The PCZ Interview With Van Ling

This week sees the release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in a new Skynet Edition on Blu-ray as well as a Collector’s Set housed in a Terminator Endoskull. One of the people responsible for the look of the Blu-ray, especially the cool new menus, is visual effects artist Van Ling. He’s also been responsible for coordinating some of the most stunning visual effects in films such as Terminator 2, Titanic, Starship Troopers, Vanilla Sky and many others. Earlier this week Van took a few moments to answer our questions.

PCZ: What visual effects were you involved with on Terminator 2 and how do you think they stand up to today’s effects?

VL: I was the Visual Effects Coordinator and Creative Supervisor on T2, so as the former I was intimately involved in the design and creation of all of the effects because I needed to keep track of everything, be it computer graphics shots done by ILM or on-set puppets and makeup created by Stan Winston Studios, and as the latter I basically served as Jim Cameron’s “extra RAM” and worked with all of the departments –from production design to editorial to marketing– to make sure that everything creatively fit together. So I might be looking at miniature work by Fantasy II on one day and digital shots from ILM the next. I remember one day we were shooting at the steel mill location and I spent part of the day with the production managers, helping them schedule the upcoming shooting of elements for various visual effects shots, and then I spent the rest of the evening on the set, crouching under a mylar-covered furniture blanket and rising up in a lump to give Arnold and Eddie Furlong their eyeline for the T-1000 that was going to be added later in CG. It was pretty wild.

I think the effects hold up pretty well for a film that’s nearly two decades old, because a lot of the power of the effects came from two things: a compelling story and the way Jim Cameron likes to mix up the techniques, where you have state of the art (for the time) digital effects intercut with puppets being controlled by cables. Obviously, the technical virtuosity we can bring to VFX these days is so much greater, but it’s hard to beat the way they are used in the film… and realize how groundbreaking it was for 1991. Some of the coolest shots to me are the ones no one even knows about, like wire removals and scratch fixes… these are mundane by today’s standards, but they were a revelation when we did the film. They really opened up a new era of digital possibilities. But I also like the fact that it does look like it was shot in a real place with an actual camera, and not with these impossible powers-of-ten camera moves and flyarounds that makes it look like a videogame like some of today’s films do.

PCZ: What did you create for this new Blu-ray release?

VL: We really tried to utilize the interactive capabilities of Blu-ray, so the Interactive Modes are the ones we tried to put a lot of effort into making cool and hopefully interesting to the viewer. With these modes we’ve taken a lot of information and special features that we had created over the past sixteen years and organized it in an interesting fashion, where you can turn on storyboards or the screenplay or picture-in-picture while watching the film, and learn a ridiculous amount of information about the movie and its creation. I’m also glad that we were able to not only include both existing commentaries and new HD transfers of the trailers, but that we were able to do seamless branching of multiple versions of the film and lossless DTS master Audio… fans have been asking for those things. Plus, we’ve included subtitles on nearly everything for the hearing impaired… and a special narrated TheatreVision audio track for the blind and visually impaired! I think that’s cool.

PCZ: What is new and exciting on this release of Terminator 2 that makes this a must own disc for those that may already have it once or twice on DVD?

VL: First of all, it’s in high definition, which is a big plus for anyone looking to trade up to Blu-ray from DVD. The previous T2 Blu-ray had been done at the introduction of the Blu-ray format in 2006, so we just did essentially a movie-only disc because that was all we could do with a single-layer disc and a nascent format. The capabilities of the format have grown and matured a lot in the past few years, to the point that we have internet connectivity on players and interactive capabilities that were promised but highly discouraged back when they were just trying to get the players to play the movie through without glitching! I always try to make it worthwhile for fans when I have the opportunity, whether it’s by creating new content or by exploring the capabilities of the new format, some of which I’ve already mentioned earlier.

PCZ: Is there anything new you learned about Terminator 2 while assembling this new release?

VL: I learned how absolutely important it is to have what I call “production memory”… meaning folks who have some continuity with the materials associated with the title. Over the years there can be an accretion of source tapes, transfer masters, edit masters, compression masters, compilation masters, safety dubs and digital tape clones… and that’s just for the special features, let alone for the film itself! Studio personnel often change, and after 18 years there’s no one who knows where things are and even if they find boxes, WHAT things are. This was one of the benefits of having worked on the film AND the home video releases for decades… I know what to do when faced with four slightly different masters of the same featurette and only one of them may be the final. I was fortunate in also having some like-minded folks at some of the post houses who could track down info from years past and help me find things by looking in odd places. With this much material built up over the years, it was important to know what it all was. As for the film itself, I’m always amazed to learn anew how much interest and respect the film gets, even after all of these years… but it’s just one of those kinds of movies.

PCZ: As films get released multiple times on DVD, and now Blu-ray, is it challenging to come up with new menus and features each time?

VL: Yes, it’s always a challenge, not always because of trying to find creative ideas –I have plenty of those!—but because of timing, schedules and resources. For instance, this new version of T2 was scheduled to coincide with the theatrical release of Terminator: Salvation by another studio, so we had a very tight timeline (maybe three months) to put it all together. We had Jim Cameron busy with Avatar and Arnold Schwarzenegger busy with the governorship, so we couldn’t count on their direct participation. We had a very finite set of resources and a collaboration between Lionsgate, the film’s domestic licensee, and Studio Canal, who owns the film and controls all of the international territories for distribution; this meant a lot of back and forth and timezone lags that we normally would not have had. And we had sixteen years’ worth of special features that we needed to cull through and figure out how best to present that material using the capabilities of Blu-ray. And we also have the expectation of fans, who have seen everything we’ve done up to now, and want to see something new or at least a new perspective on the old material. For me, that meant building picture-in-picture segments, audio slideshows, trivia data, graphics, menus, and a ridiculous number of intricate timecode lists to tie it all together to the film. The programming and authoring were a very complex challenge, so hats off to the folks at Blink Digital Studios in California and at Sofatronic in Germany for doing an amazing job.

PCZ: How has Blu-ray upped the game as far as what you can create with the menu system and the enhanced special features?

VL: Blu-ray has a lot of capabilities beyond DVD, but it’s also a lot more work; it’s more like software programming than video production. Menus are essentially a completely different animal on Blu-ray than DVD; it’s seen as more of a supportive “service/utility” function of the format than the holds-your-attention full-screen artform that it was on DVD. But you have to learn an economy of style in your designs, and to take advantage of the programming capabilities to compensate. In terms of enhanced special features, there are a lot of interactive and network-enabled things you can do with Blu-ray that you couldn’t even dream of in DVD… it’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to explore them, which I hope I get to do. I’m a designer/producer, not a programmer, so working with Blu-ray means it’s harder for me to be hands-on with everything as I was able to be with DVD. But I get to work with talented programmers who can help me realize the vision for the disc, and I try to learn enough of the technology so I can be an asset to them and not a hindrance.

PCZ: What exactly goes into creating a menu system for a DVD/Blu-ray? What tools do you use and how long does the process take?

VL: You have to plan out everything like a flowchart, and take into account all of the assets you want to include. You have to work with the authoring facility to create a “bit budget” to make sure you have enough space on the disc to include everything you want but not unduly compromise the quality of the movie presentation. And you have to have an overall concept for the menus, be it a visual style or a story idea or, ideally, both. For the T2 Skynet Edition the idea was to riff on how much network connectivity plays a role in both our daily use of the internet and in the idea behind Skynet… even as you are watching the disc, the disc is watching you. So Skynet is basically doing retroactive reconnaissance on the present day in order to gain an advantage for the future, in the guise of providing you with access to materials from its database. Sharp-eyed fans may also notice that the main menu design actually comes from unused production designs of Skynet locations from the script. The great thing too is that built into the Terminator mythology is the human Resistance, whose guerrilla transmissions you might encounter from time to time in the BD-Live space can balance out the freaky Big Brother aspect of Skynet. There’s a lot of time spent thinking things through, and then designing to it. I use tools like Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, just like most of the other menu designers, as well as working with other artists using 3D animation programs like Electric Image or Maya. It can take months to design and execute… or weeks, if that’s all you get.

PCZ: What are the challenges of creating a DVD/Blu-ray for a film you were involved with versus one you did not work on? Is one or the other easier and which inspires you more creatively?

VL: Each has its pros and cons. The familiarity you have with a show you’ve worked on means you can spend more time conceptualizing and coming up with creative ideas, while working on a disc for a film you didn’t work on means you get the fun of exploring that film’s background and material for the first time. My film production experience really comes in handy there, because I’ve participated enough in the process to know where to look for things. For instance, if I’m trying to find deleted scenes and they are not in the editorial boxes where you would expect them to be, you can look for a broadcast TV version somewhere that might have those scenes added as filler. The challenge of working on discs for films you’ve worked on is trying to look at things with different eyes, and try to distill down what might be interesting to a casual viewer or a film student or a rabid fan.

PCZ: Now that home theater systems are in HD and, in some cases, in even greater resolution than theaters, does that up the ante as far as creating realistic visual effects for a film?

VL: Absolutely, and it’s not so much the higher resolution that is the challenge… it’s the fact that you can pause on every frame! In the old days, you’d see the film running in motion, and a flaw or matte line might go by in a frame or two; now people can stop and study frames, so you have to be extra diligent in cleaning up edges or compositing elements together. You have to have a better eye than ever before to do this kind of work. There’s a caution to this as well: you can get so caught up in fixing up a shot and making it technically perfect that you lose sight of what the shot is for, which is to help tell the story. It’s like getting all of your grammar perfect, but the sentence has no emotional power, or doesn’t communicate a point. Some folks have noted that even as the effects have gotten better, the storytelling has gotten worse, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the visual effects for that! Again, if you want realism, pull back on doing all of the whizzy but impossible camera moves that take you out of the emotion of the moment… all the VFX in the world can’t cover up bad storytelling.

PCZ: Is it more common now for filmmakers to already be thinking of the DVD/Blu-ray release while making their films and to factor that in when filming? How does that impact the filmmaking process?

VL: It is definitely more common, especially among younger directors. They see the synergy between the film they are making and all of the machinations surrounding it, and are willing to consider the creative ways to utilize the home video formats as an extension of their vision, rather than just as a marketing afterthought. And the studios are on board as well, since they know that even a deleted scene can now be part of the arsenal of extras to bring in more potential revenue. Productions now often bring in a disc producer from the beginning of pre-production, and everyone saves everything. It also can mean that images or stories that might have been made available to magazines and TV entertainment shows might get held back because they’re being saved for the DVD/Blu-ray release. The behind the scenes side is more out there than ever, though, with webcasts, podcasts, blogs, exclusives and all sorts of things being created around the film, and the discs are only a part of that now.

Thank you very much to Mr. Van Ling for his time!

About Joseph Dilworth Jr.

Joseph Dilworth Jr. has been writing since he could hold a pencil (back then it was one of those big, fat red pencils, the Faber-Castell GOLIATH. Remember those? Now that was a pencil!). As editor-in-chief and instigator of this here website he takes full responsibility for any wacky hi-jinks that ensue. He appreciates you taking the time to read his articles and asks that you direct any feedback, criticisms, questions about life directly to him by clicking here.