In Men in Black 3, Agents J and Agent K go back in time in this third instalment of the franchise based on the Malibu comic by Lowell Cunningham. Agent J has seen some crazy things in his 15 years with the Men in Black, but nothing, not even aliens, perplexes him as much as his wry, reticent partner. But when K's life and the fate of the planet are put at stake, Agent J will have to travel back in time to put things right. J discovers that there are secrets to the universe that K never told him -- secrets that will reveal themselves as he teams up with the young Agent K (Josh Brolin) to save his partner, the agency, and the future of humankind. Just a normal run-of-the-mill kind of day for the Men in Black.
The team who created the effects for the show includes seven-time Oscar-winner (as well as one for his work on Men In Black) Rick Baker designing the aliens; five-time Oscar-winner Ken Ralston and Jay Redd supervising the visual effects; animation supervisor Spencer Cook from the Spider-Man and Matrix franchises as well as Corey Turner as the 3D Supervisor, who’d worked as Stereographer on Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The workload was pretty heavy, with every single shot, 1,780 [perhaps more] of them in the 3D version of the film, having a VFX component.
For the 1969 sequence, Baker came up with the idea that the aliens would be “retro” – that is, inspired by the aliens seen in 60s-era sci-fi. “The challenge on the first Men In Black movie, and it’s stayed our challenge since then, is to do aliens that look unlike any aliens that we’ve seen before,” says Baker. He wanted to insert a premise. “Let’s imagine that the guys who made monster movies back in the 50s and 60s really happened to see a real alien and based their monster design on that. And they liked that idea. That was where I really had fun on this movie – to do my version of those classic science fiction aliens as a lot of fun.”
Baker also designed the lead alien: the bad guy, Boris the Animal, played by Jemaine Clement, from the Flight of the Conchords comedy duo. “He’s a Boglodite, from Boglodotia,” says Animation Director Spencer Cook. Baker designed a very badass biker costume, complete with goggles that seem to be embedded deep in Boris’s eye sockets. “There are times when Boris is getting angry, agitated or excited, there are fingers that move and twitch around his eye socket. We made digital extensions of that, replacing part of the actor’s face and making this crazy action like that.”
“This production was such a wild ride and Barry Sonnenfeld is a great director, with a great sense of humor. So, while the movie is a comedy script, the production was funny as well, “ adds Cook.
From an animation standpoint, it covered a really wide spectrum of characters. The Alien Fish was a big, heavy lumbering wet monster, meanwhile one of the villian’s pets is a little spidery thing called the Weasel. There were vehicles, digital stunts, prosthetics, all a great variety of stuff, because basically, Men In Black is a live-action cartoon.
The two skinny smart alec guys in the headquarters, the worm guys, were a massive challenge. “The performance of these guys was really one of those situations where we had to find our footing a little,” notes Cook. “The way Barry Sonnenfeld directs is perfect for this style of film. He asks his actors to direct the lines as straight and flat as they can. ‘Don’t try to be funny,’ he says, cos it’s up to the audience to decide. Four guys playing one set of bagpipes, is funniest when they are serious about what they’re trying to do.”
“By the way, stereo is not a game changer for an animator,” according to Spencer Cook, “because, by way of definition, everything we do is three dimensional. Now that audiences can view all of our work in stereo there are of course some considerations that need to be taken, by way of the audience comfort level. In animation, it must be said, we’re also doing the camera work too, and these days with stereo we also need to be aware of is the character breaking frame.”
Sonnerfeld would use this stereo feature of making the character ‘break frame’ and come in front of the screen and sometimes behind the screen, as a vehicle for comedic beats or moments. “We now are required to work within the edges of the frame, so as not to have the character get sliced,” explains Cook.
One of the best examples is the time jump. “We wanted to make sure the audience could experience how high they were above the ground,” explains Turner. “What many earlier films would do is put extra depth into the height by miniaturizing the scene. To go back to 1969, Agent J jumps off the 61st floor of the 77-storey Chrysler Building. We decided to give the foreground a different stereo step to the distance image, as Agent J looks down off the building, and indeed begins to fall. These are all then composited back together into the same shot to make it look like its seamless,” explains Turner. “The camera tracks with him from his jump, all the way down until he is about two feet off the ground. Truly, the 3D MIB 3 is a completely different movie.”
“Ken and I stood at the top of the Chrysler Building to take reference photos,” says the Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Redd. Even though neither really jumped, It turned out it would take just a few seconds for someone to really fall that distance, and to extend Agent J’s fall into a two-minute-plus sequence, not only would Ralston and Redd have to play with the physics, but also get across the idea that Agent J is traveling through time. “It’s a big challenge to show the audience what time travel looks like,” says Redd. We looked for icons, and we started planning at where in the fall, where ‘on the building’ we would need to be in each section. I think our building is about 800 stories tall, but nobody’s going to notice – it’s our job as artists and filmmakers to create the illusion that what’s happening could really happen in the real world.”
Ralston was one of the very first people to join Sonnenfeld in working on the movie, and he ended up in a close collaboration with each of the department heads, from production design to wardrobe to mechanical effects, to help give each the benefit of visual effects when needed. For example, production designer Bo Welch designed the monocycles that J and K riding when chasing Boris through New York’s burroughs in 1969 and these vehicles were then faithfully created by the CG artists at Imageworks, whom also re-created New York in the 60s as the backdrop for the elaborate chase sequence in full CG.
The most elaborate digital set piece in the film comes at the climax, as J and Young K chase not one but two Borises through the gantry holding the rockets that would launch the Apollo 11 mission towards the moon. The trick to the sequence is producing a faithful digital re-creation of an iconic event that everyone has seen hundreds of times while also creating everything that the director needs to tell the story. “Reality is great, but sometimes, reality can be boring. The Men In Black movies are all about creating a heightened reality, a fantasy reality. We started with reality, then tried to go beyond but still have it feel like it’s in the real world,” says Redd. “We had to have the iconic imagery from the Apollo 11 launch, but for dramatic or pacing purposes, we might have to change things – how many floors there are in the tower, how much smoke there is at a given time, how far the beach is from the rocket.
“We try to make you believe that two agents and two Borises are running around fighting each other,” Ralston says. “We have all the smoke blowing around, the steam, the vents, the really cool angles of the rocket. The lighting has to have a certain quality. It’s all stylized to feel like it’s part of the movie, but it also feels like they’re really there.”