VFX Supervisor Susan MacLeod on Wolves, Ghosts and New Moon
Throughout her career in visual effects -- starting with 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance and most recently with 2007's The Golden Compass -- Susan MacLeod has been around the blockbuster more a few times, but never as a visual effects supervisor, and likely never on a project surrounded by as much anticipation as this month's New Moon. Having served as Chris Weitz's VFX producer on the Oscar-winning Compass, MacLeod was one of the first colleagues the director called after taking on the sequel to Twilight. She eventually came aboard as the film's VFX supervisor, battling wolves, vampires, apparitions and more in her and her crew's race to realize novelist Stephenie Meyer's bestseller on a wild 10-month schedule. MacLeod spoke with Movieline today about getting creative, working fast, and a few hints at what fans can expect from New Moon.
So: The Twilight Saga. That's a fan base with some pretty high expectations.
Frankly, I wasn't familiar with the books at all before Chris [Weitz] called me about the project. So I went out to see Twilight, which had been out at the time. I had sort of looked at it as, "Oh, it's for another generation." It's not something I'd normally go see in the theater. But I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the movie, and I subsequently read the books. It's probaby not the genre I'd be the typical consumer of, but I have to say I really enjoyed them. Having read the script for New Moon, I thought it was an opportunity to do some new things. There's quite a variety of different kind of effects in the movie -- some of which are up for a completely personal interpretation. They don't relate to anything in reality. So that's always kind of fun, to be able to create something like that. And I knew there would be a huge interest in seeing the wolves for the first time, so that was a lot of fun to be able to develop. We tried our best to stay true to the descriptions that were in Stephenie's books, and I hope that the fan base appreciates that. It's also nice to know that you have a guaranteed audience. If you're going to put all of your time and energy into something -- which is what always ends up happening to everybody when you make a movie -- it's nice to know people will definitely be going to see it.
You worked with Chris Weitz previously on The Golden Compass. How soon after he got the New Moon job were you involved with the project?
Pretty much right away. He called me, and I was actually in the midst of negotiating for something else. I was more than happy to say, "Never mind. I'm gonna go work with Chris." Chris and I have similar tastes and have an easy dialogue. Especially in a movie that has such a compressed schedule, it's really a great time-saving tool when you're able to communicate with each other pretty easily. That was a huge benefit for us.
So what was the schedule for you, and how did that relationship help out along the way?
The pre-production process started for in January, basically, and I was a crew of one for a month. Then we moved up to Vancouver in the beginning of February, with most of the crew coming aboard in that month. We started shooting in the beginning of March. That's less than three months pre-production. Of course, New Moon for me was a smaller volume of work than I'm used to doing. So it was certainly doable; it was refreshing in a way. I'd been working on bigger visual-effects spectacles like Golden Compass; I think I had six to eight months of pre-production on that, and 1,600 shots. Whereas, by comparison, New Moon was about 400 shots. Even so, there are things that you can't expedite; you can't throw twice as many people at a wolf and do it in half the time. So the first thing I did was to hire a company to star building the wolves, knowing that was urgent based on our timeline.
Shooting, I think it was through the end of May, and then post-production ended at the beginning of October. So that's four months of post-production compared to 30 weeks or more on something like The Golden Compass. For me, the whole movie was completed in less than 10 months. That's pretty dramatic compared to two years.
This is your first film as visual effects supervisor as opposed to visual effects producer. What's the difference?
As a VFX producer, I'd come to the table with ideas and opinions as well. Generally, you'd sort of split the work sort of like you would with the director and producer of a movie. The producer handles the more logistical and monetary aspects, while a director is free to pursue the creative aspect of things. In truth, just as a good director/producer relationship is, it's more of a symbiotic relationship. But the producer is the bottom when it comes down to financial and logistical concerns, and the supervisor says, "It has to be like that. It has to be more red or more blue, or it has to have longer fur or shorter fur" -- of course, in collaboration with the director. So the supervisor is second to the director in the creative calls on things. We all know the director can't be there every moment of the day.
For me, it was very liberating to the creative aspect of what I do. Rather than whispering in the supervisor's ear, "Hey, how about this?" or "How about that?", I was able to say, "This is what we're going to do." It was quite liberating and fun for me, and again, knowing that Chris and I have similar tastes, I felt like it was eminently doable. I had a blast doing it; it was my favorite show to date.
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