About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Dennis Muren – Still Playing it Unsafe

Dennis Muren - Still Playing it Unsafe

Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor and creative director at Industrial Light & Magic, will close VIEW Conference 2018 on Friday 26 October with an hour-long keynote presentation entitled Visual Effects: Defining that Critical, Elusive and Final 5%. During his career, Muren has collected nine Academy Awards honoring his contribution to films including Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. A key member of the ILM leadership team, he now collaborates with ILM’s supervisors on every film handled by the company. During the conference, Cinefex chatted with Dennis about the past, present and future of visual effects.

CINEFEX: So, Dennis, what do you mean when you talk about the “critical, elusive and final five percent” in visual effects?

DENNIS MUREN: Here’s what the five percent is. It’s when you spend so much time working on something, and you think it’s done, but there’s still something wrong. In the past, you might have had a matte painting, and it just looked like a painting. Then someone would get the idea of putting the silhouette of a tree in the foreground with the leaves blowing, and that was a solution. Or take the T-rex from Jurassic Park. It steps in the puddle and we added a splash of water. Well, that wasn’t planned. Later on, we said, “It’s raining, so let’s put a splash there.”

Now, my theory is that all that has basically become obsolete, because everyone’s work has come up to a level of being pretty close to real. There’s nothing to fix any more, not like there used to be.

CINEFEX: So where does the five percent fit in now?

DENNIS MUREN: I think that now the five percent has to happen at the beginning, and not at the end. The production people might say, “They’re running through a forest, but we only have room to build 12 trees. So we’re gonna do this whole scene greenscreen and you can put the rest in, right?” Now, we can do that – there’s phenomenal work like that being done all the time – but doing it that way affects the acting, the photography, the drama, the whole story, because the forest is too sparse, and nature is just incredibly complicated. It’s like having a bad actor. You’re getting the lines and you know how the plot’s moving forward, but you’re not getting any inflexion. So why not take that one little extra step to shoot as much for real as you can, like we used to do it?

Look at the Hoth scene in The Empire Strikes Back, which was shot in Norway. They had a snowstorm, so they had to shoot most of it in two days, but they were really out there in the cold, and you can really feel it. Imagine if that had been a greenscreen sequence. Nowadays it would be, I guarantee. But isn’t it better to have a cinematographer actually out there who knows how to light it, and how to find the angle that’s appropriate, instead of having to put it together layer by layer? That way, you only see everything together at the end, when you’ve already used up all your time.

CINEFEX: And yet that way of doing things has become the norm.

DENNIS MUREN: But I think it’s hurting effects, because the studios are relying on the effects people to tell the story, but when you look at it on the big screen there’s all this missing detail. Environments have become just stage backgrounds with actors in front of them, or it’s just actors in costumes and you’re not getting anything from the background.

CINEFEX: You’re talking ultimately about a sense of realism, and that’s always been the goal, hasn’t it? Right back to the days of the original Star Wars.

DENNIS MUREN: Well, that’s the reason that Star Wars was what it was, because George Lucas said, “I want to pan the cameras with the spaceships and not get into locked-off shots.” He wanted to feel like it was a real world, like in the World War II footage he referenced, because the audiences that grew up on television recognised that as real.

CINEFEX: So he brought in John Dykstra, who developed the motion control camera system to shoot all that stuff, and John found you to operate it. Didn’t he hire you because he was impressed by the stop-motion films you’d made as a youngster?

DENNIS MUREN: Yeah, I didn’t know John, but he wanted me because the motion control motors would move real slow, and I knew about non-real-time performance. But you didn’t want the ships to just go in straight lines. You wanted them to swoop.

CINEFEX: So you were coaxing an organic performance out of this pile of nuts and bolts.

DENNIS MUREN: Right, and I added a lot to it that even John didn’t know we could do. Things like having the ships skid when they bank, like airplanes, or motorcycles. But you know, on Star Wars, we actually started out flying the TIE fighters like those lightcycles in Tron, all these sharp turns – although this was before Tron, of course. The shots were for background plates that George was going to use in the gunport sequence, which he was originally going to do with rear projection. I think maybe Richard Edlund did the shots, and he went for these abrupt angle changes. Now, you could argue that you can do anything in space, but in the end you just couldn’t relate to them; the shots just looked uncomfortable. That’s when we went to more direct copying of the World War II stuff.

CINEFEX: The way that all those ships move has just become so iconic. Especially the Millennium Falcon.

DENNIS MUREN: We actually did a test on this very thing for The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson started out wanting to use models, because he thought the motion looked so much better. I said, “I love models, but there’s reasons why we don’t do them.” And he still wasn’t sure. So, I took three or four shots from Empire that had the Falcon in them, like that shot where it dives down low over the asteroid, and we put a CG Falcon right next to it. I told the animator to copy that original movement exactly. At first he had it zooming all over the place, but then he kept scaling it back and back, until finally you couldn’t tell the difference. It looked exactly like we had shot two identical models of the Falcon in 1980. Some people couldn’t understand why we had done this; they said it was just a way to duplicate nostalgia. Well, I wasn’t doing it for nostalgia reasons at all. I was doing it because the movement just looks better.

Cinefex 65CINEFEX: Looking back into our archive, we dug out a copy of Cinefex 65 from March 1996, celebrating 20 years of ILM. Don Shay interviewed you for that issue, Dennis, and one the things you told him was, “Some day we’ll probably hit a wall. People will be able to accept absolutely anything on film, and it won’t seem as wonderful to them any more.” Is that where we are now?

DENNIS MUREN: I think so. Absolutely.

CINEFEX: Do you think that tackling this “five percent” problem is the solution?

DENNIS MUREN: Yes. Jurassic Park was easy, because it was the shock of the new. Well, the shock’s worn off.

CINEFEX: Here’s another quote of yours from that 1996 article: “You can either play it safe and stay put, or you can go someplace new.” Are you still playing it unsafe?

DENNIS MUREN: Oh, yeah! We’ve got a big thing at ILM at the moment that’s looking amazing. It’s on a Star Wars show, and it’s pretty neat, but I can’t say anything about it right now.

CINEFEX: Well, it’s clearly got you excited, which is great to hear. We may have hit the wall, but there’s something waiting on the other side, right?

DENNIS MUREN: Yes, because things don’t stay the same. They change, but in a technical field change is really hard, because the tools are so hard to learn. So, when you see something that you really like, be exuberant about it. Keep your mind open, and your heart and soul open to those feelings that got you into the business in the first place. Movies are all about feelings. That’s what it’s all about.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Return of the Jedi” photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hans Zimmer – Making a Big Noise

Hans Zimmer

Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, the maestro behind the music for over 150 projects across all media, delivered yesterday’s keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018, entitled Welcome to my Music. Zimmer’s address was followed by a tribute to his music, performed by an ensemble of 10 year-old Italian students. Addressing a packed house of visual effects, animation, game, VR and film devotees, the composer shared wit and wisdom on the subjects of life, artistry, and the job of making the world a noisier and more colorful place.

Hans Zimmer has a muse. Her name is Doris. She’s a single mother who lives in the poor part of the post-industrial town of Bradford, UK, and ever since her husband left her she’s struggled to raise her two kids and make ends meet. Every weekend, Doris faces a choice. She can either go to the pub, or take in a movie. If she chooses the cinema, what she wants more than anything is a film that will transport her out of her humdrum life and into a world of wonder.

Doris is fictitious. To Zimmer however, what she represents is utterly real. Even more than that, she is the reason he does what he does, the person he has in mind whenever he sits down to write a score. “If Doris is going to see a film,” he said during his keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018, “we’d better make it worth it. That’s the job – to make her life better.”

Zimmer also asserted his belief that music expresses what cannot be expressed through mere words or pictures. That’s why it’s such a vital piece of the filmmaking puzzle, and why Zimmer always starts composing before the film is made – sometimes before he’s even read the script.

To illustrate this, he related the story of how he came to work on Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Out of the blue, Nolan called Zimmer to say he was going to send write a letter, and invited the composer to put down whatever came into his head when he read it. When the letter arrived, Zimmer did just that, and played the result to the director later that same day. “The first time I play a piece of music, it’s very personal,” Zimmer revealed. “So I couldn’t even look him in the eye.”

The brand new composition – which Zimmer described as a “fragile fragment of music” – expressed the composer’s feelings about his relationship with his son. Having played it to Nolan, Zimmer asked the director what he thought. Nodding his approval, Nolan said, “I guess I’ll have to make the movie now.”

Delving deeper into his process, Zimmer confessed that, while he always aims to begin work early on a project, he is also a terrible procrastinator, and tends to leave the final scoring until very late in the game. For the animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, he even wrote one of the cues on the stage during the recording session. “Composing is like cooking,” he commented. “You need fresh ingredients, and lots of preparation, but it all comes down to that crazy final ten minutes!”

Closing his address, Zimmer invited budding creators in all fields to challenge themselves constantly. “Ask yourself how can you be cantankerous, creative and revolutionary,” he said. “Be reckless. Be inventive. Make a big noise!”

I don’t know about you, but I reckon those words would be music to Doris’ ears.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Solo” – A Fusion of Creativity and Technology

Rob Bredow behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon

As senior vice president, executive creative director and head of Industrial Light & Magic, Rob Bredow gets involved with every project that passes through ILM’s doors. During his keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018 today, he shared his experiences as visual effects supervisor and co-producer of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Cinefex sat down with Rob in the Turin sunshine after his presentation to talk more about his adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

CINEFEX: Rob, in your presentation on Solo, you explained that creative solutions are driven by theme. In the case of Solo, the theme was “let’s imagine we’re making this movie in the early ‘70s.”

ROB BREDOW: Exactly. We wanted to make it feel organic and grounded, and tried to apply that to everything we did from the very beginning, to make things feel as believable as possible.

CINEFEX: So where did that theme come from in the first place?

ROB BREDOW: That was an aesthetic choice that Chris Miller and Phil Lord wanted to make from the very beginning. They felt like the movie belonged in that era. Of course, we wanted to achieve things that wouldn’t have been achievable if we had done it in, say, 1968 or 1971, but we wanted it to feel as if we could have. With the train heist, for example, the idea of constraining the camera only to places a camera could really belong on a train that was going 60 miles per hour on the side of a mountain – that was really important to me. I wanted us to religiously obey that rule, and we pretty much did. We did the same thing throughout the whole movie, using methods that honored the methods of the past, even if they couldn’t literally be the same methods. I actually think that, in a world where you can do anything, constraining yourself helps to pull the thing together.

CINEFEX: And constraints can actually encourage creativity, right?

ROB BREDOW: Yes, totally. In fact, I had a whole other section of the talk I did today that I didn’t have time for, about how the creativity really is born out of the constraints. One of my favourite stories on the subject was told to me by the director Ash Brannon, who I worked with on Surf’s Up. Ash was an animator on Toy Story, and he told me they didn’t have enough money to finish rigging the green army men, and they were ready to cut them out of the film. So they pitched the idea that they didn’t have to be fully articulated characters. Those guys basically bark orders, so they just needed the ability to do a simple “eeh” and and “ooh” shape, and they could just move around with their feet tied together. That walk they do is one of the most memorable things in the film, and it may not have happened if it wasn’t for the restrictions.

CINEFEX: Thinking back over the history of movie effects, creativity has always gone hand in hand with technology. If you’re going to excel in this craft, do you need those two sides of the brain working together, the right and the left?

ROB BREDOW: Yeah. I think the more you have them both in one person, or across everybody on the team, the better. You can certainly have people who have strengths of one side over the other, but I think the most fun thing about this industry is getting to combine the very technical and the very artistic together. Especially being able to figure out things on the spot, where you’ve got to figure out some way to achieve this illusion.

CINEFEX: In Solo, your solution to the Millennium Falcon cockpit shots was a highly technical one – wraparound rear projections screens running prerendered final backgrounds. But the end result was super-organic, like the shot where the camera pans from the hyperspace jump onto Han’s face. You said was captured by the first camera operator, Sylvaine Dufaux, kind of on instinct?

ROB BREDOW: Right. One of the great things about real-time effects is that they are much more in the moment than what we can do in postproduction. There’s a place for both, but there really was something great to those shooting days on the Falcon. For the Kessel Run sequence, we had around 125 cues – lighting changes on the walls, or different media clips on the screen, or different blaster fire. I would stand next to Ron Howard as he was directing the actors, and sometimes he would take them back to redo a moment, or sometimes he would take them forward. I’d try to read his mind and work out where he was going next, so the screens would be ready and cued up. And then, sometimes, our DOP Bradford Young would catch my eye and give me a hand signal to add some more blaster fire, because he wanted to amp up the lighting. We were making changes in kind of a dance, live on the set.

CINEFEX: Solo certainly seems to be a great example of how the role of production visual effects supervisor has changed over, say, the last 10 years – you’re more creatively enmeshed than ever with the rest of the production.

ROB BREDOW: That’s been my experience, yeah. Our supervisors at ILM who work production-side find themselves very integrated, not only in how they’re going to achieve something, but also in why and what the creative storytelling opportunity is. That varies in its methodology from show to show. Sometimes you’re answering a lot of questions in previs. Sometimes you’re collaborating directly with either the writers or the director. On Solo, I got a co-producer credit in large part because I was working things out with Ron Howard and Jon Kasdan every day on set. There are lines that Han Solo says in this movie that I pitched to Jon, and he would say, “That’s a great idea, we’re going to have him do that right now!” If Ron liked it, he put it in the film. It was just a huge honour and a big opportunity to be involved creatively in the whole movie from beginning to end.

CINEFEX: Industrial Light & Magic has been doing Star Wars for over 40 years now, and earlier this year you took on the role of senior vice president, executive creative director and head of ILM. When you walk through the door each morning, do you sense the presence of that lineage?

ROB BREDOW: Yeah, definitely. Walking into ILM, you’ll see one of the original optical printers in the hallway, there’s original stormtrooper costumes around. You really do get a sense of the history of the place.

CINEFEX: Is that exciting, or intimidating?

ROB BREDOW: Well, it’s a bit like when I started on Solo. I first thought, “Okay, I have to be really careful. I’m walking on hallowed ground.” Then, a few months into the show, I realised it’s a movie, I’m going to break stuff along the way, I’m not going to make every decision perfectly, and I’ve got to figure out how to make it better and better as we go along. I’m actually having that same experience again in this role as head of ILM. My original thought was, “This is ILM! It’s the company that I’ve looked up to for my entire career. So getting to lead it is an incredible honour.” Then you dive in and realise you have this amazing place with fantastic people but – like anything – it’s not perfect. It’s a great honour, and then at the same time I have a responsibility to say, “Oh, this part’s messy, we’ve got to go in and get our hands dirty.” And that’s the culture of a great company that is reinventing itself, which I really like being a part of.

CINEFEX: How does the ILM lineage come to bear on the films you’re working on now, like Solo?

ROB BREDOW: Well, we’re lucky at ILM to still have some of the people who worked on the original Star Wars films. Dennis Muren was at the office every day looking at previs and dailies, weighing in on the sequences. I can attribute the design of a number of shots to his notes. On some early versions of the train heist sequence, for example, we had very few down-shots, or else the down-shots had gotten cut for various story reasons. Dennis would say, “Where’s that sense of peril?” and we would add those down-shots back in. It’s great having people like that, who aren’t working on the show every single day but are looking at the big picture.

CINEFEX: Do you enjoy that kind of overview yourself now, in your new role?

ROB BREDOW: You know, we have incredibly experienced supervisors in all the departments at ILM, and they certainly don’t need me to tell them how to do their jobs. But I do find that, because I am seeing all the projects going on, and looking at things from a different perspective, once in a while I’ll be able to provide support in some way, or make a suggestion that somebody might find useful. That’s a really nice place to be, for sure.

CINEFEX: Let’s round up with a quick peek into your crystal ball. What do you personally see as the next frontier in visual effects?

ROB BREDOW: One of the things that I’m excited about right now is the use of real-time visual effects on set. We did a lot of that with projection surfaces on Solo, and we’re working on new projects right now where we’re taking that to the next level, doing a lot more real-time and a much higher degree of interactivity. We’re creating in-camera visual effects that I think are going to be pretty surprising to people. The number of cases where we can leverage this has surprised even me – and I’m an optimist about these things. The real-time world of videogames and the postprocessing world of visual effects haven’t completely converged, but we are starting to see some of the best of both worlds come together, and we’re getting a lot of real benefit from that. We’re also doing a bunch of new things in the area of face work. Of course, that’s an area where, if you get it one percent wrong, it’s 99 percent wrong! But we did some really interesting work on Rogue One, and working on some projects that are very encouraging.

CINEFEX: Rob, thanks for your time!

View Conference 2018

Read our 22-page Solo: A Star Wars Story article in Cinefex 160, available from our online store. VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

Photograph copyright © 2018 by Industrial Light & Magic.

Rob Bredow to Deliver “Solo” Keynote at VIEW Conference

Rob Bredow behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon

Visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow behind the controls of the “Millennium Falcon.” Photograph courtesy of ILM.

One of the highlights of VIEW Conference 2018 is sure to be Creatively Driven – The VFX for “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a keynote presentation by the film’s visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow, who is also senior vice president, executive creative director and head of Industrial Light & Magic.

I’ll be at VIEW this year, covering the conference for Cinefex, and in anticipation of the event I thought I’d dig out an interview I did with Rob earlier this year, while I was researching my own behind-the-scenes article on Solo. I spent a full hour talking with Rob, and a further ten hours chatting with other members of the effects, creature and costume teams – plus the film’s director, Ron Howard – which meant there was a lot of material that had to hit the cutting room floor!

So, here are a few outtakes from my interview with Rob Bredow that didn’t make into the Cinefex article.

Solo: A Star Wars Story in Cinefex 160

CINEFEX: The Millennium Falcon looks a little different in Solo, right?

ROB BREDOW: Right. The concept behind it was that Lando’s kind of a flossy guy! He would add a couple of racing stripes to his ship. It’s got a really well-kept interior, and he would really care about its appearance – there actually used to be some lines about that in the script that didn’t make the final cut. If you look in the background of some of the shots, there’s even a trophy case with a model of the Falcon inside. Our idea was to honor the original design, but during the story to do things that reveal more and more of the Falcon that we all know and love from A New Hope.

CINEFEX: Did you tweak any of the other vehicle designs to fit in with the time period of Solo?

ROB BREDOW: We did a slight earlier generation AT-ST, sort of World War I-inspired. It has operators up in the top of it, so it is similar to the AT-ST that we saw in Return of the Jedi, but it has a big cannon mounted on the front for ground-to-ground combat. That was kind of consistent for everything we did in the film. The Star Destroyers are the ships we know from A New Hope, but there is one new version that has some radar dishes. That only made the final cut in the form of a hologram, but it is in the movie for a second or two!

CINEFEX: Han flies the Falcon through the notorious Kessel Run – what does he encounter along the way?

ROB BREDOW: Well, the environment evolves as we go through the Kessel Run. The Maelstrom is made up of giant space storm clouds – we theorized maybe it’s nitrogen – and there are these giant blocks called carbonbergs, that crash into each other and you have to avoid as you’re flying through the uncharted maw. The things you’re really looking to avoid are the gravity well and the multi-tentacled space monster! It literally is the ‘there be monsters’ section of our movie, harking back to some of those old classic stories.

CINEFEX: You used front projection to provide views out through the Falcon’s cockpit. Did you do that anywhere else in the film?

ROB BREDOW: Yes, for the scenes inside Dryden’s ship, there’s a 360-degree front projection screen wrapped around the windows. Everything you see out those windows was completely finaled in camera. Dryden visits two different locations in the film – Vandor and Savareen – and at a moment’s notice we could flip between the two. Our director of photography Bradford Young used the front projection as one of the main components of his lighting, and all the reflections on the set were captured in camera. I would say the result is better than if we had done a bluescreen or greenscreen composite – and certainly much more efficient for postproduction.

View Conference 2018

Read the complete 22-page Solo article in Cinefex 160, available from our online store. Rob Bredow’s presentation on Solo: A Star Wars Story is scheduled for Tuesday 23 October at VIEW Conference 2018, which takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

Now Showing – Cinefex 161

Cinefex 161

Cinefex 161 has landed — not in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, but on newsstands and in mailboxes all around planet Earth. With NASA’s iconic Apollo 11 lunar module planted firmly on the cover, our October issue is packed with stellar images and out-of-this-world content — including Joe Fordham’s feature story on First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the young aviator from Ohio who flew his way to a moon landing during the summer of ’69.

Dig deeper into Cinefex 161 and you’ll find in-depth articles on director Ruben Fleischer’s gritty superhero tale Venom, Oliver Daly’s tale of a boy and his robot dog, A.X.L., Albert Hughes’ Ice Age drama Alpha, and Jon Turteltaub’s yarn centered around a ravenous Charadon megaladon, The Meg.

Watch a video preview of Cinefex 161:

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to update you with her official mission report on Cinefex 161:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

In every generation, there are a few world events so significant that we remember where we were when they happened – often in excruciating, sensory detail. I am a Baby Boomer, so mention the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I vividly recall the smell of Ajax cleaner the school custodian used to scrub our desks at night. I remember that same custodian coming into my third-grade classroom to whisper in Mrs. Trask’s ear, her eyes welling with tears, the uncomfortable hush that came over the class, and her announcement, in quivering voice, that the President had been shot.
Six years later, the whole world watched the moon landing that had been promised by that felled President. I was a 14-year-old that late July 1969, stuck in the family station wagon for a trip to visit my grandparents in northern California. Not content to follow the news reports on the radio – although we did that, all the way up the old 99 highway – my father broke all speed records to get us to our destination and in front of a television screen in time for Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface. It was thrilling, a moment of both promise and pride.
Those feelings and memories came rushing back when I saw our First Man cover for Cinefex 161. Joe Fordham outdid himself with his coverage of Damien Chazelle’s stunning film. If you’ve never read a Cinefex article before, read this one.
And while you’re at it, read Graham Edwards’ story about an incredible Czechoslovakian Wolfdog named Chuck who was such a great performer, fewer than expected computer animated wolf shots were required to bring Alpha to the screen. Read my account of writer/director Oliver Daly’s finding inspiration in the world of desert motocross racing, resulting in his A.X.L. feature film, and about the puppetry – both practical and digital – that put the ‘dog’ in a boy and his dog story. Finally, if you’re in the mood for hardcore bad-assery, check out our coverage of The Meg and Venom.
Cinefex issue 161: No tricks. Just treats.

Cinefex 161 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already making its final approach to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, which features tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Spotlight – Armen Kevorkian

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Armen Kevorkian is executive creative director and visual effects supervisor at Encore VFX, and includes in his career highlights Love, Simon, Titans, The Flash, Supergirl and Black Lightning.

Armen Kevorkian

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Armen?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: I’ve always been interested in filmmaking and directing, but more or less fell into visual effects. I went to film school and got an internship working on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Then, an entry level position opened up in the visual effects/post department and I jumped at the opportunity. I spent several years learning the ins and outs of visual effects, and I’m constantly expanding that knowledge with each new project.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: It’s rewarding when you’re able to visualize something in your head and bring that image to life for everyone to see.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: I hate when shots don’t turn out the way I imagined. That, and running out of time, which is always an issue in visual effects.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: One of my first visual effects supervisor jobs was for a series that had fairly significant visual effects needs – including CG creatures and set extensions – and a limited budget. Also, visual effects tools weren’t as advanced then, so creating the work was more challenging. It was nerve-racking, and a make-or-break moment for me, but I worked around the clock to make sure everyone got what they wanted. At the end of the day, we pulled it off.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: I encounter a lot of strange situations and requests as a visual effects supervisor. One moment that stands out is when a very low budget sci-fi television movie that I worked on was nominated for an Emmy. The film was about a zombie mammoth that came to life in a museum – not your typical awards fare! We cut together a great reel and were nominated alongside some incredible projects, including one produced by Steven Spielberg.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: Almost every film and television series has visual effects now, in part thanks to advanced software and hardware that allow us to create better work faster. Productions are relying on visual effects more, since it’s sometimes easier – and more economical – to achieve certain shots in the back-end. A lot of time it ends up looking better, too. Also, the distinction between content formats is falling away. Audiences expect a certain level of quality, regardless of whether they’re viewing in a theater, on television, or on a mobile device. With social media, you get immediate feedback via online comments and reaction videos, so you learn pretty quickly how your work is received by the audience. This was unheard of 20 years ago.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: This is already underway, but I think that when visual effects is fully integrated within production, it enables more successful results. When artists and storytellers are on the same page, projects run more smoothly and with better collaboration.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: Be passionate. It’s advice that applies to any job,  but the visual effects industry can be stressful and frustrating, and enjoying what you do makes it easier to get through the tough spots.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: District 9 is so well done, especially the way the CG alien is perfectly integrated throughout the film. You really feel the emotion.

Star Wars: A New Hope remains one of the greats. It was ground-breaking at the time and really holds up.

My final spot is a tie between Transformers and Iron Man. Growing up with those cartoons and toys, I found it entertaining and fascinating to see these characters come to life. The visual effects don’t take you out of the story, but rather bring it to life. The films mark a shift for the superhero/action genre, and the people behind them deserve credit for trying things that had never been done before. That takes guts.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: Popcorn! I can’t watch a movie without popcorn, even if I only have a few pieces. And a cherry ICEE.

CINEFEX: Armen, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Matthias Wittmann

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Matthias Wittmann is a real-time supervisor at Method EXP, the immersive arm of Method Studios. His visual effects animation credits include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I, Robot, Tron: Legacy, Maleficent and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. He’s also worked on augmented and virtual reality projects such as Robin Hood VR, Alien: Covenant – In Utero and Passengers – Awakening.

Matthias WittmannCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Matthias?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I went to Filmakademie in the ‘90s, and my plan was always to make visual effects for movies. Actually, that’s not true! I thought at first that I wanted to be a director, but I found visual effects – animation in particular – more interesting. At that time, there were no big visual effects companies in Germany, especially not for feature film. A company in Berlin called Spans & Partners was doing really great commercial work, and I joined them as an animator. I stayed there for two years, but I knew that to do film I’d have to go somewhere else. I went to a shop called HDO-Oberhausen and another one, Elektrofilm, that had opened a few rooms to work on movies like House of the Dead, The Shaft, aka Down (not to be confused with Shaft – this movie was about a killer elevator!). I met some people from Digital Domain on Little Vampire, and a few years later in 2003 they asked me to come and work with them. That was my big break. I jumped at the chance to work on Hollywood movies, and moved to Los Angeles.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: Creating life! As a character animator, you do so much to bring your characters to life. You really understand them, and they have real personalities – they’re not just moving through the frame.

Switching to real-time takes that to the next level. When you can make a character that actually recognizes you and interacts with you, it’s uncannily cool. I’m working on a project now where I’ve programmed a virtual human to have emotions so, if you disturb him with your VR hands, you can make him happy or nervous or mad. The other day, for the first time, I poked him on his head and he became angry. It was so cool! I try to write everything with enough fuzzy logic that it’s not absolutely predictable, putting in a lot of “if-then” situations so that I don’t always understand why a character did something, but it’s still within the realm of his behavior.

Everyone’s talking about AI, machine learning, neural networks. Those things are super important for technology and development, but they’re not what brings a character to life. The basic idea is: “What would my character do? How do I hook up the behavior tree so that he feels like a self-consistent intelligence?” The newest neural network doesn’t solve those problems – common sense and experience does. Computer vision will help a character to see and understand what’s around him – feed him with optical input and this segment of his brain will determine what it saw – but what does he do with that information? When he sees a chair, does he sit down? Destroy it? Run away because he’s scared of chairs? To give a character personality and emotion, you need those tools as a piece of the puzzle, but you have to structure the puzzle yourself. That’s my part, and that’s what I enjoy the most.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I know everyone says the same thing and I will too – there’s never enough time. There are so many possibilities that you could try out, and sometimes the tools you’re using are not made for the things you want to do; that’s especially true in interactive work now. Putting together functions in a way you want them to work isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I’ve had some big challenges in my career, but the most scared I’ve been was for something I worked on in film school, where we sometimes did projects for outside vendors. In 1996, there was a movie being made in Germany called Die Raettin, which means The She-Rat. They wanted us to create a talking rat. Now, rats have hair, and we had not done any hair yet in Germany – or in the school. I think Jumanji had just come out in theaters but at that time, outside of Hollywood you couldn’t just write a shader.

I had heard there was a procedure in PowerAnimator that would let you create hair with traveling particles, and I thought maybe that could work. I asked if the school would build an animatronic rat as a backup plan in case the CG didn’t work. They did – it cost $30K. I modelled this rat in PowerAnimator – all nurbs, no polygons – and gave it dynamic fur with the particle system, and moving whiskers, which took six months. We filmed two sequences, one with the CG rat and one with the animatronic rat. The client chose the CG rat. It was a very rewarding experience because I was still a student, and that success catapulted me to a different level. It was really cool in the end, but really scary getting there!

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: In the early days, it felt like visual effects was more useful – you had to create something to make a movie possible. The effects are still fantastic-looking, but a lot of the breakthroughs seem more about making things easier and improving, rather than inventing. That’s one of the things that attracted me to real-time. It feels like it did when I first studied computer animation. Pioneering.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: The field I’m working in now is really new, so it will probably change a lot over the next few years. We need to come up with solutions to new challenges. That’s the fun part. This will keep me interested for the next few decades.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: You have to make up your mind who you are and what you want to work on, and pursue that relentlessly. That’s not to say you have to sell your soul or work 24/7 for nothing. But you have to make consistent choices to advance. When you’re just starting out, it’s survival, but with the right mindset, the visual effects industry can be a great place.

I’d also say that, whatever you do and whatever you create, make sure your own product is the best it possibly can be. Don’t aim for “good enough.” Do the best you can in the time you have – knowing it will never be enough – and look at your product. Would you accept it?

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: John Carpenter’s The Thing – the effects were absolutely needed to show people something totally unimaginable. The defibrillation sequence where the Thing bites off the medic’s hands, takes over the corpse and ends up turning into a spider-like being and running off – people didn’t understand what they just saw. It was totally unimaginable at the time, until the effects made it something they were able to see.

Starship Troopers – it’s the pinnacle of interaction between live-action and CG. It’s so completely believable and intense, a masterpiece in terms of bringing those two things together. It’s much easier now to integrate things believably, but it’s still hard.

War for the Planet of the Apes – it was fantastically done all round. The choices in character development, the animation, the acting. You forget all of the technology around it. When you see the apes fighting with real people, the CG snow on their fur – you never have to think about it. They’re believable characters, and you accept the whole thing.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: Chocolate croissants. When my wife and I go to movies, it’s usually on a Saturday or Sunday morning when the theaters are pretty empty. We stop first for coffees and croissants and sneak them in!

CINEFEX: Matthias, thanks for your time!

Counting Down to VIEW 2018

We’re gearing up for VIEW Conference 2018, which brings top professionals to Italy for a week of talks, presentations, and workshops covering computer graphics, interactive and immersive storytelling, animation, visual effects, games, and virtual, augmented and mixed reality. For the first time, Cinefex will be at the event, reporting on the proceedings and catching up with our friends in the industry.

Conference director Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez has just announced the latest speakers, workshops and masterclasses, plus the event’s venue – the newly restored Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR), a late-19th century industrial building that now houses a 20,000 square meter Innovation Hub and Arts Center. The full program for the digital media conference – which takes place in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018 – is now available online at the VIEW Conference website.

Joining the list of previously announced speakers at VIEW 2018 are Rodeo FX visual effects supervisor Thomas Hullin presenting the company’s work on Game of Thrones, RISE executive visual effects producer Florian Gellinger discussing Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Weta Digital’s head of R&D Paolo Emilio Selva talking technology innovations at Weta. In addition, DNEG’s animation director Troy Saliba and digital effects supervisor AharonBourland will be peeling back the skin of Venom.

VIEW Conference will also showcase the European premiere of SIGGRAPH’s 2018 Computer Animation Festival and the Italian premiere of La Noria with Director Carlos Baena during its digital movie festival, VIEWFEST, 19-21 October, plus a special “Women in Animation” panel featuring Paramount Animation president Mireille Soria, Cartoon Saloon creative director Nora Twomey, Pixar director of photography Danielle Feinberg, and LAIKA storyboard artist Emanuela Cozzi.

Keynote presenters for VIEW 2018 include five Oscar winners: composer Hans Zimmer, ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, senior vice president of creative strategy at Magic Leap John Gaeta, creative director for Google Spotlight Stories Jan Pinkava, Side FX founder CEO Kim Davidson, Paramount Animation president MireilleSoria, head of ILM Rob Bredow, and Cornell Professor Donald Greenberg.

VIEW Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 workshop highlights

  • “The Humor of Buster Keaton” – David Misch, producer, stand-up comedian and screenwriter
  • “Visual Storytelling: All the Story Nuggets You Didn’t Know You Were Seeing” – Danielle Feinberg, director of photography, Coco, Pixar
  • Smallfoot: A Big Myth – Understanding Explained” – Karl Herbst, visual effects supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks
  • “Making Characters Great Again” – Mike Ford, visual effects supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks
  • “A Graphic Look at Animation Posing and Staging” – Troy Saliba, animation supervisor, DNEG

VIEW Conference 2018 masterclass highlights

  • “Designing the Monster” – Glen McIntosh, animation supervisor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, ILM
  • “Art Directing with Vision and Purpose for Games” – Henry LaBounta, senior art director, Electronic Arts
  • “Visual Effects for Computer Animation” – Bill Watral, visual effects supervisor, Incredibles 2, Pixar Animation Studios
  • “The Comprehensive Art of the Elaborate Storyboard” – Emanuela Cozzi, storyboard artist, Laika
  • “Character Walks” – Alex Williams, head of animation, Escape Studios
  • “Post-production in 2D Animation” – Marino Guarnieri, director
  • “Compositing Visual Effects in 2D Animation” – Marino Guarnieri, director
  • “CG Cartoony Animation” – Simone Giampaolo, animation director, Aardman Animation
  • “Acquiring and Lighting a Backplate for Visual Effects” – Daniel Shutt, 3D teacher, Escape Studios
  • “Immersive Sound for Virtual Reality” – Gianni Ricciardi, audio director WANT Musik and Matteo Milani, sound designer, Unidentified Sound Object

Studios, schools and companies represented at VIEW Conference 2018

20th Century Fox, Aardman Animation, AATOAA, AnimationApprentice , AnimationMentor, AVMCAP, Baobab, Cartoon Saloon, Cornell University, CSC, Disney, DNEG, Electronic Arts, Escape Studios, Filmcomission Torinon Piemonte , Foundry, Google, HBO, IED, IJsfontein, Ilion, Image Engine, IMASTERART , Industrial Light & Magic, ITS Piemonte, Junior Enterprise Torino Politecnico, King, Laika, Mackevision, Magic Leap, Marvel Studios, MTGx, Netflix, NFB, Nordeus, Paramount Animation, Pininfarina , Pixar Animation Studios, Pixeltrain, Pixomondo , Ready At Dawn, RISE, Rodeo FX, RVX, Setteventi, SideFX, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Sucker Punch Productions, ToVR, Unidentified Sound Object, Unity Technologies, Universal Pictures, VIMA, WANT Musik, Warner Animation, Weta Digital

Productions and projects presented at VIEW 2018

  • Adrift
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • Black Panther
  • Book of the Dead
  • Cinderella the Cat
  • Coco
  • Crow: The Legend
  • Deadpool 2
  • Fauda
  • Game of Thrones
  • Ghost of Tsushima
  • Hotel Transylvania 3
  • Incredibles 2
  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
  • Kids and Family
  • King’s Quest
  • La Noria
  • Lone Echo
  • Lost in Space
  • Smallfoot
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story
  • The Breadwinner
  • Venom
  • Westworld

For the full program, and to register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses, visit the VIEW Conference website.

Spotlight – Catherine Mullan

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Catherine Mullan is an animation supervisor at MPC. Her career highlights include her work on four Harry Potter films, Happy Feet, The Chronicles of Narnia, Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

Catherine Mullan

CINEFEX: Catherine, how did you get started in the business?

CATHERINE MULLAN: Whilst I loved movies growing up, it never occurred to me that working in the industry was a possibility. I was only ever presented with more traditional career paths and, of course, this was back in the days before the internet. I always loved to draw but also liked math and problem solving, so I was looking for something that could combine both the creative and the technical.

When faced with the decision of what to do next, I stumbled across a book in my school’s careers library that ultimately set me upon this career path. The book allowed you to cross-reference different subjects, then listed courses suited to those subjects. This is how I discovered the computer animation course at Bournemouth University in the UK. Although I had little knowledge of the subject, I applied and was accepted. It was there that I discovered a love of animating. The university had ties with the London studios and upon graduation I was invited to interview with Framestore. Luckily for me, I was offered a job as a junior animator, and that’s were I really started to learn about animation.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

CATHERINE MULLAN: A beautifully animated performance, one that evokes feeling, that makes me sad or brings me joy. I love to review the work of the animation team, and often I’m presented with an idea or an execution that surprises me, that really brings character and believability, and I know the audience will buy it. This is the best part of my job.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I do find it hard when teams disperse, when the end of an era is reached. It’s a changeable industry – teams come together and move apart often. When I look back on projects, I’m proud of the work, but I also think so fondly about the crew. The bonds that are created during a production are a huge part of what makes this industry special. I’m also a sucker for a sad story and I’m known to blubber watching movies!

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I can’t quite find an answer to this. Every project I’ve worked on has presented its own challenges – from animating a simple shot as a junior animator to supervising a large team on huge project, and the hundreds of tasks in between. If you’re growing and pushing yourself to the next level, the work will always be a challenge.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I remember a near miss from several years ago – a beatboxing camel toe! It was a cringeworthy shot I was scheduled to animate. I was dreading it! Much to my relief, the show I was working on pushed longer and it was reassigned to another artist. Phew!

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

CATHERINE MULLAN: The size and scope of the projects have grown massively since I joined the industry. A project 15 years ago would consist of a couple of hundred shots, whereas now 1,000 is normal. Each year the boundaries are pushed and the seemingly unachievable is achieved.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I would love to see more women working in creative roles in film, visual effects and animation, especially as leads, supervisors and directors. Whilst it seems more women are joining, the shift isn’t nearly enough.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

CATHERINE MULLAN: Do plenty of research. There is so much information available online – podcasts, blogs, articles like this. There are lots of tutorials and free software available for students, so try it out at home before spending a lot of money on a course. You have to love your chosen field and education is expensive so, if you go down that route, choose the school wisely.

For many disciplines, it’s key to use real-life reference. Don’t start a piece of work without it. Don’t be scared to show your work – in fact you must seek feedback from those who work in your field. Constructive criticism will only help you learn and grow. Do persevere – it will not come easy, but the rewards can be great!

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

CATHERINE MULLAN: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – I loved this movie growing up. A powerful story, filled with in-camera effects and marvelous puppets. I learned only recently that the owl in the opening credits is considered the first realistic CG animal to appear in a movie.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – one of my favorite movies of the time. The visual effects were groundbreaking and allowed the T-1000 to become one of the most terrifying characters in movie history.

The Jungle Book (2016) – I loved the remake of the Disney classic and was blown away by the visual effects. Across every discipline, the work was pushed to a new level, from the creation of the characters and environments to the animation and effects. The team at MPC did a spectacular job creating such imagery.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I don’t like to eat when watching movies – it’s too much of a distraction. However, my favorite cinema in London does serve delicious wine to your own comfy sofa.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Catherine!

Spotlight – Todd Vaziri

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Todd Vaziri is a lead artist and compositing supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. His list of career highlights includes American Pie, Avatar, six Star Wars and two Star Trek films, three Transformers movies and an episode of The Colbert Report, and you might enjoy rummaging through his entertaining effects-centric blog FX Rant.

Todd Vaziri

CINEFEX: Todd, how did you get started in the business?

TODD VAZIRI: I saw Return of the Jedi on my tenth birthday, and afterward devoured anything I could find about how the film was made. I vividly remember reading an official Lucasfilm magazine about the film – there was an entire section on the miniatures and stop-motion animation in the Endor battle, created by a company called Industrial Light & Magic. That made an enormous impact on me. Seeing how the magic was created didn’t ruin the movie experience for me at all. Quite the contrary – I was intrigued and inspired to see pictures of modern-day magicians creating these amazing illusions, like Paul Huston setting up the AT-ST on the miniature Endor set. Years later, I discovered Cinefex, which satisfied my cravings for more detailed stories on how these intricate visual effects were created, and the challenges faced by artists in bringing these otherworldly effects to life. Strange to think that Paul Huston is a colleague and friend now – we worked together on a shot for The Force Awakens.

After film school, and a few years spent writing about visual effects for my website, Visual Effects Headquarters, I packed up my car and drove from Chicago to Los Angeles with the dream of working in visual effects. I was fortunate enough to have been given a chance by Van Ling at Banned From the Ranch Entertainment. Aware of my visual effects writing and understanding my passion for the craft, he gave me a chance to help test out a new piece of software called Commotion, which was, at the time, a brand new and revolutionary tool for rotoscoping and digital painting. Van was a tremendous mentor and I owe him so much for giving me a chance.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

TODD VAZIRI: At the start of every production, I am overwhelmed with anticipation. The prospect of doing something new and exciting in a movie is daunting, intimidating and exhilarating.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TODD VAZIRI: When the harsh realities of the project schedule kick in, along with the inevitable design changes – that’s when I reach for the Kleenex.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

TODD VAZIRI: I’m a bit of a heat ripple snob. Most digital effects trying to replicate heat shimmer from jet engines don’t appeal to me. They frequently end up, from a design perspective, too sci-fi and fantastic, calling attention to the effect rather than allowing it to exist as a part of a realistic scene. For Avatar, we tackled several shots with intense jet engine heat ripple, and I privately tasked myself with creating the best-looking heat ripple system we’d ever produced. The effects team and I worked together on a system that included the right kind of particles, the right animation, the right kind of displacement and blur, and other design elements that are usually ignored – like refraction, shadowing, and tiny bits of soot. I was really proud of how it all turned out. Later, hearing that Jim Cameron loved the look of our heat ripple made me very happy.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TODD VAZIRI: I had to create dog urine for an Adam Sandler film. I used Particle World in After Effects to create the pee stream, and the splashing and splatter on the ground. I drew roto mattes and color-corrected the photography to simulate the growing puddle of pee. If I remember correctly, I think I also had to paint out the dog’s testicles.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

TODD VAZIRI: Between the time I started doing feature film work and today, the biggest change has been the ubiquity and democratization of high-quality, highly complicated visual effects. Complex fantasy environments, creatures and invisible effects are no longer solely available to the five or six biggest-budgeted movies per year. Filmmakers like Scorsese, Cuarón, Iñárritu, DuVernay and del Toro now have access to effects that were previously unavailable to their types of films. As a movie fan, I’m thrilled that a movie like Ex Machina can be made today, with the same kind of complicated, high-quality visual effects that previously were relegated to only the biggest superhero films or sci-fi blockbusters.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TODD VAZIRI: Where to begin? I’d like to see a more level playing field on many dimensions. Right now, movie studios are understandably taking advantage of massive global incentives to make films in certain localities, but this severely tilts the scales and has serious repercussions on all sides.

In addition, just like the rest of Hollywood, we need to make visual effects production a more diverse, inclusive environment. There are too many people making movies who look like me, and who have similar histories, tastes and skill sets. We will be able to tell more dynamic, interesting stories by including more women and people of color in our industry.

We have a work-life balance problem in our industry, too. The hours and stress take their toll on visual effects workers around the world. Finally and more broadly, it is inexplicable how little power the visual effects industry has in Hollywood, while our work remains critical to the success of modern films.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

TODD VAZIRI: The advice I’d give is similar to the advice I’d have for anyone who is interested in Hollywood filmmaking. Firstly, understand that this is not a glamorous job. The people who make films, both in front of and behind the camera – and behind the computer – are passionate and committed to their craft. If you’re not all-in on this as an idea, you might want to consider something else.

More practically, young visual effects artists sometimes get hung up on questions like: “Which piece of software should I learn?” My personal view is that the most successful visual effects professionals in my sphere are not obsessed with software or the technology itself, but are more interested in using those tools to create the imagery or tell the story that’s in their heads. I’m not technically minded at all, and yet I get by because the tools have become so accessible and approachable that even a dummy like me can operate the controls. Also, it’s incredibly important for young visual effects artists to watch and analyze non-visual effects films, and study as much photography as possible.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

TODD VAZIRI: Citizen Kane – don’t roll your eyes at me, millennials! You’ll watch this black-and-white movie and like it! Orson Welles and his team were using the camera to tell a story like no-one did before – you can see many now-standard cinematic techniques used for the first time in this film. They pushed every department to its limits and beyond; the film includes special effects and optical work, several ingenious matte paintings, animation and miniatures. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography gave the film a striking look, as did all of the hidden optical tricks made possible by Linwood Dunn’s optical printer breakthroughs – like the massive set extensions at the political rally, or the building of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu.

Star Wars (1977 theatrical edition) – come on, do I really need to say why I chose this?

The Abyss – Jim Cameron’s epic underwater adventure used pretty much every single visual effects trick in the book, including the debut of a creature of a kind never seen before on film – the computer-generated pseudopod. The movie is an encyclopedia of photographic effects from the dawn of cinema to that moment, and simultaneously presents a prelude to cinema’s digital era.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TODD VAZIRI: Popcorn, no butter, a tiny bit of salt.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Todd!