Hollywood & Vine: Bryan Singer brings colossal CGI to 'Jack the Giant Slayer'
Best known for his work on the X-Men series of films and Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer’s latest project could be his biggest yet. At least visually it is. You see, Jack the Giant Slayer features a cast of computer-generated monsters that have been created using the latest motion-capture technology, and audiences have been promised some formidable sights when they see them in action.
Jack the Giant Slayer is a fantasy adventure that is clearly inspired by the likes of Clash of the Titans and other sword-and-sorcery pictures. Indeed, Singer names the beloved Ray Harryhausen films as his main source of inspiration when it came to devising the look of the giants. “I grew up with those movies and the larger-than-life creatures I saw in those early stop-motion films,” he confided when we met him on the set in England during the film’s production.
The Warner Bros. release, due on March 1, is loosely based upon two folk tales, both of which revolve around the exploits of a farmer’s son named Jack and his encounters with giant-kind. “The original story of Jack the Giant Slayer comes from the 1700s, and it was about this guy who would kills giants quite brutally and then send their heads back to King Arthur,” Singer explains. “Then ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ came about a hundred years later, and that’s a fairytale about the plight of a farmer who steals the goose that lays the golden eggs. This film is an amalgamation of those two tales.”
Singer first became involved with the project (originally titled Jack the Giant Killer) in 2010 when he was asked to help rewrite a script created by David Dobkin and Darren Lemke. “I read it and helped rewrite some sections. I brought in a bit more of the giants’ history, and made the journey to their land clearer so it made more sense. I made the giants a bit darker, scarier. We ended up with something quite different from how it started out; all in all, we made a lot of changes from the script’s original incarnation.”
Having tweaked the film’s plot to his liking, the 47-year-old director’s next task was to set about casting the lead actors. The part of Jack went to young British actor Nicholas Hoult, who had previously worked with Singer on X-Men: First Class, where he played the blue-furred mutant Beast. “He was an actor I had my eyes on for quite some time and I was instrumental in casting him for First Class. I was very pleased with his work in that and thought it would be nice to have him in this.”
Then Ian McShane signed on to play the role of the King. “I was considering him for a role in Valkyrie but he wasn’t quite right for it,” Singer relays, “and I wanted the chance to work with him.” Next were Stanley Tucci as the chief villain, Ewan McGregor as a royal knight, and Eleanor Tomlinson as the princess who is kidnapped by giants and who Jack and the King’s guard attempt to rescue.
But the real stars of the show are the giants themselves, and none is more visually impressive than Fallon, their colossal two-headed leader, who is portrayed by Bill Nighy and John Kassir. “I had a fantastic experience with Bill on Valkyrie, so I wanted him to play one of the giants. I also knew he had experience in motion capture from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so I knew it wouldn’t be new to him.”
For Hoult, landing the role of Jack was a fortuitous one, and the actor reveals it was only possible due to the delay of another production he was slated to work on. “Bryan mentioned he was making this film when we had the read-through for X-Men,” the 23-year-old tells us between takes. “At the time I said good luck with it but I couldn’t commit, because I was meant to be filming Mad Max. Then a few months on Mad Max got delayed and postponed a bit longer, so I went in to audition for this. But I wasn’t just given the role, I did a few different screen tests before I got the part, and luckily I got it.”
Production for Jack the Giant Slayer began in 2011, and from the onset it was always intended to be a technological tour de force, shot entirely in 3D and involving the newest motion-capture techniques. Having never worked with either before, Singer viewed this challenge as one of his biggest draws to the project.
As part of his prep work before filming commenced, Singer tried to learn as much as possible, and he was fortunate to have some friends in high places. “I was lucky enough to spend some time on the set of Hugo with Martin Scorsese, and I observed a bit of that,” he divulges. “That was a good experience to watch. James Cameron was also very helpful, and I even hired some folks who worked on Avatar to work on this production.”
So how was the first day working with 3D cameras? “I found it interesting. You know, it does change the way you shoot a little bit; you have to consider the different sized lenses and the position of your camera. We’ve had some success with it, and I feel good about the 3D look of the film. Once you get used to working in 3D, it doesn’t pose any real problems.
“You tend to use wider lenses, and you have to worry about using people too close to the camera on the far right or left of the frame, otherwise they will look like they are in the theatre space and not part of the movie. This is particularly a problem with over-the-shoulder shots.”
As one might expect with a film of this ilk, many of the sets were designed to be large and fantastical, predominantly when it came to creating the world of the giants. With each giant intended to be over 25 feet tall without using computer-generated effects, it was next to impossible to build sets that would accommodate them. “You’re compelled to build virtual sets,” Singer explains. “Some parts of the world of the giants are very real and grounded in reality, such as the forests, but some are ultimately quite fantastic. There would be no soundstage in the world large enough.”
With many sections of the film dedicated to visual effects, Singer employed a program called SimulCam to help direct certain scenes. “SimulCam allows us to pre-capture the actors, and then on the set we can project the actual giant into the scene as I’m shooting it,” the director told us as we viewed the technology in action. “In other words, we can put the giant into the live space so I can see what it would look like on camera. I get to see the giants in the scene.”
The use of SimulCam saved many hours in the editing suite and helped Singer visualize the action as it took place onscreen. The cutting-edge technology does have its limitations, though, as the actors unfortunately still have to act in front of tennis balls and other props.
Stanley Tucci in particular isn’t a fan of green-screen filming, but admitted the use of Simulam was a step in the right direction. “The SimulCam helps because otherwise you have no idea, it’s completely abstract,” says the veteran actor, who plays the villainous Lord Roderick. “Without that technology, it’s very hard to understand it otherwise. Once you see the SimulCam, it really helps. In fact, I saw a lot of the scenes when we did the original read-throughs, and it was amazing because I’ve never seen a film we were going to make shown to me in that way before.”
Sounds like Jack the Giant Slayer is a giant step in the right direction for effects-driven movies.