Telekinesis to the Rescue

The career of visual effects supervisor Kent Houston has straddled opposite ends of the genre’s spectrum, from the outrageous imagery of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Brothers Grimm (2005) through the understated Angela’s Ashes (1999) and The World’s Fastest Indian (2005). But his latest project, Push from director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin), fused the amazing prospects of telekinesis and clairvoyance with a real-world edginess that demanded a less-is-more approach to the potentially unbelievable imagery.

Houston, a New Zealander who makes his home in Santa Monica, California, was surprised to learn that much of the research on which Push was based was conducted by the Rand Corporation in his adopted hometown. ‘The fascinating thing for me is this script is based on a concept arising from C.I.A. research that was done in the ’50s and ’60s, and oddly enough, I knew a lot about it because someone I’d worked with knew one of the people involved and described some of the things that happened,’ Houston says. ‘One can be slightly cynical about it, but there’s some strange stuff around and some very clever people involved. A lot of what is in the script is based on actual research that was done and there’s a lot of reference to it early in the movie. It’s pretty scary stuff.’ Houston employed artists from Digiscope and his own vfx house, Peerless Camera Company, to begin visualizing the supernatural powers of the characters.

‘When Paul and I first started talking about the project, he wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he was very clear that he didn’t want it to be like Fantastic Four, for obvious reasons,’ he recalls. ‘We just said, ‘Do your stuff,’ to the available artists and we just tried lots of effects, all sorts of things’particles and light effects and animation and lots of tricky image manipulation’probably over a hundred tests, and we just showed them all to Paul.’

As the effects developed, it became clear that the telekinetic/clairvoyant effects would involve some sort of disruption/displacement in the atmosphere along with the disturbing visual of the paranormal event being presaged by the dilation of the pupil past the cornea and sclera of the eye. But exactly what those effects would look like remained something of a mystery. ‘We had a vague idea of what the effect might involve, but we hadn’t actually locked it down at the time of shooting,’ Houston says. ‘But once we had rough cuts of the film, we managed to narrow the effects down very quickly and Paul seemed delighted with it.’

The pupil dilation was a fairly simple digital trick that demanded careful timing and design to make it seem sinister rather than silly. ‘We used various forms of digital warping and digital paint together with very subtle work on the meniscus of the fluid on the eye surface to convey the sense that the actual underlying structure of the eye was physically changing.’

Similarly, the atmospheric disruption/displacement that signaled the telekinesis was achieved using a digital warping of the characters’ environment. ‘We worked very hard to create a very subtle effect to give the sense of a lot of power traveling through the air,’ Houston adds. ‘The original tests we had done made it clear to us what Paul would not like, and eventually we found a nice collection of delicate tricks available on our Infernos that combine very slight image warping and time shifting with hints of refraction and light energy.’

Another cool job was visualizing what remote viewing’the clairvoyant process of seeing an event happening far away’might look like. ‘It’s nothing too fancy’It’s what you might see happening in somebody’s mind when they try to concentrate their focus when they’re remote viewing an environment,’ Houston says. ‘It involves relatively simple editorial ghosting, cutting, fixing of images a bit to help audiences understand that people are looking at something far off.’ The biggest challenge for Houston and his effects team was the movie’s relatively small budget. ‘Initially we had a limited number of visual effects. It started at about 18 shots, which went up to 180 and we finished the movie with around 400 shots,’ says Houston.’We tried to do a lot of stuff in camera, and we avoided doing effects for effects sake.’

Fortunately, the physical effects supervisor was an old colleague, Mark Meddings (son of the great Derek Meddings of Thunderbirds fame), which enabled the kind of large-scale physical interaction of cars flying through the air depicted in Push’s advertising campaign. ‘Mark and I would collaborate on that with, again, relatively limited resources: We would work in tandem to realize the best thing possible.’

Take the fish tanks (and fish) that explode clairvoyantly. ‘Almost every single water effect in the movie was done practically,’ Houston says. ‘We didn’t actually blow up the fish’that was digital effects. They just disintegrate as blood spurts from pores in their skin.’

Push was filmed almost entirely on location in Hong Kong with a small amount of studio work. The exotic locale presented a few challenges of its own: ‘We had to be careful about involving any kind of technology that wasn’t easily available, like motion control and that kind of thing. We did bring in bluescreens and some special lights from the U.S., but otherwise pretty much all the equipment, at least as much as possible, was all sourced locally.’

For Houston, the greatest hurdle was bringing to an action adventure spectacle like Push the fx sensibility of The World’s Fastest Indian. ‘That would be my ideal film,’ Houston states, ‘and we tried to take the same approach here. We always tried to turn the effects way down. They’re there, but very low-key and subtle.’

Summit Entertainment’s Push opens wide in U.S. theaters on February 6.