Grady Cofer was an 80s latchkey kid, so when he read the book Ready Player One with its throwbacks to 80s pop culture, Cofer was in heaven. He didn’t imagine that a few years later he’d be bringing the book to life when working with Steven Spielberg on the movie adaptation.
The film is a feast of visual effects and CGI. The Oasis sequence lasts an entire 90 minutes and is filled with Easter eggs and shoutouts to 80s pop culture. Two viewings aren’t even enough to get them all.
A team of visual effects artists including Cofer were tasked with creating the virtual reality, CGI world of Ready Player One that earned an Oscar nomination. Whether it’s the New York race cars, recreating The Shining, or a dance club with strobe lights, Cofer enjoyed the challenges and how his team tackled them. For example, “Steven wanted us to match the specific character of the blood that pours out of that elevator so we had to develop new technology to choreograph the simulation in a way that we could get a dead match to the original.”
Talk about the first conversation you had with Steven about Ready Player One
Interestingly, this was many years ago, I was working with Steven to refresh his Amblin logo. He had called me and said, “My logo is stuck in the 80s and we need an update.” So, we had a lot of fun recreating Elliot’s flight across the moon and during that time, Ready Player One percolated. I remember the first meeting we had down at Amblin and we were sitting at this table with all these creatives. He had Ernest Cline’s book sitting in front of him. From day one, I could tell how passionate he was for this story and for the characters. We all came out of that meeting so excited and motivated. He kept that enthusiasm throughout the entire projects. He has these endless reserves of creative energy and it was all we could do to harness those ideas and find compelling ways of translating them into images on the screen.
I loved the book and I was a latchkey kid back in the 80s. I grew up on a steady diet of 80s pop culture. When the book came out, I devoured it. I knew if this movie were to ever be made, I knew it was tailor-made for Industrial Light & Magic, not just because it was this great celebration of all these movies that I know and love, but because I’d played a part in those little great movies. Back To The Future and Jurassic Park. For me, it felt this project was meant to be.
Warner Bros. put this amazing team together with Spielberg, Zak Penn, Ernest Cline, Adam Stockhausen the production designer who I loved and once you get creatives like that together. Great things happen.
I’m terrible. I never read the book, but the film was such a feast.
So is the book in different ways. One of the great decisions they made was instead of replicating the riddles and challenges of the book, they came up with new ones for the audience to figure out. It was a lot of fun coming up with these new challenges. You’ve got to read the book.
I will by the next time we talk.
We’ll have a book club.
Talk about creating the world of the Oasis. What’s your pre-viz?
That’s the crux of it. The greatest challenge was just the overall scope. We spend 90 minutes in the Oasis and that’s completely computer generated. Every aspect of that virtual world has to be meticulously designed and crafted. We need to model it and render it. The sheer volume of the assets and the environment was pretty daunting. We make lists when we break down a script for VFX and the list went on and on and on.
What started happening was that artists here at ILM started reaching out and asking, “Could I work on Iron Giant?” Someone said they wanted to create Chucky and these are all iconic characters that we grew up with and it became clear that passion was going to fuel this project and the passion we had for all of these nostalgic things. Adam Stockhausen the production designer who has a very keen eye and was such a great fit for this project, he loves the process of set dressing. We’d build out these environments.
We went to Manhattan just to scout and we took lots of pictures and reference, but when we were recreating New York that’s when Adam and Steven started talking about how to imbue this with fun Easter eggs and how could we give the audience the experience of recognizing different call outs. What Adam did was send us tons of screengrabs from the great movies that were shot in New York.
Serpico and Taxi Driver and The French Connection. We started finding aspects of those that we could dress into shots. When you’re following the Delorean and that drops into South Street Seaport and you leave that and her Akira bike, that’s the pork chop express driving out in front of her. It was a really fun endeavor to celebrate all these iconic movies, characters, and vehicles in a way that certain people could find in that first viewing and others would find on a second or third viewing.
Talking of creating iconic moments, there was The Shining. That was just brilliant to see that recreated in this.
Yeah. That was an incredible experience I have to say. When word got out that Steven and Zak were adapting this book. It was one of the most asked questions, what movie was Parzival going to have to experience. In the book, it’s War Games. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t always The Shining. We’d started down one road. That changed. There was a time when we were making these lists of movies that we thought would be a good candidate to recreate and of course it was Steven who came into the office one day and said, “Let’s recreate The Shining.”
He’d been friends with Stanley Kubrick and had visited him on the set and had all these great stories. There was a personal connection there. For us as ILM, it was how do we do one of the most iconic horror settings of all time, the Overlook Hotel?
Roger Guyett and I were at the studios and they started scanning portions of the movie and we’d go to the theater and we were watching dailies of the original movie. We started scanning a lot of those sections of the movie and a crew of artists started recreating lovingly each detail bit by bit. This chair, that piano, and that fireplace. They just went the list and started creating a virtual version of it.
Steven wanted us to match the specific character of the blood that pours out of that elevator so we had to develop new technology to choreograph the simulation in a way that we could get a dead match to the original.
It’s the only part in the Oasis where we use a little bit of live action footage — the original woman in the bathtub — but it’s also the cast’s real twins that we filmed on green screen and added them to our digital set of the hallway and elevators. It was interesting because they were twins and could speak in unison. As soon as they spoke, it was chilling and terrifying and sent us back to when we first saw The Shining and became so freaked out by it.
I have to say it’s one of the most convincing digital environment recreations I’ve ever seen.
I agree. I don’t think I’ve anything seen quite like it. I saw it in 3D and it terrified me seeing that blood pour out.
Okay, discuss the lighting in the Distracted Globe club and the detail of effects there.
One of my favorite parts of the story is the set piece that takes place at the Distracted Globe. It’s almost like date night because Parzival has met Artemis. He’s a bit interested and it feels like prom night and it all goes horribly wrong. The environment needed to be teeming with humanity. We had to fill it with really interesting characters. We developed a new crowd tool called Arcade and it’s a very directable system where we’d motion capture groups of characters acting and performing like they’re at a club. The tool would simulate all of that activity.
You could say, you want a percentage of the people to be at the bar, a percentage of the people to be dancing, and a handful walking through the crowd looking for a friend and we’d have dailies where we could just watch an evening at the club and it was fascinating. It became a very strong tool that we employed throughout the show.
It became clear that in addition to designing the club itself, we had to like you say, a light show. It was almost like we were working at a club and we wanted to really capture that spirit of a rave and a club and that energy.
We started collecting a lot of video reference. Roger had recently gone to a concert and he took out his iPhone so we were looking at all these great modern ways of using lights to create drama. We developed all these tools that both the animators and lighters could use them. We could find moments to sweep lights right across Artemis and Parzival at just the right time.
At one point, we were presenting a shot to Steven and he said, “What if in this shot all the lights started strobing?” It paid off and it looks great. He had us shut all the lights off for a moment and it turns out it’s one of the most dramatic moments.
It really became a fun endeavor. How can you recreate the spirit of a club?
I’m going to ask a mean question.
What was your favorite Easter egg to put in?
Chucky’s not really an Easter Egg because he becomes featured. It was still a surprise. I was a bit of a video game nerd growing up and I loved Sonic the Hedgehog. It was late in the game and a lot of people were reaching out from these video game companies and offering assets asking if we wanted to use their video game characters. They too were fans of the book and the story and wanted to contribute. We were collecting all these great video game assets.
Dave Shirk and his team were all finding ways to weave them into the fabric of the story. For me, I used to and still love Sonic. Sonic was delivered to us and we animated him in the final battle. You’ll see this blur of blue spin and run through the crowd. It was a highlight callout for me.