Glenn Derry: Movie Maker

Virtual virtuoso: Hollywood F/X innovator Glenn Derry perches on racks of equipment to be used in future CG film endeavors.

When the credits finally scroll up after a great special effects movie, don’t you wonder at the alphabet soup of job titles on the screen? (What’s the difference between a previs supervisor and a virtual production supervisor?) Well, regardless of title, there are always a few key engineers who work at a director’s side, solving near-impossible problems without complaint. When the director asks for a 2-ton Tyrannosaurus that moves like a ballerina, these guys are on it. When the director asks for a new way to film giant blue people flying through the air, they say, “No problem.”

Glenn Derry is one of those guys. The 36-year-old owner of a small Hollywood engineering company called Technoprops spends his days solving specialized challenges on the set. When he was 16, he worked for director Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, making a dinosaur move gracefully. At 30, he worked on Avatar, taking orders from James Cameron to create a “virtual camera” device that lets directors climb inside computer-generated films as they shoot real-life actors (see page 37 for an indie film version you can build).

The virtual camera is so effective that it’s becoming de rigueur on effects films, necessitating Derry’s travel to movie sets — including those of Real Steel, in which Hugh Jackman coaches robots in arena boxing, and The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s motion-capture animated version of the classic comic (both due in theaters later this year).

By now, Derry’s almost used to the frantic pace of technology development in the movie business. “Nothing is ever carefully planned out,” he says. “Your job is to solve problems fast and hope to God you don’t hurt anyone with a dinosaur tail bigger than a Kubota backhoe.”

The day I spoke with Derry, he was chatty and in good spirits, though physically exhausted. Three days earlier he’d had neck surgery to remedy a pinched nerve, but he denied any connection between the neck brace he was wearing and his demanding schedule of maintaining his cameras and using them on film sets around the country.

All he could talk about were the fun side projects he has on deck. In one corner of his 18,000-square-foot prop fabrication shop stands a hydraulic lift that once moved the robotic armor “AMP suit” in Avatar but now might be modified into a promising Formula 1 simulator. In his home workshop are remnants of giant hydraulic chimes and gongs he constructed to make a colossal musical instrument.

Elsewhere, Derry’s staff of ten mechanical and electrical engineers and programmers tinkered with an open source CNC mill as it churned out metal parts for an upcoming film production. By hacking around like this, Derry and crew have cultivated the uncanny ability to chew up random consumer products, bits of castoff metal, and fiber-optic cables, then spit it all out in the form of tools that have become essential to modern spectacle filmmaking.

Derry’s father worked in the film industry as a welder, machinist, and physical effects guy (“From the time I was a teenager, my dad blew up cars,” he says), and this connection and some lucky timing landed him an internship on Jurassic Park. The need for good engineers became clear to Derry his first time on the set, where the teenager worked on giant robotic dinosaurs (the film used physical puppets as well as computer-generated dinos). “I was soldering op-amp circuits by hand, one at a time,” he says.

But the production soon ran into major problems. When you move a robot bigger than a carnival ride, the great mass of steel shakes and sways awkwardly. Already a budding electronics whiz, Derry helped come up with the solution: mount accelerometers on the dinosaurs’ limbs and feed the signals back into the controller. Making the dinosaurs move more gracefully turned out to be a formative experience, recalls Derry. “I was 16, surrounded by electronics card cages and getting screamed at by Spielberg and Stan Winston.”

He started college, studying to be a musician, but the lure of movie work was too much. (Years later he returned to study mechanical and electrical engineering at UCLA.) Derry worked full time as a puppeteer on the second Jurassic Park film in 1997, where they started out using the same animatronic technology they’d used to control the shark head in Jaws.

But Derry, who’d spent years in his bedroom sequencing keyboard music with MIDI controls, put two and two together: he rigged up a MIDI interface that would let any desktop music package control a dino’s facial gestures and fine movements, resulting in more credible movie monsters.

All this prepared him for the toughest challenge yet of his career: Avatar. To make that film, Cameron became fixated on a motion capture system that would track the actors’ faces as well as their bodies, a feat never before achieved in film production. Derry, the virtual production supervisor, found a sensor that was simple and reliable enough to attach to a little boom in front of the actors’ faces.

Cameron also wanted to direct scenes that mixed live actors and animated characters. But motion capture systems couldn’t be used near live-action filming because the little reflective dots on motion capture suits don’t show up under white-hot studio lights. Derry told Cameron it was an easy fix, but he labored two years to solve it. He and his team built special LED trackers that blinked at the exact frame rate of the motion capture cameras, which enabled the cameras to see them.

Cameron wanted to live and breathe inside Pandora, the jungle moon setting for Avatar, and it was Derry’s job to make it work. It started when visual effects expert Rob Legato suggested the director use a system that would let him look inside the artificial world of the movie, frame shots, pick lenses, and choreograph camera movements. Derry built a device that resembled a 16mm movie camera with an LCD eyepiece. The idea was that the director could carry it around the set, checking out different angles, but the camera shape was cumbersome. It was then that Derry developed the virtual camera, a 7-pound package that automatically swings toward he user no matter how it’s held.

Directors have delighted in the way the technology connects them artistically with moviemaking again. Spielberg told Derry that using the virtual camera felt like shooting Super 8 film in the backyard as a kid: “He said Tintin felt handmade, even though there was this giant juggernaut of a special effects company behind him.”

A product so valuable to the movie industry would seem to be easy to commercialize. Instead, Derry has been hiring himself out, before rival effects exp erts figure out how to make their own virtual cameras. And Cameron insists that the concept be shared with other directors. “If Jim wants to share it, I’m not going to tell him he can’t,” Derry shrugs. “Besides, I was able to prototype stuff on the most expensive movie ever made, so now I can bring the technology to smaller-budget films.”

But with Avatar 2 in production, Derry’s busy schedule precludes indie filmmaking or other hobbies. Derry looks wistfully at his old electric bass and piano in his Santa Clarita, Calif., home, which he shares with his wife and two kids. “As many would-be rock stars learn,” he says, “you eventually get a real job.” Although making 9-foot blue people fly around isn’t exactly a day at the office for most of us.

See for a video profile, slideshow, and virtual camera how-to.

There doesn’t have to be a craft services truck out front to make a high-quality computer-generated movie,” says special effects expert Glenn Derry. Planning great camera shots is the key.

To make your indie shine, Derry advises using a device he hacked together with James Cameron called a “virtual camera.”

It helps you compose shots in effects movies, and even plan complex shots in traditional live-action films.

The gadget, essentially an LCD screen festooned with motion capture markers, is something you hold while walking around a motion capture studio. It lets you see the animated world of a digital movie or a mockup of a live set.

Derry has created a plugin especially for MAKE readers to make a low-cost virtual camera (note that “low cost” in Hollywood terms means software and hardware that add up to $7,000; but student discounts and borrowed equipment would bring the price down considerably).

“The indie filmmaker will take longer to finish a film, and will need to bribe his or her buddies in the CG class with beer,” says Derry. “But this setup uses the same concept as the stuff we use on Avatar.”

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