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Interview with Mike Fink: X2: X-Men United

Friday, June 6th, 2003 | Article by Jean-Eric Hénault, Carole Bouchard, and Kevin Tod Haug

CGC: One of your first jobs as VFX Supervisor was on the set of WarGames (1983). How many VFX shots were there on that film? Can you give us an idea of where they are in the film?

MF: There are only a few visual effects shots as you would normally think of them in Wargames. Of those, the most notable are some miniature missile silo shots. But, to avoid composites for a great portion of the film, I supervised the large screen map displays on the 12 main screens in the war room, in addition to the graphics on the 125 monitors. The images were created on Hewlett-Packard 9845c’s by Colin Cantwell, and recorded on to film on purpose-built film recorders of my design. These used vector displays to create the images which were were recorded on motion picture film with Mitchell 35mm cameras. We generated something like 50,000 feet of computer graphicly created negative in 7 months or so, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We printed nearly 130,000 feet of film for the process projectors that put the images on the screens. The screens were specially built from a custom material for the film. All cameras, projectors, computers, and video were synchronized by a custom system (everything was custom in 1982) which kept all the images on the right frame at the right time in the right scene. On top of that we had to create the worlds brightest 24fps strobe system for the end sequence, which was controlled by another synchronized computer system. It was the first film to have real time 24fps computer graphic displays (as crude as they now seem).

CGC: You have a reputation for being an Independent VFX Supervisor not usually aligned with a vendor. How did this come about? Was it a conscious choice on your part?

MF: I became an independent visual effects supervisor simply because I didn’t know better. It seemed that small shows could benefit from a single person getting great work by going to people who did certain things very well. If you assigned the work based on people’s strengths, you could do some really good work for not too much money. It wasn’t really conscious on my part. The first two shows I supervised (Wargames and Buckaroo Banzai), I was initially hired for other purposes, and the jobs grew into the supervisor’s job, so it was a natural direction to go at that point.

CGC: Was X-men a comic book you read as a child?

MF: No. I did look at them from time to time over the years, but I was a Batman guy.

CGC: What was the first thing that went through your mind when you were asked to join the X2 team?

MF: I thought first about how I wanted to make this film better than the first.

CGC: What was the part of the X-Men 2 that excited you the most, early on?

MF: X2 provided me with the opportunity to build on the characters – to make their powers more integrated with their personalities, at the same time making the effects bigger. Whenever I can be a major contributor to the story being told, I am excited. X2 offered ample opportunity for that. The sequences that excited me the most were the opening sequence with Nightcrawler, the X-Jet tornado dogfight, and the ending sequence with the big water. There were still many sequences that were bound to be fun, such as the Plastic Prison escape, and the Pyro sequence at Drake’s house, and of course, Mystique.

CGC: How many VFX shots are there in X-Men 2 and how does that compare with the first one?

MF: There are roughly 820 shots in X2, and there were 520 in the first film. Also, the shots in X2 far surpassed the shots in the first film in terms of difficulty.

CGC: You must have had a lot of fun bringing new characters into the film, such as Nightcrawler and Lady Deathstrike. What can you tell us about the challenge you faced with NightCrawler and his “vanishing effect”?

MF: The challenge was not to let it get boring. We see it frequently in the film, and it had to be interesting every time the audience saw it. The approach was to try to stay faithful to the physics of such an event, then improvise on that to make the effect powerful and beautiful to see. The effect is actually quite complex, and there is much to see in it if you step through it frame by frame. One of the best feelings in what I do happens when I see a final shot, and there is nothing I can think of to improve it. I just love that.

CGC: Give us a breakdown of how you created Magneto’s Escape Sequence?

MF: Couldn’t you pick something simpler? There is a lot going on in this. Just kidding. All we actually built was the cell itself, the security area, and the plastic tunnel set piece (which was made to retract and extend for a short distance quite beautifully by Mike Vizena). The metallic dust and metal that Magneto extracts from Laurio is a particle system animation. As the balls form and they become reflective, we created a reflection map from photographs of the cell, Magneto’s hand (for when they are over his hand), Magneto himself, and Laurio. For the shot where Laurio falls over reflected in the balls we used a fish eye lens on a VistaVision camera so that it would be fairly straightforward to map the image on the metal ball forming in front of Magneto.

Everything seen from outside the cell is CG, except for the cell itself. We removed part of the cell so that the part of the cell that gets destroyed could be CG and animated to crack and disintegrate, freeing Magneto. Magneto was shot in front of a green screen for the flight across the chasm. He was moved on a special rig by Mike Vizena, which we removed and replaced with a CG metal disc. The reflections of Magneto in the disc were created in separate passes using multiple cameras so that we could be sure of getting the elements we needed to see in the reflection. The final shot was built of many layers; Magneto, the background, the door, the hits in the door, the balls, the particle dust, the reflection of the two guards. A more detailed breakdown would take many pages. There is some seriously complicated work here.

CGC: How did you create the fireballs projected by Pyro?

MF: The fireballs were sometimes real and sometimes CG, depending on what action was needed. The fireballs closest to him that he whips around are practical fire elements that are manipulated to react to his motion. The fireballs he sends out to the cars are CG, and were created with a custom particle system by Cinesite.

CGC: Tell us about the amazing chase sequence with the X-Jet and the two F-16s through the tornadoes?

MF: You do ask the questions, don’t you? I think that the first time I heard about the idea of the tornadoes was from Bryan Singer after he came back from a meeting with Tom Rothman at Fox. I was pretty excited by the idea, but nothing was written to describe the event. So, I sat down to work with some animators from Frantic Films and we created an animatic of the entire event, from the departure from Drake’s to the nose down stop in front of Magneto. I would bring Bryan in from time to time to try out a few ideas on him, and after 8 weeks, we had a sequence. Rhythm and Hues was contracted to finish the sequence. All of the backgrounds except for the last two or three when the X-Jet stops are CG. All of the X-Jet and F16 shots are CG. The tornadoes and clouds were created from a proprietary particle system written at R&H. The hole blown in the X-Jet is CG, as is that entire section of the interior of the jet for every shot in this sequence. The explosions are separate explosion elements I shot in an alley behind a friend’s warehouse space. That really is Anna Paquin being sucked out of the jet and falling. She did her own stunts there, and we just built the environment around her. That’s about it, unless I get into a very lengthy treatise on this sequence.

CGC: The VFX in the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike are both in your face and very subtle. What is the role VFX played here?

MF: The fight was too dangerous to do with real claws, so nearly every shot in the sequence has CG claws. Of course, the healing shots are CG, as well as the adamantium leaking from Deathstrike’s eyes. The rig removals weren’t trivial, either. Hugh and Kelly did most of their own stunts, so there is no face replacement in this sequence. All together, there are 90 visual effects shots in the Augmentation Room fight.

CGC: Cinesite recently closed, what will you remember most from your Cinesite days?

MF: Cinesite had an extremely talented, dedicated crew, and they were a lot of fun. I enjoy working at a facility because of the continual testing you can do to advance the state of the art, and the folks at Cinesite were always up to it. Now that they are closed, I already miss having that resource available to me. There were some very powerful software tools developed at Cinesite that are not really available anywhere else in L.A.

CGC: What do you think was Cinesite’s contribution is to the state of VFX today?

MF: Cinesite’s contribution is mixed. Major contributions were made in the art of compositing. Cinesite created some of the first effects using tiled backgrounds in composites, developed some powerful particle system tools, and was an early innovator in the use of green screens for matte photography, to name just three. But, when Cinesite started it was responsible for establishing a pricing structure for visual effects shots that disrupted the industry. This resulted over the long run in the demise of quite a few facilities, including Cinesite L.A., and is still being felt by those who remain.

CGC: Are your kids old enough to appreciate your work, if so, what are some of their comments and what is their favorite film you worked on?

MF: My son is 12, and definitely can appreciate my work. His comments range from “Awesome!” to “How did you get Nightcrawler to disappear and reappear in the same frame?” I think he’d say that his favorite film that I worked on is X2, but I’m not sure. He’s a big fan of some of the older ones, too.

CGC: Can you tell us about your upcoming project “Constantine”?

MF: Not really. It’s very early in the process. The project is based on the comic “Hellblazer”. We are just starting to discuss how and what we’ll do, and there’s not much to say at this point.

Quick Quiz:

What was your first job on a film set? The China Syndrome. Basically, wiring lightbulbs.
Favorite tasks on a movie? Developing the effects, and lighting
What do you like the most about computers? How easy it is to change things
What do you dislike the most about computers? How easy it is to change things
Describe your favorite piece of equipment: Any camera
Favorite American film? Jaws
Favorite Foreign film? Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”
Favorite director? Bob Zemeckis
Favorite director to work with? Not fair. I can’t answer this one. Maybe if I outlive them all.What is your dream project? A show with 80 shots, a one year post period, and lots of money.
Favorite book? Too many to mention: “The Invention of Infinity”, “Isaac’s Storm”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Way Things Work”, “Longitude”, Books by Daniel Pinkwater, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck. Currently reading “Life of Pi”.
Favorite traditional artist? Renaissance – Carravagio. 20th Century – duChamp (traditional?) Maybe Di Chirico? (more traditional). But my favorite painting is the “Chocolate Server” by Liotard.
Who do you like to make fun of? Myself

Big thanks to Mike Fink for taking the time to answer all our questions.

Interview by Jean-Eric Hénault and Carole Bouchard with special contribution by VFX Supervisor Kevin Tod Haug

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