Men in Black 3 VFX pros describe "an onion" of imagination

This week we got to sit down with the Visual Effects Supervisors from Sony Pictures Imageworks behind Men in Black 3, premiering in the USA tonight. As any Men in Black fanatic knows, the two main characters, J and K, have their single-letter names taken from their original civilian titles – oddly enough, the two men we interviewed this week go by the names Ken Ralston and Jay Redd – working equivalents of those two protectors of the universe working here to bridge the gap between reality and utterly insane fiction in the Men in Black world. What we found was that not only was this film captured with several different types of cameras and techniques, it was done in a specific Men in Black style, with time travel, fully digital copies of Will Smith and Josh Brolin, and none other than a completely re-imagined Cape Canaveral, not to mention New York city itself.

Right from the start, both Ken and Jay noted that the film's director Barry Sonnenfeld had an excellent set of sensibilities for the reality of the world they were tackling. Regardless of the next-level effects in the film, Sonnenfeld according to Ralston and Redd kept the film very down-to-earth, so to speak.

Ken Ralston (center), scouting rooftops during production of Men in Black 3 with Jay Redd on left via @ImageworksVFX

Ken: "The cool thing about working on this film with Barry is that it's really about what the characters are doing and what "that" scene is about despite the action and everything and still, as insane as it is, is about the characters and everything and about J and K and how they relate to each other."

As far as how Men in Black 3 was shot, you might be surprised to hear that not only was the movie captured almost entirely on film, the 3D portions were not originally captured in 3D. All 3D action you see in the film was created in post-production, while the digital sections of the film, however few there were, were caught on ARRI technology.

Jay: "This movie was shot mostly on film. We also did shoot a little on digital on the ARRI ALEXA camera at night. Most of what you see has been caught on film and then scanned."

ARRI CSC provided the crew of Men in Black 3 with the following gear: ARRICAMs for 35MM shooting, HD-IVS video assist, and ARRI ALEXA cameras for the 2nd Unit, Lighting & Grip.

Jay: "On set we're using a lot of different tools because we've got to put all these visual effects in later. We have some proprietary special technology that allows us to take 360 degree photographs of any set we're on in a high dynamic range (HDR) format. So we gather all of this amazing detail and light information on the set so that gives us information later to help us create our digital characters or buildings, whatever we're doing, with exactly where the lights were on the set, on the street, or on top of a building.

There's also laser scanning of buildings and set pieces and actors, even, for us to do our digital models. We've got both digital versions of Will (Smith) and Josh (Brolin), and we've built cars and city streets, and there's a huge amount of stuff that's built between artists and technicians."

Ken and Jay noted that one of the most important elements in the entire film is the balance between real and nonsense. With two Men in Black films already well received in the public's mind, it wasn't so much convincing viewers that the world they were seeing could be real, but making sure they understood that it's not the same reality they might currently be living in.

Ken: "It's a strange combination of elements – it has to feel real, but a lot of things aren't exactly real. New York is a version of New York, it isn't really New York. Cape Canaveral is our version of Cape Canaveral but it looks and feels like the real thing. If you'd scrutinize this stuff you'd say, 'hey that's wrong' or 'that doesn't go there' but it's really about the feeling of each individual certain thing.

It's trying to create a certain style, every movie has a certain style – the director is trying to get the movie a certain style, Barry (Sonnenfeld)'s is very 'not real' in fact it's very stylized. You have to combine that with the contention of looking and feeling real even though what you might be looking at is absurd – which a lot of the movie actually is.

A lot of it has to look real but if you scrutinize it couldn't possibly be real."

The visual effects shot count on this film was 1214, with 650 of the visual shots being done directly by Sony Pictures Imageworks artists. The 650 shots were some of the more challenging bits of the film requiring the CG environments and creatures you'll see in the trailer (and the film, of course, when you see it this weekend). Key sequences worked on by Sony Pictures Imageworks include a digital recreation of Shea Stadium from 1969, a massive monocycle race through Brooklyn and Queens (this including the digital doubles mentioned earlier), and a complete digital recreation of the Kennedy Space Center and the Apollo 11 rocket launch, all of this back in time in 1969.

Jay: "An analogy we used on this movie is that it's kind of like an onion. You have an onion, and you keep peeling the layers away enough until – it still looks like an onion – but you want to peel enough layers away that it still works. We start with reality and we break as many rules as is allowed in the Men in Black world before it starts to go completely crazy."

Ken Ralston is the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for Men in Black 3 and has won 5 Academy Awards for his work on past films – his last feature was Alice in Wonderland which was nominated for an Oscar award last year. He also worked on such notable films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and Back to the Future I, II, and III. Jay Redd is also a Visual Effects Supervisor for Men in Black 3 and has worked on films such as Monster House, The Haunted Mansion, and Contact. BONUS fun fact: before he joined Sony Pictures Imageworks, Jay worked with Rhythm & Hues where he was a CG supervisor for the film WaterWorld!

Stay tuned for more Men in Black 3 action as it unfolds here all week, and hit up our Entertainment portal to see all of our recent interviews and film features!