Interviews

Interview with Iron Man 2's Victoria Alonso and Janek Sirrs


By Hervé St-Louis
Sep 24, 2010 - 18:33

Comic Book Bin: Are the effects pretty much set in stone before filming, or do a lot of things change as filming goes on?

Janek Sirrs: Throughout development and pre-production, we're constantly designing the VFX sequences. But that's not to say everything is completed by the time we start filming. New ideas and concepts constantly crop up throughout the entire show. If somebody comes up with a great suggestion, we'll try to incorporate that as fast as possible. In fact, many shots are actually conceived in post-production... sometimes with only a nail-biting few weeks to go before the release date!

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CBB: What was the biggest challenge with Iron Man 2 as a producer that you didn't encounter on the first film?

Victoria Alonso: One of the biggest challenges for us was to make sure that we fulfilled the expectations of our fans to make it as fun but new and fresh. We also wanted to make sure that we gave the audience a level of spectacle and action that they expected, but always trying not to overwhelm them with it. Sometimes too much action makes you numb. The balance is hard to get and that was what we wanted to make sure we provided for them.

CBB: How have the tools you use for visual effects changed since both of you started in the industry?

Janek Sirrs: The range of FX that can now be achieved has expanded exponentially. The tools are still roughly the same... compositing, CGI, etc..... but their capabilities and affordability have opened up whole new possibilities.

Victoria Alonso: The technology changes every day. When I first started we didn't do reviews via cinesync in separate countries or upload data real time; the machines and the software have gotten smarter and faster; the tools are continually changing to adapt to the pace of film making today; we have more tools today than we have had before in mocap as well; we were able to do real time capturing and change the performance within hours. That was not possible 20 years ago.

CBB: Do you prefer working in a digital world or is it more fun creating and building the real suits, etc?

Janek Sirrs: Digital is the way things are heading.... so there's no point trying to fight the inevitable at some level. But practical FX are often much more enjoyable to be involved with. Nothing beats blowing stuff up for real!

CBB: Visual effects are becoming incredibly complex, how much of the pre-production of the film, and the post-production schedule are driven by the needs of completing visual effects?

Victoria Alonso: In these kinds of films, visual effects are the "other character" which means that we are deeply involved in every minute of the planning of the film. These movies are about the character and then about the superhero; in order to believe in Tony Stark, you must buy Iron Man as a character---we spend countless hours making sure the two of them become one.

CBB: The "virtual camera" we see used in the special features - was this the first time you'd had access to equipment like that?

Janek Sirrs: I'd seen the setup that James Cameron used for Avatar. So we were fortunate in the sense that somebody else did all the hard work and pioneered the process/technology! But now the hardware and software needed to create virtual camera setups has gotten so cheap that the approach has filtered down into other departments, such as pre-visualization. In fact, it was easy enough to set up a system in one of our regular offices. Next time, we'll probably be using a similar setup to do virtual scouts of digital sets as well as previs.

CBB: How much more work was Iron Man 2 for you and your team than the first film?

Victoria Alonso: We doubled our efforts for the sequel. We had doubled the amount of shots but also we had all the knowledge from the first one to make us smarter about our approach.

CBB: What was the biggest challenge in creating a new set of special effects for a movie that everybody was going to be looking to for dazzling special effects?

Janek Sirrs: Well I think you're always trying to up the ante, and give the audience something new and fresh to look at. As digital FX gets to be more advanced, the possibilities are really endless.... so I think the challenge is now more about the conception of action/VFX sequences, rather than how to technically pull them off.

Victoria Alonso: Our biggest challenge was to keep the film grounded in the reality we had created in the first film which we were praised for; when you add more spectacle you can go overboard and Jon Favreau was specific about not making it feel anything else but real.

CBB: How much did the new practical Iron Man suits in Iron Man 2 help with the digital effects?

Janek Sirrs: The practical suits are invaluable. Even if they are ultimately replaced by digital versions in some shots, they inform the camera framing, and the movement of the characters. Pointing the camera at a real object really forces everyone to consider that object carefully, as opposed to possibly drifting off into a CG world that may not feel as real.

CBB: At what point do you begin designing and choreographing larger special effects sequences, such as the battles?

Victoria Alonso: The action sequences are created in the early prep; sometimes we have animatics before we have a script; we start very early in the process to ensure that we find all the nuances that the film needs to bring to the screen; these sequences go from thumbnails to storyboards to animatics to previs all before we start shooting.

Janek Sirrs: The big battle sequences begin development during pre-production... they take forever to get right!!! And we continue to tweak and modify until they are finally delivered.

CBB: What were some of the changes you made to the flying sequences, as compared to the first Iron Man?

Janek Sirrs: This time we wanted to stage the flying material closer to the ground, flying beneath a freeway for example, rather than being high up in the air. This created the opportunity to have Iron Man fly around obstacles.
 

CBB: Was there a particular special effects sequence that was more challenging to create than anticipated?

Victoria Alonso: The Suitcase suit in Monaco (MARK V) was perhaps the most challenging sequence because we needed to prove that Tony had designed a suit that was portable and yet could have the weight to protect him from danger. Also we needed to make sure that we did not cross the line in making the suiting up moment too magical---again trying to stay in the grounded reality of our Stark genius and not making him look like an act of magic just happened on the race track. The result of that sequence was a very believable portable suit that you buy that Tony Stark has designed to keep him safe in his world travels.

Janek Sirrs: The trickiest individual moment for me was the Suitcase Suit deployment. We were given a crazy brief, with no idea how we were going to pull it off! The final sequence you see on the screen is actually the result of many, many failed experiments before we came up with a believable cinematic solution.

CBB: How do you see the future of visual effects in big summer blockbuster films evolving and do you believe there will be a shift towards better balance between visual and practical effects?

Janek Sirrs: I think (and hope) that most films will continue to have good balance of practical and digital FX. Both approaches can complement one another to get the best possible overall result. However, as digital FX become increasingly more affordable and capable, it's opened a whole new category of films, like Avatar, and we are seeing a blurring of the boundaries between traditional live action and animation.

CBB: What were some of the challenges in redesigning the suit for the sequel?

Victoria Alonso: We wanted to show the improvements that Tony Stark had made and yet keep the iconic color scheme; the center piece (RT) was redesigned to show a new generation of improved power source that could keep up with the challenges of being the sole way to power the suit. We added the lasers as another gadget which gave Iron Man a way to defend himself that he did not have in the first film.

Janek Sirrs: From a practical point of view, it's always a challenge designing a suit, and then trying to cram an actor inside it. From a design point of view, each new suit needs to strike a balance between feeling fresh, but at the same time, retaining the iconic look and feel that has already been established with the fans.

CBB: What is your single favorite shot from Iron Man 2, which one are you most proud of?

Janek Sirrs: The suitcase suit deployment in Monaco is probably my favorite moment. But maybe that's more because I was relieved we actually managed to pull it off!!! We all had to do a lot of head scratching to work out how to cram the suit into that tiny briefcase.

CBB: How many people were on the effects team for Iron Man 2?

Janek Sirrs: On the production side, the VFX crew was probably around 10-12 people. But creating the final shots takes the work of hundreds of digital artists, slaving away in dark rooms for hours on end.

Victoria Alonso: I don't know the exact amount of people that worked on the films; we had about 11 vendors working on it all over the world; I think there were more than 550 people all together but I would have to double check that number.

CBB: Do you prefer working in a digital world or is it more fun creating and building the real suits, etc?

Victoria Alonso: I think the combination of real pieces and digital ones is always the best way to do it. There are a number of nuances that you get when you have the real suit on set --partial or full-- that help create a totally photoreal look when you dive into the digital world. I will always ask for real suit pieces; they help the DP and also the actors. They inform everyone on set.

CBB: How many render hours did it take to produce the high quality VFX up on screen in the film?

Janek Sirrs: I dread to think... but we're talking about giant render farms working 24-7 for months on end.

CBB: Victoria, with all your experience in the digital world, do you think we have reached the sweet spot for digital or are there major changes coming in the near future?

Victoria Alonso: The sweet spot is a moving target--tomorrow will be sweeter!

CBB: How challenging was it to incorporate the seeds of other Marvel properties as set up for future films in Iron Man 2 without hurting the momentum of your film's story?

Victoria Alonso: Incredibly challenging to do that, but Kevin Feige always has a plan for those seeds to be planted in a way that they add to the story and do not interfere with the story we are trying to tell.

CBB: With so many characters in metal suits, how did you go about making one distinct from the other?

Janek Sirrs: Just like the characters inside them, we tried to give each suit its own distinctive look, and personality. And often this is influenced by the actors as well. In the case of Iron Man vs. War Machine, I often liked to consider them as the Mac and Windows versions of suit technology respectively.

Victoria Alonso: I think the real challenge here was in the details and in the attitude of each metal suit. Hopefully we succeeded in making them unique.

CBB: How much did the comic books play a role in the designing of the FX? And were there particular issues of Iron Man that were more helpful?

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Victoria Alonso: The comic books are always a place where we start; we want to use all the ingredients that were successful in the comics but always making sure they do translate to the film genre. It's tricky because sometimes a gag looks good in two comic book panels, but when you try to shoot it, it doesn't work; so we selectively hand pick iconic moments and translate them to our world

Janek Sirrs: I don't think the comics played too much a role in this particular picture. However, there are often key frames or great iconic poses that we'll use in the shots.

CBB: Was the look of Tony Stark's computer inspired by Minority Report at all?

Janek Sirrs: Absolutely, that was one source of inspiration. But we also were inspired by the research work of people like Jeff Han who are creating next generation computer interfaces.

CBB: Were there any effects that were discussed for the film but ultimately shelved due to complexity, budget, or timing?

Janek Sirrs: Not any individual FX as such. It's more a question of overall appetite. We invariably start out trying to do the biggest sequences we can... but then somebody has to foot the bill so we "edit" as we continue development.

CBB: They say art is never finished just set aside, so are there any effects in the film you wish you had more time or more money to complete?

Janek Sirrs: Every single one! But that's probably because I'm an endless noodler.

CBB: Were there any effects that were discussed for the film but ultimately shelved due to complexity, budget, or timing?

Victoria Alonso: There are always ideas and concepts that do not make it but we always try to incorporate them in the next films. For example, we wanted to have Iron Man deploy from a c-17 in the first movie, but we couldn't make it work into the story. We always liked that idea, so we revived it for the sequel. There were a few other ideas that we had that did not make it ,but hopefully you will see them on IM III so I can't comment on it ! :)

CBB: What are your thoughts on the use of 3-D technology in almost every movie these days? Is this something that is here to stay or is it a passing fad?

Victoria Alonso: I think 3D is a great choice of format to have for fans; fans watch these movies multiple times if they like them, and it's great for them to experience something different if you see it a second time on Imax or in 3D. Time will tell if the format is here to stay. The audiences will determine that for the filmmakers.

Janek Sirrs: I think the jury is still out on that one. Right now, I feel that it makes perfect sense for a full-on 3D movie, such as Toy Story. In a CGI world, you can actually design and compose the stereo nature of the shots to make the best of them. But a live action world is much more restrictive in terms of being able to effectively design while you're filming. Maybe as people get more familiar and faster with the process, that will change.

CBB: Was there a particular special effects sequence that was more challenging to create than anticipated?

Janek Sirrs: The trickiest individual moment for me was the Suitcase Suit deployment. We were given a crazy brief, with no idea how we were going to pull it off! The final sequence you see on the screen is actually the result of many, many failed experiments before we came up with a believable cinematic solution.

CBB: Victoria, if you designed your own personal Iron suit, what feature would you like to have most?

Victoria Alonso: The RT powering would have to be silent---I'd want to make sure that take offs and landings are quiet so I don't wake up my daughter!

CBB: They say art is never finished just set aside, so are there any effects in the film you wish you had more time or more money to complete?

Victoria Alonso: All of them! We can always do better!

CBB: In both your eyes, what are some of the greatest strengths in mixing practical and digital effects, and how do you go about balancing the two?

Janek Sirrs: My personal M.O. is to always start practically, and then build on that with digital work. That's the best way to keep things "honest". So in pre-production, my first take will be.... why can't be blow that up for real? Can the stunt actor do that action? I'd rather keep the VFX for the things that we know we can't do for real.

CBB: The Whiplash suit looks more homemade or practical, what challenges were associated with that character in terms of VFX?

Janek Sirrs: The biggest challenge compared to (digital) character like Iron Man is that there's always an actor in there. If we don't like something about Iron Man's performance, ultimately we can change it. So dealing with Whiplash is more about working with the actor's performance, and how to maximize what we shot on film by supporting it with surrounding VFX work.

CBB: What are you currently working on - that you can share?

Janek Sirrs: It's round 2 of Marvel for me..... next up is The Avengers. I'm obviously a glutton for punishment - one superhero isn't enough to deal with!

CBB: Victoria, what attracts you as a producer to film's like Iron Man 2, rather than say a documentary or other film type?

Victoria Alonso: Our movies are about personal struggles and an overall sense of responsibility to the greater good. To me that is a life lesson. We should all try to be better and make sure the world around us is kinder.

CBB: Victoria, having done Shrek previously, can you tell us specifically how the role of producer changes from an animated film to a live action like Iron Man 2? Did the experience with animation give you insight into digital effects in some way?

Victoria Alonso: Animated films have a longer schedule; when you have a certain amount of time to shoot the challenges are many; you don't get to wait until the next day when you only have a certain location for a specific amount of time. Animated films don't have to deal with being stranded somewhere because of weather issues; in live action you choose the lens for that shot and then you are married to that lens for the rest of the journey, so the pressure is high to make sure you get the right footage. Animated films give you the flexibility to change that without having to go back on location and reshoot. A lot of the producing challenges are the same--time money deadlines!

CBB: Victoria, what on camera talent have you enjoyed working with most so far in your career and who would you like to work with in the future?

Victoria Alonso: I'd love to work with Johnny Depp and Judy Dench. Watching Gwyneth Paltrow nail every take has been a master class!

CBB: What was the biggest challenge in creating a new set of special effects for a movie that everybody was going to be looking to for dazzling special effects?

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Janek Sirrs: Well I think you're always trying to up the ante, and give the audience something new and fresh to look at. As digital FX gets to be more advanced, the possibilities are really endless.... so I think the challenge is now more about the conception of action/VFX sequences, rather than how to technically pull them off.

CBB: Victoria, what do you think about superheroines? There seem to be more films made about male heroes, do you think the time is coming for more female heroes in the future?

Victoria Alonso: I would love to make a movie about a superheroine! The reason why there aren't as many is because unfortunately there have not been many films about them that are as successful as say Batman or Iron Man; I hope I am able to make one that changes that trend. It'd be great to empower little girls all over the world.

CBB: Victoria, with all your experience in the digital world, do you think we have reached the sweet spot for digital or are there major changes coming in the near future?

Victoria Alonso: The sweet spot is a moving target--tomorrow will be sweeter!

CBB: Janek, any final thoughts as we wrap-up the Iron Man 2 virtual roundtable?

Janek Sirrs: Thanks for all the questions. It's actually entertaining having to look back and examine why we made certain decisions, and how things turned out the way they were. I hope my answers were at least a teeny bit informative!

CBB: Victoria, any final thoughts as we wrap-up the Iron Man 2 virtual roundtable?

Victoria Alonso: Thank you so much for all your interest in our film. We have been living the Iron Man experience now for almost 5 years and it has been a terrific project to be a part of. We hope to have your continued support as we launch THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA and the AVENGERS. We are all working day and night to make sure your experience is a good one. Until the next one!


Last Updated: May 15, 2017 - 12:03

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