Between Saving Private Ryan and Ready Player One—the critically acclaimed adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel—VFX supervisor Roger Guyett has been along for the ride on two of the most demanding projects of Steven Spielberg’s career.
An entirely different animal than the former picture—a 1998 war drama which won five Oscars—Ready Player Onewas “a really complicated movie to make.” Containing close to 1500 digital effects shots, the film was crafted through a “multi-tiered animation approach,” consisting of motion capture, more traditional keyframe animation techniques, and pure computer animation.
Set in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, the adventure pic follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned teenager coming of age at a time when people need an escape, and have found one in technology. It’s in the OASIS, a virtual reality software devised by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), that Wade can be whoever he wants to be. A “gunter” (or egg hunter), chasing after hidden clues embedded within Halliday’s software, Wade is off to the races when Halliday dies, playing a game with OASIS ownership on the line.
Looking back with nostalgia, while looking ahead to a grim and uncertain future, Ready Player Oneis a pop culture collage, replete with references to classic characters from films, video games and more. In this filmic world—set primarily in a VR space—Chun-Li of the Street Fighter video game series can coexist alongside Batman and Robin, Freddy Kreuger, Chucky, and King Kong.
Working alongside an “absolute consummate filmmaker” and pop culture master, Guyett knew the scrutiny his work would face. “You’re dealing with Steven Spielberg, a guy that is encyclopedic in his understanding and knowledge. I would just laugh sometimes when he’d say, ‘I think that some character is slightly wrong.’ Or even the locations that we would design and build for the movie,” the VFX supervisor says. “You’re dealing with somebody who’s got a very high bar.”
Featuring too many characters to count—including a series of original avatars for characters enmeshed in the OASIS—Ready Player One demanded “visual excitement” and meticulous attention to detail. Working through the OASIS’s many virtual environments, Guyett and Spielberg determined which virtual characters should appear in a specific environment by thinking in terms of “casting.”
“Building up scenes with Dave Shirk, our animation supervisor, we would cast scenes, and then go back and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got too many superheroes.’ Or, ‘Let’s try and put somebody in there that’s more playful.’ Or, ‘Let’s put in a completely different kind of character with four legs.’ All those kinds of things,” Guyett says. In terms of the diversity of environments, the artist calibrated his work by constantly asking himself one fundamental question: “What are the rules?”
Recognized with his fifth Oscar nomination for his contributions to Ready Player One, Guyett can’t believe what the film’s team managed to pull off. When the VFX supervisor joined ILM in 1994, he went to work on Casper, the first film in the history of cinema to feature a leading role brought to life through visual effects, helping to produce a groundbreaking 40-plus minutes of 3D character animation. 24 years later, Guyett brought over a half million characters to Ready Player One—with a variety of VFX-honed leads—in what can only be described as a full-circle moment.
Setting out on Ready Player One, what made the film stand out to you? What were you hoping to achieve with this project?
More than any project I’ve ever been involved in, every aspect of it was so intricately connected. As they were writing the script, the story of course influenced the production design of all the environments within the OASIS, and the production design influenced the style of some things that we were broadly going for—Adam Stockhausen, the production designer, being a major thread through the whole process.
One of the things that we were trying to achieve was just making all of the decisions that we made throughout the design process very believable, [so that] the design of the avatars truly reflected the characters that were being written into the movie. Of course, even when they did the casting, that would influence your feeling about the choices they might’ve made as they became avatars, and entered into the world of the OASIS, and we wanted all of those steps to have an inherent sincerity to them.
In terms of the design, we wanted the wonder and excitement of entering into the OASIS as a world, and the fantastic spirit of that process. But we also wanted to ground our story in a world where you felt that there was significant jeopardy; that there were consequences. Initially, a lot of the conversations were about the level of realism inside the OASIS, in the rules of those worlds, and then of course, the design of the avatars themselves—and how by making it feel more realistic, you hopefully carried the jeopardy and emotions more thoroughly through the OASIS.
The other thing we wanted to do was to make sure it was as real as a game like that might be in 20 or 25 years’ time, and that each aspect of it—each of the worlds within it—had a slightly different flavor to it. That there could be the gritty realism of a New York street versus the slightly more fantastical world of Planet Doom. Juxtaposing those kinds of things within the movie gave it tremendous range, and great texture, too.
But the first thing was just trying to find a design for those avatars that we felt would carry the emotional thread of all of those characters. A really interesting aspect of the movie is [the dynamic] between the live-action world and the OASIS—the fact that you were seeing an actor, and then you were continuing their emotional journey by crosscutting to their avatar. A lot of the time, in the initial tests we did on the design of those avatars, it was just making sure that we could truly represent the emotion correctly in that translation between the real actor and their avatar.
The film projects a vision of the near future, and near-future technology. Was there a sense of pressure, in aiming for a vision of the world that wouldn’t quickly feel dated?
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s like me as a kid, watching Star Trek in the early 1970s. Weirdly enough, it’s amazing how many of those kinds of basic ideas have come true, but it is that very issue, isn’t it? You’re trying to understand how that world might work.
A lot of the time, we were certainly looking at so many potential developments in the world, or the world of technology, and we’re involved with different technology ourselves. There are a lot of different elements in there that are very much part of our own world, and of course, a lot of people at ILM are acutely aware of potential directions of technology, and how that process might work. But you are ultimately predicting the future, and of course, what we did was a tremendous amount of research as to how that process might come about.
How did you benefit from the latest advancements in technology in crafting the film? Reportedly, Steven Spielberg wore VR goggles as a way into the OASIS, allowing him to stage scenes within a virtual space.
Of course, the very issue of doing a motion capture process is that the world you’re physically staring at is very simple. It’s a bunch of strange, gray cubes, and people wearing funny suits. If everyone steps onto the stage, and you’re talking about this amazing castle with moats of lava, everyone’s version of that inside their head is going to be a little different, so the thing that we strove very hard to achieve was to give both the director and the actors a very good representation of what that world would be.
As a director, you’re inspired by your environment, so the first thing we would do with every new environment or location was to build a version of it. Steven would do a scout—he’d move around that space—and he’s extremely cognizant of the power of technology in that setting, in the sense that he’s a gamer. He’s a fan of technology and has interests in those areas, so he could really take advantage of, and not being intimidated by those technologies. Then of course, we could give him more real-time feedback on the shots themselves by generating a pretty good version of the actors and the staging of the scenes that he was shooting. Those kinds of thing start really drawing together the live-action world and these virtual production techniques; they become more closely aligned.
With Ready Player One, you were not only crafting original avatars, but also incorporating a wide array of known characters, like The Iron Giant, each possessed of its own singular visual style. What were the challenges and opportunities in working with such a unique universe of characters?
I have to say, I’ve done a lot of big movies, but this was daunting. Normally, when you think of contemporary visual effects movies, the number of characters is often quite small, even if the body of work is absolutely massive. But the most incredible thing about this is that trying to find the boundaries of it was quite difficult sometimes. Given a blank sheet, it was just an interesting process of how you go about it—and of course, it was literally one step, or one brick, at a time. You just have to start somewhere and start building it, and start to understand it, and some of the fun of that world is that you have these crazy anomalies of seeing characters completely out of place, which is something I really loved about it— that you would have these arbitrary characters in there that someone would choose to be. It was a daunting prospect, but it was an absolute joy. You can only imagine the joy that people had in modeling the DeLorean.
Do you know how many VFX-driven characters you ended up working on for the film?
Let me tell you this: There are over half a million different gunters attacking the castle in the end battle. [Laughs] It’s absolutely incredible to me. We built this tremendous level of artificial intelligence into our animation system, so a lot of the background action could be handled separately. It was an absolutely daunting task, but more than anything, we had fun with it, and hopefully, that comes across.
What was the process in modeling characters, including those based on preexisting IP? Were those all drafted from scratch for the film?
They all came from different sources. A lot of them were modeled by the guys, and were unique characters. Others, we built through this massive kit of parts. For example, if you were building a Second World War army, you’d have soldiers; one guy would be wearing a helmet, and another would be wearing a flak jacket. Then other times we would try and get models. Because in this day and age, a gaming company, or whoever we’re requesting characters from, they quite often have a 3D model. So, we could ask them, “Hey, do you have a version of this character that you could send us?” And quite often, they did. Other times, they would give us artwork. Of course, they want their character to be represented with a very high level of integrity, so they did their best to help us. Then, I think we even had an online competition, where people submitted avatar designs, and then we included those in the movie. They came from all different sources, and the funny thing is, there were so many. There were thousands of them, and we never had enough.
I’d also say, we’d build a model, and it would be in two shots. I mean, it was an absolute killer. Normally, you build your hero model, and it’s in 100 or 200 shots. We were building thousands of models and texturing them, and trying to keep track of all of them, and rigging them, and then they’d be in two shots. But that’s the texture and sparkle of that world, isn’t it? That’s what you want.
Spielberg has described the character of James Halliday as someone who has a whole world living inside his dream, for whom the world is his dream. Do you identify with that description, in terms of the nature of the work you do?
That was the really weird thing about it, this kind of self-reflective world that we were building, and I think that quote is exactly right. So, of course, that resonates with me. I think as we journeyed through this, [with] each environment, it was like, “Okay, what can we do here that is going to blow people’s minds, or up the level of excitement, or the texture? How can we make this feel like a truly emotional and visceral experience for people?” Of course, at the end of the day, it’s a tremendous amount of work for people, but I think the project was a dream come true.