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Lone Survivor – Jesper Kjolsrud interview (exclusive)

Lone Survivor

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JESPER Kjolsrud talks about some of the challenges of creating the visual effects for Lone Survivor and his pleasure of working with the film’s director, Peter Berg.

He also discusses the effects industry, his own path into his current position and the trick behind creating a standout sequence. He also discusses working on the forthcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and why some directors with tough reputations aren’t necessarily the monsters they’re sometimes portrayed as being.

Q. How proud do you now feel at being a part of Lone Survivor and what was the biggest challenge surrounding the film from a visual effects view-point?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Wow, we’re beginning with the easy questions! I’ve got to say, this was a really good experience. We had a limited budget, and all kinds of struggles to deal with, but it was one of those rare movies where pretty much everyone involved wanted to be a part of it. And we had Peter Berg [the director], who was very good at protecting the budget he had set aside for the visual effects, which was a big help.

Q. So, what was your biggest challenge on this?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Well, turning New Mexico into Afghanistan, for a start. There were a lot of things for us to do to make it look believable. When you start shooting any movie it’s hard to know how much work you’re going to end up with, but I was able to build a team at the facility to do all the work even though we didn’t know how many shots it would involve. I knew how much time we had to do it in and managed that time in the best possible way. So, that was the difficult thing to start with. But there was a very collaborative process between editorial and us to enable us to do all of the work required.

Q. What was the single most difficult shot you had to create?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Well, the most involved effects probably involved the helicopter as well as the set extensions for the Bagram Air Base. We [as a company] had done similar work on Zero Dark Thirty, but that approach involved more simple modelling and adding the paint on top. Here, we were able to balance the way we worked by doing more work up front and building and texturing them at the beginning, which meant we then have less pressure at the end and weren’t relying on artists painting on top [of the shots]. We could spread all the buildings and people out and render them properly.

Q. Peter Berg has said there is never enough time for creating effects but credits you with being on top of every shot. He has a reputation for being very fast. How was he to work with for you?
Jesper Kjolsrud: You know, he’s a very interesting guy. He relies on the people around him but then a lot of his crew have been working with him for over 10 years, from the first movies he directed. So, I was kind of the new guy. We did a little bit of work on Battleship, which he really liked, and he saw what we did on Zero Dark Thirty, so we had a little bit of confidence built up to start with, but we had to keep building on that to not make him nervous. He’s very astute and he really picks up when people aren’t really confident. But while that might be difficult for some people to deal with, for me it was really refreshing. You’re there to do a job and you better do it well.

So, while we all had to work with limitations, and we all had to cut corners, it was about knowing which corners to cut. For example, there was no way we could get to the kind of altitude we needed for those Hercules shots, but we still had to solve it and come up with something. We didn’t have the money or the time to recreate it on a computer, so I had to figure it out and ended up going onto a film footage sight and finding pieces [of footage] that would potentially work and coming up with a list of shots to cut in – then we could buy the footage and treat it like any other shot. You can’t react on shoots like these and by that I mean you can’t wait for someone to tell you what’s going to happen – you’re on the spot, you’re there to figure it out. So, that’s what we did.

Lone Survivor

Q. Would you be looking to work with Peter again?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Absolutely! It was a really good experience. The guys here had a really good time. It obviously helps when a lot of people go to see the [finished] movie. It makes it much more satisfying. But we did really well with managing our time and I built a really strong team that was built for this type of work. Most of the people were coming off shoots that had just finished, so they had to hit the ground running. But saying that, we only spent two days of overtime on the whole project – and there was only one occasion where we came in on a weekend. So, in terms of managing that [overtime], we did really, really well because we didn’t really get a budget for overtime. And Pete’s right, there’s never enough time. It’s true, we could fiddle with these shots for an extra number of months but the key thing for me is that as long as it doesn’t take anyone out of the moment, and as long as you can still believe in what you’re seeing, then we’re fine. At the end of the day, you’re there to support the film and support the story, so you can’t be too fancy or too creative. It wouldn’t fit in to a film like this. Most of Lone Survivor was done by hand-held cameras and was about putting the viewer right in with the action. We don’t want to upset that [realism] too much. So, we did what was right for the style of the film.

Q. Did you feel any added pressure because this was a true story?
Jesper Kjolsrud: I think so. There’s always a temptation for people in my industry to want to do that really cool shot and come up with a slick camera move that you really wouldn’t be able to film if you were on board a helicopter. But we weren’t interested in doing that. We were taking the lead from whatever was captured on-camera and staying true to that. And that meant looking at the details of how the lens has behaved in the light. Pete likes to shoot right into the sun and he back-lights whenever he gets the opportunity. So, we spent a lot of time looking at that kind of detail to make sure what we were doing had the same look and feel.

Q. What made you want to become involved with visual effects in the first place?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Wow, I don’t think there was really a ‘eureka’ moment. I went to art college back in Sweden and read a magazine article about this computer graphics course and applied, then got in somehow but still had absolutely no idea you could make a living out of this stuff [laughs]. It was a pretty interesting school, because at that time – between 1994 and ‘95 – they were using very high end computers and software that very few other schools in the world were using. So, all of us who graduated came out with hands-on experience of being able to do this kind of work. And that helped to land me a job straight away. Paul Franklin was a guest lecturer, who won the Oscar for his work on Inception. He basically brought me over to London and I started at MPC in 1996/7 and it’s been kind of a rollercoaster journey ever since.

Q. Do you continue to be amazed by what can be achieved in special effects?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Oh absolitely. I watch something like Gravity and am completely blown away. It’s such an intense experience… seeing something like that, it’s the closest thing to actually being in space and visualising that [experience] for you. With the tools and techniques we have available today, there’s still a lot more that can be done. But where this industry is heading is becoming much less about the tools and more about the visual ideas people have and your ability to create that. Every year that I’ve been involved in this industry, there’s always something that raises the bar. And there’s no slowing down in that – it just keeps getting better and better! And it enables us to do things and show you things that you’ve never seen before.

Q. What would you consider to be your proudest career accomplishment?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Well, Lone Survivor is up there as one of them. With all the challenges and restrictions we had, I think it worked out really, really well. It’s a really good movie. But you could tell from first reading the script that this was an engaging story. And I think everything kind of clicked and worked out really, really well.

Lone Survivor, Peter Berg

Q. You’ve worked with a diverse range of directors, including the likes of Ron Howard on The Da Vinci Code. How much do you learn from them?
Jesper Kjolsrud: You always pick things up. For example, with Pete, he has this amazing ability to keep the ball rolling and keep things moving forward. One example of this came when the script called for one of the goat herder boys to be eight or 10-years-old. So, the stunt guys were trying to find an eight or 10-year-old who could really run down the mountain because Pete wanted a Parkour-type shot. But they really couldn’t find anyone of that age to be able to do that. So on the spot, Pete said: “What if he was a teenager?” And they got someone straight away. He was so familiar with the script and the story and what was needed without taking away from the truth of what really occurred. So, if that particular teenager was not necessarily the age of the guy who was there for real, it didn’t matter. It was a simple solution to what was becoming a big problem. And I found it really interesting to see him think on his feet like that.

Similarly, we were shooting in difficult locations at the beginning. We were on a very steep hill in Santa Fe where the peak was over 12,000 feet, which meant it was hard to walk around with equipment. It wasn’t easy to breathe and some people ended up suffering from altitude sickness and things. But as we got going, Pete was constantly thinking of other locations to line up and he’d shift things around to make it easier. He’d say: “Why don’t we shoot at easier locations?” So, even after that tough first week we were a day and a half ahead of schedule, which never happens. In fact, he finished the shoot early. He’s a very impressive guy.

Q. Did you meet the real Marcus Luttrell?
Jesper Kjolsrud: I did. He was on-set and at the premiere. I remember he rocked up one day on-set and suddenly there was a dog running through the shot; but none of the AD’s seemed very upset because they knew it was his dog. But he spent a lot of time up there with us and he’s a very friendly guy… and a real gentleman. I know Pete took this extremely seriously and he spent a lot of time leading up to the film getting all the details from Marcus. There were also a number of SEALs on set ready to advise on things like how to hold a gun or whateve. But that’s really what Pete wanted – he wanted it to be authentic.

Q. Were you humbled to be in Marcus’s presence, knowing what he had been through and what he is physically capable of?
Jesper Kjolsrud: I was. But he’s such a humble guy. You can think what you think about how America is living up to that ‘world police’ thing, but he put it in good way at the premiere. He said that no matter what you think about the politics, whoever gets put in that situation, you root for them as individuals. So, knowing what he went through and how completely dedicated those guys are to each other – they care more about each other than themselves – is remarkable. It makes you think in a way about what these guys actually went through. We had our actors throwing themselves off rocks in crazy ways, really putting everything into it. But you still can’t imagine what it would have been like with all those explosions and bullets if all that was real. So, it is humbling but at the same time I was very glad to have been able to be a part of it.

Q. What’s next for you?
Jesper Kjolsrud: Well, I’m just finishing up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We have three months to go. It’s slightly different from Lone Survivor [laughs]! We’re working on ninjas sliding down a snowy hillside, footage of which you can see in the teaser that was just released. So, we’re finishing that up in the summer and then we’ll see…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Q. Does that mean you’ve had dealings with producer Michael Bay, who I believe also has a reputation for being a hard task-master?
Jesper Kjolsrud: He’s producing it we I haven’t been directly involved with him. He’s still got another month on Transformers. He does look at the shots and we get some notes back from him. But we don’t really hear that much. Jonathan Liebesman is directing. But I have to say, all of these guys – like Pete and Michael – who have these reputations for being loud and this and that… there might be an element of truth but from my experience I haven’t run into anyone who has been really bad or difficult to work with – demanding, for sure, but you should expect that. And I think they should be [demanding] because it’s their movie at the end of the day and you’re just a pawn in the whole game. So, you’re meant to bring your A-game every time. You can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. You have to be very active and don’t just react to things – you must think forward and be able to think for yourself and, as long as you do that, I think everyone you work with respects that and knows you’re doing a good job. You just keep going and keep the ball moving.

Read our review of Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, June 9, 2014.