What drives people to work in the visual effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of VFX professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into visual effects?”
Here are the responses from the staff at Animal Logic.
Getting Animated About Visual Effects
Visual effects and animation go hand in hand, so it’s not surprising to find animated films ranking high on the Animal Logic inspiration leaderboard.
“It was the animated shorts produced at the National Film Board of Canada that inspired me the most,” asserted head of animation Rob Coleman. “I loved the variety of techniques and artistry: Norman McLaren’s techniques of scratching on black leader and painting directly on to film; Co Hoedeman’s combination of sand animation and stop-motion puppets; Caroline Leaf’s paint-on-glass animation; and the hand-drawn films of Paul Driessen, Zlatko Grgić and Kaj Pindal.”
Watch Co Hoedeman’s 1977 Academy Award-winning animated short The Sand Castle:
The Sand Castle by Co Hoedeman, National Film Board of Canada
Coleman added, “Films which combined live-action and animation – Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – had a huge effect on me, and directly inspired me to be an animator working in visual effects. For me, there is something truly magical about seeing a real person interacting with an animated character.”
For this scene in which Roger Rabbit emerges from the sink of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), physical effects supervisor George Gibbs rigged a spout to pop up and spray a stream of water. Richard Williams’s animation team worked over photographic prints – one for each frame of film – after which the optical department at ILM added tone and shadow mattes, and composited the multitude of elements.
Khai Tuck Wong, digital artist (lighting), was inspired by a whole bunch of animated shows from screens both big and small:
“I grew up with all the 80s cartoon series. My all-time favourites were ThunderCats, SilverHawks, The Transformers and The Smurfs. Other favourites included the Disney 2D animated classics. At university, I was introduced to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and was blown away. Every single frame of the movie is a work of art. That led me to Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. They inspired me to major in film and animation.”
To get his creative juices flowing, Steve Agland, lead look development TD (lighting), looks to an oft-overlooked branch of animation. “One of my inspirations has been the (now rarely-seen) animation tradition of taking a great piece of music and animating a story to it,” Agland remarked. “Classic examples are, of course, Disney’s Fantasia, Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo, and the Warner Bros shorts like Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc?”
Warming to his subject, Agland went on, “These works let the music drive and inspire the story, and like many creative constraints, this always takes the animation in interesting directions. It also adds a new dimension to the music itself, and a new way to enjoy it. I suppose music videos are the main outlet for this sort of work now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that’s an area still very rich in both artistic and technical creativity.”
Let Me Tell You a Story
Most motion pictures start with a story. So do many of the people who work in visual effects.
“I’ve always been interested in stories,” agreed Ingrid Johnston, head of production at Animal Logic. “Through my studies, I also developed a passion for art – particularly photography and design. Completing a media degree with a focus on emerging technologies, and working on multiple independent theatre productions and shows at the same time, I realised producing was for me. VFX and animation was a natural progression combining all the things I love. Now I get to work with an amazingly talented group of people producing beautiful images and telling great stories. Where else would I want to be?!”
Equally inspired by storytime, Jarrod Anderson, digital artist (animation), recalled some of his earliest childhood memories.
“When I was young, we had a papier mâché dragon that hung from our bedroom ceiling,” Anderson remembered. “At night, our parents would tell us these incredible stories using just the dragon – flying it around the room and telling us about the lands and the people it visited. It all felt so real, and I was just fixated on this one model, this one storytelling tool.”
Draco, Industrial Light & Magic’s digital star of “Dragonheart”, reacts strongly to the suggestion that dragons are made of papier mâché.
Anderson identifies a clear connection between those bedtime stories and the work he does today: “Having the tools to bring that sort of imagery and imagination to life is exactly why I dived into VFX. Seeing audiences laugh, cry and cheer for characters and creatures that don’t exist in real life is a fantastic feeling, and I love seeing what can be done with our ‘papier mâché’ today.”
When Art Meets Science
The balance of art and science in visual effects is something we’ve explored on this blog before. Will Reichelt, VFX supervisor, has been aware of the relationship between the two since his earliest years.
“With a scientist for a father and a teacher for a mother, I was soaked in technology, computers, games and graphics from a young age,” Reichelt noted. “When I discovered 3D animation at university, a light bulb went off with the realisation that what excited me most was the intertwining of art and technology.”
Aidan Sarsfield, head of production technology, managed to merge his apparently disparate interests into a single career path.
“Emerging from school with a seemingly unique interest in maths and art, I ended up in the only degree that seemed to fit: industrial design,” Sarsfield commented. “It was here that I discovered the fantastic work of Syd Mead, an industrial designer who had made a move into film with Blade Runner. His groundbreaking and visionary designs not only defined the futuristic worlds presented to us in movie theatres, they came alive unlike anything I’d seen before. I was convinced that film was a place where the imagination could truly be realised. The work of other designers like Ron Cobb and Chris Foss seemed to add weight to this idea.”
The urban environments of sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” were conceived by futurist and industrial designer Syd Mead.
Byte-Sized Baby Steps
One of the areas where art and science seem naturally to merge is technology. Indeed, many of today’s visual effects professionals gained speed by riding the wave of the digital revolution.
“When I was ten, I watched a TV documentary about how computers were going to affect us in the future,” recalled executive producer Luke Hetherington. “It showed Silicon Graphics computers displaying a 3D wireframe model of a procedurally-generated tree. The camera was tumbling around the tree, and they were describing how they were free to make it into whatever they wanted. It struck a chord with me: the idea of a blank digital canvas where you could make anything you could think up, and it didn’t run out like our pens and pencils always did!”
Inspired by the possibilities, Hetherington got stuck in. “I started learning how to programme animated binary sprites in BASIC on my Commodore 16, and knew that one day I’d get my hands on one of those Silicon Graphics setups. It was ten years before I got on to one and started to make animations and CG shorts. This was in the mid-1990s, so a lot of what was happening was being seen for the first time. Then Toy Story came along, and suddenly the whole world understood what we were all so excited about!”
Aidan Sarsfield also shared some fond memories from the early days of computing: “Luckily for me, computers, CAD and early CGI started to become accessible while I studied, and I jumped at the opportunity to begin digitally modelling and rendering some of my work rather than building it in the workshop. Suddenly I could present convincing, moving images of designs which had no basis in reality … and that’s where the journey began!”
Most enthusiastic of all was Matthew Estela, digital artist (lighting), whose trip down Micro-Memory Lane prompted total recall of a formative – and psychedelic – creative experience.
“I could claim my inspiration was Chuck Jones,” Estela mused. “Or I could claim it was Tron, which also hooked me. But really it was a single paragraph in an Amiga magazine.
“The Amiga was a brilliant home computer from the mid 1980s. One of its tricks was swapping colours rapidly – you could have an image of a rainbow on screen, and red would change to orange, orange to yellow, yellow to green, and so on. Do that at 30 frames per second and you’d get a pulsing, trippy rainbow. Big deal. It also had a great simple paint program – Deluxe Paint – which is still talked about in wistful terms today.
Get nostalgic with this online edition of the September 1991 edition of Amiga Format:
“This article I read had lots of tips and tricks for Deluxe Paint. Most were rubbish, but one caught my eye: make a new painting and set the palette to 32 colours, making 31 of those colours black and one white. Then set up a paintbrush like a roller so that, as you drew, it would lay down 31 black pixels and one white. When you hit “Tab” the colours would cycle, and the white dots scattered around the screen would dance along the lines you’d drawn. I was instantly hooked. The realisation that computers could make moving pictures blew my pre-teen mind. More than that – I myself could make moving pictures. I’d spend hours making pixels wriggle about, cross back over themselves, until the entire screen was filled with writhing, wiggling dots.
“It’s not by accident that one of the first things I learned to do in Houdini, over 25 years later, was make dots follow lines and wriggle about. Thanks Amiga! Thanks Deluxe Paint!”
Watch a video demonstrating the sort of images Matthew Estela used to burn his retinas with:
All in the Chemistry
Before the digital wave broke, filmmakers and photographers lived in a roll-your-sleeves-up world of chemicals and splicing tape. For some of the staff at Animal Logic, the old-school bell still rings loud and true.
“I have loved movies as far back as I can remember,” reflected Rob Coleman. “I vividly recall being very young and watching my dad thread a reel of 16mm film into a home movie projector. I could see the individual frames on the film, and remember the wonder of watching them come to life as they were projected on the screen at 24 frames per second. I wanted to make pictures move.”
Will Reichelt is another sucker for tradition. “When younger, I developed a deep love of traditional photography,” he commented. “Particular heroes were reportage photographers like Tim Hetherington, the incredible portraiture of Annie Liebowitz, and unique talents such as Gregory Crewdson who can tell a complex story with a single image. This art form is still extremely inspiring to me – I’m obsessed with learning more about how I can get better at it and integrate what I’ve learned into my work in visual effects.”
Watch a trailer for Which Way is the Front Line from Here? – Sebastian Junger’s 2013 documentary about the life of photojournalist Tim Hetherington:
For some of the staff at Animal Logic, early-years learning started really early.
“When I was just a wee primary school kid, I made home movies with my brothers,” recalled Matt Roe, digital artist (roto). “They eventually got sick of it, but I didn’t. Then one of my high school teachers gave me a copy of Adobe AfterEffects. After watching lots of behind the scenes segments on DVD, and watching YouTubers like Freddie Wong, Corridor Digital and Rooster Teeth, I thought I’d try turning a hobby into a career.”
As a small child, Dudley Birch, digital artist (matte painting), was a big fan of Disney animated features … but not in the way you might think. “Rather than watching the princesses (yawn) or the princes (goodie-goodies), it was the environments that I enjoyed,” Birch confessed. “Castles, jungles, beautiful skies, echoing chasms … that was all I really noticed. Twenty-five years later, I discovered that all that stuff had a name – matte painting – and that was that. All my interests were rolled into the perfect career. Painting degree specialising in landscape? Check. Love of technology? Check. The wonder of illusions, making a 2D image look real? Check!”
It was one Disney film in particular that appealed to Kirsty Millar, VFX supervisor, even if she did experience it on one of the smallest screens imaginable. “I think the first thing that sparked something for me was looking at 101 Dalmatians on a View-Master as a child in the 1970s,” Millar remarked.
If only to prove the eclectic way in which a visual effects professional’s mind gathers its inspiration, Millar added, “The opening title sequence from Red Dwarf was another ‘Aha!’ moment for me – something about the way it starts framed close on this guy painting, and then the camera pulls out wide to reveal a massive spaceship.”
From a very young age, Daniel Scott, R&D support engineer, always dreamed of … well, throwing himself off buildings.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to work in film, though I didn’t know at first what exactly my role would be,” Scott explained. “I thought being an actor sounded cool, but I never saw myself in front of a camera. When I heard about a breed of people who throw themselves down stairs, set themselves on fire and jump out of buildings, I though, ‘Yeah, stunts are where the real action is!” The danger didn’t put me off, although it did require a physique I later lost as an adult! Then, in the late 1990s, I heard a new phrase being thrown about and thought, ‘What about digi-doubles as a career?’”
A Culture of Creativity
Whatever spark it is that ignites the flame, many of the staff at Animal Logic agree that being surrounded by talented people is what really fans the creative fires.
“I still love that flash of inspiration, and developing the germ of an idea into something somebody else can enjoy,” enthused Matthew Everitt, animation director. “And I get to do it in an amazingly collaborative environment, with a crew of like-minded people, which makes the whole thing so much better.”
Will Reichelt reflected on the importance of teamwork throughout the entire filmmaking process. “I’m fascinated by the alchemy of how all the different parts of a movie – photography, set design, make-up, costuming, music and visual effects – can combine to become a living, breathing story with a mood and atmosphere that goes beyond the original components. It’s the greatest thrill to be able to collaborate with world-class filmmakers and work on a small part of a piece of art that requires so much hard work from all manner of artisans and technicians across so many disciplines.”
Looking back at her early years, Kirsty Millar observed, “As a junior compositor working in London, I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by talented and inspiring people. John Hollis showed me how he could start with a completely blank canvas and create brilliant visuals. There were also incredible technical breakthroughs in the creative tools available to digital artists around that time – it was amazing to witness the dawn of digital filmmaking.”
Khai Tuck Wong recalled an inspirational tutor: “At the age of thirteen I had a great fine art teacher, Mr Ang, who taught me every Saturday for three years. He was a real personal inspiration and mentor who helped me take my painting to another level.”
For Madeleine Purdy, production assistant, the benefits of collaboration extend across the whole planet. “The internet is my main inspiration,” Purdy commented. “For me, it illustrates the fact that the enormity of the human cultural world depends upon innumerable tiny (and individually inconsequential) human actions, moments and words. Working in visual effects feels like making a million micro-steps every day, until you look back on what those million tiny moments have become. Learning the minutiae of the process of moviemaking is how I plan to understand the unfathomably huge world of stories around me.”
Cows and Naked Politicians
When asked what inspired him to become an animator, Matthew Everitt, animation director, replied: “Cows!”
A little prompting encouraged Everitt to elaborate:
“Actually, it was a cartoon showing four cows in a field, stood upright on their hind legs, hands on hips, like humans. One cow yells, ‘Car!’ upon which the cows all revert to standard quadruped, cow-like behaviour as the car passes. With the car gone, the cows all stand upright on two legs again.
“This cartoon, and others from The Far Side by Gary Larson, inspired the teenage me to start drawing my own, single panel cartoons. I bombarded publishers with my jokes and waited … and waited … Eventually a publisher sent back a ‘thank you’ note and actual, proper money! Nearly £100 for a joke that I’d made materialise out of my brain! This was a light-bulb moment for me – it made me realise that my creativity was worthless unless I shared it.
“I carried on drawing cartoons and selling them, then I began making flip-books and little films. I went on to study traditional animation with a marvellous teacher named Peter Parr, and from there I’ve spent the last 20 years animating for computer games, commercials, music videos and movies.”
For Daniel Scott, R&D support engineer, inspiration came not from boisterous bovines, but a naked politician.
“In the late 1990s, our local paper published an article about ‘retouching photos’ – this was before ‘to Photoshop’ had been coined as a verb,” Scott explained. “It showed an image of a local politician at a rally which had been retouched to remove his business suit … leaving him in his birthday suit! The article highlighted the lack of trust in photos given as evidence in a court of law. It inspired me to get into Adobe Photoshop and graphic design, which eventually led me to the VFX industry.”
The Final Word
Everyone has their heroes. Donald Walker, digital artist, has five:
“I was inspired by Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Roger Rabbit and Marty McFly. Oh, and Hudson from Aliens.”
Watch Animal Logic’s 1991-2014 showreel:
Established in 1991, Animal Logic has offices in Sydney, Los Angeles and Vancouver, with divisions specialising in VFX, animation and feature film development. Its motion picture work includes visual effects and animation for Babe, The Matrix, 300, Happy Feet and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Following its success with The Lego® Movie, Animal Logic’s animation division is currently in production on Lego Batman and Lego Ninjago. Thanks to all the staff from Animal Logic who contributed to this article.
Special thanks to Mark Millar. Who Framed Roger Rabbit photograph copyright © 1988 by Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment. Blade Runner photographs copyright © 1982 by The Ladd Company. Commodore 16 photograph by Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons. View-Master photograph by ThePassenger via Wikimedia Commons.