An Interview with Sequence Supervisor Nigel Sumner

by Manuel Alducin

I had the opportunity to interview Sequence Supervisor Nigel Sumner, who recently finished his tour of duty on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. He discusses a bit about his background and previous projects and the challenges of the Terminatrix.

Nigel Sumner and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Nigel Sumner

On Thursday July 31, 2003, during SIGGRAPH, I had the opportunity to interview CG Sequence Supervisor Nigel Sumner, who recently finished his tour of duty on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Among his credits are The Perfect Storm and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. For Terminator 3, ILM was not only tasked with bringing up to date the VFX for the film and exceed viewer expectations, but also have them fit with the established look from the previous films. In this interview Nigel discusses a bit about his background and previous projects, the numerous challenges in bringing the Terminatrix to life and a bit about the future.

Manuel Alducin: OK, lets start with a brief introduction, your name and position at ILM.

Nigel Sumner: I'm Nigel Sumner, I'm a Sequence Supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic.

Manuel: What did you study and how did you get started in visual effects?

Nigel: Well when I was at school I was both artistically and technically interested. I studied Masters in Arts and I was for looking a way to combine those at college. So at the time all I could find were Architectural courses that combined both skills and I stumbled across a Computer Graphics course at Bournemouth University and decided that's what I wanted to be. So I got my undergraduate degree there and then I was a technical assistant for a year there. I got my Masters degree there and then taught there for 2 years and then finally made my way into the industry, the FX industry, in London working at CFC briefly on a couple of music videos and then I came to ILM to work in the Commercials Division.

Manuel: Did you ever wanted to work in VFX field or was it something you stumbled upon?

Nigel: I really didn't care to be honest. When I first started I was just thinking the marriage of technology and creating things I liked. I had no idea whether it was games or visualization or full 3D animation or special effects I wanted to go into, and really during my education it kinda reflected that cause I never focused on one thing. Then towards the end when I started working with more live action images that I decided that's what I wanted to do. I was always interested in photorealism in terms of painting and drawing so I kinda left to work in live action images, trying to create photorealistic 3D images to combine those.

Manuel: You worked both in commercials and film, what are some of the biggest differences between them?

Nigel: Size of the picture, hell lot more pixels to fill. The commercial environment is kind of a student thing you learn to do, a wide range of techniques and areas and disciplines like rendering, modeling and animation. Commercials come in great spats and lets you explore and practice those skills, you would do on one team you would animate, on another you might model or on a team you might do a little bit of everything. The commercial environment is well suited to people coming out of college. Film, because of the nature of the projects and the timeframe, you become more specialized, so if you would come straight to it you would either just pick compositor or animator or modeler and become specific in the skill you would use. And no one ever knows what they want to do or what one's best skills sets are. It's not always that you do what your best skills were, but it's nice to get a chance, it takes a while to figure out where your best is and it took me a while working commercials to figure out that I wanted to be a TD.

Manuel: How did you find the switch of going from commercial software, taught in schools, to the proprietary software sometimes used in film?

Nigel: There is a lot of great highend companies doing a lot of the common software and it helps in the way of employing people if they already have the skills. We have a lot of proprietary software for specific tools that commercial software doesn't provide us with, doesn't allow us to do. We have very specific goals and very specific problems in which we need specific solutions. I think all companies do that as well. We develop technology that hasn't been developed before and give us our edge. There is always going to be something new to learn to get the job done.

Manuel: How long you worked on commercials, about 2 years?

Nigel: I think it was a year and a half.

Manuel: So what were the highlights working in commercials?

Nigel: There was a series of bank commercials for First Union. They were directed by Steve Beck. Visually they were stunning. The art direction was extremely interesting. They were a lot of fun to work in. The final product was extremely impressive and won a few awards. There was a Gatorade commercial with Pablo Helman in the VFX shoot which was really fun to work on. We got to work with Vince Carter from the Toronto Raptors and we did him using the technology and creatures from Jurassic Park. We had him fighting a velociraptor playing basketball and that was a lot fun to work on. And then we did some Star Wars spots for Pepsi with Marfalump.

Manuel: How was the work done? Did you use some of the film area tools or did you have your own pipeline?

Nigel: It's always beneficial to use the pipeline that features uses because it's well established and it works but because of the timeframes it has to compete for projects. We have to make use of what we have and take shortcuts. At the time we had the benefit of features behind us but it didn't change the way we worked. It still comes out at the end of what you're after.

Manuel: Were you given specific sequences in commercials or you handle certain aspect?

Nigel: An analogy from commercials to features: a commercial is almost like a sequence in a film. In a scale, commercial making is between 6 and 10 shots and a sequence in film between 4 and 20, so we treat a commercial like a sequence in a film. So you have a Sequence Supervisor or Visual Effects Supervisor overseeing it and then someone in charge of compositing, someone in charge of the CG side and then the TD artists working with them, much of the same paradigms you have in feature films.

Manuel: So how did you get to the features side?

Nigel: It's actually quite easy. The skills are the same, it's just the actual restrictions and requirements that are different. You have a different timeframe, different specifics. I would say the actual transition is actually very easy. It's just the visual output is very different, there's a lot more things you have to be aware of or conscious of when you get to film. It's not going to be on a 16 in. screen it's going to be on a 60 ft. screen.

Manuel: What was your first film project?

Nigel: I did a brief stint on Space Cowboys, that was like a month, my first main film was The Perfect Storm.

Manuel: As a TD are you like a particle guy or what do you work on?

Nigel: As a TD I would say creatures and mostly particle effects: dust air, liquids, water, fluids.

Manuel: How did you handle the complexity on something like The Perfect Storm? Was it mostly having the R&D come up within solutions or did you create a lot of that yourselves?

Nigel: Some TDs did. I came right at the end of that project actually on that one as well. R&D was also done by some great Maya particle guys, Habib Zargarpour. He was one of many, they did a great deal of developing the most useful techniques, some of which they did prior to the show, some during the show. The hard thing was describing each effect, they had, I think, something like 20 something names: like different sprays, spray foam, spray blobs, spray wisps, etc. The list was endless and describing different visual components became kinda problematic. There was more keeping track of and having to find different aspects of a shot so you could tell a TD that we need longer crest wisps or getting the information across from the director down to the artist. That was difficult but interesting.

Manuel: Did you have many problems matching the CG water to the real one, as they did shoot on tanks?

Nigel: I didn't have much to do with that. That was great compositing and they did a fantastic job. We aided that by doing additional effects spray and splash and particle stuff on top to help marry elements but the compositing team did an awesome job making the CG water look and blend seamlessly into the live action plates.

Manuel: So now on to Terminator 3. What were some of the sequences you worked on in that film?

Nigel: Primarily I did the particle accelerator sequence which had the Terminatrix melting onto the accelerator. There's a lab fight sequence where the Terminatrix comes in and shoots and there's an effect there where a grenade launcher is used where there's a lot of particle surface effects where liquid metal is blown apart revealing holes down to the endoskeleton. Essentially I handled sequences that involved liquid metal effects FX on the Terminatrix.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
For the Terminatrix being stuck in the particle accelerator magnets, ILM used particle level sets to simulate the fluids.

Manuel: I guess you referenced a lot the liquid metal effects from the previous film.

Nigel: We used it quite a bit. We had all the effects shots, I believe it was 16 to 20 shots in that movie which held up so good that they stand up to this day. Wish there was more. We also had a container with mercury in it as reference which was constantly amusing because you could stare at that thing for days. It was a direct reference back to the effects of the second movie. So you wanted that level of realism within the movement in the liquid metal.

Manuel: There are many interesting shots with transformations and transitions...

Nigel: We have a great matchmoving crew. Matchmoving was tricky, we had a lot of people on that show experienced on that and a lot of people with time to prepare for what we needed. In the end it comes down to a good technology backing and individual artists working very hard to get that seamless match. The transitions themselves we did with Maya particles covering the surface and rendered using mental ray. The hardest part which was getting the transition from skin to liquid metal without it looking like a morph or a wipe as in the second movie. For that we tried various techniques to break the discoloration and patterning to get a more naturalistic [look] and not be like a dissolve or wipe.

Manuel: For the shot where the Terminatrix is stuck in the accelerator and her "skin" flows down, did you use procedural techniques or was it more like animated or have someone paint maps to control it?

Nigel: In that specific shot the cracking was procedural. In part it was an artist as well. We wrote a series of tools that when the liquid metal traveled further away from its initial state it introduced more cracking into the surface. We had some control over it but it was also semi-automatic in terms that we could just run it and it would crack on its own. We could then take control where the cracks are and the cracks aren't and the randomness as well.

Manuel: ILM has done a lot of liquid effects lately. How does Terminator 3 compare to other efforts like The Perfect Storm? How has the technology improved?

Nigel: In terms of the instances of technology it has come a long way between those two films. The ability to realistically and physically simulate fluids is more and more available to production because the processes we're using are getting faster and faster. The biggest problem is always turnaround time, to be able to simulate elements that we can see each day to get decent turnaround and get feedback on. With physical simulations the simulation times could be days or even weeks and that kind of turnaround times isn't suitable for production needs. We need something faster and as the processes get faster the turnaround time gets quicker. So now we are actually using real physical simulations, that you can see FX work.

Manuel: How do you go about controlling the physical simulations?

Nigel: It's actually a big challenge with any physical simulations. To get exactly what the director wants is really tough and the director does really wants a specific look in a specific film. Physical simulations or any simulations technology is going to give you something straight away but it may not be what you want and to control that in a specific way is really hard. We spent a lot of time trying to integrate the fluids software into our pipeline and by doing that we realized where we could actually have control over the fluids simulation. We realized that we would need to be able to tell the fluid where to go, which objects to follow, which ones to stick to. For a lot of those sequences the fluid became the form of the TX and her clothing and then we need to be able to tell it when it turns to liquid metal where to go. Without that level of control we wouldn't been able to achieve the desired visual effect the director wanted.

Manuel: You used level sets for that.

Nigel: The engine was an implementation of particle level sets. The engine of which was written by Ron Fedkiw of Stanford University.

Manuel: How did you collaborate with Stanford? Would you bring people over to consult or go there?

Nigel: I'm not exactly sure about that.

Manuel: So would you just specify and request the engine?

Nigel: We already have software, R&D people of our own incorporating the engine into the pipeline. In terms of Ron as a consultant I can't comment.

Manuel: For these specific simulations, how much actual waiting did you have to do?

Nigel: The simulations are quite scalable so we could do low resolution simulations and get a good turnaround time. To show the director something he would be happy with was an overnight turnaround. Initially it started a lot longer but as the engine got refined and became more efficient we could do an overnight turnaround time in pretty much all of the shots.

Manuel: How did you shape the fluids? Did you need to preroll a lot the simulations to "get there"?

Nigel: As long about being modeled in a specific way you can make that an initial state of the fluid. We didn't have to pre-simulate or preroll to get to that state.

Manuel: Did you need or use a high resolution model of the TX?

Nigel: There was a lot of detail that we needed the liquid to flow around and flow through and it did cause some concern at the start. Any of those problems that we did encounter we went around.

Manuel: How did you and the TDs do the work?

Nigel: We used Maya to previsualize and setup some of the controls for the liquid simulations. The actual simulations themselves is proprietary software but it did incorporate many facets of our pipeline [in terms] of animation, modeling, etc. and then Maya itself as a method of controlling.

Manuel: How was the rendering achieved? Did you need to combine PRMan and mental ray elements for example?

Nigel: Each shot used whichever software was best suited at the time. So the liquid metal shots were mental ray that gave us the ability to render our level sets and use the reflections and interreflections to get that liquid metal look. At the same time the endoskeleton itself was very metallic and we wanted the two to be able to see each other in the same scene together in the interreflections. So in the accelerator sequence we definitely rendered with mental ray, we used mental ray as our primary renderer.

Manuel: How big was the team for those sequences?

Nigel: There was, I believe for that sequence, myself and around 3 TDs, an animator, several compositors. There was also another sequence we used the liquid metal effect, which was a sequence at the end where the TX is struggling to get away from Arnie and she's been pulled back. The liquid metal babe comes out and screams and drips. Again that sequence we used the same technology and that there was maybe another 3 or 4 on that, and compositors and animators.

Manuel: Would sequences like that take months to complete?

Nigel: The particle accelerator sequence took several months. Part of it was the software and integration into the pipeline, the actual time for the liquid metal shots within that I think was 4 weeks.

Manuel: For that sequence at the end where you have facial animation with the liquid metal, how did you tackle that?

Nigel: We shot reference of Kristanna being dragged in a blue screen suit to get her motion and her face expressions. The director Jonathan Mostow came up and we had a blue screen shoot. He got the take he wanted and we actually matched the facial expressions. We had matchimation: a modeler would come to matchimate her motions, we then used that to create a liquid face that captured the expressions and emotions and then using the controls of the simulation engine we had a pass and do what we needed to do.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Kristanna Loken was filmed for reference for the final shots in the film. After the animation was done Nigel Sumner and the TDs would run the fluid simulations.

Manuel: There was lots of interactive lighting in that end sequence. How did you handle that?

Nigel: Good rendering and great compositors.

Manuel: Did you have a lot of problems dealing with all that smoke and dust?

Nigel: Yeah, it was just a good effort from everyone. The shiny surfaces isn't the easiest as it may seem, so she did get a good integration into the background but we got a great compositing crew.

Manuel: Did you use high dynamic range imagery for the shots?

Nigel: I believe we did, yeah. Most of the shots.

Manuel: That was great work. And now you are on Van Helsing, right?

Nigel: Yes. I've been on for Van Helsing for a month or so now.

Manuel: As a Sequence Supervisor?

Nigel: Sequence Supervisor.

Manuel: Well we'll have to see that one.

Nigel: Can't wait.

Many thanks to Suzy Starke for all the help conducting this interview and to Nigel Sumner for his time, wit and insights.

All Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines images © Warner Bros. Courtesy of ILM.