Why the Massive Technical Challenges Were 'Exponentially Harder' Than Earlier Motion-Capture Projects

Ready Player One follows game players in a dystopian future who escape the grim reality of their world by entering a more exciting and beautiful world inside the Oasis. The mind-bending all-CG Oasis is an immersive virtual reality universe filled with pop-culture movie and video game references from the 1980’s and 90’s. In the film, when the inventor of the Oasis dies, he leaves all this and a fortune to the winner of a three-part treasure hunt he devised. We follow game player Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as his avatar, Percival, competes with other avatars in the Oasis for the prize.

Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg traveled inside a virtual production to make this film with the help of artists primarily at Digital Domain and Industrial Light & Magic. The Third Floor and Framestore helped with previs. Produced by Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros., Ready Player One had a budget of $175 million and a worldwide gross of $583 million, according to IMDb. It received a 72 percent approval rating on the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes.

The visual-effects-heavy film scored Oscar and BAFTA nominations for best visual effects and five Visual Effects Society nominations — for environment (The Shining), virtual cinematography (New York Race), model (DeLorean DMC-12), animated character (Art2mis), and outstanding visual effects. ILM’s David Shirk, overall animation supervisor, Roger Guyett, overall visual effects supervisor, and Grady Cofer, visual effects supervisor, received the Oscar, BAFTA and VES nominations for best visual effects along with Matthew E. Butler, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain.

We spoke with Roger Guyett, who received his fifth Oscar nomination and seventh BAFTA visual effects nomination for this film. He previously won a BAFTA award for Saving Private Ryan and has also received six VES nominations and two VES awards for supervising the effects in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

We’ve interviewed all five Oscar-nominated VFX supervisors. Click here to read the rest of the Q&As.

Ready Player One
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

StudioDaily: Why do you think your peers voted to give Oscar nominations for best visual effects to Ready Player One?

Roger Guyett: This year more than any other, I had no idea which films would make it though. I think what helped Ready Player One was how different it was. I think people want something fresh. I hope they recognized the artistry and are excited by it. I really loved the shot design — a lot of which was, of course, Steven Spielberg.

The story relies heavily on characters in the Oasis and a huge part of the movie is in the Oasis. I think the characters’ emotional journeys communicated to the audience. And then technically, we did some interesting things in terms of the scale. It was a massive amount of work. The Shining. The New York Race. The crowd system was spectacular and allowed us to do shots with so many characters that behaved appropriately. The texture was fabulous. I really like the lighting work, which was more like live action than an animated film, where characters tend to be more lit. We didn’t cheat with the lighting — characters went dark, which gave it a live-action feel.

The film had quite a broad range of effects, and we had quite a broad range of environments — New York, Halliday’s journal. But I think we were able to create a great consistency, a consistent experience about the shots and the way they work, and that’s often such an underrated thing. I’m a big fan of the visual energy of transporting the audience from one experience to another. I feel we achieved a lot of that in Ready Player One, the visual excitement. There were a lot of exciting shots in the movie.

How many visual effects shots are in the movie?

We had about 300 shots in the live action world that Digital Domain with Matt Butler did. At ILM, we did 920 shots for the Oasis, but the shots are long. The developing shot — detail to wide to back to detail — is something Spielberg is famous for. So, we had over 90 minutes of almost completely digital work for the Oasis. It made editing a 10-minute reel for the bakeoff [an annual special presentation from VFX Oscar finalists to members of the Academy in advance of members’ voting on nominations] really difficult.

<i>Ready Player One</i>

Ready Player One
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

So what did you put in the bakeoff reel?

What I love about the bakeoff is the editorial challenge of it. You want to show off your best work, and sometimes it’s difficult to know what that means. I thought, “I’ll just pick my favorite 10 minutes and let it play.” That would make an easy watching reel, because it is just the movie. But in the end, I wanted to show the different qualities. So I picked the New York race, which has characters in a colossal environment to show the cool choreography and how exciting it is. Then I had a quieter moment between the characters in Aech’s garage. I had The Shining in there, too. Then I finished it with the big battle in the end. It’s fun seeing how different those things are: The visual texture and energy of the race, the homage to The Shining with its pacing and feel, and against that the fantastical world with the big battle. I heard people say they like the way it looks. And of course that’s what we do: create images.

<i>Ready Player One</i>'s New York race

Ready Player One‘s New York race
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

What was the process of making this movie?

I worked on it for two years, but Grady Cofer [ILM VFX supervisor] and Dave Shirk [animation supervisor] started six months earlier, doing tests with Steven  to work out conceptual ideas about how the movie might work. We divided the shoot in Leavesden [Warner Bros.’ U.K. Studios] into the live-action world and the motion-captured world. The live-action shoot was relatively short because so much of the movie is in the Oasis.

We had designed most of the environments for the Oasis and developed tools so Steven could scout locations in the virtual world. And we did a bunch of previs with Scott Meadows at Digital Domain to develop the big shots. Gary Roberts at Digital Domain set up the motion-capture stages and the virtual production in Leavesden. Steven is a gamer and aware of technology and how to us it in production. He wanted to use the tools to help him visualize; he could see the shots in real time. He was so enthusiastic and inspiring — the consummate filmmaker. It was so much fun to come to work.

As the motion-capture data and the shots came in, we began working with layered elements. One performance might be two or even more layered elements that we joined together. Dave Shirk had his work cut out blending all these pieces together. We were cutting between live action and the actors’ characters as avatars, so we had to make sure each avatar represented the original actor.

Art3mis in <i>Ready Player One</i>

Art3mis in Ready Player One
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Since the avatars could be anything, how did you do that?

We thought about it way too hard, but you have to overthink to find some truth. Why would a character choose an avatar? How do we express the actors’ personalities in their avatars? How does the casting affect the design of the avatar? Why did Samantha [Olivia Cooke] make the choice to become Art3mis? How do we present Olivia Cooke as Art3mis? There was a web of connectivity choices made in the design process. Every aspect was so connected.

What about the characters in the Shining sequence?

We didn’t want to get involved with creating humans in the movie; we didn’t want to get involved with the issue of the uncanny valley. It was important to me that they had a level of realism. So when we did The Shining, we cut out elements of the twins from the original. And I wanted to use the lady in the bath from the original — why would we try to recreate her? The entire bathroom is digital, so that made it easy to cut her out of the original movie and put her in ours. I wanted to exactly match some of the camera angles from the original movie. We also matched lenses and the grain structure of the original movie. That was the ultimate test. The crew did an incredible job.

The movie centers on playing a game. How did you keep that from seeming trivial?

Steven wanted to be sure that the game felt like a real place and people felt real jeopardy. If it were too gamey, it would feel inconsequential. I believe we found a good level of gaming concepts — sometimes we see the heads-up displays — but kept it more real than even the most photorealistic games, and of course we lit it in real-world ways.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Given the virtual production and the CG worlds you created, did you feel as if you were inside an Oasis yourselves?

We were building our version of the Oasis close to the way it would actually be built. A lot of the time, we were using characters from games that were immersive. And we actually created The Shining as if we were creating The Shining in the Oasis. There was a self-referential quality to this process.

Did you push the state of the art in visual effects?

Yeah. It’s hard to make really big bumps, but we bumped a lot of technology in different areas. The virtual production was extremely sophisticated. The motion capture improved. We used complex environment tools because in a lot of shots we traveled through the world at 100 miles per hour. So we needed technology to build the environments in a way that’s actually do-able. It required such a huge collection of textures. We had so many amazing automated simulations. The crowd system was the most complex I’ve ever heard people talk about. The AI was incredible.

Ready Player One
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

What was the hardest thing about working on this film?

There were really massive technology challenges. I had a few minutes when I thought, “Wow, How are we going to do this?” It seemed daunting. I’ve worked on other motion capture shows [and] there is an exponential curve of complexity. Suddenly we realized we needed hundreds of thousands of characters. It’s like if you’ve climbed 30,000 feet, how much harder would it be to go to 35,000? It’s only 5,000 feet more. Well, maybe now you need oxygen. Or that part of the mountain is steeper. Our first motion capture was larger than all the others we’ve done at ILM. It was exponentially harder.

Trying to make sure we held the integrity of every character and environment was hard. Making sure the ship was on the right course. I couldn’t worry about the details — I had other people worry about them. But of course I worried about the details. I did the DI for the film, so I worried about every frame.

The technical aspect of finding our way visually was hard. Not just lighting, but the design of everything. That was the biggest challenge. You start with a blank piece of paper and have to design a world in such detail.

But the great thing about big challenges is that if you can crack them the payback is so gratifying. Working with Steven Spielberg and assembling sequences with Dave [Shirk] was difficult, but a lot of fun.

And the best thing about creating the visual effects for Ready Player One?

The diversity and the range of the work. I haven’t done a show before where there was so much character work. It was really a lot of fun. The crazy race chase in New York was pure fun. Then the quieter moments with the characters, trying to do the best job we could with great lighting, seeing the emotion come out, make sure they were engaging. The writers were so inclusive and understood we needed to sit around the table with them. We took that very seriously. I have a special place in my heart for Ready Player One. I feel really proud of what we achieved. We had such a tremendous technical and creative team — and I don’t want to overlook the massive production effort.

Art3mis and Parzival in Ready Player One
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

What did you learn from working on this film?

I think the thing I’ve learned about visual effects is first and foremost that every shot is telling a tiny or maybe a big story. There are hundreds of shots, and if each shot can tell a little story, the movie is richer. Every day of the week I was talking with Steven Spielberg about the best way to deliver that to an audience. To work with someone like that — he’s second to none. I had the opportunity to just discuss ideas and talk things through, argue about things, suggest things. We wanted to deliver an exciting and engaging movie and of course laughs. It was a fulfilling thing personally. His bar is pretty high.

Ready Player One was such a big — daunting, as you said – project. What are you working on now?

A little thing called Star Wars [Episode IX].