VFX Supervisor John Desjardin On Man Of Steel, The Dark Knight Returns And The Batman-Superman Movie

man of steelJohn “DJ” Desjardin has worked with Zack Snyder since Watchmen, through Sucker Punch and now a pair of Superman movies. When I spoke to him last week, on the occasion of Man of Steel reaching DVD, Blu-ray and download, I started by asking about his ongoing relationship with Snyder.

We moved from there onto the comic book science of Man of Steel‘s action, into the film’s many FX-vendor driven easter eggs and then on to the promise of the upcoming Superman-Batman movie, Desjardin’s current gig and focus of his energies.

So here’s some of what he had to tell me.

[Snyder and I] just like hanging out with each other most of the time. And that is actually a big deal, especially in this kind of a job, any creative – and let’s say technical – meshing of minds, you need to have people around you that you get on with. Projects are long and the hours are long and if you just don’t get along you won’t want to spend that time together. We hit it off right at the beginning of Watchmen. I’ve told this story before but I’ll tell it again because I like it. The first time I ever met Zack, I didn’t know I was going in to talk to him about Watchmen. I only knew his work from Dawn of the Dead, I’d loved that movie but I’d forgotten that he was doing 300 because it hadn’t come out yet. I walked into his office and immediately I realised, when I saw the 300 stuff, that he was doing it and I saw some images from it, saw that he was really doing the Frank Miller look for this movie. I sat down and on his coffee table on front of me was a copy of Watchmen and a copy of Dark Knight Returns.

He came in and was a super-friendly guy. We’re close in age – I’m just a little older than he is – and he shook my hand and said “So, DJ, have you ever read Watchmen?” I said “Yes, I read it in 1987, a long time ago.” He asked “So, what do you think of it?”

And I thought for a moment, and I looked at both of the graphic novels on the table, and I said “You know, I really liked The Dark Knight Returns better.” He just laughed and said “I do too.” We talked about Batman and Frank Miller for an hour and then talked about Watchmen.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have an affinity for Watchmen, we did but for different reasons. The Dark Knight Returns is a very different novel to Watchmen, I think. There’s a lot you can take apart in Watchmen, and there are great ironies, all that great stuff. I loved working on that movie with Zack because he got all of that and he tried to put every bit of it into the movie.

I love physics and I love science but I love comic book physics more than anything. I first started reading comics back in the early 70s, I think. It’s funny to look at the evolution of science fiction comics writing. Just look at what Grant Morrison pulls off in just a sentence in a comic, where you think “Holy cow, you made that make sense to me. I don’t know if it’s real but it makes sense as I read it.” And that’s how we approached this movie. We tried to find the theories in the comics as to how Superman can do the things that he does and we then relate it to our own world. We look at a lot of visual reference, with actual objects like planes and things like that and how they end up flying. We try to incorporate the details that are compelling and visceral but which tell the story of what the mass of this object is, or how it is really operating. A good example is the mach cones we put around Superman as he is afterburning straight up. Another would be that, in the Smallville battle, when the characters are throwing punches, even those punches aren’t supersonic, we still play it that way, and we put one of those cones around the characters’ forearms, and there’s even a little heat friction on the front of the fist, it lights up a little bit. Almost subliminally when you’re watching the fight you think that these guys are moving with more density, more force and more velocity than they actually really would be. These are the details that help us believe the bigger thing, that these are superhuman beings that challenge whatever humans can do. We even put shockwaves in on the ground for when somebody hits somebody. In the Superman-Zod battle we have windows shatter when somebody hits somebody, to extend the force of those impacts.

A lot of the credit for the easter eggs hidden in the film goes to Ged Wright and his team over at Double Negative. I tasked them with putting interesting signs out in Metropolis. We always struggle with copyright and licensing so we needed as much non-real world signage as we could get. Double Negative created them, we vetted them and let them go through. There are the LexCorp. offices, WayneTech Industries, Utopia Casino, things that we don’t have time to tell a story about but it’s part of the texture of the world now.

I was working on Batman-Superman right before this interview, a lengthy discussion with Zack looking at a bunch of drawings he’d made on his whiteboard that charted some iconic representations of… well, of things we’re going to have to try and do.

Zack told me two weeks before Comic Con exactly how he was going to present the Batman announcement, and it was exactly the way he did present it. I got chills up my spine. What I want to get out of this movie is helping Zack tell a satisfying version of these characters, a version that nobody has seen on screen yet, but when audiences watch it they’re going to say “That’s what we always wanted to see but we hadn’t seen it yet.” Touch wood, because we have a long way to go, but the course is charted and we’re set to bring those ideas onto the screen, that something we haven’t seen before.

Thanks again to DJ for taking the time. I look forward to speaking with him again when the Batman-Superman movie rolls around.

Man of Steel is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and download. I watched it once more and enjoyed it all over again.

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