Setting Boundaries As A Means Of Creative Inspiration; A VFX Supervisor's POV On "Oppenheimer"
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson reflects on his fourth film in collaboration with writer-director Christopher Nolan

Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures) is the eighth consecutive film on which visual effects house DNEG has collaborated with director Christopher Nolan. Andrew Jackson--the overall production visual effects supervisor on Oppenheimer, and a DNEG mainstay--has worked on the last four of those features, including Tenet for which he was part of the team that won the Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar in 2021.

With a career rooted in practical visual effects, Jackson dovetailed naturally with Nolan whose preference is in the practical real world realm. Jackson described Oppenheimer as “the most extreme version” of that philosophy. “We really went into the film with a plan to only use filmed elements to illustrate all the ideas.”

Towards that end, Nolan brought Jackson into the process early on. Jackson noted that he was the first person to see Nolan’s script--other than the director-writer himself and then Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producer. Jackson went on to work extensively with special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher during an early pre-pro period, developing devices and approaches which they would run by Nolan who gave invaluable feedback. (Fisher is a two-time VFX Oscar winner for Nolan films, Interstellar and Tenet). On Oppenheimer, Jackson also worked for the first time with Giacomo Mineo. visual effects supervisor at DNEG. Together they led the team in visualizing physical phenomena ranging from subatomic particles and huge nuclear blasts, to astronomical exploding stars and the formation of black holes.

Jackson said that the nature of the script--which Nolan wrote as an adaptation of Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”--made the movie both challenging and rewarding from a visual effects perspective. Jackson shared that “unlike a lot of scripts,” the one for Oppenheimer “doesn’t literally describe the thing you have to generate.” Rather than images, the script conveys thoughts and ideas in the head of theoretical physicist Oppenheimer (portrayed by Cillian Murphy), known as “the father of the atomic bomb” in his capacity as director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico during World War II. Thus the biggest challenge, related Jackson, was “to devise or dream up the physical representation of what those [Oppenheimer’s] thoughts were,” arriving at the best way to illustrate them. This called for “an artistic interpretation of those thoughts.”

The interpretation of course started with Nolan and was realized by the contributions of varied artisans, including DP Hoyte van Hoytema. ASC, FSF, NSC, a Best Cinematography Oscar nominee for Nolan’s Dunkirk in 2018. On the VFX front, the process of interpretation manifested itself in assorted ways, reaching into a grab bag of practical effects techniques and compositing treatments. The first nuclear tests, for example, were re-created by combining multiple practical simulations, from huge explosions to miniature effects, to show the scale of an atomic blast. There was also the compositing together of practically filmed pyro and particle elements to depict how stars and suns are born and die, the creation of black holes, and how atomic explosions are smaller versions of those occurrences. Jackson’s visual effects ensemble was in sync with Nolan as well as van Hoytema, as they worked together experimenting, testing and developing ideas to visually convey the concepts in the script.

Jackson estimated that DNEG turned out some 250 shots--main sequences as well as assorted fixes, bits and pieces--for Oppenheimer

Adhering to practical effects and real elements on film, and not resorting to CGI, were among the well-defined parameters set for Oppenheimer. Jackson noted that Nolan “sets boundaries in the process of filmmaking,” and that is not confined to visual effects. His boundaries are in time, budget, the process of shooting on film, preferably IMAX, marrying shots ranging from raw elements to composites of multiple film elements, not deploying a DI coloring process. Limiting options with these boundaries, continued Jackson, creates fertile ground for artists. Boundaries, he observed, forces artists to dig deeper and explore solutions that are frequently more interesting than if there were no limits. This dynamic fosters innovation and helps further fuel Nolan’s films.

This stood out for Jackson as one of the biggest lessons learned from Oppenheimer--namely the idea of such limitations being of benefit, coming to the realization that “unlimited resources and that sort of excess are not necessarily a good thing.” That even applies to time itself, remarked Jackson who worked on Oppenheimer for a little over a year spanning pre-pro, shooting and postproduction. “By compressing everything,” he related, “there’s an energy, a level of creativity that comes out.” 

Jackson observed that projects can “get a little bit out of hand if you don’t have some of that constraint.” Nolan is often “driving creativity by various kinds of limits,” related Jackson who finds that approach fulfilling and artistically gratifying.

In addition to his Academy Award win for Tenet, Jackson as production visual effects supervisor was nominated for a VFX Oscar for director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road in 2016.

(This is the third installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 96th Academy Awards will be announced on January 23, 2024, The 96th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 10, 2024.)

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