Have you seen Avengers: Infinity War yet? Well, if you have, then chances are you’ve also seen the work of Malaysian animator KahJeng Cheong, who is part of the special effects team that worked on the movie.
But even if you did, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, because Cheong’s job is to make sure that you don’t notice that he did anything in the first place.
“Most movies these days have a lot of CGI. You’d be surpised – a lot of things you think are not CG, actually are!” Cheong said during an interview at the Avengers: Infinity War media event in Singapore last month.
“The thing about my job is, if I do it correctly, then nobody would know I did anything! If I did it wrong, people would be able to point out that it’s computer-generated (CG). We are the invisible department!”
Hailing from Petaling Jaya, the 36-year-old is a creature technical director with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in Singapore.
“We have a team of about 20-30 people in the department, and we do simulations and character rigging. We put bones into characters that the animators can pick up on and animate.
“Then once they are done, we refine them further by adding clothing, wrinkles, hair, and muscles, and so on,” Cheong explained, adding that this includes everything from Thor’s cape, to Rocket Raccoon’s fur.
“On top of that, we also work with other things, like destruction. For example, when the Hulk crashes into a big building, and a lot of things are falling apart … we simulate everything to react to what Hulk is doing.
We add the finer details on top of the performances that have been driven by the animators.”
Cheong joined ILM in 2008, having studied animation and visual effects in Vancouver, Canada, straight out of secondary school.
“I grew up loving pop culture, video games and movies like Transformers, Voltron, Terminator, and it influenced what I wanted to do,” he recalled.
“Back in the 1990s, I watched a series called Movie Magic about special effects in movies, and I thought it would be really interesting to do things like that.”
After graduating, he returned to Malaysia for about two years before joining Lucasfilm in 2008.
He started off with Lucasfilm Animation on the Clone Wars animated series, before transitioning over to a full-length animated feature called Strange Magic, and then to live-action movies like World Of Warcraft, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Transformers: The Last Knight, Ready Player One, and Avengers: Infinity War.
Working on these big, highly-anticipated blockbusters doesn’t spoil the movie-going experience for him though.
According to him, the biggest challenge of his job is to make everything look real. “There is always a certain aspect of reality in what we do.
“For instance, Groot is plant-based, so I have to do research on how plants look and move, like the leaves and the branches on him.”
He also explained that the smallest, and sometimes seemingly insignificant details are the ones he has to pay the most attention to.
“Human eyes are very sensitive, and you can immediately tell when something is wrong. Even when something is only on screen for a micro-second, like the way a wrinkle forms on a shirt … without it, the scene wouldn’t look realistic,” he said.
“Before I started doing this, I kept thinking about why that matters. But when you add it all together, it really does, because that’s how you make a movie look good!”