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February 15, 2008

Tentacled Pirates

Oscar-Winning Alumnus John Knoll Shares Effects Techniques

By Mel Cowan

John Knoll ’84 lent his visual effects mastery and creative advice to SCA students.
Academy Award-winning alumnus John Knoll ’84 lent his visual effects mastery and creative advice to SCA students who filled Lucas 108 to capacity on February 13 for an engaging discussion of the groundbreaking work in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

“Growing up, my hobby was model-making and when I got a job doing that in Hollywood, it killed it as a hobby. So I had to find a new one,” said Knoll, who is ranked number 10 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the smartest people in Hollywood and nominated for his work on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at this year’s Academy Awards. “The reality is always more interesting to me than the fiction—the challenge is forcing ourselves to make this fantastic world look as real as possible.”

Knoll repeatedly stressed—as his time at the school proved—that creating visual effects requires collaboration and being knowledgeable across the cinematic spectrum.

“I’m constantly trying to generate goodwill on and off set, and by knowing what goes into every person’s job, I can not only make better effects, I can make the process easier and more focused on what the artist needs to do.”

Although there was no visual effects program during his USC studies, Knoll cobbled together a motion-control rig and created Terminal Velocity, a short film that nabbed him a position as a motion control camera operator at Industrial Light and Magic. His experience at ILM included contributing to some of cinema’s greatest visual extravaganzas, among them The Abyss, and Episodes I-III of Star Wars.
Knoll invented the iMocap system, which allowed thespians like Bill Nighy (Davy Jones) to create his performance in front of the camera wearing a basic motion capture suit.

Describing the VFX trade as one that requires boundless creativity and artistic skill, coupled with an attention to organization, data management and workflow, Knoll displayed dozens of complicated sequences that utilized every kind of effects technique possible, ranging from matte paintings and miniatures, to render-intensive computer-generated water effects and multiple-pass atmosphere creation.

“I spend a lot of time pointing at the screen over someone’s shoulder,” added Knoll, who confessed that he misses the hands-on aspect of creating effects now that he works primarily as a supervisor. “But I try to work on a few shots of my own in every film I supervise.”

Knoll cited the work of stop-motion pioneer and 2007 Mary Pickford Award recipient Ray Harryhausen as being a major influence on all the FX artists that Knoll has worked with over the years. As an example, he specifically mentioned the creation of the Pirates trilogy’s skeletal monsters which required a great deal of trial-and-error experimentation, including a failed motion-capture session with Johnny Depp shot months after wrapping the film.

“We were so excited about the technique, and were so convinced that it would work, but it was a complete failure,” he confessed. “The nuances of the performance were created on set between the director and Johnny, and something done after the fact would never match up.”

Knoll displayed sequences that utilized every kind of effects technique possible, from matte paintings and miniatures, to render-intensive CG water effects and atmosphere creation.
This cemented in Knoll’s mind the importance of creating as much of the effects work on set, while at the same time maintaining a low footprint and continuing to “generate goodwill.” For the second and third films, which required the entirely CG-created characters of Davy Jones and his watery crew, Knoll invented what he called the iMocap system, which allowed thespians like Bill Nighy (Davy Jones) to create his performance in front of the camera wearing a basic motion capture suit that would serve as the guide for the layers of complicated FX.

“At the heart of the character is this wonderful, quirky performance that shines through the effects.”

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Knoll showed the rapt audience the product of his latest hobby: a scientifically accurate recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Using telemetry traces, lunar orbiter photography and the actual audio recordings from the mission, the visual effects master has created a stunning depiction of the touchdown. “I grew up during the Apollo missions, and they had a big impact on me."

  With this project and others, Knoll says that he has come full circle, combining his early passions with the technology that he helped to create while continuing to raise the bar in the ever-growing field of visual effects.

The evening came to a close with a blooper reel that showed what happens when effects go bad—or as Knoll said, “what happens when artists get a little bored.” Perhaps the films would have been different with the wildly gesticulating tentacles, anachronistic light saber battle, and several pirates getting run over by a giant runaway Krispy Kreme doughnut.