Spotlight – Kyle McCulloch

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

Kyle McCulloch is a visual effects supervisor at Framestore. Ask him what his career highlights are so far and he’ll tell you, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Beauty and the Beast, Thor: Ragnarok and Pan.”

Kyle McCulloch

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: I was a nerdy kid in film school who loved stop-motion and animation work. I was obsessed with the great fantasy films of the 80’s – Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story – and just wanted to be a part of making that kind of magic. I was actually a pretty terrible student, and couldn’t get an internship doing anything animation-related, so I took what I could get and started as an intern in the marketing department for Curious Pictures, an animation studio in New York City. Over a couple of years there, I weaseled my way into reception, then the tape room, then production, and finally into the role of junior compositor.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: As much as I love the digital wizardry that we create in post, I still get goosebumps watching the combined might and skill of a film production put something remarkable on film. Standing in the Great Hall from Harry Potter, or watching the Milano from Guardians of the Galaxy fly on a stage at Shepperton, I often think how completely geeked out my 15 year-old self would be.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KYLE McCULLOCH: A lazy reliance on CG and postproduction. The best results happen when the various creatives and departments work together to make a plan, and everyone works hard to do their bit to the best of their ability. It’s always a bit crushing to be presented with an avoidable, uphill battle in post, where the bulk of your energy will be spent fixing rather than polishing.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: I think I faced some of my biggest challenges as a visual effects artist working at The Orphanage. It was a remarkable group of people who were constantly hitting above their weight in terms of the quality of the work they did. We were a relatively tiny shop with limited resources, but we still managed to create and finish some stellar stuff. I’m still really proud of the Iron Man HUD. There were many, many late nights – and a fair few moments where I was absolutely sure we weren’t going to be able to deliver – but in the end we made something iconic. I get a major rush seeing each new iteration of the HUD in the progressive Marvel Studios films, seeing how different artists interpret and continue to grow what we started.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KYLE McCULLOCH: I didn’t actually get to work on it myself, but The Orphanage did a rather remarkable melting penis sequence in Planet Terror. It still gives me nightmares.

Kyle McCulloch

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: The thing that constantly surprises me is the scale at which visual effects is operating today. Working on a Marvel Studios show, you can’t help but be impressed at the scale and scope that they deploy visual effects in their films. I couldn’t have imagined projects like that 10 years ago. The other – welcome – change is that visual effects is seen as more of a partner on film sets, helping the other creatives and departments to achieve their goals. We’re no longer the strange folks in the corner painting things green!

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: Don’t start at one of the big shops! I was so fortunate to spend my first few years working in a smaller facility. We may not have been doing the most glamorous work, but being a part of a small team meant I got to sit next to, and learn from, a much wider variety of artists and technicians. I was given lots of opportunities to grow and challenge myself, and learned to think on my feet and solve problems. Those were all things that served me well once I made the switch to the big facilities.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: The NeverEnding Story – as a wee boy, this movie captured my imagination completely. It’s all practical work, and much of it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of what audiences expect today, but I still love everything about this film.

The Matrix – talk about a game-changer! This film still holds up, and was such an amazing example of how visual effects would come to be integral in the visual storytelling media. I mean, how many news stories did they do about bullet time?!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – this film was really personal for me. I was still doing commercial work in New York, and I’ll never forget sitting in the theater watching this film, thinking, “I HAVE to go work on features!” It was magic, taking audiences to a complete other world, and represents what I love most about visual effects.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KYLE McCULLOCH: Two tubs of popcorn – one sweet and one salty.

CINEFEX: Kyle, thanks for your time!

Now Showing – Cinefex 160

Cinefex 160 - From the Editor's Desk

For the fourth time in our history, the cover of Cinefex is graced by the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Yes, pick up a copy of Cinefex 160, our new August issue, and you’ll be nose to nose with the Millennium Falcon herself. Our editor, Jody Duncan, shares her own thoughts on the history of Cinefex covers below, but before she brings you up to speed on Star Wars, spaceships, and the arcane rituals of Percentages Day, here’s a quick rundown of our latest edition.

As the front cover suggests, we’re leading with comprehensive coverage of Solo: A Star Wars Story, in which the Industrial Light & Magic team discusses galaxy-spanning visual effects, creature designer Neal Scanlan talks about Rio Durant, sabacc table aliens and everyone’s favorite Wookiee, and Ron Howard shares his experiences as a film director journeying through a galaxy far, far away.

In fact, while our primary mission remains, as always, to cover in detail all the effects disciplines from digital to practical and beyond, in Cinefex 160 you’ll find a movie director at every turn. J.A. Bayona talks dinosaurs in our groundshaking story on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, while Peyton Reed contributes to our larger-than-life coverage of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Add David Leitch’s reflections on Deadpool 2 into the (dubstep) mix, and we think you’ll agree that Cinefex 160 has most definitely got it where it counts.

"Star Wars" in Cinefex

Here’s Jody with her latest school report:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

Cinefex 160 features the tenth Star Wars cover in the magazine’s history – which means that over six percent of our covers have been devoted to George Lucas’ space fantasy. (Full disclosure: I came to that percentage only with the help of a friend. I somehow missed Percentages Day in elementary school, and have never learned how to calculate them.)

Frankly, the six percent solution was not as impressive a number as I’d hoped for. It doesn’t sound like much – until you consider the 500-plus visual effects movies we’ve covered in our nearly 40 years. It means that, on average through our history, we’ve had a Star Wars cover every four years or so. No other film franchise comes close.

So, pick up issue 160 for its cover feature, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and stay for our coverage of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Deadpool 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. (The Jurassic Park franchise has had only three covers, by the way, which calculates out to less than two percent. What a slacker.)

It’s back to school time – don’t miss Percentages Day!

Cinefex 160 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already heading at lightspeed towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, which features tons more photographs and exclusive video content, including visual effects breakdown reels for Ant-Man and the Wasp and Solo: A Star Wars Story prepared especially for Cinefex by Marvel Studios and ILM respectively.

Cinefex Vault #13 – 50 First Dates

Cinefex Vault - "50 First Dates"

While it is a popular maxim that ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard,’ visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal has had her share of films containing both. Death and destruction have included Marvel’s Agent Carter television series, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and The Hunger Games; comedies have included the first Sex and the City feature, Christmas with the Kranks, and the Adam Sandler vehicles Big Daddy and 50 First Dates. Unlocked here from the Cinefex Vault is a story on the latter 2004 Sandler film, with Sheena’s hair-raising tales of Hawaiian icebergs, jiggling pectorals and an amorous walrus.

Invisible Woman – article by Estelle Shay

On location in Hawaii for the Adam Sandler comedy, 50 First Dates, Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal confers with visual effects director of photography Chris Nibley during setup for a 260-degree panoramic shot captured with four overlapping Vistavision cameras.

Specializing in ‘invisible effects,’ Sheena Duggal relishes creating movie magic that most moviegoers never notice. One of the first four Inferno artists in the world, Duggal was hired by Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1995 to set up and oversee the company’s Inferno department, then later transitioned into visual effects supervision. After working with director Peter Segal on Anger Management, Duggal signed onto Segal’s next film, 50 First Dates, a romantic comedy set in Hawaii about a young couple whose budding romance is put to the test by the woman’s short-term memory loss.

Duggal oversaw some 100 shots on the film, including a number of tricky transitions, with wipes and clever morph-dissolve gags. In an early scene, for example, the camera tracks a dolphin in a marine park tank as it swims past a window adjoining the office of veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler). “We shot the ‘A’ side of the plate underwater in a tank with a dolphin at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, California; and we shot the ‘B’ side on a stage on the Sony lot. Then, using a lot of 2D effects, motion tracking, matte paintings, rebuilding the motions within the shot and adding little nuances of particles floating in the water, we put the whole thing together to create the feeling that you were in the tank with the dolphin, and that you actually pass through the window into the room where Henry is stitching up his injured friend.”

The office of marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) overlooks a dolphin aquarium. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Marine World element, filmed in California. For an unbroken shot in which the camera passes through an aquarium window and into Roth’s office, Duggal and her team used motion tracking, 2D effects and matte paintings to link underwater plate photography of a dolphin shot in a tank with stage photography of actors in the office set.

Some effects were added to sell the humor in shots, in particular those involving characters interacting with the film’s aquatic stars – a penguin and an enormous male walrus. “A full-grown male walrus weighs a couple of tons,” remarked Duggal, “and if he gets spooked, he’s going to make a run for the water. So any time the actors were in proximity to the walrus where they had to be between him and the water, we did it as a visual effect.” A shot of the walrus projectile-vomiting onto Henry’s assistant provided Duggal with one of her more memorable assignments. “In an ideal world, we would have gathered all kinds of reference data on the set. But on the day we were shooting, the walrus was horny; and they wouldn’t let me near him because he was reacting to women. So we just shot a plate of the walrus with his mouth open. Later, we set up a bluescreen shoot with the actress in the scene, and shot this really gross mixture of dog food and water at her so we could get the interaction of the vomit hitting her. Then we composited it all together in 2D – which wasn’t as easy as it appears, because there were logistical issues in lining up the movement of the walrus’ mouth.”

A walrus projectile-vomits onto Roth’s assistant. The trained walrus was photographed alone at a marine park. Then the actress playing the assistant was filmed against bluescreen being blasted with a mixture of dog food and water. Alignment of the vomitous spew with the walrus’ shifting mouth was a challenge for the SPI compositing team.

Effects intervention also provided the humor for a scene in which Lucy’s brother (Sean Astin) performs a ‘pec dance,’ moving his pectoral muscles in sync to music. “When we got on set,” recalled Duggal, “we discovered that Sean couldn’t actually do that. So we found a guy who was able to do this dance, and we filmed him on a bluescreen stage, trying to time it to the music as best we could. We scanned that into the computer, composited it onto Sean, and did a bunch of morphing and warping to make it look realistic.”

At the end of the film, Duggal and her crew had to transform Hawaii into Alaska for a scene in which Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) gazes out a boat window as the camera pulls back through the glass to reveal the vessel floating in waters surrounded by icebergs and snowcapped mountains. “The production said: ‘We’ll build a dry dock in Hawaii, and we’ll cover it with bluescreen, and we’ll get a boat on this dry dock and shoot it that way. Then you guys can put it in Alaska,'” recalled Duggal. “But in the interest of realism, we decided that was probably not the best approach – especially since it might get us into CG water. Instead, we found a bay in Hawaii, took the actors out there and filmed them in a boat, then added whatever we needed to give it the feeling of being in Alaska.”

The amnesiac Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) journeys to Alaska. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Hawaiian production plate.

Though all the live-action was shot in Hawaii, Duggal and a crew went off to Blackstone Bay in Alaska to capture the mountain vistas needed for two big rotating helicopter shots that reveal the entire landscape. “We took a Vistavision camera with us and shot maybe a 250-degree pan-and-tile of the environment,” said Duggal. “Fortunately, we also chased icebergs around because I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure they’re going to ask me to put icebergs into these shots at some point.'” In postproduction, when the director saw how little snow there was, he asked for more production value. “We ended up taking the pan-and-tile, which I was hoping we could just composite in, and turning that into a matte painting so we could add more snow and detail. Surprisingly, I was able to take a lot of the 2D icebergs that we shot, roto them out of the Vistavision footage and track them into the water. We also added CG breath to a number of shots of the actors.” Adding to the seamless effect was careful attention to lighting detail. “We got hold of a copy of a sun chart for Hawaii on the day that we shot the Hawaii plates, and did the same in Alaska. That way, we could look at what time of day it was in Hawaii, and what angle the sun was in the sky, and wait for the same time of day and same lighting conditions when we shot in Alaska.”

“It was all great fun,” Duggal concluded. “I love what I do, and I love doing invisible effects. When I get a show like this, I’m fortunate, because a lot of the types of shots I’m doing can be done in a 2D way. And since I was involved in building this department, I know all the skills of the artists. That’s a great advantage to me as a visual effects supervisor.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Columbia Pictures Industries. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.

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!

2018 Emmy Awards Nominations

70th Emmy Awards

The buildup to the 70th Emmy Awards began yesterday, when the Television Academy announced over 9,100 nominations in 122 categories. Television Academy chairman and chief executive officer Hayma Washington commented:

“The continued growth of the industry has provided opportunities for acclaimed new programs to emerge, while allowing last season’s break-through programs to thrive. In addition, 36 performers – ranging from new discoveries to revered international stars – have received their first-ever acting Emmy nomination across all categories of scripted programming. We are honored to recognize both television’s seasoned veterans and rising talents. This year’s nominations continue to represent increased diversity and inclusion in front of the camera. And, there is a wealth of new and returning programs that reflect so many of today’s critical issues.”

"Game of Thrones" received 22 nominations in the run-up to the 70th Emmy Awards, more than any other show.

“Game of Thrones” received 22 nominations in the run-up to the 70th Emmy Awards, more than any other show.

The nominations in the two categories for special visual effects honor not only well-established series like HBO’s multi-award-winning Game of Thrones – the most recognized show this year with 22 nominations in all – but also newer streaming shows such as Altered Carbon and Lost in Space. Streaming giant Netflix led the field overall, narrowly beating HBO’s 108 nominations with a grand total of 112.

Here’s a breakdown of the visual effects nominees, plus those for prosthetic makeup and fantasy/sci-fi costumes. There’s a long list of key supervisors and artists credited for each show – we urge you to visit the Emmy Awards website to get all the names, and to check out the nominations in all the other categories.

Outstanding Special Visual Effects

  • Netflix’s Altered Carbon (Out Of The Past)
    Senior visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell
  • HBO’s Game Of Thrones (Beyond The Wall)
    Lead visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer
  • Netflix’s Lost In Space (Danger, Will Robinson)
    Senior visual effects supervisor Jabbar Raisani
  • Netflix’s Stranger Things (Chapter Nine: The Gate)
    Senior visual effects supervisor Paul Graff
  • HBO’s Westworld (The Passenger)
    Visual effects supervisor  Jay Worth

Outstanding Special Visual Effects In A Supporting Role

  • TNT’s The Alienist (The Boy On The Bridge)
    Visual effects supervisor Kent Houston
  • Netflix’s The Crown (Misadventure)
    Visual effects supervisor Ben Turner
  • FOX’s Gotham (That’s Entertainment)
    Visual effects supervisor Thomas Joseph Mahoney
  • Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (June)
    Visual effects supervisor Stephen Lebed
  • USA’s Robot (eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00)
    Visual effects supervisor Ariel Altman

Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Limited Series, Movie Or Special

  • FX’s American Horror Story: Cult
    Department head makeup artist Eryn Krueger Mekash
  • FX’s The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
    Department head makeup artist Eryn Krueger Mekash
  • HBO’s Game Of Thrones (The Dragon And The Wolf)
    Department head makeup artist Jane Walker
  • CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery (Will You Take My Hand?)
    Special makeup effects department head Glenn Hetrick
  • HBO’s Westworld (The Riddle Of The Sphinx)
    Department head makeup artist Justin Raleigh

Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes

  • HBO’s Fahrenheit 451
    Costume designer Meghan Kasperlik
  • HBO’s Game Of Thrones (Beyond The Wall)
    Costume designer Michele Clapton
  • Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Seeds)
    Costume designer Ane Crabtree
  • Netflix’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (The Vile Village: Part 1)
    Costume designer Cynthia Summers
  • HBO’s Westworld (Akane No Mai)
    Costume designer Sharen Davis

Voting for the final round begins August 13, and the 70th Emmy Awards will telecast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, September 17. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards airs Saturday, September 15.

Making the Summer Grade

Cinefex 160 Banner

What do Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Deadpool 2 have in common? Well, for a start, they’re all featured in our summer issue, Cinefex 160, out mid-August and available to preorder now.

The films have more in common than we realized, actually, as Blackmagic Design told us recently. Three of the four were graded by digital imaging technicians using the same DaVinci Resolve Studio software. Talking about his work on Deadpool 2, EFILM senior colorist Skip Kimball commented:

“The biggest challenge in balancing the look of Deadpool 2 was to seamlessly integrate a high volume of visual effects shots that came in from many different vendors. The footage was shot over many weeks at various stages and locations, so my aim was to make sure everything was kept fluid and cohesive. For example, the convoy scene is 10 minutes of action, but elements were shot on bluescreen and on location during different times of day. It took many external mattes combined with Power Windows, along with Resolve plugins like camera shake, blurs and many tricks to make it all come together.”

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes charge while Domino (Zazie Beetz) looks on. "Deadpool 2" photograph courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes charge while Domino (Zazie Beetz) looks on. “Deadpool 2” photograph courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Kimball worked closely with director of photography Jonathan Sela to create the final grade, acknowledging the fact that while Deadpool frequently dips his mercenary toe into the world of the X-Men, the two franchises have very different looks.

“I’ve worked on several previous films with Jonathan,” said Kimball. “His work is so even and straightforward, and I’m able to get what he exposed on the screen fairly quickly, which is a testament to his craft. The look for Deadpool 2 has less contrast, is a bit softer, and is not as saturated, which all serves Jonathan’s vision.”

Commenting on his overall approach to the colorist’s craft, Kimball added:

“I basically start from scratch as I look at the footage, and color grade based on instinct. I try to start off with being able to show the cinematographer what they exposed, and from there we build on it. If I get stuck on a shot, I walk away from it, then come back. The scene is not done until you can play all the way through without stopping.”

Solo: A Star Wars Story benefited from postproduction work by senior colorist Joe Gawler at Harbor Picture Company, with equivalent work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom being handled by senior colorist Adam Glasman of Goldcrest.

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!

The Cinefex Interview – CelluloidNation

Left to right: Mike Brown, host of the CelluloidNation podcast, Jody Duncan, Cinefex editor-in-chief, Joe Fordham, Cinefex associate editor.

Left to right: Mike Brown, host of the CelluloidNation podcast; Jody Duncan, Cinefex editor-in-chief; Joe Fordham, Cinefex associate editor.

“Every time Cinefex comes out, it’s a little slice of history.”

So says Cinefex associate editor Joe Fordham, quoting one of the many kind things said to us by filmmakers through nearly 40 years of publishing.

You can hear more from Joe and Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan in this exclusive 90-minute interview with Mike Brown, host of the CelluloidNation podcast. Want to learn how Cinefex first started? The answers are here. Want to know how we go about writing a Cinefex article? Listen in and find out.

During the wide-ranging discussion, you’ll hear the stories behind some of Jody’s and Joe’s favorite – and not-so-favorite! – articles. Some of these are tales we’ve never told before. Hear how Jody ended up writing one of C-3PO’s lines in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, or how Joe scooped an hour-long interview with a barefoot Peter Jackson in the editing suite of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Mike’s podcast has something for every fan of big-screen effects, old and new. So pour yourself a hot beverage, relax into your favorite armchair, and treat yourself an hour and a half in the company of the Cinefex editorial team.