Look for more exclusive interviews with Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty (Writers), and Louise Mingenbach (Costume Designer) in the next few days.
Q: One of the most exciting prospects of "Superman Returns" is to finally see Superman cut loose on screen in a way never seen before. How did you feel in regards to realising the iconic flight and powers of Superman that have been rendered by so many artists and comic books throughout history?
Neil: When I was asked to do the Physical Special Effects on "Superman Returns" I was very excited. Superman holds a special place in my heart as "Superman: The Movie" was the first movie that I worked on and then to get the chance to supervise "Superman Returns" was an absolute honor. Especially with the technology that is available today with both physical and visual effects; the sky was the limit, pardon the pun. I have worked with Mark Stetson before on "The Fifth Element", so when I heard that he was the Visual Effects Supervisor I knew that it was going to be something special. I was excited and a little worried to see who would fill the boots of Christopher Reeve, but when I first met Brandon Routh I knew that the Superman Icon was in good hands... and with Byran Singer directing what more could anyone want. Bryan has so much passion for Superman and it really shows up in the movie.
Q: Computer generated humans haven't really been achieved successfully on screen. They look passable, but not great. Making a CG human look realistic is a major challenge, so how did you approach making a flying super-human look realistic?
Neil: CG humans are down to Mark Stetson and his team but what we wanted to do was to use as many different ways of flying Superman as possible. Mark would always say if it looks better doing it for real then that is the way it should be done. RA Rondell rigged up some stunning wire rigs; we had men dressed in green suits to puppeteer the cape flapping in the wind. We had Superman on a box and on a turn table... so many different systems. It is always good to keep the audience guessing as to how we did it. We also rigged up a Mustang car on a hydraulic rig that was then hung underneath a crane, when we reproduced the first edition cover (Action Comics #1) which again was part CG and part practical.
Q: In terms of superpowers, what other impressive visual effects can we expect?
Neil: From a practical side of things we built a 60ft x 30ft x 18ft gimble that took the fuselage of a Boeing 777. It had to go through some quite radical movements. It had to simulate the plane falling out of the air and start to do a flat spin.
Q: What was your favorite effect to work on?
Neil: Again from a practical side, the favorite thing that I enjoyed apart from the 777 gimble was the Pantry sinking gimble. This was quite a complex gimble; it had three axes. It was like a forklift column that was attached to a seesaw and it also had side to side movement as well. This was to create the illusion that the ship was sinking into the wall, it was a fun rig. The other rig was a very simple rig that fired a baseball. I had mentioned to Bryan how the football was launched on "Superman: The Movie" and he thought that it looked great so he wanted us to do it the same sort of way. We could launch the baseball for nearly 2km!
Q: You did some uncredited work on the first three "Superman" movies; what work did you do on those films and are those experiences relatable to "Superman Returns"?
Neil: I started on "Superman: The Movie" as a trainee for my uncle Colin Chilvers; he supervised the first 3 "Superman" movies. The first set that I saw was the Fortress of Solitude, I was doing some dry ice effect along with about 10 other crew members and I can remember how amazing it looked. And I remember being introduced to Christopher Reeve in his Superman outfit which I will never forget. He was doing some work on the wire flying sequences; he was such a natural on the wires, his posture, everything about him looked right. On the 3rd movie I spent most of my time on the flying unit, on a stage with a large front projection screen and an even larger blue screen on it. We had polearms through the front projection screen with different moulds of Chris that could be attached to it. We tried a number of different types of polearm on "Superman Returns" but opted for the wire work that had come on leaps and bounds from the 1978 movie. It always gives me goose bumps when I see Superman flying, whether it is on wires, Polearm or CG, to me it is Superman!
Q: How much experimenting did you do on "Superman Returns"? Did you try new techniques never tried before?
Neil: I didn't get as much time as I would have liked. I came on to "Superman Returns" after Christmas. The art department had been up and running for quite sometime and I had to play a bit of catch up but having worked on the first 3 it helped a lot. We did build a 3 axis motion base as one of the element of helping Superman fly, we had some good testing which we put on video but we ran out of time to perfect it and they went with the wire flying.
As I said before we worked on a green stage for many months perfecting the cape flutter with men in green suits with fishing line attached to the end of the cape, it looked quite realistic!
Q: Out of the 14,000 visual effects shots Bryan Singer has mentioned, which are you and your team most proud of achieving?
Neil: The visual effects shots are down to Mark Stetson with whom I worked very closely with assisting where needed. Mark is one of the top in the world. I know it is going to look fantastic!
Q: In some films during the making of special effects there are comedic elements inserted in the background by the technicians. A popular example of this is potatoes in the asteroid fields in "Star Wars". Are there any funny little details in the background of your effects shots people should watch out for?
Neil: Sorry, this is one for Mark. One thing I do know was that when we had our crew photograph done, each department had their own picture taken by David James the unit stills man and the visual effect team had theirs taken in front of a green screen and they basically put what ever background they wanted in which I thought was great!
Q: What processes were involved in bringing the late Marlon Brando back to 'life' as Jor-El?
Neil: Sorry again, this is another one for Mark. But when I heard that that is what they were going to do I thought that it was great. I think so many people relate to "Superman: The Movie" and the way that Bryan has kept some of the things from the first movie he has brought a whole new look and feel to the his version that I know the audience will love.
Q: Given the advances in SFX technology, can fans expect to see Superman performing feats that would have previously been impossible to film?
Neil: Absolutely! People will be blown away with what they see in "Superman Returns". I saw some early CG work that Mark showed me and it looked great. The scale of the movie is big, something that was always very hard to do in the past especially with a Superman movie but now nearly anything is possible. You really will believe a man can fly!
'Dharmesh'. Founder and Chief, Superman Cinema (UK-based site), based in Birmingham.
Dawn Jones. UK-based moderator for Superman Homepage, highly active member of Devoted to Smallville, Devoted Fans Network and other Superman sites, based in Central London.
Robert O'Connor. Highly active UK member of Superman Homepage, imdb, lcfanfic (Lois and Clark Fan Ficton) and other Superman sites, the youngest of the crew at 16 and based in Dublin.
Matt Fisher. Highly active UK member of Superman Homepage, Channel 4 forums and imdb, based in Birmingham.
Alistair Corbett. Highly active member of Empire Online, particularly in the Superman forums, based in South Wales.
Luke Barnard. Highly active member of Total Film forums and a regular poster on all things Superman, based in Reading.