Internationally acclaimed composer and visual effects artist, Mike Verta, has a truly generous reason for launching his online studio. Read on for his impressions on Hollywood success, paying it forward, and appreciating downtime
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Powhow: You recently offered your first hugely successful online session to mentor upcoming composers around the world, Settling the Score: The Nexus. Why was it important to you to offer coaching to other composers?

Mike Verta: Be the change… The tremendously helpful and rewarding master/apprentice days of old are long gone. We no longer have commonplace opportunities at studios and production companies to be writing music daily under the tutelage of seasoned pros, and then carrying that music into the next room to have it performed by world-class musicians. For most of us, this was the way our heroes learned to write. I wished for that sort of guidance so often while I was coming up… I decided, now that I have 20-plus years of experiential knowledge to impart, I would pay that dream forward. And nothing helps cement and organize one’s thoughts like having to teach them. So it’s a win-win.

Powhow: The Nexus focuses on the music. Your next session Settling the Score- Career 101: The Gameplan is all business. How did you get your big break in Hollywood and what’s your secret to staying so busy?

Mike Verta: Build it and They Will Come. It’s an illusion to think you’re going to muscle Hollywood into doing what you want. My break came by following the advice I give up-and-comers: Be good, and be everywhere. In the very beginning, your abilities come second to your clout, and you build clout by seeming to be everywhere, known to everyone. Sooner or later, one of the thousands of seeds you plant sprouts, and that’s your first break. To stay busy, do a great job and be fun to work with. Both of those qualities ensure the phone will continue to ring after the first time.

Powhow: Your designs are amazing too! Does the inspiration for your art come from the same place as the inspiration for your music? How does the process for creating your visual work differ?

Mike Verta: One of the core concepts I teach is the common language that is shared by artists and audiences alike. In the end, as an artist, once you understand how to relate to your audience – how to talk to them – it matters very little whether you’re speaking the language of music, visuals, scriptwriting, etc. The message is the same; the process is the same. A piece of music has composition, tone, and style. Visual pieces have composition, tone, and style. One paints with sounds, the other paints with light, but they draw upon the same skills and understanding to get their messages across.

Powhow: What projects are you excited about right now?

Mike Verta: As usual, ones that are under Non-Disclosure Agreements. But I can say that what I really enjoy is being able to work on pieces across a wide array of disciplines. At any given time, I will be writing a piece of music, doing some visual effects work, doing lectures and consulting, some sound design and mixing… it keeps things from becoming stagnant.  I usually find that when my music well is dry, my visual well is full and vice-versa. And sometimes dipping into one well helps fill another. And, again, each discipline informs the other, so there is a lot of crosstalk and inspiration to be handed around when the time comes.

Powhow: After a hard day, how do you like to unwind?

Mike Verta: I tell all my students: Don’t sit at home practicing your art 24 hours a day. If you don’t live your life, you’ll have nothing interesting to say through your art. So for me, the most relaxing things are not necessarily about unwinding, as much as they are about balance and contrast with my day-to-day. For example, working out is great – it’s so physical, versus the largely mental world of creating music. And getting together with friends and talking – just talking a lot – you know, writing music is a very solitary experience; I’m often by myself for days or weeks at a time. So those balancing moments of social interaction feel great, and welcome, and important. And doing them makes me feel complete, which is the essence of calm.

Powhow: How does your Online Studio differ from your podcasts and tutorials

Mike Verta: Obviously, the interactive aspect of it is key… the best communication is always bi-directional, and those in attendance actually shape, hone, and tailor the information precisely to their needs by interacting with me during the lesson. It’s far more effective and efficient than even the most well thought-out podcast could hope to be.

Sign up now to learn the ins and outs of the music business in Mike Verta’s Online Studio: http://www.powhow.com/classes/mike-verta

PowHow Interview

Interview: MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY Composer Mike Verta

Author: Steve Ryfle
Official Movie Site: Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy
Special Thanks to Jim M. Ballard

A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE

Tsuburaya Productions is touting their latest special effects extravanganza, MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY (Daikaiju Battoru Urutora Ginga Densetsu The Movie, 2009), as a rebirth for both the company and it’s long-running Ultraman franchise. The producers of the movie wanted a dramatic, Hollywood-style score to complement the updated visuals so they turned to an American composer, Mike Verta.

Mike Verta knew he wanted to make movie music after seeing the original STAR WARS at age five. He moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to become a film composer, but soon expanded into visual effects work as well. He established his own post-production company and has provided music, FX, sound design, and editorial work on a wide range of productions.

Mike has produced music and graphics for several Warner Bros. presentations at industry events such as ShoWest and Toy Fair, and also created the 3D Superman ‘S’ logo for Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). He has written and performed music for a number of commercials and trailers, an award-winning campaign for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, the Sci-Fi Channel movie HEATSTROKE (2008), the BATMAN: THE SIMULATOR RIDE at Six Flags’ MovieWorld Theme Parks, and two Lifetime Movie Network INSPECTOR MOM movies (2006-07) starring his wife, WONDER YEARS and THE WEST WING actress Danica McKellar. He has continued his lifelong interest in STAR WARS by creating a CG rendering of Artoo-Detoo for the book Star Wars Complete Visual Dictionary. For additional information on Mike’s work and career, visit his official site Mike Verta dot com.

MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY is Mike’s first soundtrack for a Japanese theatrical feature film. He recently spoke with SciFi Japan’s Steve Ryfle about his work on the film, his approach to movie music, and his crash course introduction to 40+ years of Ultraman history…

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot details for a new movie.

Steve Ryfle: How did you get the job of scoring MEGA MONSTER BATTLE: ULTRA GALAXY?

Mike Verta: I was hired by the producer, Junya Okabe. They were looking for a sound they felt they couldn’t get in Japan, and they needed to get an American composer. They chose me because I’d worked with the producer many years ago, 12 or 13 years ago. I had done a trilogy of films called DARK SOLDIER D (1998) for him. He was actually one of my first scoring clients for features. I had done those films for him, but hadn’t done anything for him since. It’s kind of funny but I thought he’d been upset with my work, which was why I never heard from him.

But as it turned out, a few months ago I just got a random e-mail from him, and he said, “actually I’ve just been looking for something that was big enough, because otherwise I thought you wouldn’t agree to do it.” In the meantime he had become vice president of Tsuburaya, and when this project came up his first thought was to attach me to the movie.

Steve Ryfle: You’ve previously worked on other Japanese productions, as well.

Mike Verta: There was the D trilogy that I did the music and sound design and mix for, and I did the sound design and mix for the American re-dub of COWBOY BEBOP (1999), and then there was a series called SOL BIANCA: THE LEGACY (1999) that I did American mixes for. Those three projects all happened back to back… So it looked like I was going to be doing a lot of work with Japanese production companies, but I ended up doing more American studio stuff.

Steve Ryfle: Do you have any personal affinity for this genre?

Mike Verta: No. You know, we saw a little bit of it on Saturday mornings when we were growing up, but I was never into the culture. I never read comic books, or had any knowledge of anime. I’ve just had really good luck. The first anime series I worked on was COWBOY BEBOP, and I absolutely loved it. It was one of those jobs where, even though I had work to do and deadlines to meet, I wanted to find out what was happening next. It was tremendously inspiring and fun. I became a fan of that series immediately.

The first martial arts film that I ever did sound design and music for was Koichi Sakamato’s WICKED GAME (2002), that he’d done with his stunt team, which is world-renowned; they’re unbelievable, which is why he’s gone on to do the POWER RANGERS, why he’s doing ULTRAMAN now, and why he gets asked to do fight coordination stuff, because they’re cutting edge. So in my first forays into these genres, I’ve been really fortunate to be associated with tremendous projects. So now my first live-action thing is ULTRAMAN. I just seem to have very good luck.

Steve Ryfle: Did you ever see the original ULTRAMAN series on television?

Mike Verta: I’d probably seen a few seconds of it, so when they said ULTRAMAN, I had a picture of it in my head but I did not know anything about it. And I did not understand how popular, and what an iconographic part of Japanese society Ultraman was until after I’d been hired for this job. As they sent me 40 years of ULTRAMAN, I suddenly realized, “This is huge!”

Steve Ryfle: How much freedom did you have in writing the score? Were you instructed to write in a certain style?

Mike Verta: This is a very important question. Koichi was hired to direct the movie because as a director, he is an almost ideal bridge between our two cultures. He’s fully Americanized, but he’s a native Japanese person. So what they wanted to do with this new movie is they wanted to have somebody Japanese directing it, who would keep it Japanese at its core, keep just those things that make cultural sense intact. But they wanted to elevate it in terms of production and in terms of that Hollywood component. So, because he’s worked here in the states so much, it was going to have more of a western edit to it, and they felt very strongly that it needed an American score. A lot of times, Japanese composers will do an approximation of that, to use their term, “big Hollywood sound,” but it’s not legit. Vice-versa, when Americans try to copy a Japanese project it’s never quite right because they’re never quite in the vibe.

So they wanted me to do what I do, and that was what the producers told me at our first meeting, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. They flew in and offered me the project, because, “We want you to do what you do.” That was Koichi’s feeling as well. The only thing they were absolutely clear about was, “Don’t try to write Japanese music; don’t try to write eastern music. That’s not what we want. We want that Hollywood sound.” So I was creatively in my comfort zone, which is good because the rest of the project—being in Japanese, being that it was material that I hadn’t grown up with, being that there were covered faces and I couldn’t see facial expressions and the whole thing was green screen—those things would prove to be very challenging to work with. So the fact that, at least musically and dramatically, I could count on my normal sensibilities was really important and helpful during the process.

Steve Ryfle: Even with this freedom, were you asked to listen to the music from past Ultraman iterations?

Mike Verta: I asked to listen to the music. They asked, “What do you want?” And I said, “I want the TV shows, and I want the movies, and I want to hear the musical legacy. I want to hear what’s been done before.” Because I knew immediately that, with a series with that much history, there are going to be characters that are going to make appearances in this movie, and however much we were going to make references or nods to them, or play their themes, it had to be informed by a knowledge of what it was. If there was something very distinctive in the music that I felt Ultraman simply couldn’t survive without, I would want to know that, and be able to incorporate that.

But that’s not what I found. I found that the music was largely western at its core, with eastern influences. That’s really how I’d describe the music. The original ULTRAMAN theme, it’s got tones of the BATMAN television show. When I listened to it, I thought, “What we’re doing here isn’t going to be radically different or much of a departure. It’s just going to be a little more romantic-era, orchestral than they’ve done to this point. A little bigger, a little more epic than they’ve done to this point.” That’s what they were looking for.

Watching a lot of these TV series, the theme songs would be pop songs and overall the tenor of the shows tended to be very light. Koichi was very, very clear that the tone for this movie was going to be more adult. It was going to be darker; everything was going to be taken more seriously. Even though it would still be for kids, it was definitely going to have a more adult sensibility to it. So musically we weren’t going to be going down the road of pop songs; that just wasn’t going to fit this film at all.

Steve Ryfle: In your score, do you quote any of the original Ultra themes?

Mike Verta: I do. I quote the original ULTRAMAN theme, and I quote the ULTRA SEVEN theme. MEBIUS gets a quote as well, and a couple of other little things that are buried deep in there that people will or will not notice. Certainly that was a discussion we had: We’re bringing all these Ultramen back. Should it be that every time we see them, we hear their theme? Well, that would become comical. It would lose its effectiveness. So there are a few key dramatic moments in the movie where you have to give Ultraman his theme, otherwise you’re missing the thrill button; it’s right there. I saved it for those moments where it’s going to be most effective and exciting. The rest of the time, you know, all the Ultramen are working together cooperatively, so there’s a cooperative Ultraman theme, which is as much the new character, Zero’s theme, as anybody’s. So, I built a new set of motifs for the film, with peppered quotations where appropriate.

With 100 monsters, weaving 100 themes together just wouldn’t make sense musically. There would be no core, unifying concept. I think a lot of times in the TV show, there’s the monster and there’s the character and they’re going to fight, and that’s the point. So let’s have their themes, let’s have them fight, and everybody’s going to walk away, and that’s fine. In this movie, the monsters and characters, and all their legacy, are wrapped up in a very compelling story, and the arc of that story is what drives the music. It’s not simply, “Here comes the monster, and here comes Mebius to fight him.” It’s that the particular fight between these two characters carries with it this dramatic moment. That’s more of what drives the music rather than simply, “Here’s a new character, time for a new theme.” There had to be a dramatic musical throughline to carry the whole story together. In that way, certainly the music is going to be different.

This film is very different than what’s come before. There hasn’t been an ULTRAMAN film that looks like this; in fact I don’t know if there’s any film in the genre that looks like this. The production design has gone way up and the dramatic approach is very different. I think it hits exactly the right notes, where the core is totally intact but it’s doing something that just isn’t going back to the well in the same way.

Steve Ryfle: In Japanese productions, the schedule can be notoriously short compared to Hollywood films. How much time did you have to do your work?

Mike Verta: I was hired in May or June. This was the fastest I’ve ever, ever, ever worked by far. And that’s true for everybody on the production, as far as I could tell. I wrote 84 minutes of music for this film. Generally that’s a 10-week job, but I did it in five weeks. I have never worked so quickly, ever in my life. But it was really challenging and fun. When you have to work that quickly you have no time to second-guess your instincts. That can really help you focus, because you have to get that music out. Your first idea is probably right, and that schedule compels you to run with it. So it’s exhilarating and inspiring, but I don’t think I could do more than a couple of these projects in a year. Basically I didn’t sleep for five weeks. [laughs]

Steve Ryfle: What materials were you given to work with?

Mike Verta: I was given storyboards, concept drawings, and an early version of the script, which would change. When I first started, I didn’t know what to do. Everybody was wearing helmets. I couldn’t see their faces. When I write music, I listen to every word; I watch the characters’ eyes and listen to the tone of their voices. All of those things tell me how to write the music. In this case, they had helmets on, their eyes were glowing, I couldn’t understand anything they said, the script was old and outdated, and the characters were sitting in a green box the entire time—I had no idea where they were. It was really an abstract environment and very difficult to get anything done.

But as soon as they started adding backgrounds—every Friday they would send me a new cut of the film with more of the backgrounds added in. And every day I would call Koichi, multiple times, in Japan and I would say, “What’s happening here? What is this person saying?” And I would ask him, right down to the word, “What’s the word when he says so-and-so. I need to know what’s happening at that exact moment.” So we were on the phone constantly, and between those conversations and the updated scripts, and every Friday seeing more and more of the film—”Oh, they’re on an ice planet!”—the film started to take shape and it got easier and easier to write.

That’s unheard of, for a company to update with visual effects shots every week. I’ve never seen that before. And by the end of the project, I was working with a locked picture, with all the effects in it, and I made my final adjustments. That’s an unheard-of luxury. So even though it started out really difficult and abstract, it was an ideal circumstance by the end.

Steve Ryfle: By the time the picture was locked, how much tweaking did you need to finalize your score, and how much time did you have to do it?

Mike Verta: Just a couple of days, because we’d had such informative and deep discussions as we went along. Those things at the end were like, “Oh, the monster actually shot a laser there—I thought he was just screaming!” Sometimes the monster would open his mouth and I thought it was a roar. Of course, I’ll write different music depending on what’s anticipated to be in the mix with it, from a sound design standpoint. Sometimes I’m staying out of the frequency range or volume range that I know is going to interfere. It’s not until the very end that they put in the laser beams and that sort of thing, so there were a few things where I thought, “I’m going to be stepping all over that laser beam, so let’s change the music here a little bit.”

Also, at the very end of the movie, the ex-prime minister’s [Junichiro Koizumi] voice was added, and the voice actor who had done it on the temp track was completely different; he had nowhere near the same quality of voice as the actor in the final version. So I had to change the orchestration around the prime minister’s voice a little bit just because of the nature of the way he speaks. I think that was the last thing I did, was to adjust the music underneath the Ultraman King as he speaks.

Steve Ryfle: What was the most difficult scene to score?

Mike Verta: Wow. I don’t know if it counts as a scene. It’s the main title theme that accompanies the opening credits sequence. That was the hardest thing for me to find in the movie, which is typical. It’s also Ultraman Zero’s theme. For a long time, the middle of the picture and the end of the picture I had locked down, because there’s a lot of drama in there that I understood. But when Zero finally becomes the hero, which was going to be the main title for the movie, that eluded me for the bulk of the process.

It was just somewhere in that last little quarter that I found the tone that was going to match Zero, because Zero’s almost a bit of an antihero. You look at those eyes, and they’re slanted down a little bit; he’s a little angry looking. In the movie, without giving away too much, his motivations are not purely light and heroic. He needed a powerful theme and it took a while to find it. So the last scene that I wrote is the first scene of the movie. It was at that point I thought, “OK, I know what’s coming and I know how dramatic this is going to get, and we can’t burn people out too early. But we also need to set up what this movie is really going to be all about.” So the main title is the second to last thing I wrote. The movie opens with a scene, and that opening scene was the last thing I wrote, because at that point I knew what to warm people up with, and how not to give too much away, but also how to set up what was coming for the next 90 minutes.

Steve Ryfle: Are there any advantages to writing the score out-of-sequence?

Mike Verta: I approach a film score like a symphony. A lot of times film scores tend to be individual cues that serve the needs of their scenes, but taken all together they don’t describe a complete, interwoven musical story. That’s very important to me; I think it’s the hallmark of a good score.

In this film, a 90-minute film with 84 minutes of music, there are very few breaks without music, so it is like these long symphonic movements that follow and tell the story. And because there are these long movements, it is easier if you can do it sequentially because that way it’s just like telling a story; it’s very difficult to tell a story from the middle first. I tried to begin by writing that opening scene—I wrote a version of it, but not a note of it stayed because by the time I got into the parts of the film that I knew were going to stay, it no longer made any sense. I had written the first five minutes of the film and kept one minute of it by the time I was finished. That’s the nature of the beast. In context, I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

Steve Ryfle: Where did you find inspiration to write the kind of music that’s required for a giant-monster movie?

Mike Verta: My process is as much an empathetic and sympathetic, emotional place as any actor would have to go in order to realize a character. Turning something abstract like emotion into something tangible like music is a unique process in and of itself; I don’t know exactly how it works, but I know when it works because we all respond to music in some common ways to some degree. We all know what heartstring-pulling music is, and what adrenaline-pumping music is. The question becomes, “What does this scene need?” And usually for me, I attempt to internalize the emotions of the characters that are speaking in an empathetic way. That’s my first process.

And my second process is I imagine myself sitting in that theater seat, eating popcorn. What do I want to be feeling? Do I want to be surprised? Do I want to know what’s happening or off-guard, not knowing what’s happening? So it’s this back-and-forth emotional modeling of both the characters on screen and the audience members. When I feel I know emotionally what’s actually happening there, then the process of turning that into music—well, that’s what I do. But unless I know how everyone is supposed to feel, I can’t write a note. How would I know which notes to choose? It could be anything. It’s an emotionally exhausting process for me.

My wife is an actress, and she and I have talked about how our processes are identical, at least in this regard. And similarly fatiguing. After 17 hours of being a citizen running around in a collapsing city, you’re tired. [laughs] I can’t score intense scenes back to back because I can’t deal with it. I have to sometimes give myself a break. What’s happening in this scene? “They’re discussing where to land the ship—OK, I can deal with that.” But in a movie where 100 monsters are attacking and cities are collapsing and the world’s been plunged into ice—if you want to maintain the proper level emotional commitment, you have to take it in chunks, because it’s a lot to handle. But, the result is that first 20 minutes of the film, that first act, when it finally comes to a close the audience is going to take its first breath. It’s a very powerful experience, and that’s what we’ve crafted. The film holds these really high levels of emotional involvement with these much-desperately needed breaks from it. It’s a very satisfying ride in that regard.

Steve Ryfle: How and where was the score recorded?

Mike Verta: This score was produced virtually. We didn’t use live musicians this time. It was a budgetary concern. Having done mostly live stuff in my career, I don’t know if I could have logistically pulled off 84 minutes of this size orchestra on paper and recorded it. It would have taken a week to record that. I mean, I was still writing on the day we were mixing the score.

So it was produced virtually. The virtual orchestra is something I’ve been doing my whole life. And just to make sure it worked out, I brought in Shawn Murphy [JURASSIC PARK, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN] to mix it. He’s one of the finest score mixers anywhere in the world, Academy Award winning, and he definitely helped the score to sound dramatic and convincing.

Steve Ryfle: What sort of a setup do you have in your studio?

Mike Verta: I just have a giant array of Mac computers, a ProTools system, and Gigastudio PC’s that are just loaded with samples. I had to use everything I have in order to get this score done because the kind of orchestral music I write tends to use the whole palette. I like a lot of instrumentation, a lot of colors. Technically, it was this giant rig that I had to build for the movie. But by the time it was set up, there was nothing I wanted to reach for that I didn’t have.

I performed every part. Three flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, all the brass—I had to perform every part by hand. All the string parts. An 84-minute score with typically 90-something people’s worth of parts. And you have to perform a virtual oboe like a real oboe—it’s got to have expression. Often it would be the case where it’d be five o’clock in the morning, and I’d been up for 20-something hours, and I was trying to perform the most delicate passage, and I’m just fighting fatigue. It was a singularly unique experience.

Steve Ryfle: Did you consider bringing in other musicians to help you complete the project?

Mike Verta: What would take more time—getting another musician here, and writing out their parts, or doing it myself? There was not that kind of time. There are a lot of things in the score that are not just first instincts, they’re first performances. I would clean them up if they were not quite right, but it was this Zen-like practice of on-the-fly orchestration. But that’s where I lean on 30 years of training and orchestration study to save me. I don’t have to think for a second, “Should this be doubled on trombones?” I know exactly what it should be, so it’s just a matter of playing it. If not for that, there’s no way it would have happened.

At the end, when the score was completed and ready for mixing, we had this big, 96-track session which I put onto a hard drive and we mixed it at James Newton Howard’s [composer for KING KONG and THE DARK KNIGHT] place. Shawn just pulled up the whole session on a ProTools rig over there and mixed it in 5.1. Then we FTP’d the 5.1 mix stems to Japan that night, and they dropped them into the film. We did the same thing when we did the stereo mixdown for the soundtrack—we bounced down the stereo mixes, FTP’d them to Japan, and Sony mastered them and produced the CD.

Steve Ryfle: As you’ve said, Ultraman is an icon with a rich history and a fan base that’s steeped in that history. How do you expect the new film, and your music, to be received?

Mike Verta: That was right in the forefront of my mind. When the original Ultraman [Susumu Kurobe as Hayata] and the original Ultra Seven actor [Koji Moritsugu as Dan Moroboshi] are in the movie, the gravitas that their presence needed to be treated with definitely weighed on my mind, because the fans are going to go nuts when they see these guys. As I was trying to connect to that, I thought about STAR TREK, another 40-year-old franchise. If they’d gotten Shatner and Nimoy to come back, people would’ve gone nuts. That’s one thing this film does very well. It keeps its historic core together and it brings back these guys, not just in cute little cameos but they’re central to the film. The film takes a new approach but it’s respectful to the past. I tried to take that same approach with the score. I’m excited to see it with an audience and hear everyone’s reaction.

SciFi Japan Interview

Mike Verta Talks Superman’s Shield

by Chris Mason
April 28, 2005

Recently SHH! brought you the EXCLUSIVE on the Superman Returns ‘shield’ from Warner Bros. and fans went crazy for it! The Hype managed to track down one of the talented artists behind the shield’s 3D look, MIKE VERTA. We asked Mike a few questions via the ‘inter-web’ about his work on the Man of Steel’s upcoming return to film, as well his adventures in Hollywood as a visual effects man and his brush with the caped crusader.

SHH!: Mike, welcome to the HYPE – What is your background, how did you get started in the FX business?
Mike Verta
: Well, I started out purely as a film and television composer, and visual effects was just a hobby. But shortly after I came out to Los Angeles in 1990, some opportunities came up to do visual effects professionally, and suddenly I had a second career. Eventually I opened my own post-production company, where I’ve been able to write music, do visual effects, sound design, editing, and serve as a director on a wide variety of projects for the studios, going on 12 years now.

SHH!: What got you interested in doing what you do?
Mike Verta
: STAR WARS. It was the first film I ever saw – I was 5 years old – and I quite literally came out of the theater knowing I wanted to write music for the movies for a living. A few months later I began taking piano lessons. The visual effects stuff definitely came later, but it satisfies my inner geek in ways music can’t. I remember my first CG projects were all Star Wars ships just flying around in the computer; I thought that was so cool. Come to think of it, a lot of my personal CG projects are STILL Star Wars ships flying around.

SHH!: You were recently asked by Warner Bros. to work on the shield for SUPERMAN RETURNS, how did that come about?
Mike Verta
: The job had fallen to Warner Bros.’ internal art department to produce some logos, and since I’ve done so much freelance stuff for them over the years, they called and asked if I could do it up in 3D. They knew the logo was going to be shiny metal of some sort, and that would’ve been difficult to draw by hand, so they opted to have me produce it in CG, with accurate reflective properties and lighting.

SHH!: What sort of input did Warner Bros & Bryan Singer have on the design of the ‘S’ shield?
Mike Verta
: I didn’t design the ‘S’ – that was done by Bryan Singer and film’s production design department. I was responsible for translating it into 3D. WB sent me a jpeg of the costume torso and asked me to produce several variations on the look of the material.

SHH!: How did you create the SR shield in 3D?
Mike Verta
: I began by modeling it in 3D in a package called Rhino – it was a pretty rough model, but enough for me to begin the texture and lighting work on it in Maya, while a friend of mine, Bill Tromans took the geometry to the next level. Because it was going to have reflections all over the surface, we treated it like an auto body, which meant the surfaces had to be absolutely precise in curvature continuity. It was extremely difficult, but it came out beautifully.

SHH!: What was your reaction when it was officially released?
Mike Verta
: I hadn’t heard it was going to be released! I was reading posts on another board and someone posted this huge screenshot of the logo and I just about freaked. See, the work was produced under the strictest security, obviously, and I was liable for that sort of thing, so I called up WB in a panic… but of course they were completely calm on the other end of the phone saying, “Oh yeah, we released it…” but it was a rough few minutes there.

SHH!: You’ve worked on a lot of Hollywood projects over the years, what have been your most satisfying and challenging?
Mike Verta
: Well, musically, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Batman – The Simulator Ride, and the first full-length film score I did with a live orchestra. The Batman ride was challenging because the bar had been set high, and I was required to quote the 1989 theme, (by Danny Elfman) while still composing original music around it that blended seamlessly. The film I did Forbidden Warrior – it was an epic martial-arts fantasy – required me to write 89 minutes of music in just over 6 weeks… and I was working with the same orchestra John Williams uses, with the same engineer, so I really felt a lot of pressure to do it right. Visually, the teaser trailer I did for the first Scooby-Doo movie stands out in my mind. (a spoof of the Batman) It had to be produced very quickly, and it was just me and one other guy. He would be modeling geometry in one room, while I was running back and forth between two workstations animating, editing, compositing, and working on the sound design. But I think the final product came out pretty cool… The one thing that makes all the projects I’ve worked on especially challenging is the schedule. You have to produce A-quality work on command, almost instantaneously. You learn to be fast, to develop solid first instincts, and not to let the pressure of insane deadlines get to you. Those are absolutely crucial skills to have if you want to survive in the industry. Plus, you’re competing with top-notch people in every field, so obviously you need to have your craft together.

SHH!: How does it feel that the work you did on the Superman Returns shield will now be part of the Superman mythos?
Mike Verta
: Well, whether you’re a fan or not (I am), Superman is truly an American icon, so I’m very proud to be a part of it. And I’m also a fan of Bryan Singer’s work, so that’s a great pleasure as well.

SHH!: How many different designs did you do for the ‘S’ shield?
Mike Verta
: I didn’t design the shield logo. I did several chrome versions, a glass version, 2 red and yellow metal versions,(one with a shiny surface and one with a more “satin” finish), 2 plastic-looking ones, and a black metal version. Those were sent to Warner Bros. for some additional paint work by Jon Sparrman before being presented to Bryan.

SHH!: Now that the Superman Returns suit has gone public what are your thoughts on the final costume?
Mike Verta
: Well, I’d seen a close-up of the torso already, and I thought the material that it’s made of looked really cool, sort of like rubber dodge-balls do, with diamond-shaped indentations on it. And the shield itself has what looks like little mini “S” shaped indentations in it… very nice. Of course I could tell the color palette was different right away, and I remember thinking there’s a lot more to this Superman than just another guy in a blue suit. You have to remember that no element of a film is an island. The costume is part of the character, who’s part of the story, that’s part of the drama, and all those elements work together in very specific ways. There were some very careful decisions made about how the costume would appear, and I can’t wait to see how it all works together.

SHH!: You not only create elaborate visual effects, you are also an accomplished musician. How does music differ from visual effects?
Mike Verta
: In my mind, they come from two different places, but they are essentially the same, both require composition and balance, and creative vision; both are effective in telling a dramatic story. When you work visually, you have a palette of colors to choose from; in music, you have a palette of notes and instruments to choose from. I’ve been amazed at how much I learn about music from doing visual effects, and vice-versa. They’re very similar. Perhaps that’s why the combination of music and visuals has made film such a lasting and powerful dramatic medium…

SHH!: You mentioned the BATMAN theme park ride, what was that like and what did you do?
Mike Verta
: I not only wrote the music for the ride, I also did the sound design and the surround mix, which meant flying to Canada and Australia and spending 8 hours a day for 2 weeks bouncing around in simulator cabins. I won’t forget that anytime soon, I can assure you. Creatively, it’s Batman, so there was a lot of pressure to represent the legacy well, and some unusual creative challenges, like writing in the style of Elfman’s 1989 score while still creating original music and themes for the characters. But nothing beats standing in front of a 95-piece orchestra of the finest musicians on Earth and hearing your own music being played…

SHH!: One Star Wars fan to another, who shot first Han or Greedo?
Mike Verta
: For the answer to these and other riveting questions, check out my site at: StarWarsLegacy.com. But for the record, Han not only shot first, but he shot Greedo in the balls.

Superhero Hype Interview