In today's episode of Boing Boing Video (sponsored by WEPC.com, in partnership with Intel and Asus), Academy Award winning visual effects guru John Gaeta (Matrix, Speed Racer) offers a sneak peek inside his newest project, Ninja Assassin.
Along the way, we explore a broader realm of questions about the future of games, movies, and interactive entertainment. Will movies become more like games, offering new ways for us to insert ourselves inside the stories? Who will create them, using what tools, and how will the experience be different? Will computer-generated actors replace human actors, or stunt persons — or will the two realms overlap in ways we can't yet predict? All of this we ask of the guy who invented "bullet time."
Due in theaters this fall, director James McTeigue's Ninja Assassin follows the story of Raizo (played by Asian mega-popstar Rain), one of the world's most deadly assassins. As Gaeta explains in this video, the movie merges blindingly badass Bruce-Lee-esque martial arts stunt work with tastefully integrated post processing work.
Below, and after the jump, a partial transcription of the longer conversation we had about the future of interactivity and "hybrid entertainment" — and why Hollywood is, in Gaeta's words, "like a mule."
This interview took place during our live coverage of the 2009 Game Developers Conference, and many of the questions I pose were taken directly from our live chat audience.
Xeni Jardin: John, your involvement in "Ninja Assassin" was a little different than in "Speed Racer" and the "Matrix" films, where you were the lead visual effects designer.
John Gaeta: Ninja Assassin was directed by James McTeigue, who directed "V for Vendetta." It's sort of a family tradition of the Wachowskis to help James in parallel with other odd films. After "Speed Racer" was completed, we went back to Berlin and decided to make this super psycho horror ninja movie. Supremo stunts and martial arts. We're friends with the action design firm 87eleven, they've worked alongside Wu Ping for many years, after the "Matrix" Trilogy they did "Kill Bill," "300," they're fantastic. It was really their show. They were told they could be very creative and so they were. Lots of inventions!
Xeni: What was your role?
Gaeta: I didn't want to miss it because it seemed like it would be very fun. I was only helping out with some special unit directing, but no visual effects for me personally.
"Ninja" is surprisingly invisible on effects work, and intentionally so. No virtual humans in this one. The only real post processing comes from heavily stylistic color grading, think graphic tones like "Se7en," compositing and some CG weapons and blood augmentation. But this film shines brightest for the martial arts team. To put it another way — it's old school.
There is far more going on in this movie with respect to "stunts technology" and innovation with respect to specialized and "next gen" rigs and flying machines.
Xeni: You are known for visual effects in motion pictures, but every time you and I have spoken, there's this idea of hybrid entertainment that comes up. Can you tell me more about what you're doing there?
Gaeta: I'm curious about possible destinations where there's crossover with regard to simulation cinema, "sim cinema," ways of creating elaborate trapdoors and portals between different mediums. Also, over the years, there are strange subgroups from the visual world like Douglas Trumbull — I used to work for him many years ago — their passion went beyond cinema to immersive content. Virtual reality, perhaps games, are a step toward that — so are other methods of surrounding people with an experience. There are a lot of interesting progressions going on with immersive cinema, immersive entertainment, hybridizing the two.
(Interview continues after the jump)
Xeni: Is there anything you want to do in 3D cinema that you haven't yet?
Gaeta: We have James Cameron to thank for that. Sure, there's a lot of areas where I'd like to do highly immersive stereoscopic surround media. From Brian Eno's dream to something more aggressive. Stereo's cool, I often think about ways to design for — I'm in my theater seat, and yes it's coming at you, but I'm more curious about the next stage of the home environment and how we have immersive media in our homes. Stereo would be great for that.
Xeni: Many in Hollywood would be horrified to hear you speak of a focus on home entertainment, the idea being that the movie industry must do whatever it takes to get people out of the homes and into theaters.
Gaeta: Theaters need to become more modern, and catch up with this generation. There are a lot of cool atmospheric augmentations one can do to a theater. Realtime gaming, realtime entertainment. I do think that's important. But — right now we're pretty much slave to these rectangular screens, but at a certain point it's going to be possible to have more comprehensive projection capabilities. Taking over all your walls, taking the least popular room in your house and transforming it into the most transcendental room in your house. Great things are coming.
Xeni: a chat room participant asks if World of Warcraft and other immersive games could replace the passive experience of movies.
Gaeta: No. It's all going to keep running in parallel. It's all going to amalgamate in interesting ways. Hollywood is like a mule. It can carry a heavy load, but as soon as you want it to try to go to someplace new, it digs its hooves in.
But it is possible that in 10 years or so, the fidelity, the image quality of things you can make in real time will be viable for cinema. So, movies or portions of movies could be generated in real time, maybe even Pixar-level type work,and mingled with work from real actors — the commingled work, you could generate that real time.If you've generated the universe of the cinema real time, you've universalized the world of the cinema with the interactive counterpart. You could potentially put a movie in a different type of projector, and have portals out of that environment where you can interact and play.
What makes a movie powerful is — the singular vision of the director. It's a different beast than interactivity. You wouldn't make "Apocalypse Now" any differently than Coppola did, it's perfect as he envisioned and executed it. But if you could work with the entire universe surrounding "Apocalypse Now," if the director could deposit the sets and the environment in this universe, and we could step into that, a hybrid zone where you can perceive what he's directed with semi-interaction, expository exploration within his sculpted piece of content — you have something new.
Xeni: A commenter asks where do you see movies going as an interactive medium? It's not about films replacing games, but games and movies evolving in tandem.
Gaeta: That conversation is tired, it's about coexistence and maximizing the power of those mediums in a common space. People talk about narrative with infinite variations, and that's interesting, but if I want to see what a great director thinks should happen, and I want the unexpected to come up through his mind, I don't want to contaminate that. Think about animated pictures, first. In 10, 20, 30 years — when you have space and form and texture acquired by the camera, it is possible to conceive of a universalized format. A movie can exist within a dynamic, interactive place. You could crisscross movies, jump out the side door, go into the experience yourself.
Another thing that could be interesting — because of the magic of compositing, it seems like it could be interesting to have movies that are both passive and interactive at the same time. Worlds surrounding the important moment, as sculpted by the director — the moment, the acting, the story stays exactly as the director envisions it – but the world surrounding that moment is dynamic. So when I go to see the scene of the couple chatting by the seaside, the waves crash differently each time, and the world goes on a little differently each time, unobtrusively, around the carefully sculpted moment.
Xeni: Are we seeing movies move to a smaller scale, and technology enable movies to move away from large studios?
Gaeta: Game engines won't be game engines for long. They are content simulation engines, and they'll make it possible for your average 11-year-old to make a reasonably good movie.
Xeni: If time and money were no obstacle, what medium would you work in?
Gaeta: My ultimate dream project will probably be doable in 5-10 years. Things aren't quite ready yet, but they will be. I'm not obsessed with being the first to figure out technological innovation, but having the capability to acquire people, real people, real actors, and port them into simulation environments is a nice set of building blocks. I'm very intent on experimenting with hybridized passive and interactive entertainment, and I'm very intrigued by the idea of endless portals and trapdoors. We'll see. In 5 to 10 years, some very very cool stuff will be doable. # # #
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Sponsor shout-out: This episode is sponsored by WEPC.com, in partnership with Intel and Asus. WePC.com is a site where users come together to "share ideas, images and inspiration about the ideal PC." Participants' designs, feature ideas and community feedback will be evaluated by ASUS and "could influence the blueprint for an actual notebook PC built by ASUS with Intel inside."
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