it tries to gather information about the world around it/him. He’s also slated to work on a “biblical horror film” that’s shooting in Istanbul, but has been delayed because of rioting in the city.

“One thing about the world of visual effects and computer animation that’s fun is, you never know what you’re going to be working on,” Kleiser says.

Whatever it is, Kleiser will probably be doing it with a smile on his face.•

Ra.One will be screened outside Aug. 22, 8 p.m., $8/kids, $12/general, Mass MoCA, 87 Marshall St., North Adams, (413) 662-2111, www.massmoca.org. Indian food will be available before the screening, and Bollywood dancing and DJ music will also precede the film.

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