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25th October 2011
Elegant solutions
Title of film: The Making Of Portal
Director: Danny Trachtenberg
Interview with Portal VFX Sup Jon Chesson

How did you come to be the vfx supervisor on Portal and what was it that attracted you to the job?

Well, I started out being brought on to help out with the compositing. The scope of the project grew and I ended up transitioning into the vfx supervisor role. Supervising visual effects is a goal I’ve always been working toward, so getting a taste of it on Portal, was definitely a treat.

I’ve been a fan of Dan’s commercial work for sometime, and I could tell that he had something special on his hands when I saw an early cut of the short. I was in from there.

Unpaid and two-years of hard graft working on Portal; what do you do for your day job?

I’m a freelance compositor working in LA. That’s a big reason why we had such a long post schedule. The visual effects team was comprised of all working professionals who all worked long days at various post studios. Finding the time to dedicate to Portal: No Escape was tough sometimes, but thankfully, the team was always on top of their game.

How did the process of finding compositors and other artists through twitter work?  

Its kind of crazy to think that twitter could be such an amazing recruitment resource, but it really is. We were also lucky enough that Dan already had such a large following in the community, so we always had quick responses whenever we needed more artists. Because of the time frame and budget, some artists were understandably limited on availability, but we took whatever help we could get. We also took advantage of the local talent here in LA as much as possible. Working with a remote team, isn’t the most ideal scenario for a production, but in this case it worked great. Everyone was in it for the right reason; because they were passionate about the project.

Did the script and storyboards go through many changes as the vfx evolved?

Dan and David had the edit pretty tight already when I was brought onboard. There were a few things already cut that would have been fun to do, but didn’t serve the story as much as we would of liked.

What were the limitations of the visual effects work on Portal?

Hardware and rendering resources were some of the biggest limitations on this project. We were all working from home and turnaround times would be painful sometimes simply due the lack of hardware. Working at a vfx studio spoils you a bit with the convenience of a render farm and a support team in place.

What was the most challenging aspect of the vfx on Portal?

Definitely the final shot of the short was the more complicated shots we had on our plate. Figuring out the methodology of the distant cityscape transitioning from a believable environment to a 2d illusion was tough. We went through many approaches and ideas for the best way to sell the shot, maintain Dan’s vision, and of course, end the short with a bang.

Anything you would have done differently?

This was my first time stepping in the vfx supervisor shoes, so there were tons of things I definitely learned from. Lots of mistakes were made throughout production, but thankfully I feel like we learned from them all and didn’t have too many repeats. There would have been a few things I would of done differently during the shoot, but unfortunately, I wasn’t on the project at that time.

What project are you working on now?

Currently I’m compositing on Fox’s Terra Nova.