An Interview with Alan Chan – By David Stephenson

Alan Chan has done a lot in the world of Hollywood – if there’s a shiny, visually striking blockbuster out there chances are he’s been involved somewhere in its making. From LOTR: The Two Towers to Titanic, to CGI behemoths like Polar Express, you can guarantee that Alan Chan (donning the rather handy title of Senior Technical Director at Sony Pictures Imageworks) has had something to do with it.

Rogue Cinema’s more observant readers may recall a review we posted last year of an independently financed, CGI-laden special effects short called Postcards From The Future. Well, that’s one of Alan’s too. Our man in the UK Dave Stephenson liked it so much he’s spent the past few months chatting to Alan about his experiences in the movie businesses and his thoughts on the industry as a whole.

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 First off, for all those readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, why not introduce yourself? Tell us about you…

My name is Alan Chan and I am an astronaut. Well, that’s not entirely true now, is it.. I wanted to be an astronaut. Born in the heady days of the Apollo moon landings (1968 to be precise) I think I was raised with the promise that when I grew up I would be working on the moon and other such positive predictions. In light of the fact that we still aren’t working on the moon yet today, I thought I might do the next best thing – make movies.

Born in Malaysia and raised on a steady diet of scifi books, I started writing for a national newspaper in high school, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that when I came to the US to attend college, I would take up a major in Print Journalism. Somewhere along the way, however, I took a TV production class and somebody put a camera on my shoulders – and that was all it took. Two cheesy short films and a feature length "senior paper" movie later, I picked up a shiny piece of paper and went off to work for the regional cable studio in Oklahoma City as a Producer/Director.

My five years at the cable studio were really great for me – it taught me how to schedule and produce, light and edit, and how to create 30 minutes of stuff on a cable studio budget (ie almost zero).

And then in the early 90s the CGI boom happened – everyone in Hollywood were happily discovering the power of digital visual effects, which resulted in me moving out to California to work in the visual effects field. I joined an exceptionally talented team at Digital Domain working on cutting edge visual
effects for commercials, and eventually became part of the Digital Ship team on James Cameron’s "Titanic". That was, wow, an entire decade ago 🙂

Anyways – the runaway success of Titanic was great for me – it gave me the opportunity to continue working on visual effects for A-list features as well as the technical ability to paint bigger movie canvases with limited budgets. Our latest indie project "Postcards From The Future" tells the story of our protagonist’s journey from the Earth to the Moon and Mars – it’s a small epic that uses visual effects to help tell a very personal story that I don’t think could have been done if I did not have the technical background in visual effects..

One film that’s been doing the rounds in cinemas worldwide recently is the blockbuster Beowulf, on which you contributed to the visual effects. Could you tell us more about your role on that?

My credit on Beowolf is as a Look Development Technical Director. A lookdev guy is basically the front end of the digital pipe – we take the model geometry and textures and assemble them to "develop" the "look" of the picture, based on approved concept art. We basically build and prelight the world in preparation for the army of digital artists and lighters that will go in with our data and generate the actual shots in the movie. If you’ve already seen Beo, my work consists of developing the entire village of Herot (both eras) as well as exterior work on the mead hall, ground snow and various other sundry pipeline items.

What’s it like working on such big, flashy A-Movie projects? Is the pressure as intense as folk make out?

The pressure can get intense at times, but not  all the time. The key to managing the stress and pressure is to make sure that you have the proper pipeline tools and setups built beforehand so that you can make changes on the fly. Just as it is when you’re shooting on a real set where you have to adjust the lighting a little differently for each shot, some things in CG will look fine from one angle and too bright from another angle. The lookdev artist’s job is to provide the lighters the control they need to balance the shots.

Our more attentive readers may recall a review we posted a while back about a solo project you’ve completed called Postcards From The Future – could you tell us a little more about that film?

"Postcards From The Future" is 38 minute large-format movie that we like to refer to as a "future documentary" – in that it attempts to predict and visualize what the future of space exploration might be, according to NASA’s return-to-space initiative (referred to as the New Vision for Space Exploration). When the Initiative was first announced I realized that the American public were generally supportive but in a very disconnected way – they failed to see how this would make a difference in their lives. My goal with Postcards was to visualize and humanize the New Vision so that the public could see what a truly massive and noble challenge we were setting for ourselves.

What is it in particular draws you to the outer space theme? You could have used any topic to show off your skills… what’s so attractive about conquering the stratos?

Ah, but it’s not about showing off my skills! Postcards is a very personal project because it deals with space and space travel / exploration / colonization, subjects that are important to me. I think we as a human race need to discover and explore and space is the last great frontier. (We also need to get off this planet because, as prophesied by Michael Bay, one day a giant asteroid will kick our butts and when that happens we’ll need all the space colonies to restock the planet.)

 George W passed some pretty imaginative legislation a while back, basically re-vamping America’s aim towards the stars, claiming we’d one day visit Mars and the like. In your view, is this realistic or just dreams gone wild?

I think with the current political climate the odds are certainly stacked against his and NASA’s favor. But I don’t think it’s an unreachable goal. There’s a lot of talk these days about how NASA is bogged down in bureaucracy and are too risk-averse. The flesh may be weak, but the spirit is still willing, and the whole point of the New Initiative legislation is to redefine where we want to be so that we can once again work towards that goal. We have to set high goals to challenge ourselves. Aim for the stars – if you miss, you still land on Mars, right?

I hear you recently cleaned up at the HDFest Film Festival of Korea and Finland, Postcards scooping best Director, Special Effects, Cinematography and Best Short Film. How’s it feel to get such high praise for your work?

Of course it certainly feels good! As an indie filmmaker, we stick our necks out a lot, and invest our time in something that we believe in without knowing if the finished product will be as powerful as we imagined it could be. We can get lost in the details and lose sight of the original vision, and it’s important as a director to always be able to step back and look at the film as a whole rather than obsessing about one shot where the color of the tie is blue instead of red.

Winning these awards, and winning them across multiple categories reaffirms the fact that I have managed to carry the original story vision through the minutiae of production without too many compromises in vision – especially tough to do in an indie budget scenario. Toby Thomas, my prop-master for Postcards, has already coined a phrase which will eventually be the title of my autobiography: "Platinum Vision, Plywood Budget". Yessirree, that’s me!

Has this recent dash of fame changed the outlook for your future? And will we be seeing Postcards at any other film festivals in the future?

Not really. I’m still the same humble megalomaniac director as I was yesterday. I think the more properly grounded indie directors realize that there are two sides to every successful project – the creative side and the business side. The fact that Postcards has won various awards certainly gives us a certain degree of critical success, but we still need to apply the business side of things to get word of the project and its awards out to the larger public. PR and promotion of a project is another full-time job indeed…

As for the second part of the question – yes, we are planning to submit Postcards to more festivals in the future. If you are interested in seeing Postcards at your local film festival, do drop by our website and put yourself on the Postcards map – we’d like to use that to get a better idea of where to target our festival submissions.

What’s your thoughts on the CGI climate these days? Many films (most recently I Am Legend) are criticized for having too much CGI, of letting computer effects take over from things like acting, character development, plot, etc. What you reckon? Are computer graphics becoming too much of a crutch these days?

CGI is just like your pen and pencil (or typewriter, or word processor). It’s a tool, and it only becomes a crutch if the filmmakers let it become a crutch. There were production challenges on Legend, which I am sure you can discover if you read around the net somewhere, which led to more CGI than was  originally anticipated. As always, the final film is a product of not just the original vision, but the production process as well.

It helps, however, when you’re making an indie film and you have a deep understanding of how CGI works – it lets you as a filmmaker paint on an infinitely larger canvas, limited only by your time and your imagination.

 Are Will Smith’s ears really that big in real life, or is that just some kind of CGI tomfoolery you guys pull just for kicks?

Will Smith does not really exist. He is a product of our fine, fine CGI labs.

Now that computer effects have become so advanced they’re often matching the visual quality of real-life objects, what’s next for the industry? Any new exciting technologies coming through in the near-future? What’s next for hi-tech Hollywood?

Stereo projection! Stereo projection!! Digital projection’s next big thing will be taking something that has always been a novelty – 3D movies, hitherto done well only by giant screen players like Imax3D, and bringing that immersive experience down to the multiplexes. Witness the digital stereo projections of Beowulf in 3D, the upcoming U23D movie, and a multitude of other stereo productions already underway (including Cameron’s Avatar and Spielberg’s next project) – the future is in stereo.

One title in your work that really lept out at me was your role as Technical Director on Bad Boys II… what was your involvement there?

I was the on-set coffee boy for all the bikini babes.

Going back to an earlier theme… Postcards From The Future isn’t your only solo foray into film-making. You also made an extended… teaser trailer for a film that was never made – the rather fetchingly titled ’12 Hot Women.’ Wanna tell us a little more about that? Is there a website where our readers can catch a view of that trailer?

Ha! My past cometh to haunt me! 12 Hot Women was basically a response to my perceived need. I needed to get off my butt and start building a directing portfolio at the time, and 12 Hot Women was the perfect short film spoof to get my feet wet in directing. I don’t know if we will ever take that trailer and turn it into a full length feature, but if there are producers reading this, I have a scriptment if you have the means..

The archived website is at http://www.12hotwomen.com and there is a link from there to watch the 3 minute trailer on Revver.com

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap things up here?

I want a free Rogue Cinema T-shirt, dammit!

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For any of you readers wanting to get your hands on your own copy of Postcards From The Future, you can get the snazzy new DVD from http://www.createspace.com/239006 – you should check it out – it’s really worth a look.