Spotlight – Stephen Clee

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

Stephen Clee

Stephen Clee is an animation supervisor and animator at Method Studios, and lists his career highlights as Okja, Thor: Ragnarok, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Way back in high school I wanted to be an architect – until I did some work experience at an engineering firm and nearly died of boredom. I loved the design aspect but hated how mundane most of the tasks were. My drafting and design teacher, who also taught the digital animation course at my school, saw that I had a passion for the creative part of the work and told me about Capilano University. I applied to their well-respected 2D animation program but was promptly rejected due to my – in hindsight – utterly terrible portfolio. I decided that I really wanted to pursue animation as a career, so I spent a year working in a restaurant while taking as many drawing courses as I could in my spare time to build a better portfolio. I was accepted the following year.

My first job was on Reader Rabbit, a Flash-animated children’s show for Studio B, now DHX. I worked in television for a few years at local studios Atomic and Bardel to get some experience under my belt and improve as an animator. In 2007, I went back to Capilano University to learn 3D and got a job working in videogames upon graduation. Visual effects had always interested me and offered the higher level of quality that I was striving for, so, two and a half years later, I quit my job at Capcom and took a three-month contract at Method Studios, then CIS. I’ve been there ever since. Working at Method has helped me grow as an animator and work on a myriad of different projects ranging from Avengers to Okja. Getting to work here has been my big break and taught me more than all my other jobs combined. I’ve been fortunate enough to find mentorship here and grow in my career as an animator, lead and supervisor.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: So many things make me happy at work: taking a really challenging shot to completion; finding creative solutions with the animators for their shots; working with my colleagues to come up with better acting choices; figuring out better workflows with the team; being surprised in dailies by a fun performance choice an animator makes. And finishing the last shot on a show!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEPHEN CLEE: Probably the most frustrating part of the job is when we get drastic edits to a sequence while under the gun to deliver. It can be tough for morale when things change that are out of our control, or shots are omitted when we’ve put a lot of work into them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Puppeteering Okja the superpig on set for five months … then getting back into the studio and realizing we had to animate to everything we shot. Our goal was to build a relationship between Mija and Okja, and getting that right took lots of interaction between our CG, our on-set ‘stuffie’ puppets, and the actors. Director Bong Joon-Ho was amazing in that he would give us nearly minute-long shots with a barely-moving camera in which to let our creature breathe. That offers you a lot of opportunity but also a ton of room to fail. He was open to our ideas and we were often able to make the creative choice over the easy one. We didn’t shy away from letting the actors push, hold, ride, or sleep on Okja and because of that I hope you believe their bond to be real. It was by far the most rewarding show of my career, and the most difficult.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEPHEN CLEE: Being on set at two in the morning puppeteering the head of a six-ton superpig with my arm in a foam-filled sock representing a tongue sticking out of its mouth ‘licking’ the face of a 12-year-old actress – Ahn Seo-Hyun – who was playing a crying emotional scene in front of a crew of middle-aged men operating a Technocrane with incredulous looks on their faces. Yeah, that’s probably the weirdest.

Watch Stephen Clee puppeteering superpig stuffies in this Netflix featurette on the visual effects of Okja:

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

STEPHEN CLEE: The quality of the work overall has gotten to be so high. It’s amazing to watch television shows like Game of Thrones and see sequences like the convoy attack that Image Engine did last year, and be utterly convinced that dragons exist and are out there burning up the countryside. I also love that recent movies like Blade Runner: 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Dunkirk are emphasizing blending special and visual effects together to make things feel even more real. I think utilizing more practical effects and achieving things in-camera really helps push the quality bar and lets visual effects focus on what we’re good at.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEPHEN CLEE: I’d like to see an increase in the speed of our rigs and rendering to the point that we could get real-time feedback consistently at a high level of detail. My dream is to get myself and my animators focusing on the creative, not burdened by the limits of our technology. I’ve seen a lot of these types of workflows being developed and would love to be a part of working with them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Start small and don’t be discouraged if you fail. I think working in television for a few years helps imbue a sense of confidence in your skills because of the quick turnaround. It teaches speed, accountability, great posing and fundamentals in a short amount of time. Visual effects can be a tough nut to crack for some animators jumping in right out of school as the level of detail and quality can be intimidating and the timelines quite demanding for someone lacking experience. Becoming a good animator takes a long time. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and still learn from my colleagues on a near-daily basis.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Jurassic Park – for a kid born in the early ‘80s, this landed at the perfect time in my life to inspire and awe. The introduction to seeing the T-rex for the first time in the movie theatre was terrifying and opened up a whole new idea of what I could do with my life.

The Incredibles – Pixar … Brad Bird … superheroes … I mean, what else do you want? The animation in this film is still some of my favorite work out of Pixar. The acting choices and the simple, graphic style of the film really hold up.

Mad Max: Fury Road – talk about spectacle and the marrying of special and visual effects in a beautiful way. The way the story was told defied all normal convention and was so refreshing. I love how insane some of the design choices were – any film that thinks a man strapped to a truck playing guitar is a good idea is all right in my books.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEPHEN CLEE: The theater down the street from me serves booze. So, beer and Sour Patch Kids.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Stephen!

Spotlight – Sandra Balej

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

Sandra BalejSandra Balej is a digital effects supervisor at Method Studios, and lists her filmography highlights as Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: It was not the love of effects that got me into this industry but my love for movies in general. As long as I remember, I have loved to go to the theater to watch a movie up big! We had this amazing old-fashioned theater where I grew up and my parents took me there to watch movies like Babe and Cinderella. I still remember how I loved the whole experience, when the lights went out and the curtains opened – yes, they had curtains back then – and I was taken to this other world for few hours. I guess I just kind of got addicted.

If I had to pinpoint one moment when I decided I wanted to work in the movie industry, it was when I watched my first action film in theater: James Bond in The World is Not Enough. Granted, looking back, I question the quality of it, but I just loved the action and explosions. While I was still a teenager my aspirations were all a bit naïve: “I want to be a director.” But over years of doing research, I realized that I wanted to have a sustainable career where I actually might have a chance to break into this industry that seemed so out of reach. Visual effects seemed to be the right choice. That’s when I decided to go to Vancouver Film School.

Luckily, it turned out I love doing effects. I got a job in Germany right after I graduated, at a small visual effects company, Exozet, mostly doing effects for television. The CEO Olaf Skrzipczyk took his chance with me, hiring me as a generalist but mostly focused on compositing. He and his team taught me so much and groomed me into a proper artist. I will forever be grateful they took me under their wings. We used Fusion back then to composite and that’s what helped me to get my first big break in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. Still to this date, it’s one of my favorite projects I have ever worked on. Fusion compositors were hard to come by in Germany at the time, so the compositing supervisor Rony Soussan took his chance and hired this greenhorn of a compositor.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Seeing the fans’ reaction to a movie you have been working on for a very long time. Working on high pressure effects movies with tight deadlines, you sometimes lose sight why you were doing in it in the first place, and whenever I start working on a new project I go into this kind of hibernation mode where I put my real life on standby and give everything to the project. Probably not the healthiest approach, but I just can’t help but pour all my energy into something once I start. The year I was working on Doctor Strange, we just had finished delivering the Comic-Con trailer so I was able to escape for a few days. I was a bit in zombie mode after working such long hours but then I saw the fans’ reactions to the trailer. It was goosebump-inducing. That for me makes it all worth it.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SANDRA BALEJ: Omits. I know they are part of the process of moviemaking and need to happen, but it still hurts when a shot gets cut – especially when you’ve in a lot of work.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Designing a particular new environment for Ant-Man and the Wasp. I can’t say much since the movie is not released yet, but coming up with this very important look for the movie with the creative team has been the most challenging thing of my career so far.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SANDRA BALEJ: It was part of that Comic-Con trailer I mentioned earlier. It was a Sunday morning when I got this frantic call from our producer that Marvel needed 10 more frames for a trailer shot – not a weird request in itself. I was the comp supervisor back then, so I just rendered the frames and sent it to them. What was weird was that I received a phone call from Victoria Alonso herself to thank me for doing it on such a short notice. She’s probably already forgotten about it, but I really appreciated the gesture.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: In these times of social media and the internet where the fans have lots of opinions, moviemakers have become a bit more flexible in postproduction. Social media platforms and test screenings give them the chance to have their finger on the pulse of the fanbase’s wants and needs. As a consequence, the effects industry has to plan accordingly to keep up with any last-minute changes that need to happen.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SANDRA BALEJ: I wouldn’t shed a tear if we saw fewer stereo-converted movies. I like a good 3D movie like any other guy, but that mostly goes for native stereo movies. The conversion companies nowadays don’t get to spend a lot of time on the process and the experience suffers from that.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Try to find a life-work balance. The effects industry is tough on body and mind, especially when you start out. After 10 years in the business, I am still struggling to find it, but sometimes it helps to remember that this is a marathon not a sprint.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: The Man from Nowhere – I am a big fan of South Korean cinema, and this film is very much a case of incredible invisible effects. Some of the stunt work and the subtle use of effects is just incredible. I worked in Asia for some time as well and it was a great experience. I enjoy seeing the amazing progress the effects quality has made over the last few years over there.

Gravity: I have always been a fan of Alfonso Cuarón’s famous long shots. The 17-minute-long opening shot in Gravity was absolutely stunning.

Independence Day – this classic inspired me a lot when I was a kid. The effects still hold up so well even today. My favorite shot is the spaceship’s first appearance when it’s coming out of that big cloud. Perfect example of how cloud tank footage can sometimes beat heavy effects sims.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SANDRA BALEJ: I’ll go with the classic – popcorn. But not that weird salty stuff you guys have in North America. I thought I was poisoned the first time I tried it.

CINEFEX: Sandra, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Rudy Grossman

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

Rudy Grossman

Rudy Grossman is a digital effects supervisor at Atomic Fiction, and lists his career highlights as Pirates of the Caribbean, Deadpool, Maleficent, King Kong, Star Wars, X-Men and Game of Thrones.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: My first big break was at a visual effects studio focused on creating photorealistic humans using a proprietary facial motion capture system called LifeFx. We were working with Jim Carrey doing some tests for a Warner Brothers project and it was an amazing learning experience – the first time photoreal facial motion capture had been used to create a digital actor. Looking back, it really was pretty groundbreaking. A lot of super-talented industry gamechangers came out of that group, including Dr. Mark Sagar, David Taritero, Kevin Smith and Guy Williams.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: I love the whole visual effects process. From the early planning and preproduction, to prepping the asset builds, putting together the shots, adding that last bit of polish, and finally sitting in the theater to watch all that hard work come together on the big screen. Working in this industry has provided me with so many amazing experiences, traveling and living around the world, experiencing different cultures, getting to meet and work with directors and actors who have inspired me so much, people I’d never in a million years imagined I’d meet. Most of all, making so many friends along the way, and watching them grow and succeed in their own career paths, seeing colleagues who once shared the same wide-eyed enthusiasm when new to the industry, now veteran supervisors.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

RUDY GROSSMAN: The first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up. Oh, no it’s happening again, just thinking about it. What kind of question is this? Everything’s going blurry …

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: Switching from front-end character setup to lighting. After years of working primarily in rigging, model, creature effects, facial mocap and tech-anim, it was difficult to switch into back-end work – lighting and compositing.

During King Kong, I was involved in creating Weta’s first facial mocap performance, with Andy Serkis playing the title character. It was months of long hours, working nights and weekends. Around the same time that we were delivering the last Kong face shots, an email went out asking if anybody could light shots. I had a little experience lighting, but not enough to make a reel, so I was really excited about the chance to get more experience. To be honest, I was also already completely exhausted! I don’t know where the burst of energy came from – I guess it’s like when you get close to the end of good book and you just don’t want it to end. Anyway, next thing I knew, I was moved over to a different building where I was assigned a lighting shot – this completely awesome shot of Kong towards the end of the film. So there I am at my desk, thinking this must be a mistake, there’s no way they are going to assign this awesome shot to me, sooner or later the production team will stop by and reassign it to a more experienced lighter. My heart was literally racing with excitement, and a little fear.

That night, I slept under my desk so I could periodically wake up, check the renders, and resubmit if anything was broken. Next morning, I was informed the shot would be handed off to a different artist. I understood, and mentioned that I’d just submitted a version to dailies, so they could review its current state for handing it off. They reviewed the shot, liked it, and decided I should keep going with it. More shots were assigned and, before I knew it, I had enough shots for a lighting reel, which then led to more jobs in lighting and eventually compositing too. Weta’s supervisor Chris White and production coordinator Rebecca Downes were incredibly supportive about transitioning me into lighting. Their encouragement was inspirational.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

RUDY GROSSMAN: Creating the facial blood flow effect for the three CG photoreal pixie characters in Disney’s Maleficent. In reality, the human face has subtle hue shifts as blood is dynamically compressed and drained by the motion of our expressions, temperature conditions, and emotional states. At the time, this had been an unexplored area in feature film CG characters. Mathias Whitman, the facial animation supervisor, and John Feather, the face lead, were equally passionate about doing everything we could to make these characters feel real. We listed blood flow as one of our goals while strategizing for the project, but we couldn’t find the resources to get it started. I had promised them that if we couldn’t find anybody to work on this, then I would do it.

A few months passed and we still couldn’t get anybody allocated to take this on, so I started working on it as a side project, mainly in the evenings and weekends. Paul Debevec’s ICT team shot some amazing reference footage of one of our main actresses going through an extreme range of facial expressions. Using this, I was able to really understand what conditions caused the blood to flow in and out of the different facial regions, and the effect that had on the skin’s subsurface scattering. The first step was re-creating the performance of the blood flow – to do this I used a cgfx shader. This way, I could quickly and interactively focus on fine-tuning the way blood moved within the face and not have to wait around for lengthy render times. The first time it all worked, interactively animating the character’s face and watching the blood flow change in real time was super-exciting!

The next step was taking the formula from the cgfx shader and using that to create higher resolution results with an appropriate time delay on the blood flow recovery. I plugged those results directly into the subsurface scattering of our V-Ray skin shader. Besides adding an extra illusion of life to the characters under normal conditions, it was also really helpful to add realism when they were yelling or upset, and having the faces flush slightly while flying at a higher altitude in colder air.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: The biggest change has been globalization. The visual effects industry, once very centralized in California, is now spread widely across world. But the challenge of making visual effects is still as exciting. As our community continues to grow and get better and better at making visual effects, the complexity of the movies being made and the appetite of our audience is also growing.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

RUDY GROSSMAN: There is still a lot more we can do on-set, during our acquisition phase, to improve our overall process and allow higher quality work to be achieved more efficiently in areas like digital lighting and lookdev. We need to periodically question our standard workflows and find new ways to get better results.

It would be amazing to see more improvements in plausible simulation. Instead of trying to narrow in on the exact dynamic settings to accurately achieve the desired outcome, we should be flipping this on its head, and have our desired outcome accurately determine the settings required to achieve it – essentially resulting in simulations which are driven by the creative target.

I would also love to see improvements in markerless motion capture. The ultimate goal would be to accurately track and construct correlated 3D deforming data of actors’ faces, bodies, costumes and hair on-set under the actual lighting conditions, synced with the filming.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: First, think about what you want out of life and what’s important to you. If consistency and predictability are a high priority – like living in the same town with the same routine – then this industry may not be the best fit. Most people in visual effects move around through different job opportunities. It used to be moving up and down the California coast; now it’s moving to new countries. You will know this career is the right choice for you if the work calls to you, gives you a sense of satisfaction, and you have fun doing it.

Second, find a place where you like the people you work with. If you find yourself at a studio where the people around you are mean-spirited, get out – it’s a toxic environment and you will be unhappy every day you are there. Atomic Fiction is a really good example of a studio filled with fun people who are excited to work together. I’ve worked with Ryan Tudhope and Kevin Baillie for years, and I know their intentions are sincere and they care about the people who work here.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: Deadpool – a surprise hit that kind of came out of nowhere. It is such a fun movie to watch, and it was a fun movie to work on. The team at Atomic Fiction really came together and built a foundation that launched us forward into several exciting projects. I’m super-proud of what we achieved. For a lot of us, it was also a great chance to work with Jonathan Rothbart again. It was like a visual effects reunion!

Maleficent – the pixies’ faces are digital re-creations of the actresses. That required a herculean effort from everybody involved, and the results were simply gorgeous. A significant portion of the face mocap technology used in the film had evolved from the face development work at IMD, and it was really exciting to see the evolution of that technology, and its results recognized with Nicholas Apostoloff’s sci-tech Academy Award.

King Kong – it was a great team, with an unwavering commitment to strive for quality. Peter Jackson is one of those rare big-feature directors that puts in the effort to make people feel involved, appreciated, and important to the process. Spielberg, Zemeckis, and George Miller are other great examples of that rare group. The years of previous work in facial motion capture that had barely seen the light of day, the initial controversy amongst the actor’s guild during the testing in the late 90’s, and even the initial skepticism within our own industry, finally came to fruition with a fully believable, emotionally complex performance. The film itself won an Academy Award for best visual effects, and Mark Sagar was given a sci-tech Academy Award for leading the charge that established performance-driven facial motion capture within the filmmaking process.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

RUDY GROSSMAN: Lounging in a recliner seat while dipping cantucci biscotti into a glass of Vin Santo. It’s like milk and cookies, but for grownups!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Rudy!

Spotlight – Michael L. Hutchinson

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

Michael L HutchinsonMichael L. Hutchinson is information operations manager at Atomic Fiction. Among his filmography highlights are movies such as Star Wars, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man, Stranger Things and The Women of Marwen.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: In film school, a long-haired, bearded, leather jacket-wearing representative from ILM came and did a presentation on The Mask and digital effects. Learning about ILM being the best of the best sold me – that’s where I wanted to work. My first big break after finishing film school, moving to LA and working as a runner for a trailer house for a couple years, was getting an interview at ILM and then getting hired in their video editorial department as a machine room tape operator. I literally was yelling “Woohoo!!” in my truck on the drive into work each morning for about a year. A couple years later I’d be working late, digitizing footage on an AVID for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and think to myself, “I’m working on Star Wars, at ILM! How did this happen?!” Good times.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: When a piece of code I’ve written suddenly works that automates processes and makes my life or the life of people in my department easier and more efficient. Or times when I get to contribute to the filmmaking process in a more personal and visible way – like when I had a brother living in Afghanistan who sent me pictures for reference on Iron Man. Those images were instrumental in building the digital buildings of a town used in the final film.

Then there was the time I got to be Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones. My hair and beard were a solid match, so I was used as a body double in some shots where Obi-Wan is in a Magnaline 3000 transport helping take Anakin and Padme to a spaceport to go hide on her home planet. After that, my nickname became Obi-Hutch. It’s stayed with me my entire career.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Working with kids who have never seen the cult classic movies that I grew up with.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: I was hired at The Orphanage to help develop their HD pipeline. It was rudimentary and not working properly – it would take up to three days to get files processed and transferred to a server, an EDL built, and everything conformed in order to layoff dpx frames as HD video to tape for client deliveries. I built my own code and tools to optimize and automate processes. In the end I was able to get the time down to about 15 minutes.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Backing up an entire HD server with all the images for Attack of the Clones every weekend. This was done to digital tape using a Philips D6 VTR – at the time there were only four in the world, each costing something like a quarter of a million dollars. Using proprietary software, the process would back up each image in a digital lossless data format, splitting it into four quadrants of data that were recorded on different fields/frames. The machine was never consistently frame-accurate and an offset would have to be verified and applied each time. The process of laying off the data to tape could take over eight hours. There went my Saturdays for months!

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Going from using VHS, Betacam, Digibeta, HDDs and other formats for image acquisition and delivery, to seeing them all disappear and only using online digital file transfer services.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: The newer entities in digital streaming and content creation adopting former film industry standards such as file naming, editorial best practices, and turnover of helpful information for working with digital files and media.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Figure out what you want to do. Get working at developing your skills and talents. Start making connections and get working. Build your resume with real skills and accomplishments. The most important traits are dependability, hard work, being humble, teachable, and good communication skills.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: The Matrix, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Inception – three of the coolest movies ever! The visual effects were integral to telling the great stories. Many of the effects are pretty obvious, these being fantasy films, but so much was subtle and unnoticed, yet key to creating the worlds and realities. It’s too difficult to single out shots and sequences in these movies as their entirety is what makes them complete and so great.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Salted buttered popcorn.

CINEFEX: Michael, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Oliver Schulz

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

Oliver SchulzA visual effects supervisor at RISE, Oliver Schulz considers his career highlights to include Black Panther, Babylon Berlin, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: Initially, my goal was actually not to get involved in computers. I had always loved drawing and painting, but I think it was my brother who introduced me to Maya. I tried it out for two or three weeks, closed it and probably didn’t get back on for three or four months. When I did reopen it I was hooked, in particular with the 3D capabilities.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: The process of bringing together all the little parts and fitting them together for that grand end result. I find that to be really rewarding. Also, coming into work in the morning and screening renders that were sent into the farm the previous night. Being impressed by what turned out well, and seeing the surprises – that never gets old.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

OLIVER SCHULZ: When renders were sent in the previous night don’t come out!

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: The sequences that we did for the first Captain America – we got pretty close to the end deadlines there, but ultimately we pulled through those crazy weeks. Getting up during some of those mornings were notable feats of strength and stamina.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

OLIVER SCHULZ: Standing on the set of Captain America: Civil War in Atlanta and seeing the locations where many other notable productions had been filmed – that was a surreal but incredible opportunity. For example, The Walking Dead was shot in the same areas we were setting up in.

RISE constructed the mountain city of Jabariland as a fully CG environment for Marvel Studios' "Black Panther."

RISE constructed the mountain city of Jabariland as a fully CG environment for Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.”

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: I think one trend that is becoming mainstream is the increasing amount of last-minute changes, and how frequently they come in. This reflects overall advancements in how streamlined the technology and workflows have become.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

OLIVER SCHULZ: The continued development of our workflow processes – where we can improve and what we can do away with.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: Train your eye. That is the most important thing for anyone interested in this field. Know how to quickly and efficiently distinguish between what is good and what doesn’t work. This will save you time and give you more energy to go into other tasks which require more attention.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: Actually, a couple of videogames come to the top of my mind first. The cut scenes from the 1990s PC game Command and Conquer: Red Alert. Also, the cut scenes from the first Warcraft were impressive at the time. For movies, I would say the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films, with the work done to create Bill Nighy’s tentacle-faced antagonist, Davy Jones – for me, that is one of the most successful visual effects character creations of all time. Oh, and Cameron’s Avatar, too.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

OLIVER SCHULZ: I don’t do snacks in cinemas. Only beer from time to time.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Oliver!

Spotlight – Simon Ohler

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

Simon OhlerSimon Ohler is a pipeline developer at RISE, with career highlights including Black Panther, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Cloud Atlas.

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?

SIMON OHLER: I wanted originally to be a director and a graphic designer. In university, there was this 3D course that I decided to enroll in and it was then that my eyes really opened up to the possibilities of what this field can achieve. I knew that this was what I wanted to do and from then on worked towards getting into more facets of 3D work.

One scenario I wanted to work on was large-scale destruction sequences, such as a city being toppled. So, for my final university project, I did a 30-second shot of a building collapsing during an earthquake. Even with all the resources available now, this is still a challenging task – 10 years ago even more so, as many of the tools that are pretty much industry standard now just weren’t available back then. Fortunately, the sequence came out quite nicely, and landed me my job at RISE.

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

SIMON OHLER: The chance to work as a team. When I was starting out, a lot of the tasks you had to complete whether as a student or in a similar role were solitary. In a team environment, you share a lot of previously unknown or unconsidered approaches and techniques that will benefit your own workflow. The people here definitely make coming into work all the more enjoyable.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SIMON OHLER: Those short turnarounds.

RISE delivered visual effects for the Netflix series "Babylon Berlin."

RISE delivered visual effects for the Netflix series “Babylon Berlin.”

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

SIMON OHLER: The first Captain America film, which was also the first Marvel Studios production we had worked on. At the time, this was all about proving our facility could easily deliver and produce quality work in an already competitive industry. That was certainly challenging for me as an individual, but was also critical in making sure we got off on the right foot with what turned out to be a heavy visual effects-dependent franchise. Some of these earlier difficult tasks included matching perfectly an effect that another vendor had built. This was highly rewarding when we got it right.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SIMON OHLER: Those happy accidents – although, of course, you cannot always foresee them. For example, when something breaks in the viewport and it just looks awesome. You have to love those magical moments.

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

SIMON OHLER: Open formats becoming a standard for data exchange – not only from one application to another but often from one studio to another. Having formats like alembic and vdb at your disposal make the transfer of data much, much smoother compared to previous pipelines. You can now easily build off something that a team of hundreds of developers were previously working on – all you have to do is integrate it into your workflow.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SIMON OHLER: Something that is already happening is the shift towards real-time rendering. There are already examples of feature-length animated movies being rendered in real-time engines. When it comes to photorealistic visual effects, this is still limited to single characters and smaller, more manageable sets. But, some years from now, I imagine we’ll be assembling sets and placing effects elements with a much clearer preview of how everything will look in the final shot.

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

SIMON OHLER: Pay attention to detail and never work with the mindset that tasks are truly finished. When something is done, don’t stop there and say “I’m fine” – there are probably a hundred different ways that it could reworked or improved upon. Keep an open mind and continually test your own abilities – those are the top pieces of advice I can offer.

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

SIMON OHLER: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds – I would say it is the film that brought me into the world of visual effects. Seeing what they did, I wanted to be a part of the destruction and mayhem sequence developments. Mad Max: Fury Road – because it was a really nice blend of CG and practical effects. And the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

For a specific shot, I would say the scene in War of the Worlds where Tom Cruise is escaping with his family by car, and as they look back a freeway overpass is completely flipped on end with them barely having cleared it. It looks like a massive special effect with the level of detail that was put into the shot.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SIMON OHLER: Beer, if available.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Korbinian Hopfner

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

Korbinian HopfnerKorbinian Hopfner is a Houdini effects TD at RISE, and has worked on films including Avengers: Infinity War, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: When I first watched the massive battle sequences in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I thought that I would like to get involved in this line of work by helping to make these visual effects-heavy productions. I started by reviewing as many available tutorials as I could find. My research also included how effects were achieved throughout previous decades when digital technology was in its earlier years – particularly in understanding how exactly they got around the technical hurdles by developing their own tools and processes. It still motivates me to take my work further.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Those lucky shots where the first attempt gets to final – that’ll always make me smile.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: The sad sight of a broken espresso machine and the chilling reality that the day has only begun.

RISE was part of the global visual effects team on Marvel Studios' "Doctor Strange."

RISE was part of the global visual effects team on Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange.”

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Probably Captain America: Civil War, where we went through a lot of look development phases for a specific effect and needed to change it in a very short time.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: We had to create an effect for rocks that consume light. Conceptually, that was a strange task.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Effects work is always a very time-consuming process – at least, it can be when it comes to big simulations. Of course, every year it becomes easier as the software and hardware are continually improved upon. A positive aspect of these advancements is that becoming involved in this industry is easier now for beginners. The software has evolved to be more user-friendly, albeit still offering the tools that artists need to complete their tasks.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Real-time photorealistic physics and simulations – I would definitely like to see this more and more implemented.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Start with some simple tutorials, followed by an internship. If you’re still on board after that, I guess you’re good to go for the next level. Go step by step, and don’t ever give up after a hiccup. Keep practicing.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: I would begin with the classics – Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. They still have some of the most ground-breaking effects of all time. I mean, who doesn’t get goosebumps when the T-1000 melts through the iron bars? Seeing that in theaters for the first time is a memory that will be hard to top, if even. The third one would certainly be Mad Max: Fury Road. Every time I rewatch the sequence where they are racing through the encroaching mega-sandstorm, there are always previously unnoticed details I love discovering.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Movie time is popcorn time. I choose you, salty popcorn!

CINEFEX: Korbinian, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Matthias Winkler

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

Matthias WinklerA CG supervisor at RISE, Matthias Winkler picks out his career highlights as Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War and Babylon Berlin.

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

MATTHIAS WINKLER: I was working for a small advertising agency and picked up a trial version of Maya after seeing Finding Nemo. I wanted to know how they were able to create those characters and environments. That was my first experience getting into 3D and from then on it was just further expanding into this field.

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

MATTHIAS WINKLER: Seeing your renderings being massaged into the plate by talented compositors.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MATTHIAS WINKLER: Checking renders in the morning, and having incomplete renders in sequences where you really needed them.

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

MATTHIAS WINKLER: The project I’m currently working on, due to the increased amount of different departments we had coming together, and exchanging work frequently to make the effects work on a certain character come together in a short amount of time. Thanks to our great pipeline TDs and our visual effects supervisor, it worked out just fine, and the camera got really close to some of our digital assets and effects. Really, really close!

RISE created hologram visual effects for the car chase in "Black Panther."

RISE created hologram visual effects for the car chase in “Black Panther.”

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

MATTHIAS WINKLER: I find myself thinking of the time when I was starting off as a modeler and had first got my hands on the newly available lidar scanners. That was a real game-changer.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MATTHIAS WINKLER: I would like to have better processing speed capabilities. Say about 777 times better than they are currently.

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 WINKLER: Finding Nemo, Edge of Tomorrow and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. For a particular sequence, the beach battle in Edge of Tomorrow really blew my mind. I liked the whole cinematography and the production design, especially the rig and the animation of the Mimics – really impressive.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MATTHIAS WINKLER: Beer and bubblegum.

CINEFEX: Matthias, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Esther Trilsch

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

Esther TrilschEsther Trilsch is a rigging TD at RISE, and lists her filmography highlights as Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, Babylon Berlin and Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.

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

ESTHER TRILSCH: I was actually more interested in drawing initially, but I realized I wasn’t that great at it. I remember looking at how 3D artists work creatively, and started to experiment with these approaches. Cinema 4D was my starting point, but at the time there weren’t many tutorials available. What I could find was all in Italian so it was kind of a bummy start! That first contact with 3D got me headed in the direction of wider visual effects work. Over the course of my studies, I realized that approaches taken with 3D characters and anatomy are very close to what got me originally into illustrating. It was a natural step heading into a wider visual effects environment where I could learn not only more about my own interests, but also the other necessary components for this field of production.

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

ESTHER TRILSCH: Certainly when you reach the point where the character you’ve been working on becomes ‘alive.’ Building something up that will benefit the company and help us grow as a whole. The tools we have created and use in-house, catered to our needs, offer new experiences and continually challenge us to develop further.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ESTHER TRILSCH: There are always pros and cons. It is a fast-changing industry and a lot of stuff that you develop will soon need to be upgraded or swapped out entirely – that can also be seen as a pro as it keeps you moving and learning. The impact of globalization on the effects industry is something we all might be concerned with. Regarding outsourcing, talent is something I think we should be more mindful of moving forward.

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

ESTHER TRILSCH: I feel slightly challenged right now! I’m working on my first project in the role of supervisor, where I am now responsible for other people and their work. Each show has its own set of challenges and, while they may be similar from show to show, they still require strategizing for how we reach our end goals. Of course, bringing any project together towards the end, keeping everything in check, has its expected hurdles.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ESTHER TRILSCH: As a rigger, you have to take care of the anatomy of the characters and actors which need to be built. So, there are moments when you need to do things that you previously thought would never come across your plate. Funny requests are expected in this line of work!

RISE created visual effects for the Netflix series "Bablyon Berlin."

RISE created visual effects for the Netflix series “Bablyon Berlin.”

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

ESTHER TRILSCH: One trend that I see the industry moving towards is incorporating machine learning into more day-to-day workflows. Over the last two years, I have heard of increased instances where this type of AI is becoming part of the tools we use daily. This will change a lot of workflows for us – for example, processes like transferring motion capture data into usable animation data is becoming faster.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ESTHER TRILSCH: I am interested with where machine learning may take this industry, but also cautious – it might drastically reduce the amount of work we get ourselves. It is encouraging to see the increase of women working in visual effects. I would love to see an even more dramatic increase over the coming years. From my perspective, I feel it is fairly easy to be respected in this profession.

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

ESTHER TRILSCH: Learn programming as early as possible. You will need it! Try to balance anatomical and mathematical skillsets, as these will aid you tremendously as you begin your own careers. It will save you a lot of trouble further down the road and get you into positions where more responsibilities and possibilities are available to you.

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

ESTHER TRILSCH: Blade Runner 2049 – a very good example of a mix of high quality visual effects work with practical effects. The Lord of the Rings trilogy – I remember the first time when I saw Gollum just being completely awestruck that this was possible. Jurassic Park – for the time, those were impressive creature builds.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ESTHER TRILSCH: Chicago Style Popcorn – caramel and cheese mixed!

CINEFEX: Esther, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Andreas Giesen

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

Andreas Giesen is an effects supervisor at RISE, with career highlights including Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, Dark, Babylon Berlin and Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.

Andreas GiesenANDREAS GIESEN: I started by working in the gaming industry. Back then, the limitations were much bigger than they are today, especially regarding model and rendering detail. It was a great experience for starting as a generalist and getting to know Maya in-depth, but soon I looked for new challenges and started as an intern in the visual effects industry.

While I continued working as a generalist in Maya, I started to focus on effects simulations and the software package Houdini. Already in my childhood I had made funny short films with stock muzzle flashes, explosions and lightsabers – AlamDV rocks! – so this was the next logical step. I continued gathering experience at RISE with Houdini as an effects TD over the years, before becoming the effects supervisor for Captain America: Civil War. That was really challenging but also a huge opportunity.

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

ANDREAS GIESEN: The most fascinating thing about this job is that it never gets dull around here. Every project, regardless of genre or production size, has its own set of new challenges. Of course, there are aspects that are repeated or similar to previous assignments. But overall I would say the constant flow of new challenges and ideas is what keeps me coming to work.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDREAS GIESEN: When people use the render farm with the motto: “I don’t always render 12-hour frames, but when I do they’re completely black.”

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

ANDREAS GIESEN: It would Captain America: Winter Soldier, my first project here in a supervisor role. Everything from the scope to the complexity of each task made it feel at the start like I had undertaken a mammoth challenge. Fortunately I was with other like-minded colleagues who were able to help us realize what was tasked.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDREAS GIESEN: While building the crowd system for Babylon Berlin, we had one crowd agent who always lost his pants when coming out of the cloth simulation. That was weird.

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

ANDREAS GIESEN: I would say the increasing number of complex visual effects shots in a movie today. Six years ago, you would only have one or two films released where there is a city destruction sequence. Now every second movie has a city that gets obliterated. That makes it way more difficult to create something new which is really outstanding.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDREAS GIESEN: I think we can go – and are going – further with streamlining the visual effects process so that we can complete even greater amounts of tasks within our set timeframe. We’re also relying more and more on procedural approaches, which save a lot of time in the end.

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

ANDREAS GIESEN: Keep experimenting by doing your own projects. Don’t expect there to be someone to hold your hand or show you how to do this or that. To get into this industry, you need to keep learning and experimenting first-hand. Whether by nonstop viewing of tutorials online, learn what you are good at and where you would like to improve. Never handicap yourself by believing you can’t get it how you imagined it or by passing the work on to someone else. It’s also important to work within a team that you can learn from. Your own ambition and passion ultimately will be the key factors that will carry you through the highs and lows of visual effects work.

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

ANDREAS GIESEN: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, definitely – these films were a part of what inspired me to get into this field. The early crowd sequences such as the massive battle were impressive to see on the big screen then and still are to this day. Another one is The Matrix movie. You cannot imagine how many times I tried to do a proper bullet time effect in my childhood – quite difficult with just one camera and a person who has to stand still for minutes!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDREAS GIESEN: Popcorn with an appropriate balance of sweet and salty goodness.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time!