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Interview: VFX Producer Nancy St. John discusses bill & ted face the music

We chat to the talent behind the VFX of the brand new blockbuster movie, starring Keanu Reeves & Alex Winter.

Bill & Ted Face The Music
Credit: Warner Bros

Bill & Ted Face The Music is out on 16th September 2020 in the UK and has just been released in the US. This third instalment of adventures which stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter is a project long in the making. The first two Bill & Ted movies are cult classics and now this third chapter brings our loveable heroes back onto the big (and small) screen where they belong.

Nancy St. John is the film’s VFX Producer and has worked on numerous high-profile projects in her illustrious career. Her feature film background includes stints as the VFX Producer for Academy Award-winning films Babe and Gladiator and co-VFX Producer for the Academy Award nominee I, Robot, plus other films including Men in Black 3, Total Recall, Resident Evil, Ender’s Game and Ghostbusters.  

We chatted to Nancy to discuss all things Bill & Ted Face The Music, working with Keanu and Alex, her thoughts on the current state of VFX in movies and her past credits.

Credit: Warner Bros

How did you first get involved with Bill & Ted Face The Music?

Mutual friends let me know that Producer Scott Kroopf,  who I had worked with on the movie Limitless,  was looking for additional VFX help on-set in New Orleans. Major parts of the movie were about to be shot in large green screen stages with minimum sets and plans were being discussed to start up a second unit. After reading the script I signed on.

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What are your memories of the first two Bill & Ted movies, and what did you think when news of a sequel came about after all these years?

Comedy was flourishing in the 1980’s, and there were so many incredibly funny movies we started quoting lines from in our everyday lives. In that vein, Caddyshack will forever be one of my favorites.  Then along came Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989 and for many months we were calling each other dude and thinking that everything was most excellent. It was a silly fun movie, just pure entertainment and an opportunity to escape reality.

My hope is that Bill & Ted Face the Music will give the fans an escape back to that simpler time of silliness and positive vibes.  If ever there was a time for ‘Be excellent to each other” it’s now and I think the movie delivers. 

How challenging it was to bring Bill & Ted back to the masses?

Director Dean Parisot and Producer Scott Kroopf are probably the best ones to answer that question. From the stories they tell it was huge struggle to launch it. I can tell you that from a VFX point of view it was tough going. Ambitions and visions were very high and butworking with a beer budget we had to make very dollar count. We finally previewed a very unfinished version of the movie and then along came Covid-19. Our vendors had to move their operations to their homes. We spent our days doing reviews with the help of programs like Cinesync and Frankie and became the Brady bunch daily on zoom. 

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I think the toughest part was doing the DI, color timing the movie, remotely. Efilm colorist Skip Kimbal and his team were incredible and were able to set up a remote viewing system.  Unfortunately the weak link was by far the internet connections provided by Spectrum. The area of town were most of the team lived, including the Director, had very weak signals and the internet provider could not cope with demand with kids remote learning, and parents remote working. But like Bill & Ted we never gave up trying to unite the world.

Talk us through the design and implementation of bringing this larger-than-life world to fruition.

Once Dean turned over his cut to VFX, we were able to assess just how much work there was to complete within the tight post schedule. Originally the plan was to use a single vendor but it became clear multiply vendors had to been sourced and most importantly we needed a Conceptual designer to design all these fantasy worlds for Bill & Ted to visit in their journey to writing the perfect song.

While discussing all of this,  Dean mentioned how much he enjoyed working with Bill George on Galaxy Quest and how brilliant a conceptual designer he was. As luck would have it I was able to negotiate with ILM to have Bill design all the worlds. Bill’s paintings ended up speaking volumes to the VFX vendors – BUF, Mel’s Studios and ShadeVFX. Bill started to show Dean his concept paintings and soon a steady flow of ‘yes, do that’ from Dean gave us a jump start to the creation of Hell, Death’s House, the Future and the Freeway scenes.  

Credit: Warner Bros

What was it like working with director Dean Parisot?

I was a big fan of Dean’s Galaxy Quest and loved the VFX work done at ILM by VFX Supervisor Bill George and his team. In my first meeting with Dean and Scott it was clear they knew what VFX shots they needed to tell the Bill & Ted story and also conceptually knew what the shots should look like. Dean had put together a creative book of images for inspiration and in that book was his vision for the Future, inspired by Architect Santiago Calatrava. Although Dean described what he wanted very clearly,  he was also very open to thoughts and suggestions.   I knew my job would be to find the teams who could deliver his vision and be great collaborators.

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Was this a more complicated film to work on, given the restrictions with the global pandemic?

I think I spoke to that question above but there were some benefits to working from home, like not having to deal with the traffic in LA . Two of our vendors were in Montreal, 3 hours ahead of us, so there were advantages to have early morning calls.

What was it like working with Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, and how excited were they to be returning to these beloved characters?

They are amazing! I felt that both Keanu and Alex were making Face the Music for the fans. They wanted their characters to always ring true and to Rock on always.

Do you have a particular favourite scene or sequence in Bill & Ted 3 that you can’t wait for audiences to experience?

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Personally I really enjoy the scenes where daughters , Theo and Billie,  gather up the band for their fathers. Each piece is beautifully shot and it opens up the movie to the world and history, this time musical history. There is an innocence and feeling of clear purpose that shines through in that series of shots.

In your career you have worked with practically every major studio. Do you think the role of the big studio has changed somewhat regarding their involvement in VFX work, and how has that evolved for you in terms of the process of your creativity? Do you have more freedom of expression now?

What a great question. The studio system certainly has evolved. Look at the Disney empire including Lucasfilm, ILM, Pixar, and Marvel.  VFX for Disney movies is controlled by a small group of people. The remaining larger studios are creating less and less big tentpole pictures. They are all going to their franchises and turning out picture after picture because they have the audience to justify the larger budgets. The mini majors as they were called have either found a niche or have disappeared.

One of the reasons I loved working on Face the Music was the small independent and family feel we had in post production.  Dean is a very collaborative Director and a joy to work for. Having a director who knows what he wants is the best. They describe to you what they want and then the job is to find the people who can do what is needed. The Producers trusted my ability to make good decisions and there wasn’t a long list of people who had to sign off on every little change. There were struggles for sure but real ones mostly that resulted in better shots on the screen. I didn’t have to waste precious time on politics. That was a complete luxury.

I’m a big fan of Gladiator – could you talk a little bit about your experience working on that project. It had a very distinct visual style which conjured up some of the best visuals I’ve ever seen in cinema.

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That is a wonderful tribute to Director Ridley Scott. Ridley is a gifted visionary and artist. You could follow him around with a pad of paper and pencils, ask a question as to what something should look like and he would draw it while describing what he he wanted to see. My job was to fax the ‘Ridley grams” to the VFX team at Mill Film in London.  Ridley also has a amazing understanding of camera and how to get the best angles for every shot.

The best VFX come from having a Director who has a clear understanding of what they want. As a team we can then translate that to the artists.

Credit: Warner Bros

Are there any films you’ve worked on that you were surprised at just how popular they became? Babe seems, on the surface, to be a sweet family movie but that film has endured with generations and is still fondly revisited.

Babe was a beautiful story well executed into a touching film. Director George Miller spent years with storyboard artist Peter Pound drawing out each shot for the movie. When we arrived in Australia to start shooting we were given a ‘bible’ with all the drawings. The direction was clear – make the audience accept that a whole barnyard of animals talk and with that accomplished we can tell this beautiful tale. The direction was not to animate the mouths of the animals. That direction would have had a different result, perhaps like in the recent movie Lady & the Trump. It is the Babe and Mr Hoggett story that endures today not the fact that VFX Supervisor Charlie Gibson at Rhythm & Hues figured out how to make animals talk on screen.    

What’s been your experience like of working alongside Netflix (on ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’), and how do they differ from the tradition studio set-up?

I worked on Season one of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and at that time Netflix was in its early days of producing content and was a much smaller group. The Showrunner on the series and Director of 4 of the 8 episodes in Season one was Barry Sonnenfeld so the project was in great hands and they knew it.  I found Netflix very supportive.

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Is there a particular piece of VFX work in film or TV that has taken your breath away recently?

I just saw the trailer for ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ by Cinematographer Lukasz Zal that looks beautifully shot. I loved the look of Cold War.

I love the shot of the cow sailing down the river in First Cow from Cinematographer  Christopher Blauvelt. It’s a really lovely movie directed by Kelly Reichardt. 

I feel like one of your past credits doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, the reboot of Total Recall. The VFX in that movie was astonishing, what are your memories of working on that film?

I was busy at the time building a VFX facility in Vancouver BC and Total Recall was one of the first shows we put through the system. Most of my memories are about trying to find enough machine to render the shots and artists to complete the shots.

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Many believe that we are in a golden age of TV, and that it’s overtaking Film. What do you think?

I love the epic cinematic experience of a beautiful theatre and there are some movies which really need to be seen that way but I also love the feeling of turning off all the sounds and escaping into my livingroom for a private screening whenever it suits me. It is a guilty pleasure for me to watch a fantastic drama by myself after years of sharing the experience with less then respectful crowds. However comedy needs a room I feel. We like to laugh together and maybe cry in private. Ultimately Covid-19 has changed the whole experience.

There are so many great series to watch on TV. I’m currently really enjoying Perry Mason from HBO. It’s visually stunning.  I binge watch everything. 

How has the industry changed since you started? Do you think it’s easier to get started now?

Everything has changed since I started. In the early days the software and hardware were the challenge but now the challenge is to find fresh material, something unique. In the early days we all wore many hats and necessity was the mother of invention. With now everything being possible it ends up more as a struggle about time, money and the overall shot count. I liked it better when we made decisions that required self editing. It’s getting harder and harder to do something ‘never been seen before’.

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The VFX industry is going to change dramatically as we all struggle to go back to work. I hope that by the time we have new material shot there will still be VFX facilities in business to do the shots.

What or who were your biggest influences growing up?

The Disney hour on Sunday night TV, old WW2 movies, Greek and Roman history, Bladerunner, Star Trek, Perry Mason, Arthea Franklin, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Baseball & Hockey.

Is there a passion project that you’d love to work on in the future?

I’m hoping to work on a movie that stars dogs but we need to get our world healthy again before that can happen.

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Bill & Ted Face The Music opens across the UK on 16th September 2020 and is out now in the US.

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