Joe Letteri

The visual effects supervisor on the film talks about the film his designs for creature and a Hobbitt in his future?

Joe Letteri has been behind the scenes on some of the biggest movies in the 90s and into the 21st Century. From his first job on The Abyss to The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of The King to King Kong, Letteri has been involved in some of the biggest pictures of all time. His latest film, Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on April 8 and I had the chance to talk with Letteri over the phone. Here's what he had to say.

First of all, can you explain your role on Water Horse: Legend of the Deep for those who aren't so tech-savvy?

Joe Letteri: Yeah. My title is Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and that means I have overall responsibility for creating all the visual effects on the film. A short way of putting that is anything that's not real.

How did you and Weta originally become involved with this project?

Joe Letteri: It was Barrie Osborne, who was a producer on the film, was also a producer on The Lord Of The Rings. We had worked together on The Lord Of The Rings and he had sent me the script and said, 'This is kinda cool. What do you think?' I read it and really liked the story so Barrie arranged for (director) Jay (Russell) and me to meet in L.A. for one trip. I sat down with Jay and just started talking about the story and the character and I just really liked it. It seemed like a really fun character and a nice story. It just took off from there. We started talking about character designs and personality and how we're going to see him in different stages of his growth and what that meant to the story. We really got into it from there.

Are you involved in pre-production at all with designs or just moreso in post?

Joe Letteri: I'm pretty much involved in the whole process from end to end. Jay had ideas for the characters, some sketches that he had done and we talked about basing Crusoe's design as an adult around The Loch Ness Monster, the classic photo of Nessie. So we worked from there, to the idea that he's going to find this large egg and when it comes out it's probably going to want to resemble a bird, kind of in the way that Nessie resembles a dinosaur. When we see Crusoe just coming out of the egg, it resembles a kind of a dinosaur/bird kind of thing. Then when we started to fill in the gaps in between, because we knew when he grew up a little - we called that his Puppy Stage. We wanted something that was just fun. Then we had the Teen Stage and that was just a transition between the puppy and the adult. It's kind of awkward, you're neither one nor the other kind of thing. We just tried to base that on what it feels like to be a teenager.

Did you guys research the lore behind the Loch Ness Monster at all, in designing the character, or did you just do your own thing?

Joe Letteri: Well, what happened was we started with the sketches, for each of those phases. Then we did some rough pre-viz models that we sculpted by the workshop, very rough outline shapes. We scanned those and we started doing pre-viz animation with them. What that did was allow us to block out and we started to get a feel for the character and what kind of performance we were going to need. From that, we could do a more refined design, you know, how big or small to make the eyes. There were modifications done from the sketches to the sculptures that started to work out the animation of the character. There was a final design phase done on that, when we had it where we wanted to be, and added all the detailing. Those were scanned again and those became the final model.

In terms of scale, how does the CGI work you do here compare with something like The Lord Of The Rings?

Joe Letteri: Well, it's interesting. It probably compares a little more closely to King Kong, as far as our character work, because it's a character that has to be very expressive, but without dialogue. Like on Rings, Gollum was very expressive but he also had dialogue. That presents its own challenges, but it also gives you a different way to think about the character. With Crusoe, we wanted to have the expressiveness, but it also had to be done essentially in pantomime. You have to work out a language for that character. How do you understand what this creature is feeling? So, for a lot of that, we based it off of dogs and puppies. You know that expressive puppy face. You can always get a sense of how it's feeling, if it's feeling down or happy or sad or playful. You kind of know that, so we kind of used that for the reference for the facial expressions. The neat thing about Crusoe here is that we have one character that we're following all the way through its life. On other creatures, like Kong, you try to make a history of the character in his face, in his features, in the way he carries himself. You get a sense of how he's lived. Here, we actually got to see it. That was the first time we've ever gotten to do that, so that had its own kind of arc that you have to think about and also make sure that that continuity of personality was there and could be played in each of the stages.

With your sort of work, are you involved in any script changes if you think a creature needs to be reacting a different way that's in the script?

Joe Letteri: It's not like we're making script changes, but we basically became the creature's actor, in a sense. It's like working with Jay and talking about the performance and how you want to play it in certain ways and what you want to bring out of it. In a sense, we had to create Crusoe and we had to give him the same care that any actor would bring to his character.

How do you think people that are fascinated by the Loch Ness Monster lore will react to this film? Or have you gotten any reactions from fans after the theatrical release?

Joe Letteri: Not specifically on that. I think it's a fun take on the Loch Ness Monster, the gag on is it there and what's it really like and everything. It's certainly a much more personable interpretation of the Loch Ness Monster than I have ever seen or thought of before reading the script. But, ultimately, the story is not about the fact that it's the Loch Ness Monster. It's really more of like a boy and his dog story.

Is there anything you can tell us about your work on Avatar?

Joe Letteri: Um, we're doing it (Laughs). That's about it though. I can't really talk about anything right now.

Has there been a release date slated for that yet? I think I've just heard sometime in 2009.

Joe Letteri: There has been, but I should probably refer you to the studio for that because they want to talk about all that sort of thing.

So it's all under a pretty tight leash?

Joe Letteri: Yeah. We're keeping everything under wraps until it's time to show it.

Have you been brought on board for The Hobbit?

Joe Letteri: Nothing has been finalized on The Hobbit, but we're hoping we get to do it here, since we can build off everything we did for Rings.

There's such a high demand with the sort of work you do in films these days. How do you see your work evolving in the future, and what do you think we might see from your end in the next 15 or 20 years or so?

Joe Letteri: That's a good question. It's always an interesting mix of what we can do that's technically possible and what's technically about to be possible and the stories coming up at the right places to take advantage of that, also helps move it forward. You really can't separate the two. You can come up with all these great ideas about things you might be able to create visually, but unless you have the story and movie to put them in, you're never going to get a chance to do them. And the other way around too, the stories have to be at the point where you can achieve what's being asked for and actually get it up on the screen. The only thing I can say, generally, is that I think it will be more. Bigger productions, more characters. Everyone is getting familiar with working that way, I just think there will be more oppourtunities to try things you couldn't do in the past.

It seems that 3-D as well is starting to make a bit of a comeback. Have you done any work in 3-D or is that a field you'd like to break into?

Joe Letteri: Well, we've been experimenting with it because we're all fans of it and we've always liked that stuff. We've tested it out and cracked into it. You really think about and learn what it takes to do a film in 3-D and to make it work. We want to move it beyond the point where it's a novelty and it's actually integrated into the fabric of the story. That should be the most interesting thing to think of about that. It's interesting. It works pretty well.

Well, that's about all I have for you, Joe. Thanks a lot for your time today.

Joe Letteri: OK, well thanks a lot, Brian. I'll talk to you later.

Water Horse: Legend of the Deep will make a splash on DVD and Blu-Ray on April 8.