Spotlight – Sheena Duggal

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

Having learned her craft during the very earliest days of digital compositing, and with a career as visual effects supervisor stretching back 20 years, Sheena Duggal has many stories to tell of her experiences in the industry – not to mention her work promoting diversity and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She lists her career highlights as including Mission Impossible, Contact, Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio, Matchstick Men, Spider-Man 3, Body of Lies, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Agent Carter, Doctor Strange and Venom.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "VFX Convergence" event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “VFX Convergence” event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: I grew up in England and attended art school for five years specializing in animation. When I left art college in 1985, I passed on a traditional animation job to work in London on high-resolution computer design work for musicians and photographers. It was there that I was first contacted to work on the feature film Super Mario Brothers.

I do have some great memories from my life before features. I worked on Elton John’s singles, albums and tour brochures – Prince’s too – but my all-time favorite client session was the time I spent one-on-one with George Harrison designing the first Traveling Wilburys album cover. George had a demo cassette of the album, which I listened to on my Walkman while I worked. I didn’t realize at the time the gravitas with which I should have held this experience! I was in my early ‘20s and the music scene I was into was very different, so it sounded dated to me. I didn’t realize the band was actually Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn – that was still a secret. I listened politely, racking my brain about how to authentically say something positive – I know, that sounds crazy now! George asked my opinion of the album, and I recall saying I liked the song Tweeter and the Monkey Man. He’d written that one, so he was happy! I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a Beatle!” But it was really hard to sustain that awe, because he was just a nice, down to earth, generous, likeable guy with amazing stories of his trips to India, who took me out for dinner and gave me money for my cab fare home when we worked late.

CINEFEX: How did Super Mario Brothers come into the picture?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Sorry, I digress! A friend of mine, Phillipe Panzini – who went on to win an Academy Sci-tech Award for his work on Flame software – had shown the film’s producers a VIP brochure where we’d composited athletes onto NASA images of the Earth for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and they hired me as a matte painter. I was living in London at the time, didn’t know a soul in Los Angeles, and I had never used Flame. Then again, nor had anyone else. How hard could it be?

CINEFEX: So how hard was it?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, it was all very bleeding edge. There was a group of us working on about 20 SGI workstations with VGX graphics, and no such thing as batch or background processing. You’d set up a comp with as many as 26 layers, document all your setups by hand so you could reproduce them, then wait for it to render. It did that in the foreground, so there was a lot of downtime. Gary Tregaskis, the architect of Flame, was there with us constantly writing new code to allow us to create the effects we needed, and the late Peter Webb – who was the only person who had actually used Flame before – graciously shared his knowledge with us.

After that, I moved to San Francisco to work for the amazing animation company Colossal Pictures, under Brad De Graf who was exploring motion capture characters with his real-time CG character Moxy – considered to be the first real-time cartoon broadcast live. Using Flame, I composited a Robocop theme park ride for Iwerks, and using an alpha version of Flint – which Discreet Logic wrote for me to run on an Indy – I worked on the award winning Coke Sun commercial with director Tony Stacchi. I briefly moved back to Los Angeles to be a compositor on Terminal Velocity, before heading to ILM in the mid ‘90s to work on a Tales from the Crypt episode directed by Bob Zemeckis. After working on films such as Village of the Damned, The Indian in the Cupboard, Congo, Jumanji, Mission Impossible and the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope, I left ILM with a team of amazing artists and technologists lead by Ken Ralston to help found Sony Pictures Imageworks as creative director of the high speed compositing department.

I became a visual effects supervisor in 1998 on Patch Adams, continuing to run the HSC department and comp shots until it became impossible for me to do it all. I left Imageworks after 14 amazing years to work as an independent production-side visual effects supervisor on The Hunger Games, then spent four years working with Marvel. I’m currently visual effects supervisor on Venom with Paul Franklin.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Meeting people who have been touched by the work we do in the film industry. It’s easy to forget how much the dazzling visuals that we create impact people we’ve never met. In creating fantastical stories, we allow our audience a moment of escapism from their real lives, or we hit an emotional tone that resonates within them.

I remember meeting someone who asked me for an example of a film I’d worked on. I mentioned Contact, because I was very proud of the work I’d done designing the beautiful, ethereal look of the beach sequence on Vega where Jodie Foster speaks with her dead father. She immediately teared up, and told me that for her it was an amazing moment in the film. She explained that her father had passed away, and that the scene had felt to her like a depiction of heaven, and had touched her deeply. I was surprised, but I’ve heard many people over the years express similar sentiments.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

Along the same lines, when I was at Marvel, we did a one-shot short directed by Louis D’Esposito called Agent Carter. I was the visual effects supervisor and I also created the main on-end title design – which was so much fun! Bob Iger liked the short so much it spun off into a television show on ABC. We did two seasons and when the shows aired, together with the actors and show runners, we live tweeted with the fans. It was so incredibly rewarding to tweet with these young girls who found in Peggy Carter an empowered female character that they could look up to.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Being the only woman in the room in a craft role. The lack of ethnic diversity is also disheartening. Diversity issues have been brought to the forefront of our industry recently, and it really is a very big problem. As a woman, you just don’t get the same opportunities as men. Often you can’t even finish your sentence, because some people still find it difficult to listen to a woman in a technical role. I’ve discussed these issues with women and people of color in other disciplines of the film industry and it’s the same story across the board. Some sectors of the industry, like cinematography and composers and visual effects, are very far behind in terms of gender equality and diversity.

I don’t often speak about these issues publicly. I’d much rather work towards a better solution for the future and be an agent of change, which I aim to do as chair of the Academy visual effects branch Diversity and Inclusion Sub-Committee and as a member of the A2020 Committee, whose initiative is to have a substantial and lasting impact on the diversity and inclusion issues in all aspects of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. I’m excited by the initiatives we’re working towards to create real and positive change within all branches of our industry.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: One of the most challenging and rewarding tasks – because those often go hand in hand – was sitting with Pietro Scala and Sir Ridley Scott cutting the car chase and helicopter sequence on Body of Lies. We’d shot the sequence in the Sahara Desert but ran out of time at the end of the schedule. No one really wanted to go into the Mojave Desert to shoot additional photography, so we solved it by using visual effects to Frankenstitch together plates we’d shot, adding a few CG shots to help with storytelling. It came out brilliantly.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, I’ve supervised a few Adam Sandler films, so lots of weird tasks there! One in particular, on Fifty First Dates, was to make a walrus puke. On the day of the shoot, I was banned from set for safety because the walrus became amorous. I don’t think it gets weirder than that!

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Oh, things have changed so much since I began working in visual effects. Back in the early 1990s, we didn’t think about it as a business. Everything we did was a challenge and every day we were pushing the forefront of technological development. Creating an effect we had never seen or done required everyone in the filmmaking process to take a huge leap of faith. It was really challenging, we worked long hours because we were devoted to our tasks, and it was always a thrill to see what we were able to pull off. We were fortunate to be working with filmmakers like Bob Zemeckis who pushed us to innovate and create their vision despite the magnitude of the task ahead of us. We formed bonds and shared our innovations and techniques. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

I don’t know the exact point at which visual effects became big business. We didn’t anticipate how rapidly the technology and hardware would advance, become cost-effective and precipitate a mature toolset. Tasks that would have taken complex setups to complete 25 years ago can now be done with the push of a button and rendered in no time at all. But still, for those of us who have been in this industry for any amount of time, the objective remains the same – to create, innovate and push the envelope.

Aside from the tools and technology, the way we make films has also changed a lot, with many films driven by schedule and release dates. Today, there’s an increased level of difficulty in managing the complexity and number of shots. You could say that the challenge of feature film visual effects has become resource management – can we do the work given the schedule and budget available?

This is why I believe visual effects producers are so integral to the visual effects process. In fact, I’m encouraging our industry to further include and recognize their contribution. We couldn’t succeed in our craft without their contribution, which is often creative actually. The success of a project relies on a successful partnership between visual effects supervisor and producer. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great visual effects producers, and I was delighted to see a number of them admitted to the Academy visual effects branch in 2017. We didn’t admit any this year, but this is a great start and goes a long way towards acknowledging and recognizing their contribution.

Of course, another big change is that we have dispersed our industry around the world in pursuit of tax credits, displacing thriving visual effects communities and forcing so many visual effects companies out of business.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SHEENA DUGGAL: More diversity and inclusion, period.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: If you’ve found what you love and it’s visual effects, there are four broad categories you can choose from – creative, technical, production management and facility management. Look on the big visual effects studio sites like ILM, DNEG, MPC, Framestore and the rest. Check out the job postings and careers pages. Understand what’s required and what you need to learn technically and artistically. Know what the positions are, what the titles mean, and how each contributes to a movie. Some software vendors offer students free non-commercial access to their products. Look in particular at Autodesk Maya, The Foundry Nuke and Side Effects Houdini.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Blade Runner – because every frame is a work of art. It’s emotionally moving on a number of levels, the beauty of it speaking to you as much as the story and characters do. For me, it’s visual storytelling using lighting and atmospherics in tandem with a spectacularly emotional color palette. It’s about the visual effects supporting the story so you can get lost in the world that Ridley created. It really stands the test of time – even today in VFX films you can see futuristic city builds riffing off that original Blade Runner production design.

I want to say Terminator 2: Judgment Day – because visually it blew my mind. It was the first time I thought, “Wow, it’s possible to photorealistically visualize anything you can imagine!” I also grew up watching the Ray Harryhausen films – the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts was my previous gold standard because who doesn’t love a brilliant piece of stop-frame animation? But I’m going to have to say my second pick is The Abyss.

The alien creature in The Abyss is not only a beautiful design, it’s also haunting, melodramatic, and integral to the success of the storytelling. It looks great, and I love the scene with the sea water snake that mimics the faces of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, whose superb acting really sells the believability of the visual effects. At the time, we’d really never seen anything quite like these effects before.

Contact – because it has a woman at the center of the story, I know it so intimately, and I’m proud that the work we did in 1996 still holds up today. It was a magical time with an incredible team of talented people. The standout for me is the beach sequence, which I put my heart and soul into designing, and the mirror shot that became something magical once we’d composited it. People still ask me how we did that today. The way we move the camera and employ visual effects to change the perspective of the viewer is brilliantly executed. It was a challenging show – the beach sequence was first time in film history that anyone had a shot a full 360-degree bluescreen and replaced it with a digital environment. And Jay Redd’s beautiful opening sequence, combined with the audio design, is still one of the best openings to any film – it sets the tone perfectly.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Dark chocolate with sea salt.

CINEFEX: Sheena, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Nicholas Hurst

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

A visual effects supervisor at Outpost VFX, Nicholas Hurst lists his filmography highlights as Three Seconds, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, The Martian, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Dark Knight Rises and John Carter.

Nicholas Hurst

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

NICHOLAS HURST: At an early age, I was never really motivated in school. Growing up in a tiny village in Wales – 15 houses max – I followed suit with what most other teenagers did in the late ‘90s, particularly in Wales, and left school at 16. I worked numerous jobs including shelf stacker, builder, car salesman, restaurant manager, painter and decorator – you name it, I did it.

Having those few years in various industries has actually been one of the main contributing factors to where I am today. Laying bricks in the cold months of winter or working 90-hour weeks to keep a restaurant afloat really does push you to make a choice – stick or twist, and at that age I decided to twist. I handed in my notice, gave myself a couple of months to search for my next step and went for it. Now, at this point I was starting from nothing. I had two GCSEs, grade A-C, so I knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get into a whole new career, but I knew I needed to kickstart my misfiring education.

I attended over 30 open days all over the country and 100 percent of them turned me away because I didn’t have the grades to get onto the courses I wanted to go on – until one college accepted me on a multimedia course. The college was geared towards ex-prison and ex-rehab, so at first I was completely put off, but after another couple of weeks of rejections it was time to buckle up and go for it. It turned out to be the best decision of my life.

The college definitely had its major quirks but I kept my head down and enjoyed every last minute of the course. Modelling, animation, film-making – I absorbed the lot, and when it came to making a decision on what to do next I jumped at the chance to do a visual effects course at university.

I’m sure most people would say their first break was on such-and-such a film, or being hired at a top studio, but I consider my first break to be acceptance onto that college course in Wales. It took me from a small village with barely any education to a 1st Class Honors degree and a career that I couldn’t be any more passionate about.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: The majority of the projects I get involved with start from script breakdown for bidding, concept art, look development and lead through to tech recces to the shoot itself. Then, after the shoot and the edit is locked, we bring the work in and I supervise the post work all the way through to the final delivery. Taking a project from a script to the big screen makes me grin from ear to ear, for sure.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

NICHOLAS HURST: Unrealistic timeframes!

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

NICHOLAS HURST: Early in my career, I was involved with a film called Afterdeath. 320 shots over a four-month period is fine when you have 20 artists, but when the budget doesn’t allow and there is only enough for one artist – myself – you have a big challenge on your hands. Tasks ranged all the way through tracking, CG, animation, effects and comp. I rented a desk in north London and got to work. Let’s just say there were a lot of late nights, but when it was over I was pleased with what I had accomplished.

I think having these challenges dotted through your career does help – tricky deadlines with a fast turnaround and a huge range of shots. It has a positive knock-on effect because it helps to build confidence for future projects, leading teams and working with a range of producers and directors.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

NICHOLAS HURST: Let’s just say there is a huge contrast between what your friends think your job consists of – meeting the stars, walking the red carpet – and the reality of sitting in a dark room painting six packs onto middle-aged men.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: One of the main changes that I have seen over the last few years has been the volume of work that is outsourced increasing year on year. With budgets becoming tighter all the time, outsourcing work has gone from a time saver to an absolute necessity in bringing a project in on budget. However, the knock-on effect of this is that paint work, roto and cleanup are all being completed elsewhere, and I can see junior roles becoming harder and harder to come by. We are in an interesting transitional stage in visual effects at the moment and I am just happy I jumped on board when I did.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

NICHOLAS HURST: Budgets increasing for visual effects. It’s very sad to see the amount of post houses that have had to shut down due to substantial losses over the last few years.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: Firstly, if you want to clamber onto that first rung of the ladder and stay there, expect to be the first one clocking in and the last one clocking out. Hard work gets noticed and if you push yourself to be proactive it will pay off in spades. Secondly ‘don’t be a dick’ is a quote from one of my university lectures and amen to that. If you are not a collaborator and not willing to work with others, I can assure you that you will easily be missed off the contract extension list.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: I’ve chosen three that I’ve worked on because I’m so proud of them! Over my career, three films have definitely poked their heads above the rest.

Beauty and the Beast – solely because I was a key part in breathing new life into some of the marquee characters for the 2017 release.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – it was a blast helping to bring the now much-loved character Baby Groot to the big screen.

Three Seconds – directed by Andrea Di Stefano, shot across the UK and America, due to be released this year. That’s all I can say for now, but I’m excited for it to be put in front of audiences soon.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

NICHOLAS HURST: Well, I am vegetarian, so if theatres started to stock Tofurky hot dogs that would be at the top of my list. Until that time, popcorn salted and sweet is up there, for sure.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Nicholas!

Spotlight – Andy Burrow

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

Andy Burrow is a visual effects producer at Outpost VFX, and lists his career highlights as including Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Maleficent and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Andy Burrow

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

ANDY BURROW: I started in scanning and recording in 2001 at Framestore, and gravitated to visual effects when the industry dropped negative and went almost exclusively digital. I began working in visual effects at Lipsync in 2012 and haven’t looked back since.

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

ANDY BURROW: Undoubtedly the people I work with at Outpost. I have so much fun on a daily basis with my colleagues. Even if we are in an incredibly stressful crunch time we manage to keep the spirits up, although these are pretty infrequent. Also, being 10 minutes away from the beach doesn’t hurt.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDY BURROW: Generally penalty shoot-outs in England soccer matches. But I felt a lot better after the Colombia game!

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

ANDY BURROW: The director of Maleficent was originally a matte painter, so as fast as we were creating the environments for the show he was annotating them and we’d almost have to start again from scratch.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDY BURROW: It’s far too rude to mention here!

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

ANDY BURROW: Unfortunately, it’s tighter schedules for ever-decreasing budgets.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDY BURROW: That everyone in visual effects is treated fairly with regards to work-life balance, as in other industries. This is something that Outpost genuinely cares about – for the first time in a long time I really look forward to coming to work.

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

ANDY BURROW: Be prepared to work hard and you will reap the rewards. And make sure you go to the pub with the more senior artists – you’ll be surprised how much you learn.

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

ANDY BURROW: First up would be the original Clash of the Titans. As soon as I saw it, I knew I would love movies forever. I still think the stop motion can’t be bettered and it was just so magical to watch as a kid, pure escapism.

Second would be The Matrix, I’ll never forget seeing bullet-time and thinking, “What the **** is going on here?”

Lastly, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I was blown away at the time as a teenager and the visual effects still hold up now.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDY BURROW: A hot dog smothered in ketchup and mustard, naturally.

CINEFEX: Andy, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Helen Newby

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

Helen Newby is head of compositing at Cinesite. Helen lists her career highlights as The Shipping News, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Skyfall , The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mute.

Helen Newby

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

HELEN NEWBY: Back in ’91, I was lucky enough to land a job at RSA Films as assistant to photographer and director Lester Bookbinder. I learned all sorts including attending the telecine and postproduction sessions. It led me to have a rethink and I went on to train on Domino, a film-in, film-out digital optical system. At the time, Mill Film Shepperton had a Domino system in place and a position opened – and that’s how it started. I remember grading and outputting the title sequence for Beautiful Creatures through Domino in 2000 and thinking it was magic.

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

HELEN NEWBY: When a sequence is finaled, I like to think about the myriad parts that went into it – including the lucky accidents.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

HELEN NEWBY: Running out of time.

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

HELEN NEWBY: V for Vendetta in 2005. It was my first show at Cinesite and I was tasked with compositing a shot previously started in Inferno. It was a lovely wide shot of Natalie Portman in the ‘Evey Reborn’ sequence. The client-side visual effects supervisor was due to fly home and was waiting for this one last shot – which added an interesting edge. On the plus side, I was bought flowers when it finalled.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

HELEN NEWBY: Three talking dog shows. Really.

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

HELEN NEWBY: From a compositing point of view, the way we used to work and make images was very different to now. We had no access to cameras or anything outside of the 3D scene, unless we popped into Maya. The idea of projecting onto a piece of geometry was not an option. Interestingly, greenscreens still seem to be a regular feature.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

HELEN NEWBY: Alongside constant advancements in technology – whether it’s the way on-set data is gathered or how we process it – comes a faster pace to the whole process. I would like to see these advancements being used to the benefit of our industry, to allow us to find new and unexpected approaches and techniques, rather than them causing any detriment.

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

HELEN NEWBY: Be flexible – the industry is changing alongside technology. Be open to feedback – only one version can end up in the final film.

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

HELEN NEWBY: Solaris (1971) – technically it’s not an effects movie. Oh, but the opening 20 minutes … the set design …

Forbidden Planet – the matte paintings, the models, Dr Morbius and his ‘brain booster’ machine. And a serious Leslie Nielsen!

Ex Machina – I think maybe I love it for the same reasons I love Solaris. It has a slowness, an unrushed quality. The minimalism of it all. Oh, and that dance scene!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

HELEN NEWBY: Popcorn, giant-size for stealth reasons.

CINEFEX: Helen, thanks for your time!

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!