IF FX Feature: Not just your average Joe

By Rodney Appleyard

Hollywood heavyweight Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the producer of G.I. Joe, who also worked on the second Transformers movie and Stardust, spoke to IF FX recently about blowing up cars in Prague.

IF FX: Can you tell us about the challenges you faced making the effects for this movie?

Lorenzo: The effects were a really interesting challenge. I think one of the most enjoyable scenes in the movie involved the accelerator suit chase through Paris. We had to imagine how somebody could run at 55 MPH, jump over trains and smash against cars, so it was totally crazy designing something like that.

IF FX: Do you prefer mixing up live action effects with CGI?

Lorenzo: Yes, personally I try not to do anything 100% in CGI, unless it’s the only way you can do it. I like using including the texture of reality. We shot the action on real streets; had real cars and motorcycles driving around and being thrown up in the air and we had real people running around in accelerator suits. They couldn’t run at 55mph but we could make them feel like they were moving at a good speed when they came round the corners.

IF FX: How difficult is it to make the effects look realistic?

Lorenzo: A director’s vision has a lot to do with it, as well who does the VFX (we used Digital Domain – who won an Oscar for Benjamin Button – for most of the effects). We all wanted to make sure the audience understood we were having fun with this movie. So there are times when the effects look real and there are other times when we deliberately didn’t try to make them quite so real because we wanted the audience to think:  “Hey, this is a fantasy and we are in.”

So we hoped they wouldn’t ask the same questions you’d ask of reality. It was interesting trying to find the balance of doing that because if you do that too much, it becomes likes a cartoon. In this case, I think we found the right balance.

For instance, we wanted to imagine what a bad guy’s major base would look like below the polar ice caps.

I’ve always thought Harrier Jets are fantastic in the real world. So we used it and took it to the next level, which involved allowing these crafts to move half way between how they normally move and how spacecrafts fly. But we still tried to keep it in the real world.

IF FX: What were the best effects in the movie?

Lorenzo: I think the effects for the underwater scene were state of the art. But you know, it’s always tough to be groundbreaking.  However, I think the idea of having humans run at 55mph was a good shot at it. I’ve never seen that done before. So I’d say that’s pretty groundbreaking in terms of making that sequence believable. We had to think carefully about how you can find the right stride for a human at that speed. It was tricky working out if the audience would accept it. So far at every screening we’ve had, there’s never been an issue.

IF FX: How do you set up a scene like that?

Lorenzo: Well, we create a previz for that particular scene.  We concentrated on it a lot because we tried new things out. In total, we had a nine minute previz of it, so we were able to play with the pieces of the puzzle, throw them around and see where they ended up landing. At the end of the day, it’s just your guide. Not a loose one but not a strict one either. It’s somewhere in between. And then,  when you get to the location, you think to yourself: ‘Well, look at the features of this place. You could do this as well.’ So you keep on adding new ideas to the previz, which is something you previously couldn’t do with a storyboard. 

IF FX: So you have to do a lot of thinking on your feet?

Lorenzo: You have to. Otherwise it will be good but it won’t be great.

IF FX: How important were the physical effects in the movie?

Lorenzo:  One of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen in my life was shot in Prague for this film, when we flipped the Hummer. That was all shot practically. Here we were standing in the street, with historic buildings on both sides, so it can’t go wrong. It’s not like they were 100 feet away. They were very close. It was insane pulling it off.

IF FX: Are you amazed with how talented these SFX guys are sometimes?

Lorenzo: Yes, you have to understand explosions in a really good way. You have to be very precise, safety conscious, but also willing to push the limits of what’s possible. As a result, you are suddenly watching this thing get shot up in the air. We watched it and didn’t know what was going to happen. It was way better than what we planned. We were like: ‘Wow – look how far he got that thing to flip in the air!’ It was incredible.

You can imagine whatever you want but seeing it is so much more different. But I don’t think that’s true with horror – you can imagine far worse than what you see with that genre.

Call me old fashioned but I like to integrate physical effects with CGI. I think that if you are a cast member and you are running with something exploding next to you, you are genuinely going to be a little bit scared, so that comes across in your performance.

If nothing is getting blown up, you have to imagine that it’s there and I think it loses its texture. Maybe it’s not dramatically different, but it’s not quite the same. I think a lot of people forget that this stuff is meant to support the performance as much as the performance is meant to support it. As much as you can say: ‘O.K., right then, this thing is going to happen here and you are going to be shot at from here’, as soon as you start hearing gunfire coming at you or you see something blowing up or being set on fire, you are in it in for real. I don’t think you can make a good action film like this without physical effects.

IF FX: I heard that Australian Stuart Beattie wrote the screenplay. What was it like working with him?

Lorenzo: Stuart and I worked together before on Derailed (he wrote the screenplay), so when Stephen Sommers (the director of G.I. Joe) came on board, his name came up as a potential writer. I said: ‘I know Stu really well and I like him a lot.’ So I called him up at 8.30pm and asked him if he wanted to work on a project the next day. He said: ‘Well, I don’t know. Do you really mean tomorrow?’ I replied: ‘Yes, we  have to start tomorrow.’ And then he said: ‘What is it?’  In response I said: ‘G.I. Joe.’ Excitedly, Stuart reacted: “G.I. Joe? I love G.I. Joe.” And then he immediately started to tell me about all of the characters and thrashed out a lot of it that night.

Stuart’s a great guy and very talented, which is an ideal combination. He’s directing his first movie in Australia now, called : Tomorrow, when the War Begins.

So he came in and met with Stephen and I. We discussed our ideas, which involved rejecting some of his and he rejected some of ours. For the first three weeks it was pandomania trying to find the right story. But one of the great things about G.I. Joe is that it involves an incredible number of characters and fascinating mythology. So you actually have to make choices that you don’t have to think about on other projects,which can lead to some lively conversations.

IF FX: What was it like working with Sienna?

Lorenzo: We worked together before on Stardust. I suggested her name for this movie, but people asked me: ‘Why Sienna? She’s never done a movie like this.’ But I replied: ‘Yes, but I know her – she’ll go for it’ That is what’s required in these movies – you have to be willing to go for it, take an attitude, have fun with that attitude and some bravado.

IF FX: How does it compare to other movies you’ve worked on?

Lorenzo: It’s really been one of the most enjoyable films I’ve been involved with. Often, you go on promotional tours and people go off to their hotel room but we’ve been hanging out together on this tour and drinking beers all night. Last night, we were hanging out for hours because everybody was genuinely having a good time together. It was a very unique experience.

IF FX: Do you think some people might take this film too seriously?

Lorenzo: I hope not. We’re not trying to make a political statement here. We’re just trying to provide the audience with good entertainment. There’s some Pathos and wow factor in there as well.