TweetINTERVIEW with Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Craig McPherson
by Jessica Fernandes, Spark CG Society
August 15, 2019
Crafting Aliens for Men In Black: International
Men In Black wouldn’t hold the same place in our hearts without the fun, quirky, and sometimes threatening cast of alien characters we’ve grown to know and love. I sat down with Sony Picture Imageworks’ Animation Supervisor, Craig McPherson, to hear what it took to bring Pawny and the Hive creature to life.
Which characters did Sony focus on for this film?
We worked on Pawny in third act and all the Hive creature stuff.
What were some of the biggest challenges encountered?
The biggest challenge was nailing Kumail [Nanjiani]’s performance. He has incredibly expressive eyes and a really deadpan demeanour. He’s got this really funny, dry, sarcastic humour, and that stuff’s just really hard to get in a full CG character. It was especially hard to get this in the character model we have, as he has such a different facial structure to Kumail — he’s got these big, round bulbous eyes, and Kumail’s got very expressive shaped eyes. Our biggest challenge was to nail the really subtle stuff that Kumail does.
I’ve been a big fan of Kumail for years. I loved his work on Silicon Valley and The Big Sick and I was really excited when I heard he was going to be the vocal performer for Pawny. I really wanted to do him justice because I love his comedy so much.
Did you have to re-designed some of the original concept, to better accommodate the performance?
Yeah, there’s a little bit of redesign work that always goes along with that. We did some concept work, but things that look great in 2D don’t always translate in 3D. And of course things don’t always translate to the performance we have in mind for our actor.
Once we start building the character in 3D, we start to see what works and what doesn’t work, then we integrate some of the vocal performance work, and see where that leads us; there’s always a little bit of redesign that has to be done. In Pawny’s case, we introduced a little more facial anatomy than the concept art had originally. [The concept] was this beautiful caricature of a bullfrog character. To get that to play in our photo-real environment, we had to add a little more physical structure — we added a little more brow structure, and muscles under the eyelids that shape his face a little bit more.
How was time split between the two characters/creatures?
Most of our early work, I would say probably 4-5 months, were spent on Pawny. That includes early testing to get the character nailed down. We had a small crew, so we did a lot of testing to get him up and running and figure out how he was going to perform, as he was our main character at the time. And the last 2 months or 6 weeks were really Hive intensive. The Hive was more of an intensive exploration period — the design came on later in the production so with a full crew, we had to very quickly and intensively explore what that character would be like.
Did you have more creative freedom on one than the other?
They actually gave us a fair bit of freedom on both characters. With Pawny we had a lot of freedom to explore what his character would be like, since we started to do tests even before we had any vocal performance from the film. We relied on what we already knew about Kumail’s work, and the stuff he had done for other shows, to start exploring his character quite early and show some tests. We had some ideas about what he might be like, and what his personality might be like, and we developed inner conflict stuff that we could explore (that we would hide in there and lace into his performance). This wasn’t stuff that becomes revealed in the story, but it informs us as we’re working. And it makes him feel like a more cohesive, fleshed out character when we have those ideas in mind as we’re working on him. We had quite a lot of creative freedom in that way.
As for the Hive creature, Jerome [Chen, VFX Supervisor on the project] and the client gave us a lot of freedom to explore how that creature moves. We knew we wanted him to be very other-worldly and we didn’t have a lot to go on in the beginning, so we had to create a motion scheme for him out of scratch.
What kind of influences or reference were you using for the Hive creature?
We started off with a lot of creature horror-movie stuff, and we played with time and speed a lot. The mix of very slow, but then very quick motion, that’s very unsettling — to see something very big move very slowly, but then every now and then have some quick movements. We used that as our starting point. We ultimately didn’t want him to be too scary, so we backed away from that a little bit. But we did keep a hint of that in there so that he felt other-worldly and really alien. We also looked at a lot of octopus and snake reference because he’s built mostly of tentacles.
If you had more time, was there anything else that you would have loved to explore?
We had developed quite a backstory about Pawny being an intergalactic assassin and weapons designer, which was a really fun idea to play with. And initially there was some talk of Pawny being a lot more involved in fighting the Hive creature at the end, so we did a lot of exploration of how we would move him around this big set. He’s tiny and has this gigantic head and the portal room in the Eiffel tower set is huge — how would we move him around and how was he going to fight? We did a lot of really fun exploration with him using his grappling guns to get around, almost like Spider-Man. He would shoot one of them, swing a bit, and retract the gun, and then shoot another one. We had some really fun tests that we were excited to try out for the film, but most of that stuff didn’t make it. He does use his grappling hooks at the very end though, becoming the hero in saving Tessa Thompson.
That’s always one of the funnest parts of a production — exploring a couple of different things and really finding out what this character’s about. Some of it makes it in, and some of it doesn’t, but it’s fun to have that exploratory period regardless.
We also explored a kung-fu samurai angle. You can see some design elements in Pawny’s body, and in his armour that borrow from Japanese samurai aesthetic. We explored that quite a bit, but we didn’t get to use his sword other than when he cuts himself out of the jar when Riza captures him.
I love that he cut out a perfect silhouette of himself.
That’s Jerome Chen’s idea — that he would cut out this perfect silhouette, this kind of random shape that you don’t even know what it is until he squeezes his body through it. Yeah, that plays really funny.
How many animators did you have working on this project?
I think we got up to 14 or 16, with us generally being between 10-15 for the most part.
Anything you’re most proud of?
I’m exceptionally proud of the way my team handled a lot of challenging bits in this movie. The client gave us a lot of creative freedom and people really rose to the occasion and delivered some extremely well thought-out sequences. They really figured out who this Pawny character is and I feel like we delivered a very consistent, fleshed out, complex character. He’s not on screen a lot of time, but I think you really get the sense that when he is, you know who he is right away — that’s due to a lot of the fore-thought that the animators put in.
I’ve always thought of animators as actors behind the scene. As such, I’m sure having a good backstory helps informs the performance...
Exactly, yeah. We did a lot of exploration of what Pawny’s backstory is, what his motivation is, what kind of person he is, and what archetypes we wanted to look at for him. Once we had all that figured out, the animators could go off and look at the reference and really feel like they were him. They could get a sense of who he is. Everybody shot tons of reference [and it really helped] — everything that came back felt like Pawny. The artists really bought into him as a character, and of course Kumail’s amazing performance helped that so much.
Having worked on MIB3 and now MIB: International, does anything jump out at you between the two?
For MIB3 we did a lot of exciting work, and we did a lot of CG augmentation of Boris, and some other characters, but MIB: International was very different in that we got to deliver a fully CG character. It was really exciting for us to take Pawny from the ground up and really create a character for him — that’s always such an exciting opportunity.
For sure, and maybe if there’s another movie, we’ll see him again.
Yeah, we’re ready for the Pawny spinoff. Bring it on! I can’t wait.