Inspiring Framestore

by Graham Edwards

What drives people to work in the visual effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of VFX professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into visual effects?”

Here are the responses from the staff at Framestore.

Formative Features

Not surprisingly, many people working at Framestore confessed to being inspired by a favourite movie. Jason Fox, creative director, was greatly influenced by the films of the 1970s and 1980s. “I grew up on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” he observed. “A diet of high adventure, fantasy and stories.” Mike Bain, head of CG, echoed Fox’s thoughts with a straightforward proclamation: “Star Wars!”

Posters from some of Framestore's inspirational VFX movies

Kyle McCulloch, VFX supervisor, agreed with his colleagues, recalling, “As a kid, I was completely enraptured by the fantasy films of the early 1980s: The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth – I knew I wanted to be a part of bringing these fantastic worlds to life!”

Behind the scenes on "The Dark Crystal" (Photograph copyright © The Jim Henson Company)

Behind the scenes on “The Dark Crystal” (Photograph copyright © The Jim Henson Company)

Nor was McCulloch the only person influenced by Jim Henson and his puppet-wielding peers. Chris Lawrence, also a VFX supervisor, said, “If there was one film that inspired me to get into VFX, it was probably The Dark Crystal. It was the wizardry of it all, and of course the wonderful creatures.” David Mellor, creative director, threw his hat into the same Muppet-filled ring: “I was enthralled by movies with fantastical puppet creatures as a child: The NeverEnding Story, The Dark Crystal, Star Wars and Labyrinth were constant repeat viewings.”

However, Mellor went one step on from puppets, continuing, “But the defining moment was seeing the first giant Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park – especially as I was nuts about dinosaurs as a child. To see one moving in the real world was a spine-tingling and visceral experience. It was later I learned that ILM, Jim Henson’s Workshop, Stan Winston, Brian Johnson and Phil Tippett were responsible for much of that amazing work. Hats off and thank you!”

There’s more than one dinosaur fan at Framestore. Alexis Wajsbrot, CG supervisor, identified his watershed moment as “the first time we see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.” Elaborating, Wajsbrot added, “I had the exact same reaction as Dr Alan Grant in the movie: I could not believe what I was seeing. I got out of the cinema and told my mother, ‘I want to make dinosaurs!’”

Stephanie Mills, Flame artist, was also in rapture over raptors: “Back in the ‘90s, I thought the VFX work in Jurassic Park was stunning. This inspired me to pursue a career in VFX.”

Jurassic Park T-Rex

The dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” – both practical and CG – have inspired many to pursue a career in visual effects.

How Did They Do That?

In the Framestore offices, behind-the-scenes documentaries proved to be just as inspirational as the feature films they illustrate. Luke Drummond, lead compositor, said, “I loved seeing documentaries on how they made the VFX for Star Wars, Close Encounters and Indiana Jones.”

David Hulin, creative director, was hooked on “making ofs” too: “As a kid I loved to watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries for the original Star Wars movies and early Harryhausen movies, but never dreamed it was something I could get into.”

For some, it was a more recent film that sparked their interest in visual effects. Mike Ralla, senior Nuke compositor, recalled, “A photorealistic VFX plane crash created by Scanline for Munich stunned me and re-ignited a childhood fascination: blowing things up. I was an intern at their Munich facility a few months later.”

Then there were those who harked back to the very earliest days of cinema. “My brother and I had a book about the making of the original King Kong,” recalled executive creative director Murray Butler. “I think that stayed with me a long time!”

The Tube of Youth

But it isn’t all about the big screen. Christian Manz, creative director, revealed, “My interest in VFX was confirmed by my love of the BBC series Doctor Who – from its Douglas Trumbull-inspired slit-scan title sequence to the early and experimental use of chroma key and Quantel Paintbox. Imagine my delight at getting to design and create the show’s title sequence myself in 2010 … in just ten days!”

Peter Capaldi in "Doctor Who"

The long-running TV series “Doctor Who” is one of many shows to inspire today’s VFX professionals.

Stephane Naze, VFX supervisor, was also glued to the tube. “At the age of 18, I became hugely inspired by Twin Peaks, and particularly by the universe of David Lynch,” he recalled. “From then on it seemed evident that I was destined to work in cinema.”

Framestore has another TV addict in the form of Mary Doyle, senior modeller, who said, “My inspiration was my early love of stop-frame animation. I especially loved the Creature Comforts series by Aardman Animation – Peter Lord and Nick Park were a huge inspiration to me.”

Hands On

If something inspires you, the logical next step is to try it out for yourself. Chris Lawrence described how a fascination with VFX “kicked me off down the path of doing my own (very bad) Plasticine stop-motion animation on Super 8 film, rendering wine glasses on my Atari ST, working on control hardware for a time-slice film camera, and ultimately begging the Computer Film Company for a job as a runner.”

Ben Cronin, VFX supervisor and head of Flame, was a creative dabbler too. “In my teens, I got fascinated with designing the decals for racing cars in a PC game,” he remembered. “That got me into messing around at school on an early version of Photoshop. I did some work experience with a film editor and finally, when I saw what all the artists were doing at Framestore, it inspired me to make a career of it.”

Rocket Raccon - animation and visual effects by Framestore

Rocket Raccoon is one of many talking animals brought to life by Framestore over the year.

However, few can rival the early creative expressions of Euna Kho, compositor, who explained, “I was around six years old when I started Photoshopping my pets with unicorns and castles. Fast-forward a few years and I was at university watching a compilation of talking animals on YouTube, and ‘DING!’ – I realised I could be doing this life-time hobby as a career! I went straight to my advisor the next day and switched my major. I graduated with a computer art degree and headed straight to Framestore – the magical land of talking animals!”

Top Teachers

Educational establishments are where many meet their mentors. Tim Osborne, Senior Flame artist and VFX supervisor, confirmed this when he explained, “I joined the industry many years ago from Ravensbourne College, when CGI was about to explode onto our screens. I was inspired by lecturer Colin Cheeseman, who showed us that the technology was just a tool to create whatever we could imagine – a philosophy more appropriate today than ever before. I owe my career to that man.”

Mary Doyle acknowledged a similar debt when she remarked, “I always loved to draw and make things, but it was a tutor during my graphic design degree at Nottingham Trent University – Rob Newton – who encouraged me to try Maya. Now, 13 years later, I’m very happy to have a successful career that I love.”

David Hulin’s path through education was more tortuous, but no less formative: “I studied for architecture but got derailed by an American illustration tutor who said that if she could do it all again she would do animation, due to its unlimited possibilities. That was good enough for me!”

Hulin further recalled a host of figures who’d helped him along the way. “After graduating in traditional animation I was very lucky to meet Arnon Manor,” he said. “Arnon very kindly put me forward for Framestore’s post-graduate scholarship programme and, after a brief transition from light-boxes to SoftImage, I was offered a position in the then-tiny CG department. I got to work with legendary figures like Andy Daffy, Andy Lomas, Max Tyrie, Virgil Manning, Michael Eames, and the Godfather of British CG: Dr Mike Milne. They taught me about CG, animation and filmmaking, but most importantly they taught me about bringing magic to life.”

Murray Butler placed the same kind of importance on his early years in the business. “Working as a Henry artist under Tim Webber in the ‘90s made me aware of how much I had yet to learn,” he reflected, “as well as how important VFX can be to telling a story.”

The industry hero of Vanessa DuQuesnay, Nuke compositor, was a little closer to home. “I got into visual effects by accident and haven’t looked back,” she remarked. “I had graduated university having done an English degree and I was feeling a little lost. My brother-in-law is also a compositor and he felt a little sorry for me and got me an unpaid job at his company to do roto on a film, just to keep me busy. I was amazed by what they were creating, and fell in love with the magic of visual effects.”

Wild Things

Many people work in the visual effects industry because it’s a passion they simply cannot suppress. Jason Fox stated, “Coming to the VFX industry is like going behind the curtain to help the wizard make wild new ideas come to life. Everything we do is designed to leave people breathless and stunned. How can that not be an exciting place to work?”

Paul O’Brien, VFX supervisor, was more contemplative, remarking, “Despite wanting to be a Jedi knight from the age of eight, blockbuster visual effects didn’t draw me into the industry. Coming from a graphic design background, the art and artistry of visual effects is what really caught my attention. Every visual effects artist likes to blow stuff up, but for me, helping filmmakers create more dynamic, beautiful and dramatic shots is great work. Some of the biggest visual effects shots are hardly ever noticed and shouldn’t be. Storytelling should come first.”

Ben West, creative director, was big on story too. “Steven Spielberg was an inspiration for me,” he recalled. “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial captured a sense of wonder and a fascination that remains with me today – it’s about believing in something out of this world and bringing it into reality. We are on the cusp of a huge shift in the way we experience films. The convergence of reality and the make-believe has never been closer. The one constant is our passion for stories that move us.”

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

“The one constant is our passion for stories that move us.” – Ben West, Creative Director, Framestore.

Alan Clappison, runner, agreed, commenting, “Every story told in film has been my inspiration. The skills of visual effects artists, and the tools available to them, get more powerful every day, allowing them to create worlds for these stories to exist in. To create these worlds is one of the greatest opportunities I could think of, because we all love to tell stories.”

Listing her inspirational films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Deeps Hargunani, VFX production coordinator, expressed her enthusiasm for the craft by looking to the future. “Speaking from inside the industry now, my initial curiosity has turned into fascination,” she asserted. “We are evolving at a fast rate, with new technology and more imagination than ever before. If we can convincingly show the world a movie like Gravity, I can’t wait to find out what we’ll do next.”

Alternative Arts

Alex Thomas, creative director, acknowledged that there are other passions than visual effects alone. “I enjoyed editing my first few film projects, so was headed in that direction when I realised how big a role technology was increasingly playing,” he revealed. “I could see that VFX would be integral to the future of storytelling. I have never been a VFX or sci-fi junkie, and it still really is all about the story for me.”

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" - original book coverSome people working in visual effects draw their inspiration not from film at all, but from some related art form. For example, Catherine Jackson, producer, was inspired by a certain boy wizard. “I grew up reading the Harry Potter books, imagining how characters like Dobby could possibly be brought to life,” she commented. “At the age of around 14, I found out that a family member had a job at a place called Framestore, where she was working on the second Harry Potter film. I immediately asked if I could do work experience there. Five years later I was working at Framestore as a runner during my university summer holidays, and now I’m entering my second year as a producer.”

For Andy Walker, CG supervisor, an enthusiasm for 1980s science fiction films was supplemented by a fascination with computer games. “When cut scenes began creating CG imagery, it really inspired a world of possibilities,” he observed. “Games as early as Worms – followed by cinematics such as the intro to Wipeout 2097 – showed that CG could create amazing worlds which had never been seen before. It just needed the complexity to catch up to see it on the big screen.”

Then there’s music. Matt McHugo, head of MCR, remarked, “I have always had a keen interest in music promos. Chris Cunningham’s work for Bjork and Aphex Twin inspired me to continue my studies in Media Production at UWE in Bristol. I then charmed my way into MPC through summer work experience.”

Watch Bjork’s music video All is Full of Love, directed by Chris Cunningham, post-production by Glassworks:

Michael Ralla, senior Nuke compositor, dreamed of taking his love of music one stage further. “As a teenager, all I wanted was to become a professional Metal drummer with wild hair and a lot of groupies,” he confessed. “After some parental intervention, that idea evolved into studying sound engineering. An accident forced me to readjust, and I figured that working with video is essentially the same – both processes are about altering waves; it’s just that the wavelengths are different.”

What’s Visual Effects?

Much as the industry is full of VFX junkies, there are still those who ended up working in the business purely by chance. “When I was a child I wanted to be a film producer, but by the time I finished university I had no idea what I wanted to do,” remarked Oliver Bersey, VFX supervisor. “I applied absolutely everywhere, and someone was stupid enough to give me a job here. That’s when the fascination started. Oh, and I’ve never seen a Star Wars film.”

But the final word must go to Amandla Crichlow, management PA, who confessed that she applied to Framestore simply because “I was broke and I needed a job.” Expressing solidarity with Bersey, she added, “And I’ve never seen Star Wars either.”

Framestore Logo

Framestore was formed in 1986, and has offices in London, Montreal, New York and Los Angeles. In recent years, its film division has created visual effects for features including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 & 2), War Horse, Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy. Recent advertising work includes campaigns for brands including Sony, Honda, Pillsbury and M&Ms. Thanks to all the staff from both its Film and Integrated Advertising divisions who contributed to this article.

Special thanks to Rob Goodway and Stephanie Bruning.

One thought on “Inspiring Framestore

  1. Where do people dream up this nonsense?
    I guess its from the perspective of someone who has yet to wake up to the reality of a career in vfx …

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