Gutsy Effects
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2008)

Gutsy Effects

Greg Straus and his brother, Colin, are well known to readers of Computer Graphics World as founders of the VFX studios Hydraulx and Lola, where they led the visual effects work for Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, 300, X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon, The Day After Tomorrow, and other films. Greg received a VES nomination and BAFTA award for Best Visual Effects for The Day After Tomorrow, and he and Colin received a VES nomination for Best Visual Effects in a music video called “Black Suits Comin’ for Will Smith.”

The recent Alien vs. Predator: Requiem marks their directorial debut, and as directors and visual effects supervisors for this film, they have big boots to fill: Ridley Scott’s Alien won the best visual effects Oscar in 1980, as did James Cameron’s Aliens in 1987. And, Predator (John McTieman) and Alien 3 (David Fincher) received Oscar nominations for best visual effects in 1988 and 1993, respectively. The most recent film in the franchise, though, Paul WS Anderson’s AVP: Alien vs. Predator, received a Razzie award in 2005 for the worst remake or sequel. The Straus brothers’ mission is to bring the franchise back to its roots. In this movie, the aliens and predators have taken their battle to a small Colorado town.

Q: Why did you want to do this film?
A: We saw the script. They were going for the small-town horror-film feel, and our take on it was to go even more Texas Chain Saw Massacre with it. We felt they had drifted away from what made the originals so popular. I don’t think there are a whole lot of scares in the last couple of movies, nothing that keeps you as tense and on the edge of seat as Alien or Aliens. So it was important for us to capture that intensity and scariness. Aliens are horrific and scary, and we think the tone of the movie should reflect that.

Q: Are you a particular fan of the horror-movie genre?
A: Yeah. But, this is not just a horror film; we have a sci-fi, suspense-thriller thread in the beginning, and then by the end of the movie, it takes a little more of an action-film twist. We thought it was cool to combine sci fi with horror.

Q: This film is nothing like E.T. then?
A: No, we won’t be replacing the guns with walkie-talkies 10 years from now, either. There are totally no apologies we can make for this film. [laughs] Wow. We’re going to hell is all I can say.

Q: It’s pretty rough?
A: I’ll answer that with my evil chuckle.

Q: Was it fun to create?
A: Oh, yeah, anytime you can evoke an emotional response in an audience.... [laughs] It’s always great to see the audience’s heads jerk back in reaction, or people jump in their chairs. And there are definitely more than a few of those moments in the film.
Because the shooting schedule was so tight, the brothers storyboarded every scene and created 3D animatics for the action sequences.

Q: Did you use anything from the original films? 
A: Sound was a huge undertaking in this movie. To bring all that back, Fox grabbed original elements out of the salt caverns and we digitally re-mastered some sound elements from Predator, Alien, and Aliens.

Q: What about visuals?
A: I felt that in the last movie, the predator had become rather bulky. So, when we started working with Almagamated Dynamics on the design, we based it on the original; we wanted to make him tall, athletic, light. We used the same actor, Ian Whyte, who played the main predator in the last film, and to free his performance, we made the suit more flexible and thinner. On top of that, we worked with Ian to make his movements and mannerisms tribal, like Kevin Peter Hall’s in the original.

And then there are the aliens. Colin and I are huge fans of Aliens, Jim Cameron’s version, and we loved the ridged heads from that. We were able to bring more detail and complexity to the ridged heads than what they could do back then, but the Aliens definitely influenced the sculpture.

Q: How much of the movie is special effects versus visual effects?
A: We did an incredible amount in camera. We have an entire face-hugger attack scene shot in camera just like they did back in Alien or Aliens. We used a very old-school in-camera technique for that attack. And then we had another attack where, because of the nature of it and the location, we had to do it fully in CG. It really depended, but wherever we could, we did it in camera with the guys in the suits.

Q: Why did you use the guys in the suits so much?
A: The main reason is that when they’re lit properly and shot properly, they look amazing. The second half of our film takes place in the rain, so any time you can have real rain hitting the suit, it’s going to look more real than CG rain.

Q: Did you previs the film?
A: Yes. All the action sequences were 3D previs’d, and every single scene was boarded. There’s a huge binder of story­boards. I’ve been on movie sets where you wait around for 10 hours and nothing happens. We didn’t have that luxury. We were always shooting within an hour-and-a-half of call time. And we averaged 25 setups a day, so we were really screaming.

Q: Who did the previs?
A: PLF did much of the previs. We also had a team of in-house guys because there was so much in such a short time. And, one of our animation supervisors was in Canada with us the whole time. If we didn’t have time to do previs ahead of time, he’d previs the next week’s shoot in our trailer. Also, if the location turned out to be drastically different, the [first] previs ended up in the garbage can. For instance, we had an idea of what a power plant looked like, but we ended up shooting in a power plant outside Vancouver, where the actual physical layout of the stairs, catwalk, and gantry was different. So, he revised everything as fast as he could.

Q: Had you directed actors before?
A: We have. We hadn’t done a lot of dialog, but we’ve done commercials and music videos, and some of those had tie-ins with big actors. Sometimes in the music video world, some of the shenanigans you’d see are shocking. But everyone in our cast was on time and well prepared. They were very professional, very serious. We didn’t have to spend hours trying to get someone out of his or her trailer.
Among the 460 visual effects shots created at Hydraulx were outer-space sequences at the beginning of the film, interiors for the predator ship, a shot of a spaceship crashing toward earth like a meteor, and CG aliens for battle scenes.

Q: How many visual effects shots are in the film?
A: There are 460. Originally, we thought it would be around 300. It’s still modest by big summer-movie standards, but for a horror film, it’s a sizeable amount.

Q: What are the visual effects shots?
A: We had shots in outer space in the beginning of the movie, with ships flying by. The predator ship’s interior sets are all CG: the hallways, corridors, trophy room, and all the other interesting stuff. There’s a huge CG shot of a ship crashing down onto earth that looks like a big meteor barreling through the forest. Every time a predator fires his plasma caster, those are effects. In the sewer battle and a battle in the power plant, we employed CG aliens and in-camera aliens. In the climax, we have CG aerial shots with F-22 Raptors and CG choppers. And, at the end of the film, a whole city gets wiped out in a big nuclear blast scene during a big effects sequence.
Also, since we shot in Vancouver, we did matte paintings to add the Rocky Mountains and make it feel like Colorado. The predator POVs are all visual effects shots. And, there are some good CG gore shots: There’s a CG shot of a kid’s face caving in after alien acid melts down through his eyes.

Q: Was the experience you had in visual effects helpful in directing this film?
A: It was a huge help. Figuring out how to shoot this stuff is tricky, and having a visual effects background made it straightforward. We definitely had more confidence because we know how to choose whether you do a miniature, CG, or a guy in a suit. There is a wide range of approaches—in-camera, hybrid, all-CG—and they have different cost implications.

Q: Did you make any changes at Hydraulx for this film?
A: We pretty much rolled the whole team from Fan 4 [Silver Surfer] onto AVP. We had hired people and bought machines for that. The CG creatures used our second-generation pipeline; the first-generation pipeline was used on 300. But, we didn’t have to overcome anything that took huge scientific R&D projects.

One of the nice things was that we cut the film at Hydraulx, we did all the effects here, and we did the final digital assembly and the DI here, as well. Everything was done here except the sound. The studio even had eFilm set up a DI theater here. It was great having it all in-house because in the same room we would do visual effects for views, click a button, sit with colorists, and start setting looks for film. It’s really the workflow for the future. I think we’ll see tighter integration between the editing package, the DI software, and the effects software.

Q: What tools did you use?
A: We used (Apple) Final Cut HD for editing. All the visual effects reviews and on-lining of elements were done in (Autodesk) Smoke. The compositing was done in Inferno and Flame, and the DI in Lustre (all from Autodesk). We used (Autodesk) Maya and (Mental Images) Mental Ray for modeling and character animation, (Next Limit) Real­Flow for the blood simulations, and rendered in Mental Ray. We shot in 35mm. We had the same cinematographer as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Daniel C. Pearl. He’s awesome.

Q: How did you and Colin divide your work?
A: We were always involved in everything equally. Sometimes we’d have a different idea for a scene—he’d do one version and I’d say, why not try a more intense version or a softer read of that line? So we had a little variation. But generally, we can finish each other’s sentences. We’re pretty in tune with each other.

Q: So, will we be seeing a few more of these from you?
A: Oh yeah [chuckle]. Oh, yeah.   

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at