Interview: G.I. Joe: Retaliation VFX Supervisor James Madigan

Madigan, whose projects have ranged from The Da Vinci Code to Iron Man 2 to the upcoming RED 2, describes the on-screen level of reality he and the film’s crew worked to attain, likening the approach for the big screen sequel to that of Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise.

The film itself stars Dwayne Johnson, D.J. Cotrona, Byung-hun Lee, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Stevenson, Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis. In it, the G.I. Joes are not only fighting their mortal enemy Cobra; they are forced to contend with threats from within the government that jeopardize their very existence.

CS: What’s involved in the day-to-day workload in a job like this?

James Madigan:
It depends on what phase of filming we’re in. Other than the director, really, you’re kind of the only guy who is there through the whole thing. For “Joe” in particular, I started before anyone, even the production designer. He started pretty much immediately after me, but there was so much that needed to be created and figured out because we were very much in a process where there were descriptions of things that were to traverse great distances and were very visual in the script that you really needed to flesh out as visuals. We wanted to make sure that what we were creating kept with the spirit of what we were after. Basically, there was a general feeling we wanted everything to have that was much more grounded in reality. That needs to permeate through everything you set up and everything you create as far as designing the shots and that kind of stuff. In prep, we are going through the script and sitting with the director and brainstorming about ideas. When something is described in the script, there’s a million different ways you can film that. I do pre-vis myself and work with other artists. It’s very much a hands-on creation of trying to find different, exciting sequences and stuff like that. You follow that through when you’re shooting. After months and months of sort of coming up with these sequences, one thing I always do with pre-vis — because I’ve always had to go out and execute pre-vis — is that I’m always very careful to make sure that anything we create there is something that we can actually go out and shoot. You can find it in the computer, but you want it to show you how we’re actually going to shoot it on set. When you’re on set — and I directed some of the second unit on this — I was just trying to make sure we got the pieces that we’d need to put it together later. From this shooting, it’s very much a matter of, quite often, having pieces here and there that all need to go together in a way that, for the most part, you’re kind of the only guy in the room who knows exactly how it’s going to work. There’s pieces of actors, but there’s also pieces of background. Pieces of elements. The lighting has to match and the lenses have to match. As far as the shooting goes, you’re laying out the elements that you found in prep. You need to make sure you have all your pieces. Then, obviously, when you get in post, it’s a matter of putting it all together. In all three phases, you’re working very closely with the director. In post, a lot of the times the editors will get these pieces of things that kind of don’t make any sense. I make sure that I work with them very directly to kind of supply them with things that make sense to cut with. They’re also going through the footage and coming up with cool things. You lay out a plan but, obviously, when you go to shoot, you find better things and different things. You find that some things work better in a different, more practical way. You have to be able to roll with changes in the plan. Once we get in there and you get a fresh set of eyes when the editors come in, it’s great. They’ll be like, “I found this piece!” Then it kind of takes on a life of its own as it comes into being as a real piece of film.

CS: The film’s release moved forward by about a year. Do you continue to be involved throughout the post-production process?

Yeah, I’ve been in and out. I’ve been on “RED 2” with the same producers. I’ve been involved throughout. It was just that, basically, 100% of the work was finished back in June to hit the original release date. The conversion just started happening during the winter. They were basically just going back into the shots that we had completed. They were in 3D so they could do proper left eye / right eye renders of them. For the most part, all the visual effects work we did last year.

CS: This is a film that has to balance a sense of reality with a colorful, bigger-than-life pop art sensibility. Is that a tone that makes VFX work easier or harder?

Yeah, it’s important to have a consistent tone in a movie and you really want to make sure that you set a tone and that it doesn’t become too schizophrenic. You’re inviting people along for a certain kind of ride. You want to make sure that you don’t betray that. One of the things that happened very early on was that I was on a project with Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who showed me this script. It was a long time ago now. Before Jon Chu was involved. We had a meeting on it. I saw the first “Joe,” which is great for the genre it’s in. It’s very sort of fantastical. It has a certain feel to it. It’s not how I approach visual effects. I try to shoot as much as I can real. I’m a 3D animator, so I love that as a tool. I do think it can be overused, though. The general style that I like to employ is one that doesn’t rely 100% on it all the time. The first meeting I had with them, I was sort of saying, “Seeing that this is a franchise, that’s the look that you’ve established. Is that something that you’re keen to carry on? Because it kind of feels like this show would be great if you went for a ‘Hurt Locker’ or a ‘Black Hawk Down.’ Something like Nolan did moving from the Schumacher Batmans to the updated Batman.” Everyone in the room was like, “Exactly!” The idea being that we’re going for this sort of gritty realism but within the terms of what Joe is and what makes Joe interesting. It’s kind of like how the Bonds used to have these gadgets and these toys that would be very well thought through and cool and could solve certain problems. What you have with Joe is what came out in the ’80s with Cobra and everything like that. It is very fantastical, but Jon wanted to find a way to make that very badass and very believable. He and the screenwriters crafted a very interesting take on how the government could be taken over in this way. How you could make it somewhat believable. Even though it is a “G.I. Joe” movie and you’re dealing with gadgets and people doing somewhat impossible things, you can still find ways to make that real. At the same time, we do still have the evil overlord plotting to take over the world. It’s fun. It’s not totally like a Nolan Batman, but it’s more in that direction than the first one was.

CS: Because Jon’s past films haven’t relied too heavily on visual effects, what were your earliest conversations like with one another?

That’s why it was kind of great that me and Jon were probably the closest in age as far as department heads. It was great that I started early on. We became friends. It’s funny because people say to me a lot, “You were the guy who really did the first visual effects movie with him. How was that?” The thing you have to understand about Jon is that he’s so incredibly technically savvy. He’s one of these guys who can know nothing about something and will pull an all-nighter on the internet and will be an expert about it the next day. Not just enough to bulls–t about it. He’ll become an expert. When you’re doing visual effects, you always have to assess how much you have to, for lack of a better word, dumb things down when you talk to people. You don’t want them to gloss over but, if you get asked a question, you don’t want to geek out too much. You need to assess the person you’re talking to and figure out just how much you need to put things into layman’s terms. With Jon, it was almost immediate that you could talk with him in very deep, technological terms about why certain things were happening a certain way. He just picked it up incredibly fast. The “Step Up” films were in 3D, so it was something that he had played around with and was very keen on. With “Joe,” the post schedule didn’t allow it, which was what they eventually changed it for. He was always looking at it, though, and going, “This would be great in 3D.” His brain was just thinking that way. When it came to showing off all the visual things that we could do, he was just like a kid in a candy store. He loved it.

CS: Jon Chu mentioned in a recent interview we did that the film is divided into two main stories that eventually come together. There’s the military story and the ninja story. How different are creating those two from your perspective?

The military story of it was the part of it that we really wanted to give a heavy hardware, nuts and bolts kind of feel to. When we get into the story of the ninjas — which is very much a part of the folklore from the “G.I. Joe” in the ’80s — a lot of the stuff that they do with the ninjas takes place in the Himalayas. When we had a battlefield situation, we went to a battlefield and shot it for real. On the very first day, the first thing I started working out with Jon was the ninjas. As I put it to him, if we wanted this movie to look different from the first one, the biggest risk of that is really the story of the ninjas. We really wanted to make sure we had a plan. The scene we were creating was incredible and what we were coming out with was just, “Wow! This is incredible!” Because we knew it was so incredible we realized that, if we didn’t shoot for real, it could come off as being a bit too much like a videogame unless we really laid down a plan to make sure that it didn’t. What we were very keen on from the beginning — me and Jon and Lorenzo di Bonaventura — was that we actually had to shoot in the Himalayas. One of the things that Lorenzo did for us — because he’s a rock climber. He’s really into all this kind of stuff for real — was bring us Paul Borne, one of his best friends, who does this kind of stuff for real. He’s a stuntman. He worked in film and actually passed away this year. He could jump off cliffs on a rope and, immediately as I started pre-vising, it was me and Paul and Jon and the pre-vis team. We would sit there and ask him, “How would you do this? What would happen? What kind of physics are involved? What kinds of speeds are we talking?” We really tried to come up with actions that they do that that are really based in reality. Through the whole pre-vis phase, Paul was really inspirational in making that a reality. It was me and him and Jon with a bunch of little action figures and animators in a room. That was one of the things right off the bat that I pushed for, saying, “This should not be all CG.” Lorenzo immediately supported the idea of going up to these huge, huge mountains up in British Columbia. I mapped out all the shots that we could do for real and Paul Borne did the zipline. He went from doing the pre-vis with me to setting up a real zipline where we could have Snake Eyes and Jinx on. We filmed them going through the mountains and got as much stuff as we could for real.

G.I. Joe Retaliation hits theaters in Australia and the United States on March 28.