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Lance Wilhoite on the VFX of "Ghosts of Mars"

By Catherine Feeny
August 31, 2001 02:37 PM PDT

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Lance Wilhoite was the producer at KEYT in Santa Barbara when his life took an unexpected turn. He and his wife were going through a divorce and he asked the owners if he could switch to a part time schedule to sort things out for a brief time. When KEYT denied his request, John Grower of Santa Barbara Studios quickly acquired the triple Emmy award winning producer. Over his 12 years at the TV station, Wilhoite had developed a keen sense for creating stunning visuals while returning a significant portion of the production budget back to management. Grower was anxious to put Wilhoite’s creative skills to work streamlining the company’s entire visual effects production process. Wilhoite began with such films as "Star Trek: Insurrection", “An American Werewolf in Paris”, "Spawn" , “Paulie”, “Supernova”, “Roadtrip”, and for the episodic, "Star Trek: Voyager."
  When veteran director John Carpenter asked Wilhoite to be the Visual Effects Superviser for  the challenging effects of “Ghosts of Mars”, he had no idea Wilhoite would return nearly half of the $4 million budgets proposed by Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain.
At the helm of his new company, CostFX Supervision, Wilhoite showed veteran director John Carpenter a few new tricks, and learned some new tricks himself. He talked to VFXPro about his experience of creating visual effects on a limited budget.

  Sunrise From Space
5.3 MB QuickTime 5 Movie

Can you start off by telling me how you got involved with the project?

Carpenter had been teaching a science fiction cinema class here at UCSB.  He was very into Star Trek, so I invited him to our shop. All of us at Santa Barbara Studios were very excited to meet him. He told me about “Ghost’s of Mars” and that it called for lots of effects. He had initially gone to his old friends at ILM and Digital Domain. They reviewed the storyboards and gave him estimates of $4 million. John Carpenter saw the great work of the team I assembled and asked if I could save him 20%. I showed him how we would get the quality of visuals he was seeking for $2 million and he hired me as the Visual Effects Supervisor


Train Explodes
7.3 MB QuickTime 3 Movie

Why did you want to work for Carpenter?

He simply commands great respect in the industry. He is truly one of the masters of our time and it was a great honor to work for him. We all knew he expected a lot and it was my job to get his vision realized on film. And I got great satisfaction knowing that the money I saved him really went a long way to help other areas of the production that really needed it.

And the film was shot primarily in Los Angeles?
Actually, New Mexico was the site for most of it. We turned a gypsum mine into a Martian landscape with thousands of gallons of red food coloring. We shot from sunset to sunrise for two months straight.

It’s kind of a Western on Mars. There's a small mining town outside of the main city. They still use shotguns. No lasers or hi tech weapons. It’s very low tech by design. John wanted a retro feel and it really made for an interesting picture… classic Carpenter.


Chryse Train Station
7.7 MB QuickTime 3 Movie

One of the greatest challenges he offered me was the opening sequence. John wanted to see a train speeding through a blinding dust storm on the desolate Martian surface. A tall order for a single shot. But he wanted the sequence to last for the entire opening credits! This would of course be done in miniature but the old rule of thumb was that models are most believable in short shots. The first challenge was to create 21 different camera moves from one table top miniature set. I had the set mocked up in pre-vis so I could work out the shot choreography well before the actual production. We wrote a custom piece of software to better translate the Maya pre-vis data to the motion control rig so there was very little guesswork.

The airborn particulate used to create the dust storms was presented to me as a rather large cost center. We needed a lot of it so I researched alternative materials and discovered finely ground walnut shells were less than half the cost of the old standard. Our tests of both materials revealed that the walnut shells actually read better on film. Carpenter was ultimately very happy with the look of the entire sequence.


Dissolving Wall
7.7 MB QuickTime 3 Movie

What I tried to do is gather more information on the set. In the old days we would take measurements and plot out lighting grids. I took it one step further and got approval of key points of the shots on film from John right there on the set.

For example, in the film miners throw these razor disks -- they are like mining discs that are very sharp. Thrown like Frisbees, they had to cut off arms and heads. These would of course be CG. But in addition to the normal data I went out there and held a practical spear or razor disc in various spots and got Carpenter to look through the lens and give me buy-off on the trajectory path right there on the set. We were able to get that done quickly so that when we got back to the computers, there was almost nothing left to figure out about the shot. That could easily have been a few days worth of budget busting work, figuring out different scenarios of motion.

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