Spotlight – Matthias Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MATTHIAS WINKLER: Beer and bubblegum.

CINEFEX: Matthias, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Esther Trilsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

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

CINEFEX: Esther, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Andreas Giesen

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

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

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Erik Schneider

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

Erik Schneider is a compositing supervisor at RISE. His filmography highlights include Black Panther, Babylon Berlin, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Erik SchneiderCINEFEX: Erik, how did you get started in the business?

ERIK SCHNEIDER: When I was in school, I had friends who were working on a small sci-fi project. This was one of the first instances where I considered the impact of visual effects in opening up new means of storytelling for the big screen. It was also at the time when everyone was anticipating the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. After I saw my friends’ project, I wanted to get involved – we started with working on a fantasy trailer. Of course it was horrible! But it was these early works that really got me going further into the field. At the time we were playing around with Maya and Shake. We all thought we should have begun learning these tools earlier in our lives because they were at this time challenging to use – we were only scratching the surface of the software’s full potential. Years went by and then a friend who was already involved in visual effects production described his role as a compositor. It was amazing to see how they worked and the end products of their work come together.

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

ERIK SCHNEIDER: Going to the theater and seeing a film you worked on being projected onto the big screen.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ERIK SCHNEIDER: Going into a screening and the people around you are aggressively eating. Not a fan of that.

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

ERIK SCHNEIDER: Well, this is before I joined the RISE team. Back when I worked on Exodus: Gods and Kings, there was a wide shot in the sequence Moses where guides his people across the Red Sea. The effects department was already under a lot of pressure because they also were assigned the towering waves that return after the sea closes. However, the water simulations were not holding up. We had to patch in dozens of smaller elements to re-create a larger body of water. It was a tremendous task but we ended up with something really nice given the circumstances.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ERIK SCHNEIDER: It has to be a film I worked on where the story centers on children who are able to fly by farting. Needless to say, the effect they had originally gone with did not work at all, even for this premise. I now had to make these kids fly with the power of compositing!

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

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

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

ERIK SCHNEIDER: A few years back we were experimenting with elements such as explosions, fire and smoke. Now, almost always, these tasks are done by the effects department, which is great for the visual effects overall. But sometimes I do miss watching these elements come together.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ERIK SCHNEIDER: A lot of my industry colleagues are becoming more mindful about the incorporation of machine learning into our workflows. I am a bit hesitant about this stuff in general, but also in terms of how it will benefit the artists themselves. If it advances to the point where we as compositors no longer have to fix edges, for example, we will soon be out of work altogether.

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

ERIK SCHNEIDER: Don’t doubt yourself or the work that your perform – nobody gets it right the first go around. Keep developing your skillsets and, more importantly, find out what it is that you want to do in visual effects. Even during the most intense turnarounds and outstanding tasks, if you are still happy knowing that you are doing what you love, you can handle the challenges.

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

ERIK SCHNEIDER: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner 2049. All these films showed me things that I previously had never thought achievable for the big screen. They made me curious to understand how exactly they undertook these incredible feats in their respective eras.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ERIK SCHNEIDER: Club Mate – a German drink with plenty of caffeine.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Erik!

Spotlight – Jonathan Weber

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

Jonathan WeberJonathan Weber is a visual effects supervisor at RISE, and lists his career highlights as Black Panther, Cloud Atlas, Captain America: Civil War and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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

JONATHAN WEBER: Loving movies, I started getting to know the industry by working for a short period at Markenfilm, Hamburg, in advertising. After I decided to move on, I was very lucky meeting the right people who started RISE a few months later and took me under their wings. I love the visual effects people in the industry, I love images and I’m good with computers – that’s a good combination for working in visual effects. Our big breakthrough was Cloud Atlas, I guess, and then Iron Man 3 started off the whole Marvel wave for us.

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

JONATHAN WEBER: When new plates begin arriving and the artists start jumping around like happy little drug addicts, getting their next shot!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JONATHAN WEBER: When it’s beautiful and sunny outside, but the crunch is asking for overtime.

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

JONATHAN WEBER: Let´s say Captain America: Civil War, because of the spectrum of different tasks combined with the amount of shots for the show. This signaled we had reached the next level for RISE. Close-up CG characters, lots of effects elements, seamless integration of CG elements with real-life characters, many, many set extensions, and over 300 shots. Still makes me dizzy thinking about it all!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JONATHAN WEBER: So many of them, especially on when on set. One in particular was when the entire crew was on standby for this trained cat to jump into frame in front of the greenscreen. The animal trainer told the cat ‘jump’ over a thousand times. As you would expect from a cat, nothing happened at all.

RISE created a CG Jabariland environment for "Black Panther."

RISE created a CG Jabariland environment for “Black Panther.”

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

JONATHAN WEBER: From PAL 720×576 to high res 4K HDR and source material of 8K. From tape measure and set drawings to extreme precise lidar scanners.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JONATHAN WEBER: Overall speed improvements in every department, so we can focus more on the creative aspects of the job. Faster and more reliable machines for working and rendering.

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

JONATHAN WEBER: Watch a lot of movies and get an eye for what is seen through the camera lens. This is not only important for matte painters and compositors, but for everyone. Even the most tech-savvy effects artist becomes a better visual effects artist by knowing what the final image should look like – and it saves a lot of iterations, for sure. Also, check the internet for resources. In whatever field you want to get involved with, there are plenty of online materials available – YouTube, web tutorials and blogs. The internet is pure gold for visual effects artists and an invaluable resource for continually building up your own capabilities.

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

JONATHAN WEBER: Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Star Wars. Going for these classics, you simply can´t go wrong. All of them have spectacular imagery combined with amazing music and sound. Terminator 2 in particular still gives me shivers whenever the T-1000 appears.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JONATHAN WEBER: Beer, Coke, nachos with cheese dip, ice cream confectionery, and sweet and salty popcorn – just the right combination of them all!

CINEFEX: Jonathan, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Markus Degen

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

Markus DegenAs managing partner and CCO at RISE, Markus Degen lists his career highlights as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: As a teen, I saw Pixar short films such as Luxo Jr. and Red’s Dream and just knew then that I would like to do the same. The Commodore Amiga became my partner in crime – I utilized 3D software at night and slept in school in the day.

When I was searching for a university that offered at least some CGI courses – it was 1991 in Austria – there was only a single one: Master Studies of Visual Media Art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. I was going to a music school, had not any contact with visual arts while growing up, and had no idea what to expect there. We are talking about a Nam June Paik kind of art study where they also just started to experiment with computer graphics. And I was the naive small-town boy without a clue about art, applying to get in a study where they take eight students out of 2,000 per year. Where, when you ask for application forms, the snotty secretary tells you that no one gets accepted at the first attempt, on principle. Anyway, with my CG skills on the Amiga I created some dark and extraordinary images like nothing anyone there had ever seen before. I got in immediately. My technical CG skills surpassed any teacher’s knowledge there, but still, studying there was one of the best times in my life and I discovered my art side.

After graduation, I travelled to Berlin, stumbled on a visual effects house and they took me as an intern for some roto work. Two years later, they sent me supervising for a movie called Tropical Malady in the depths of a sweat-drenched, mosquito-ridden jungle in Thailand. We were far from the nearest city, the overall experience was a ride, and the film ended up winning the 2004 Prix Du Jury award at Cannes. They called my firefly tree the icon of the festival and authentic cinema – they didn’t know it was CG. There I got the taste of it. The three co-workers of the company at that time became friends and, in a crazy moment after lunch, we had the idea of founding our own company.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: Creating things that don’t exist.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MARKUS DEGEN: More and more, visual effects are now only recognized by non-industry people and audiences alike when they are bad. Of course, this is a testament to how far the visual effects industry has developed by becoming indistinguishable from practical sets and so on.

RISE created visual effects for "Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver."

RISE created visual effects for “Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.”

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

MARKUS DEGEN: The moment when you are standing on set and witnessing the client’s approach fail catastrophically. The immediate sensation that follows – of 200-plus pairs of eyes all turning towards you to hastily solve the issue – makes for a pretty fun experience.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MARKUS DEGEN: Those truly weird experiences you cannot always share. One memory I have, however, is when a production team told us that they did not have the time to shoot a sweeping panoramic opener flying through the peaks of a high altitude mountain range. That’s when you find yourself strapped on the side of helicopter capturing as much detail of the ranges with your DSLR as you can so your team can build them from scratch.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: Visual effects artists are doing the creative work that previously other departments and roles would be responsible for. A lot of the creativity involved with compositions and lighting, for example, are become more mainstream visual effects tasks. This trend has not slowed down, either.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MARKUS DEGEN: As far as visual effects have come, they are not always recognizable. I would like to see both the industry and the artists who do this incredible work begin to get wider recognition and being credited properly. Their work alone allows for a much broader spectrum of stories to be told on screen than in previous filmmaking eras.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: Train your eyes. Constantly.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: I think the first movie that created a visual effects impact on me was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The effects were so much a part of the story told, and aided the emotional impacts felt. I wanted to get involved in this form of storytelling where we imagine the previously unimaginable. Blade Runner 2049, because of how visual effects added this tangible sensation to the environment aesthetics. The blend of digital and practical came out very well. Avengers: Age of Ultron would be my third, naturally, because I worked on it!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MARKUS DEGEN: Gin and tonic.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Markus!

Spotlight – Oliver Hohn

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

A compositing supervisor at RISE, Oliver Hohn lists his filmography highlights as Black Panther, Babylon Berlin, The Dark Tower, Doctor Strange and Captain America: Civil War.

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

OLIVER HOHN: I remember discovering compositing and what it involved back when I was studying media technologies in college. I started out with Cinema 4D, Maya, Shake, Fusion and other compositing tools that were available at the time. Eventually the first version of Nuke 4.5 as well. I began working on music videos, commercials and other similarly-scaled productions. I would also occasionally undertake internships. An earlier memory that I will never forget from this period was a feature that needed wires painted out from a sequence set in an outdoor rainy night location. What a lovely visual effects memory that was.

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

OLIVER HOHN: The before and after of our work – it always amazes me when it all comes together.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

OLIVER HOHN: Checking edges – especially over and over and over again …

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

OLIVER HOHN: The first Captain America film was challenging in terms of our turnarounds. Intense!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

OLIVER HOHN: When I was working on the last few frames of Captain America and realized that 4:00am had arrived. I was the only one not passed out on a couch.

RISE created hologram effects for "Black Panther."

RISE created hologram effects for “Black Panther.”

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

OLIVER HOHN: The technology we use daily and the overall increase in how fast new versions and tools are made available. Also noticeable are the amount of visual effects shots per production, regardless of whether it’s a television or feature project. Ten years ago, you would have maybe a handful of visual effects work per project – now even the low budget, smaller productions are able to afford hundreds.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

OLIVER HOHN: At the moment, a nice long holiday!

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

OLIVER HOHN: Work on yourself. Work on your eye. Keep doing shots. Do the stuff you like, over and over. Experience is gold in this business. Do as much as you can and do not be afraid to fail. Experimentation is encouraged.

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 HOHN: Starship Troopers – I think it still looks amazing given the time it came out. I last saw it a few years back and would probably hold the same opinion of it today. Also, Mad Max: Fury Road and Captain America: Winter Soldier.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

OLIVER HOHN: Beer, preferably German.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Oliver!

Benson’s Space Odyssey: A Book Review

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David Bowman (Keir Dullea) in “2001: A Space Odyssey” © Turner Entertainment Co. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Jacket design by Rodrigo Corral Art & Design.

50 years after its theatrical release, 2001: A Space Odyssey stands as a film that, the more a viewer brings to the experience, the more the film rewards them. Michael Benson’s recent publication, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece is evidence of that.

Plenty of other books have already mined this territory. From Jerome Agel’s eclectic 1970 paperback The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 was the first, to Arthur C. Clarke’s fascinating 1972 diary of his creative journey with Kubrick in The Lost Worlds of 2001, there have been many fascinating accounts of the science fiction cinematic giant. More recently, we’ve had Dan Richter’s 2002 publication, Moonwatcher’s Memoir, Christopher Frayling’s 2015 folio of production designer Harry Lange’s contributions, The 2001 File, and Piers Bizony’s 1994 account, 2001: Filming the Future, his luscious 2014 Taschen picture book, The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention Don Shay and Jody Duncan’s revealing 2001: A Time Capsule in Cinefex 85. Benson had all of these to draw from – and, for full disclosure, Cinefex founder Don Shay was one of a noble community of authors and contributors who generously shared his personal transcripts and research. What distinguishes Benson’s book is its vivid narrative and linear nature.

After a slow start, meandering around Sri Lanka – formerly Ceylon – in the home of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, the author charts a path quickly to Kubrick’s penthouse in New York, 1964. That’s when things get cooking, as Clarke and Kubrick spark ideas that, four years later, exploded onto cinema screens. Using personal letters, exhaustive interviews and voluminous archival material, cross-referenced in 31-pages of footnotes and a seven-page index, Benson adopts a novelistic tone, allowing readers to gaze into Kubrick’s ‘olive eyes’ and shiver with the cold as his two protagonists clamber up onto Kubrick’s apartment roof to peer through Clarke’s Celestron telescope. The documentary style is insightful and amusing, making for a fluent and involving read as Benson charts landmarks of Kubrick and Clarke’s collaboration. Anecdotes previously and frequently taken out of context are given new scrutiny. It’s all here: from Kubrick’s often-stated desire to make the ‘proverbial really good science fiction film’ (in his first letter to Clarke), to the congenial sparring of great minds (Kubrick hated Clarke’s taste in films).

Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), confer with their HAL 9000 computer in the centrifuge of the spaceship 'Discovery' en route to Jupiter. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), confer with their HAL 9000 computer in the centrifuge of the spaceship ‘Discovery’ en route to Jupiter. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Mysteries of Kubrick’s visual effects processes are also revealed, spelling out the contributions of its four special photographic effects supervisors, as listed in the film’s credits – Wally Veevers, Tom Howard, Douglas Trumbull and Con Pederson. Benson pulls no punches in describing effects supervisor Wally Gentleman’s frustrations that led to his near nervous breakdown and early departure, after some integral research and development. Trumbull’s role is perhaps the most vivid, sketching the experience from the point of view of an ambitious 23-year-old, and Pederson is equally candid as another gifted and outspoken young artist, last to join the team and offer up some incisive contributions. Special makeup designer Stuart Freeborn’s experiments, successful and otherwise, chronicle the production’s journey to create believable prehistoric man-apes. And Kubrick’s controversial credit as ‘special photographic effects designer and director,’ remains a sore point among visual effects artisans, although it gifted Kubrick with the film’s only Oscar for ‘Best Special Visual Effects’ in 1969. The rest is history, but suffice to say the detail is all there in Benson’s 444 pages.

Other highlights include Kubrick assistant Andrew Birkin’s travels in Namibia, capturing backgrounds for the Dawn of Man, and his aerial adventures above Scotland, Utah and Arizona for Bowman’s trip Beyond the Infinite. Production designer Tony Masters’ contributions were myriad, engineering ingenious in-camera zero gravity effects, and providing a last-minute sketch of Tycho moon base. We learn how Kubrick’s thorny encounter with scientist Carl Sagan in early preproduction perhaps haunted the filmmaker’s quest for cinematic expressions of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Benson reveals the genesis of the film’s sound design, and how those breathing sound effects were achieved. And he spells out the evolution of the musical score, relating the backstory of how composer Alex North’s original music was quickly severed and jettisoned into orbit.

Benson unsparingly relates reactions of early audiences and critics, who tore the film to shreds after its 1968 New York press screenings. Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, provides heartbreaking testimony to Kubrick’s vulnerability in these moments as the critical community piled on the invective. There is also a telling account of a more perceptive critic, teenage nephew of M-G-M president Maurice Silverstein, who viewed the film by peering through a projection booth window during the film’s first screening for M-G-M. After the icy studio reception, Benson relates, assistant film editor David DeWilde meets the boy in the booth, who announced, “It was the most amazing film I’ve ever seen.”

Stanley Kubrick lines up a shot with Kier Dullea as Bowman in one of Tony Master's sets for the enigmatic third act, beyond the infinite, in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Keith Hamshere / Getty Images.

Director Stanley Kubrick lines up a shot with Keir Dullea as Bowman in one of production designer Tony Masters’ sets for the enigmatic third act, beyond the infinite, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster. Photo credit: Keith Hamshere / Getty Images.

Want to know what Kubrick removed in his final edit when he sliced 19 minutes from the film? You’ll find that here. Astonishingly, eight 70mm prints were at that point in circulation around the U.S., and projectionists received instructions where to make tape splices. The final 161-minute film went on to make history, and Benson relates that journey, too, in an epilogue that details Kubrick’s continued friendship with Arthur Clarke – a rarity for him – Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999, and his funeral on the grounds of his home in Childwickbury Manor, Saint Albans in England. Douglas Trumbull attended the small gathering and made his peace in a personal reflection. But save that for the book.

Space Odyssey is a moving tribute to a great and unique film, and will no doubt add to the resurgence of interest in time for 2001’s 50th anniversary release. However, if you have not yet bought tickets for screenings this week at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, you are out of luck. They are sold out (addendum: the Arclight added shows next week, due to the film’s popularity, but the Dome is at capacity). Stanley would have been proud.

Thanks to Sarah Reidy.

Spotlight – Gurel Mehmet

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

Gurel Mehmet is an art director at Cinesite. His career highlights include The Revenant, Inception, The Dark Knight, Atonement and The Tree of Life.

Gurel MehmetCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Gurel?

GUREL MEHMET: After finishing art school, I decided I wanted to work as an illustrator. But I soon came to realize how much harder this was going to be in reality, since I didn’t have an agent and it coincided with the rise of stock photography and computer graphics.

I knew nothing about computers, and while I was struggling to make ends meet I had a meeting with a producer who took a chance on me as she needed a storyboard artist. I knew how to board – I had specialized in filmmaking at school – so it seemed at the time like a perfect reprieve from the struggle of making a living in the creative field.

That led to a brief stint working in commercials as a storyboard artist for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London, which then led to another producer asking me if I’d like to work in film, specifically visual effects. He had seen my portfolio – mostly figurative paintings and drawings – and had somehow decided that I was meant to be working in visual effects. I remember sitting with him in an interview for what seemed like the longest time, trying to convince him throughout why I wasn’t the right candidate!

In truth, I was a student of film. My main references for visual effects were the films I had grown up watching – Ray Harryhausen, Stanley Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, and most of what ILM had created with Star Wars and so forth. I obviously knew about digital effects because of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, but I had never really entertained the idea of working in this field. It seemed otherworldly to me, and I still had ideas of being a traditional illustrator.

So, I felt nervous about the offer and, despite being ambitious, I was afraid of saying ‘yes’ to a job where I was seemingly out of my depth. In the end, I accepted because being unemployed with no contacts wasn’t really an option! That experience led to work on Harry Potter as a matte painter, where a dear colleague of mine decided to course-correct my lack of knowledge. In short, he employed me because I could paint, but decided to train me up on the job. From that point on it just snowballed, and I’ve been lucky enough to be working continually since.

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

GUREL MEHMET: I love the early process of a blank slate in preproduction or at script stage. At that point anything can happen, and I love seeing the disparate parts of all the departments coalesce into something that becomes a moving train. In that exploratory stage, the parameters are fast falling into place – location, certain choices that the director might make and so on. It’s an exciting time.

I enjoy creating something from nothing, but I also like working within the constraints of what is either implied in the stage direction or just the practicality of the budgetary limitations. The camaraderie of all the smart and passionate people I work with day in, day out, is infectious and a big reward. I felt like a misfit growing up because I was obsessed with illustration and movies. My colleagues are just as passionate, so falling into this field has always felt natural.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

GUREL MEHMET: Sometimes, due to time or budgetary constraints, there’s a tendency to quote or reference directly what has been made before, particularly in film. While this can be a useful shortcut, I find it quite odd to be asked to specifically emulate what has been made before rather than casting the net wider to include the history of art – or just about anything else out there. Limiting the well of design to other films can often end up producing derivative work.

Watch Gurel Mehmet’s 2018 sizzle reel:

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

GUREL MEHMET: Trying to figure out Tony Stark’s briefcase suit unpacking for Iron Man 2 was tricky. It was hard to arrive at that point because it was a multi-disciplined and experimental approach between concept design, rigging and the animation department.

Another challenge was the Limbo coastline – and Limbo in general – for Inception. It was a very specific idea that Christopher Nolan and Paul Franklin had envisioned, namely that it was obviously architectural but had this strange geological look to it. It was a challenge to find that sweet spot in design, layer upon layer, where the environment looked like it had been abandoned – in a dream, no less – and was decaying over time, as opposed to an area ravaged by war. Early on, I kept painting concepts that looked like a war-torn Beirut, and Paul kept graciously reigning me back in. I then rewatched Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi – the Pruit Igoe scene in particular – and at last the penny dropped. Obviously, I’m contradicting what I said about limiting the well of design, but in that instance it made perfect sense!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

GUREL MEHMET: I suppose most of the stuff I’ve been tasked with is potentially weird! If you’re working as a designer in the film industry, you usually get roped in at the point where what’s required is a representation of the strange and inexplicable.

I had a really interesting time on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was on set for three months working with the visual effects supervisors and the previs team on the Obscurus sequence. I didn’t look at the entire script, but was getting daily notes from Tim Burke and Christian Manz because we were trying to figure out what the look of this dark magic was and how it would manifest.

One day, Ezra Miller, who plays Credence Barebone in the film, came on set. Tim Burke had organized an impromptu shoot for us on one of the sound stages, because we had discussed that maybe the Obscurus could be performance based. Ezra let rip and his brilliant improvised performance then became the basis for all of my concepts. He really did go for it in the moment and his guttural screams and howling changed my assumptions, right there and then, of what this thing could be. It was at that point that I realized the Obscurus was going to be a visual manifestation of depression, abuse and rage, albeit in abstract form. Suddenly the whole thing made sense. Rather than defaulting to a process of elimination, the idea had a potent impetus driving it – at least for me. The realization that such a dark subject matter was going to be played out front and center in a mainstream film was both surprising to me, and gratifying. As a contributor, it’s moments like that that make me pause and smile.

Visual effects for the Obcurus sequence, realized by Double Negative, appear in this breakdown at the 1m20s mark:

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

GUREL MEHMET: If you mean the field of design, I would say there’s been an obvious shift to have concept design be more representational and less illustrative due to the widespread use of 3D applications like ZBrush and Maya. That’s just a given now, even in the early stages of design.

Generally, visual effects has exponentially got to a point where you can do almost anything you can imagine and have it be indistinguishable from photoreality – if that is in fact the aim. Once Hollywood has finished with destroying every major city and changing the sky or lighting in any given shot because they can, it might be nice to re-emphasize visual effects as a storytelling device once again. This does happen from time to time due to the particular relationship between a filmmaker and visual effects supervisor.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

GUREL MEHMET: I’d like to see more recognition for the visual effects community in general. It’s ludicrous that some artists will toil away for hours in the dark only to be omitted from the credit roll due to some arbitrary rule about space.

Although things have started to change, I’d also like to see more effort by all vendors to re-address the equality debate and promote women at all levels, particularly in supervisor roles. I’ve been working in this industry for the better part of two decades and I’ve only worked with one studio-side supervisor who was a woman. That seems odd to me. There is a good shift at visual effects houses with women occupying lead and head of department roles, but there are still very few supervisors out there.

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

GUREL MEHMET: Be nice to everyone and don’t be a dick. And don’t do it just because your self-preservation instincts are finely tuned. Focus on what you enjoy and what you’re good at, and if those are in near alignment you’re more than halfway there. Do things for intrinsic values and don’t focus too much on the eventuality of outcome – that way, in terms of position, pay or status, you’re more likely to excel at what you do and have a better time doing it. Lastly, make friends with failure. That may seem like a counterintuitive idea, but it’s during these moments when you can learn the most. None of this is particular to the effects business, but it’s served me well to keep this in mind.

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

GUREL MEHMET: 2001: A Space Odyssey – I came to this film as a late bloomer as it was made before my time, so I watched it on television for the first time in my mid-teens while studying for my school exams. I didn’t understand it – does anyone? – but I had never seen anything like it and I still think it’s one of the most beautiful and hypnotic films I’ve ever seen. There are so many great shots and sequences, but I remember being disturbed by the HAL deactivation scene. The blood-red palette of the interior, the sound design of the ventilation and the astronauts breathing apparatus, and then HAL having what could be best described as a mental breakdown, after having begged for his life. It’s still upsetting.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – this is one of my favorite films, and not particularly because it’s an effects film. I had a lonely childhood, so the film resonated with me instantly. I desperately wanted to have a friend like E.T. and even at a young age I could relate to the emotional fallout of what the film alluded to about separation and dysfunctional families. As with 2001, there are a lot of beautiful iconic moments in the film. I love the final shot – the boldness of holding on Henry Thomas’ face as he watches E.T.’s departure.

My favorite scene is Elliot introducing himself to E.T. in his bedroom. The way Elliot is trying to explain his world to E.T. through his toy and trinket collection, as only a child could do, is really funny and touching. The whole scene is photographed beautifully by Allen Daviau, perfectly diffusing the sunlight through the window. The choice of that lighting setup is both technically judicious so as to hide any limitations the animatronics may have had, but there’s also a warmth and mystery to it, which perfectly matches the tone of the scene.

John Carpenter’s The Thing – Rob Bottin’s work on this is still something to marvel at, particularly the chest defibrillation scene. The film is a perfect claustrophobic meditation on paranoia. The slow build-up, Morricone’s minimalist score teasing what might be around the corner, the men bickering with the onset of cabin fever and then, when all hell breaks loose, you find yourself transfixed with pure terror. And yet, you can never quite look away. Beneath the fear, you’re trying to make sense of what you’re actually looking at. It’s part Lovecraft, part Hieronymus Bosch, part whatever the hell was troubling Bottin’s mind at the time!

*Honorable mentions would go to Alien and Blade Runner, for obvious reasons.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

GUREL MEHMET: I would ban all grazing!

CINEFEX: Gurel, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Kirsty Millar

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

Kirsty Millar is a visual effects supervisor at Animal Logic. The movies in her filmography highlights include The Matrix, 300, The Great Gatsby and Peter Rabbit.

Kirsty Millar

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

KIRSTY MILLAR: I started out in broadcast television in Sydney. I was on a working holiday in London when I was introduced to the world of compositing. Something clicked and I knew this was what I wanted to master. I moved onto Flame when it was first released and was really fortunate to have some fantastic mentors. I started at Animal Logic when digital film was kicking in, another huge stroke of luck for me as I really loved film compositing. I moved into visual effects supervision from there.

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

KIRSTY MILLAR: Playing around with visuals and seeing your mind’s eye translated to the monitor. And a freshly completed visual effects bid.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Delivery crunch-times that lead to crazy tiredness and silly mistakes. As a compositor on Moulin Rouge, I was screening the print of a shot I was working on and realized I hadn’t exported the last few frames. We were cutting it fine to get the negative delivered for the final grade and, at nearly three minutes duration, this was considered at the time to be the longest visual effects shot to date. The whole thing had to be shot out and developed again, which took literally days. It was a nail-biting wait. I still remember the shot code after all this time – how tragic is that? Damn you pv005_010_015!

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

KIRSTY MILLAR: Trying to brief a Ukrainian crane operator via a Chinese interpreter whilst shooting on location in the Carpathian Mountains. It had started to snow and the sun was going down. But they were so lovely and patient, and we got what we needed in the end with a lot of sign language and gesturing.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KIRSTY MILLAR: At my first job in a broadcast channel, I was told to go and get some more color bars at the hardware shop because the studio had run out. I didn’t fall for it!

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

KIRSTY MILLAR: Technology has changed everything. An artist’s digital toolset is now a lot more accessible in terms of cost, so artists are able to have a few more strings to their bows before they enter the workforce. Tax incentives have led to a nomadic existence for a lot of visual effects artists. That’s great when you’re younger, but difficult for families.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

KIRSTY MILLAR: I’d like to see more female directors and visual effects supervisors up on the stage during awards season.

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

KIRSTY MILLAR: Watch films, read books, and look at art.

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

KIRSTY MILLAR: Aw geez, only three? That’s tricky.

First would have to be Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I’m dating myself here, but when I saw that film as a child, I thought the scene underwater with the cel-animated bubbles and fish was literally magic.

Next would be Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This really appealed as it came out at a time when it felt like action films were the exclusive enclave of the male hero. Sarah Connor was a strong character in an effects-driven blockbuster. The CG fluid effects and morphs of the T-1000 were incredible.

Although it’s not an effects film, I have to give special mention to Panic Room. The way the camera glided around the interior of the house in the big motion control CG stitch shot was completely spellbinding and set the tension for the film perfectly.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KIRSTY MILLAR: Fantales!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Kirsty!