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From facing down Spielberg and Redford, to helping tomorrow’s film-makers, Oscar-winning film-maker Richard Chuang has had a first-hand view of an amazing period for visual effects. As he tells Luke Clark, it’s been the changes as much as the successes that have helped keep life interesting. Photography by Mark Teo
No matter how many technical innovations you are involved in or how many black tie award ceremonies that you attend, there are few things a film-maker remembers as clearly as looking into the whites of the eyes of a legendary auteur, and being told your work is terrible.
For visual effects innovator Richard Chuang, one such confrontation came from none other than Steven Spielberg. Thankfully, he survived to end up on first-name basis with the legendary director and film-maker. Describing to Ascott Living his memories of working on groundbreaking action film Minority Report, Chuang recalls that getting shot down by a proven master is when you really know that you’re in the film business.
“The fun part is always working with Steven,” the warm-voiced technical expert recalls over the phone from the US city of Los Angeles. “He’s very critical of people’s work. I mean, I remember one of my little humbling experiences was, Steven telling me my work was not up to par. And when you hear it from him, you know, you shrink to a very small size very quickly.”
Thankfully, this was certainly not Chuang’s first-ever film, and nor would it be the last confrontation. Nor did he feel the criticism at the time was intended as personal. Spielberg, he would go on to discover, specialises in pushing people to their peak — for the overall betterment of his films.
© Mark Teo
“You learn from him too, you know. He puts you on the team so that you make him look better,” he explains. “It’s all of us that have to exceed his expectations. That will make a great film.” In Chuang’s eyes, the philosophy of everyone applying themselves to their best abilities is something that Spielberg, better than most directors, is able to impose on those who are on his team. “The success of the film is not just about him, but all of us exceeding our own limitations.”
The Hong Kong-born son of an entrepreneurial family, Chuang is one of the first to admit that his career path has been a mixture of hard work, risk-taking and being in the right place at the right time. And over time, the embracing of change, whenever it came his way.
“I always told my wife, I go to work because I know that when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before. That’s always defined my job,” he says. “That was the only reason I did it, because it was just fun.”
As one of the pioneers of the computer graphics and digital effects industry, the opportunities and changes Chuang has witnessed have been numerous. He co-founded Pacific Data Images (PDI) in 1981, and in the act, unwittingly found himself at the forefront of the convergence of art and technology in the entertainment industry. While animation and digital effects are now as everyday as salt and pepper to a film director, his career started at a time when the early pioneers were, quite literally, shooting in the dark. Not that he’s complaining: in hindsight, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
© Mark Teo
After PDI’s work became intrinsic to pioneering films like Shrek and Madagascar, the company became PDI/Dreamworks. He describes the early days of working on Shrek, a film that would later become known as an animation game-changer. Did he realise it at the time? Chuang laughs. “Well to be honest, when we were first working on that, we had no idea what we were doing. We finished doing Ants, and that was challenging enough being the first feature film we did. Going to Shrek, it was a whole different level of complexity at that point,” he says. “The challenge was really to do humanoid figures, and be able to convey real acting.”
One of the moments that convinced him that his technical team was doing something special, came from a distinctly non-Hollywood source. “I think we made some real accomplishments in that film, that still stand up very well today. We based our facial recognition system in Shrek on muscles, unlike other people that use blend shapes, or things like that,” he explains. “I had a friend who was hearing-impaired. He normally didn’t watch animated films, because he couldn’t read the lips. He actually went to Shrek, and coming out, said that it was one of the first animated films he saw, where he could actually understand most of the dialogue, because he could actually read the lips,” he recalls.
“That was the best comment I received — we’d accomplished something that exceeded even our own expectations.” It was a time of pioneering hardware work too, as Chuang and his team helped create a production system that would go on to become a go-to solution for the industry.
Having started out as a painter, Chuang showed his early versatility by turning his hand to software writing. “I wrote most of the early software we used in production,” he recalls. “I wrote the renderer, the compositor, an animation tool and a lighting tool.” Indeed, he received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 1997, together with Glenn Entis and Carl Rosendahl, for the concept and architecture of the PDI Animation System.
Chuang says he was amused to learn that one of his early programs, created in 1982, was only retired as recently as 2010. “Which makes it one of the longest-lasting pieces of software in the world,” he notes. Comparing the visual effects industry now to when he was at the creative coalface, he says the real innovators in recent times have been the artists.
“When we first started, it was seat-of-the-pants,” he says. Back then, almost every challenge required a new invention along the way, whereas now, changes to the animation tools are less common. “There has not been as much technical innovation, as much as there has been creative innovation. People have now learned to become masters of their own art form.”
Having come from an art background, Chuang compared his computer graphics challenges to those of the artist. “I always related it to my artist friend by saying, it’s difficult to become a master of your art when your tools change every day,” he says.
“Basically there’s nothing you can’t do anymore. What you see now oftentimes fools the audience, and the audience can’t even tell what’s real and what’s not. Because people have perfected their skill — and now they’re mastering it.”
Chuang has spent the most recent chapter of his career creating and working with film studios in Asia — first as a studio executive, helping expand PDI/Dreamworks production capacity to satisfy a growing global demand. Then more recently, he has set up a new venture, Cloudpic, formed to enable distant artists to work together via cloud computing technology. Having seen the full picture of the film-making cycle during his career, he says Cloudpic’s aim was to build something artist-friendly and free of technical impediments. “The whole idea here is to give back to the creative people in our space, a little bit more freedom to collaborate.”
He is impressed with The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, who pushes his stunt team as far as he can, before visual effects become involved. “I really appreciate Nolan’s work because he tries as much as possible not to use visual effects. We got to a point where we were so reliant on the visual effects, we lost track of the storytelling.”
Chuang remembers another confrontation with a big-name director. “I remember Robert Redford telling me the day I started, ‘The last visual effect supervisor I worked with, I fired.’ That was his first line to me,” he laughs. “At one point we got to be pretty good friends, and he said to me, ‘If you do your job well, I won’t see it. I’ll be very happy,’” he recalls. “Because he’s not making a film about effects — he’s making a film about people.”
He is happy now to hand over the creative reins to a new generation, safe in the knowledge that they have the technical tools to achieve greatness. “The age of exploration is over,” he says almost wistfully. Thanks to pioneers like him, today’s artists have the best technology at their fingertips. “Now they have to really master it, and become storytellers.”
Interview courtesy of SIGGRAPH Asia