SFX on VFXPro, Part 4: Evan Jacobs

By Catherine Feeny

April 04, 2001 01:16 PM PDT

Evan Jacobs co-founded Vision Crew Unlimited in 1994 with partners Jon Warren and Doug Miller in an effort to forge a new path. Jacobs, born in Michigan, grew up outside of the film industry. But like peers Mike Fink and Thaine Morris, as a child he made 8mm films rife with concoctions of Elmer's and cardboard and flaming Lego spaceships. He, too, was blown away by "Star Wars." At 19, having completed two years of film school, Jacobs emerged, "not really qualified to do anything." He started working at Fantasy II, an effects house where they did a little of everything -- full-size sets, miniatures, opticals, animation and pyrotechnics. There he met Jon Warren, and together, they watched, learned and swept floors.

Moving on to Boss Films, Jacobs eventually had an opportunity to work with the preeminent modelmakers of the day. And this is where our journey with Jacobs begins…

Were you and your partners Jon Warren and Doug Miller always interested in creating a company with a physical rather than digital emphasis?

We entered the industry at kind of an interesting time. It was right at the end of the photochemical days, so we were the last generation of people to come through that. We were really intimately familiar with the photochemical optical process, when shooting blue screens was a really fussy business and Boss was the preeminent photochemical optical house. They were doing better opticals than anybody in the world. It really is a voodoo business, opticals.

A voodoo business?

It wasn't like it is today where you can train someone to do a composite and it's fairly straightforward. At the time, there were a handful of guys who really knew how to do it and they didn't even know exactly what it was that they were doing. They just tended to get better results for some reason. They couldn't explain it.

It was a very different world, because you'd work for 24 hours straight shooting out a scene and not knowing whether you'd made a mistake somewhere until you got the film back. The pressure was immense. We weren't working in the optical department but that was the core business at Boss. Boss was a very departmentalized company so the model shop was a separate entity from the optical, editorial and stage.

My big break in the model shop at Boss -- which was really sort of my big break in the business -- was when Mark Stetson, the model shop supervisor at Boss, left to open his own company and Dave Jones took over. When that happened, they needed new people and I was able to get in there. It was really an amazing time because that was right when they got "The Hunt for Red October" and "Solar Crisis," which were two huge shows at the time. There were 50-55 of the best model makers in the world in that shop. It was an amazing place at that time. Everybody there had worked on "Blade Runner," "Close Encounters" and "Star Wars." I was working with guys I had read about for years.

When the digital age came in, suddenly a lot of the knowledge base that had been really important was not as important. Initially it was like, if you know how to program a computer then you're on top -- nobody valued cinematic knowledge. That's what it was like for a few years. There was a very small number of people working in the computer field who really knew how to apply old world techniques.

Could you put an approximate date on that period?

The revolution began at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) a little sooner, but at Boss, I think "Cliffhanger" (1993) and "Alien 3" (1992) were the last photochemical/optical shows.

That was when Boss started investing a lot of money in computers -- I.L.M. was already doing it. They were really on the forefront and Boss was playing a little bit of catch-up. Boss was an amazing facility -- they had the biggest cloud tank in the world, all the toys. But suddenly it just wasn't as important to have all that stuff because you could do it CG. Very quickly it became about how many computers you had. It was a weird time for the model shop because suddenly people were investing a lot of money in new hardware and they needed to justify it. People were also tending toward computer solutions because there were guys on staff who were getting paid whether they were working or not, whereas The Model Shop crewed up on a per project basis. Suddenly it made sense financially for the company to use the computer and the influence of the model shop began to diminish.

I was working freelance so I was able to go out and come back but some of the guys who were there permanently started to feel like the model shop at Boss had become the bastard child. Jon and I and Doug had been starting to look for work outside of the company -- we felt like they were missing the boat. We still thought it was a great medium and a great way to solve problems. So we lucked out and got a few jobs. We started our own company as a response to the kind of inefficiency we were starting to see and the frustration of dealing with the interdepartmental politics. I look at it now and it almost seems naïve to me, but at the time we really felt we coould build a better mousetrap.

When did three of you come together as an entity then?

It was 1994. We had been talking about it, but we didn't have any capital. We were just working guys. Then somebody referred me to a commercial company that was looking to do a job that everybody else had turned down. It was a huge football stadium that they needed for this video game commercial called "NFL Quarterback Club." The football stadium ended up being 75-feet long and about 20-feet high and about 35-feet wide.

Where did you build that then?

They only had two weeks to build this thing and we said we could do it -- we were very gung ho. We told them that we needed a place to build it and we didn't want to move it, because there was so little time. So they needed to rent a place that they could shoot it in too. They rented us building in downtown L.A., right across the street from the Los Angeles County Jail. It wasn't in the best part of town but it was a huge empty warehouse. It was 44,000 square feet.

We didn't have chairs, I mean we didn't have anything. We had our personal tools and a name. So we told them to give us a start payment so that we could open a bank account and do the project. We went out the first day and bought a whole bunch of tools, some of which we still have today, and put together a crew. It was 14 days of no sleep. Nobody would deliver to that place except Dominos so we ate pizza every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was very exciting.

When you were putting together your crew for that, were you able to recruit the guys that you'd worked with at Boss?

Yes, that's what we did. The modelmaking world is mostly a freelance world. It was pretty straightforward, because Jon and I had been leading crews at Boss and other places. We were not unaccustomed to hiring people, although it is a little different when it is your money. But we knew exactly who we needed and we put together the crew. We were we really proud because we came up with a lot of really clever solutions. It was a lot of fun.

Can you give me an example of a solution that you came up with?

We had to fill a lot of space so we used a systematic approach. Doug had been starting to experiment with computer modeling and he applied his knowledge of that to designing the set. We needed to do a forced perspective on the stadium because otherwise it would have been ridiculously large. But because they were going to move around it a lot we could only force the perspective in the Z-axis, the height. We couldn't force it in the width and the length because they needed to be able to move the camera in close. We weren't completely sure that was going to work so we did pre-visualizations. We built the whole thing in the computer and then designed all of the parts and got a complete lumber cut list out of this design so that we could just chop wood. It was an unbelievably repetitive job because there were 100,000 seats. We had to figure out a way to do it all very quickly and be very efficient. We ended up executing that job exactly the way that we had always wanted to execute jobs at the other places that we'd worked. Previously, because of the management structure we never had the freedom to do that. So we were really excited about that. Now pre-viz is commonplace, but at the time it really wasn't done that much.

What happened after that job?

It turned out great and it was a very productive experience for us. But we finished that job and we didn't have the resources to open a shop. We had very little money left over.

What we did after that job, actually -- because we really didn't have any other work and we hadn't been marketing ourselves -- we put everything we had bought for the company in storage and went back to work at Boss. We worked on "Outbreak" and some commercials, and then this "Broken Arrow" job came up. A friend of ours was the effects supervisor on it and he said "Hey, I need a miniature." Once again it was one of these jobs that can't be done -- it was 3 weeks to build a perfect, 8-foot wing span aircraft. It was impossible, especially at that time when it was commonplace to have a little more time than people typically have now. So nobody was going to take the job or they wanted way too much money, and we said we could do it.

We pulled everything out of storage -- we really didn't think we would stay open. We thought we'd open for that one job. It was a 3 week job. Typically what you do on an airplane is sculpt the shape, mold it and then cast it and clean it up. Then you do all of the detail and paint work. The process of sculpting might take a week and the process of molding might take 3 or 4 days, so you end up using up most of your schedule just getting to the point where you can put the detail on it. So in the 3-week schedule, it almost can't be done, unless you don't have to mold it. That's what we did, we sculpted a shape and Vacu-formed it, which is draping hot plastic over a form and vacuuming it down. Then when it cools you have a hard plastic shape, so you avoid the molding completely. People weren't doing this often, back then. I'm not saying we invented it, we just took a technology that was out there used it to do the job in a different way than we had in the past. At Boss there was a "right" way to do things and people really didn't challenge it. The attitude was, it takes the time it takes and if you don't have that much time, then we won't do it. One of our driving philosophies as a new company was that you could come up with clever solutions.

What was the sequence that they used the plane for?

"Broken Arrow" was already in production and they had hired WKR, which was another model shop, to do a couple of planes for them. And they had hired the Chandler Group to photograph some of the crash sequences. They wanted to shoot a trailer or a teaser for the movie and none of those planes were ready to go. So we did the plane for the trailer.

Was it even seen in the actual film?

As far as I know, technically it wasn't. We built the model, we shot it and it looked great. The production team borrowed it to shoot some tests and it came back with blue screen paint and tape on it and I thought that was odd. They didn't pay a rental on it. I don't know whether they shot it and just didn't tell us, but supposedly it wasn't shot for the movie.

We were very pleased with it and once again it proved that we could work as a team and produce work.

If you had to single out landmarks in the company's history, where would you start?

We've done 13 features, and I would say that the first big turning point for us was "Titanic." What we did wasn't a huge part of the show, but it was a really big job for us at the time. It was the job that legitimized us in a way within the industry because Digital Domain hired us and we came through. Of course, it ended up being a gigantic movie, which was great as well. After we did "Titanic," we got "Dante's Peak" and "Fifth Element" from DD as well.

The next big one was "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" That was interesting because it was one of the first times we got to do our own photography, and that had been a goal of ours. We created these 'velospheres' -- spinning balls that rode through a subway-like system. They had to justify the characters getting all over the planet. So the idea was, using the heat rising from the earth's core they could like float through lava tubes. It was supposed to be an exciting sequence that was likened to the letter tube ride in "The Shadow" or something in "Running Man." We had talked to the effects supervisor very early on about that sequence, before they went into production. Then it was cut for budgetary reasons, but the director kept lobbying and it ended up getting added back in.

It was a spinning ball inside a tube and you would think CG was the obvious solution. But we wanted it to be more organic than it would have to be as a CG sequence. We wanted serendipity and happy accidents, so we went with the physical approach. We got a whole bunch of aluminum foil and painted it black and crunched it up and made big long tubes. Then we put puppets inside the spinning thing and mounted it to a dolly and mounted the camera and ran it through there. We shot thousands of feet of film of this thing and gave it to the editor and they loved it. They were so excited.

We also did some CG in that sequence and we did all of the compositing ourselves. That was the first time we had done that on a big film. That was a big turning point for us because it was the first full service job that we had done. We were really proud -- there were 14 shops in town working on that show and we would go to the screenings and our work held up. It looked as good as anything anybody was doing, and a lot of the other companies were really well financed, whereas we had always boot strapped ourselves up.

SFX on VFXPro, Part 5: Evan Jacobs

By Catherine Feeny

April 19, 2001 04:30 PM PDT

Along with partners Jon Warren and Doug Miller, Evan Jacobs has successfully steered a company of an unusual mold -- a small, independent model company. Vision Crew Unlimited has worked on feature films such as "Titanic," "Dinosaur," "The Mummy," "Mortal Kombat II" and "Broken Arrow," as well as on numerous commercials.

In part one of his interview with VFXPro, Jacobs discussed how the company began. In part two, read about Jacobs' more recent work and his insights into the future of the VFX industry.

You worked on "Titanic," "Dinosaur" and "The Mummy," three films in which the digital effects were emphasized more than the physical. Could you pick a sequence in any of those three that was unique because of the physical element you added?

"Titanic" is probably the best example because so much was made of the digital work in that film and so little was made of the model work, and yet the models were a huge part of the show. Digital Domain didn't publicize the work of their model shop very much on that show so you didn't hear much about the 44-foot Titanic miniature. We built all the deck detail for it -- all the cranes, davits, ventilators, 2000 portholes. I've worked on an awful lot of models over the years and that was the most beautiful model I've ever seen. "Dante's Peak" was incredible because of the sheer scope of it, but the "Titanic" model was like a museum piece. To be a part of that was really cool.

How about the pyrotechnic blast in "Dinosaur"?

The sequence was these meteors coming down and there were a couple of shots where they had done a bunch of big practical explosions. There were a couple of shots that they really felt they needed big chunks of earth flying through, and they wanted the 'Tree of Life' to get ripped away. In the movie, those sequences are there and gone really quickly, but they were very detail-oriented on that show.

The sequence in the cave with the big rock wall avalanche was cool because they integrated physical with CG. We shot that for months and that was really interesting because you wouldn't have thought to do it that way, but it added to the shot. They went miniature with it because they were concerned that they wouldn't get the kind of natural physics that you can get from a miniature. Any time you sit down at the computer to do anything, you can use physics simulations, but ultimately you're predetermining. You have to tell the computer what you want, whereas with a model you can simulate the physics and the weight of things and let it happen.

It was all fairly straightforward but nonetheless, we had a lot of technology brought to bear on "Dinosaur," because we had the physical pyrotechnic stuff, which involved developing special pyro mixtures. Then also, the huge air mortars and all that R&D. We had to do three takes of each of the cliffs and they had to be re-set quickly and yet they had to look very precisely like the establishing shots from Hawaii. We developed stuff that I've never heard of anybody doing. When you do break-away effects, it's common to use what is called a Pyrocil mixture, which is really soft, foamed plaster. If you make anything of any size, you can't touch it. You can't move it, you can't do anything, because it's really fragile. We needed to mold parts here in our shop and dress them and then take them to the location and put them up in Condors. The models were huge. The model of the big cliff was 15 feet tall, but because the camera had to get Aladar's point of view, the whole thing was almost 40 feet in the air. All of the air mortars were up on top of this huge structure that we built. It's a big endeavor, and to rebuild it up there after each take -- we couldn't do it. We did a bunch of R&D to come up with a break-away mixture that would be light and strong and yet weak enough that we could blow it up. The snow plaster was the right solution, but it was so heavy that it broke under its own weight. We needed to be able to make something like that but that was light, so we ended up mixing Styrofoam beads in with it. The Styrofoam beads worked as a filler, so we ended up with this thin, light, fragile shell that could support itself. Even at this stage in miniatures, we're still inventing new techniques.

For the Golden Gate commercial that you worked on, did you go on location?

We went to the Mojave airport for some of it. It was brutally hot. One of the grips put a thermometer on the pavement and he said it was 180 degrees on the pavement. It was so hot they had to bring out a refrigerated truck to refrigerate the ballasts for the lights because they wouldn't run. That job had a tight schedule for everybody, including Framestore, who did the post work. It was a very ambitious concept and we had very little time, so it's to Daniel Kleiman's credit that he pulled it off. The idea was to go as big as we could with the scales. But the real bridge is 4,000 feet long, so we were limited on the scale we could use. We ended up going 1:12 scale, which is really quite small for what we were doing, but it worked great. It held up beautifully and it looked good because the bridge is so big that we could get away with it.

We built a 40-foot section of straight roadway and we built a 30-foot section of curved roadway for the shots after it's been bent. The actual bending that occurs in the commercial is mostly the CG bridge done by Framestore. We also built a section of breakaway pavement, some bendable beams, the base and the top of one of the towers.

All of these jobs required physical elements that had a random quality about them?

That's exactly right. The post schedule for Golden Gate was six weeks. It was insane. The more they could get in-camera, the better. I recommended to Daniel that we use miniatures for the close-ups instead of trying to build a whole bridge that was curved. When rivets on the bridge were popping, that's where the miniature was really going to pay off.

So, part of the criteria for making that decision -- CG versus miniature -- is proximity to the camera, randomness of the movement?

Yes. I find myself turning away some jobs because they're better for CG. But at the same time, there's quite a bit of stuff out there -- like interaction with water or fire -- that is still better done physically. If the camera is close, it's a factor.

Can you outline the equipment that you have?

When we first started, we had to go out and buy everything. Then we had all the basic tools, and we started getting jobs where we needed odd things. For "Dinosaur," Neil Krepela, who we had worked with at Boss, wanted to do big shock wave explosions. I knew what he wanted and what we needed -- large quantities of air under high pressure -- wasn't out there. So we built custom air mortars -- they are the biggest air mortars that I know of -- they are 240-gallon tanks with butterfly valves that are 6-inches in diameter and pneumatically actuated. They're huge, scary things. We have so many odd things that I couldn't even really give you a list -- for a year or two it seemed like every job we did we needed to build something special.

For a Lexus ad called "High Bank," where a car goes through the city on an elevated highway, we built the whole highway here in our parking lot. We wanted to take the same approach that we had for the "Mortal Kombat" job, and give them some background variety. We actually made a little remote control car that we could mount the camera on and then ran it down our track for POV shots.

How about rentals? What kind of things do you offer?

We've got a huge array of buildings, probably a hundred -- they're mostly New York City brownstones. They're not huge -- they're great for commercials because they're very manageable. They're 3 or 4 feet tall, and we've used them on quite a few things. They go out all the time. We've also got a few other bits and pieces that we built for things.

Do you have special relationships that you've fostered with CG houses and supervisors and directors?

Yes. As the executive producer, I have to pay attention to the marketing and where our work comes from. At one point, I did a study of the history of the company, to see where our work had come from. We had done mailings and advertisements and used various other techniques, but the only jobs that we ever book come about from word of mouth referrals. People work with us and they come back, or they recommend us to other people. I can't think of an example of a job where somebody just saw an ad in the newspaper and called up. It just doesn't happen.

How do you envision the shape of the prototypical visual effects house in the future? It changes so much and so fast. I think the prevailing theory is that more boutique-size companies survive better most of the time. I wouldn't recommend somebody open a full service model shop/CG company at this point. Although we still dabble in it, we're not doing much CG work now, except pre-viz. It is a capital-intensive business and it's so competitive. With the cost of getting into the business coming down, there are so many people that want to do it that it's a very difficult business to compete in. It seems to be price-driven most of the time. So you see Sony Imageworks selling off their stage equipment, and I don't know what the future holds for the model shop at Digital Domain. They're off and on. When Digital Domain started their company, they didn't want to open a model shop at all and then they found they needed it. I think for a big company maybe having a model shop makes sense, but it's a big chunk of overhead that doesn't pay off as much as the digital part. A company like us can get work from all over, and it seems to pay off better. If I were a boutique CG company, I would be making associations with companies like us to do that segment of work. That seems to be a pretty good business model.

It looks like specialization is going to be the wave of the near future?

That's what it seems like to me, especially because of the ups and down in the industry. In '96, '97 and beginning of '98 it really seemed like being a gigantic company was the ticket because there were so many big shows to support. Now there aren't really as many and a lot of supervisors prefer to split up the job. It seems like the era of getting a 50-million-dollar effects budget is kind of over. My advice at this point would be to try and specialize in something and get really good at it and occupy that niche.

©2001 Creative Planet