Spotlight – Jeffrey A. Okun, VES

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

Currently Chair of the Visual Effects Society, Jeffrey A. Okun is a visual effects supervisor with a wealth of screen credits including Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Last Starfighter, Stargate, Lolita (1997), Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island.

Jeffrey A. Okun, VES

JEFFREY A. OKUN: I wanted to be a comedian astronaut and somehow ended up as a photographer, then a musician. When I actually needed to earn a living, I went to work for graphic designer Saul Bass as a personal assistant. He was designing and producing a bunch of packages for the NBC 50th anniversary show – a five-night spectacular. I asked if someone would teach me to edit. The producer threw me a few rolls of 16mm film and said, “Knock yourself out, kid.” I spent the next six weeks teaching myself to edit after work, sleeping on the floor under the editing table.

One day, the producer ran in and asked me for those rolls of 16mm film. I told him I edited them. He ordered me to put them back in proper order because they now needed that segment. I begged him to look at it first. He did and brought in the show director, who brought in Saul, who brought in the NBC producer, who said, “That’s great. It goes on the air as is.” After that, Saul told me I was his editor. I said I didn’t know how to edit and he said, “That’s okay, I’m patient.”

The way that Saul put together his shorts, montages and title sequences was what forced me to learn visual effects, via the great artists at Pacific Studios, CRC and many other optical houses. At one point, the guys at Pacific Title asked me if I wanted to consult on a film that was having some difficulty – that led to New Line Cinema offering me a show to mess up from the beginning.

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

JEFFREY A. OKUN: When I show a shot and no one can tell what we’ve done. To alter reality or create it in that kind of a seamless manner is very rewarding and exciting to me. I always say, “If you see my work, then I need to go back to the drawing board!”

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Unrealized opportunities that could have been realized but for the limitations imposed by time, budget or taste.

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

JEFFREY A. OKUN: On the movie Stargate, we needed a huge shot with 500 extras. It was arranged that we would have 10 minutes just before the set fell into darkness – this was the last day of having the extras. The set was out in the desert of Buttercup Valley, so we needed a kind of dune buggy just to get to the set. We had to shoot VistaVision because it was a plate shot, and just getting that giant camera out to the set was crazy-difficult.

Anyway, the dune buggy got stuck in the sand and, as his wheels spun, a plume of sand kicked up and completely buried the director of photography and the camera he was holding. Then we accidentally flew off a dune that had a 30-foot drop on the blind side. By the time we reached the set and reminded the assistant director about our plate shot, the director was deep into working the crowd to get what he wanted. We watched the sun set behind the dune as we begged the AD to let us get our plate, and all the while the director was furiously trying to get the crowd to do what he needed. When he finally got a take he liked, it was almost dark and the AD called wrap immediately.

My assistant went to unwrap the extras while my producer and I ran across the dune with the giant VistaVision camera, set up and, in spite of all the extras running all over the place and shaking the structure and platform, rolled the camera. The film immediately snapped. Our DP had left for the day to catch a plane for a conference or something, so I had to learn to reload the camera under those conditions. We did get the shot but it really looked terrible – the film was scratched from sand getting into the camera. We fixed it and used it and it’s in the movie. You may notice the shot – it’s sunny and 500 extras are running and fighting and suddenly there is a shot in deep shadow. Oh well …

Jeffrey A. Okun was visual effects supervisor on “Stargate.” Shots of Ra’s spaceship landing on the pyramid were achieved using large-scale miniatures, with effects supervisor Kit West directing model work and miniature photography. Photograph copyright © 1994 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Le Studio Canal +.

Jeffrey A. Okun was visual effects supervisor on “Stargate.” Shots of Ra’s spaceship landing on the pyramid were achieved using large-scale miniatures, with effects supervisor Kit West directing model work and miniature photography. Photograph copyright © 1994 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Le Studio Canal +.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Sphere – the end sequence where everything blows up and the Sphere rises up out of the ocean. The director described it to me like: “Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.” From that, we put together several sets of storyboards, which we attempted to show him many times. When we finally got the meeting with him, he told us that none of them were correct and repeated his description: “Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.” We drew up several more storyboards and attempted more meetings until I cornered him on the set at video village and showed him the new boards. Nope. Still the wrong idea. “What I want is: Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.”

We did more sets of boards, including one set that I just glued greenscreen material into. We chased the director around base camp and finally trapped him in the doorway to his trailer. We showed him the boards: “Nope.” I pulled out the greenscreen boards. He looked at them carefully. Pondered. I said, “So it’s: Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.” He said, “Yeah!” And that was that. We shot the sequence with the actors and moved into post where we did finally manage to give him what he wanted – plus more.

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

JEFFREY A. OKUN: There is literally nothing that visual effects cannot do, given enough time and/or money. So, saying ‘no’ is no longer an option. Instead, we guesstimate how much something will cost and let the powers-that-be decide. Another change that is not good is how much reliance shooting crews now have on visual effects – sometimes for the dumbest stuff, sometimes for really cool stuff. The most often-heard phrase on a set is not ‘action’ or ‘cut’ but, ‘VFX can fix that.’ It feels like visual effects have somehow de-powered crews, directors, line producers and producers to properly plan and execute that plan. There is never enough time, never enough money and never enough resources to get the job done practically so everyone just defers the work to the digital janitors – so-called because we are always cleaning up. But … it is a real honour and joy to me to do all the work – the janitorial stuff as well as the creative, never-been-seen-before stuff.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: I would love to see visual effects artists get the recognition they deserve, and the commensurate increase in salaries they deserve. After all, we are driving a multi-billion-dollar box office – not to mention what we make possible in broadcast, commercial, virtual and augmented reality, special venue and animation, as well as print and billboard.

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

JEFFREY A. OKUN: To work in the business of visual affects you need to learn business. It’s a different animal from the art of visual effects and basic business practices will serve one well. Now, if you want to be a visual effects artist, you need to study light, perspective, composition. You need to be one who studies life around you. Observe, reflect. And then, if you can, draw what you saw. Or take photos and then Photoshop them until they are what you want to see. Art is so much more fun than business, but without the business end of it, you can never really be well-rounded, informed and protected. Just my opinion.

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

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – chosen for the way it fired up my imagination at a young age. I saw a dreamworld created, and then the politics that invaded it – provocative. My favourite shot is a miniature in the opening sequence where the Nautilus submarine is charging towards a frigate ship, just under the surface, and the yellow glow from the observation window lights up the water. Cool shot!

Jason and the Argonauts – a whole new world of wonder and imagination was shown to me and it charged up my imagination. The work that Ray Harryhausen did was so creative and inspiring. The shots that remain with me are Jason trying to unscrew the heel plug on the giant statue of Talos, the Harpies scene, and so much more . Tip of the hat to Ray and his lovely skeleton battle – not in this film but still …

Star Wars – I know, I know … but it was transformative. It broke the mold of that time period and opened up a whole new horizon. The opening shot of the cruiser entering frame and getting bigger, and bigger and bigger … it was amazing.

I would also love to tip my hat to Fantastic Voyage, Lawrence of Arabia and Jerry Lewis’ Visit to a Small Planet where he plays an alien!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Definitely popcorn – no butter.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Jeff!

Ready Player Maze

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts in Steven Spielberg's film of "Ready Player One." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts in Steven Spielberg’s film of “Ready Player One.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

I confess: I cut my teeth on Jaws, was forever changed by Close Encounters, and experienced an epiphany after Raiders. So, it is always an event for me when a new Steven Spielberg film rolls around, and it is always a joke at Cinefex editorial meetings who will be first to raise their hand to cover the new Spielberg film. It is always me. Or, at least, that has been the case since I joined the team full-time in 2001.

That year, I embarked on the mythical quest that was A.I.. The production was remarkable in that, after decades of development, the creative assets passed from Stanley Kubrick into Steven Spielberg’s care. I badgered Warner Bros. for a director interview. Mr. Spielberg kindly offered to respond to my written questions between camera setups on his next production, Minority Report, which he was already shooting, but I was too nervous to accept lest my insights into supermecha fell into the wrong hands. Besides, I already had a feast of material with Industrial Light & Magic leaders Dennis Muren, Scott Farrar, creature legend Stan Winston, et al. So, that honor eluded me, although I remain proud of the story.

Wade Watts' game-playing avatar ponders his fate in Steven Spielberg's film of "Ready Player One." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Wade Watts’ game-playing avatar ponders his fate in Steven Spielberg’s film of “Ready Player One.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Since then, I have continued my run of Spielberg films – Minority Report, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Indy IV, Tintin and The BFG. I missed six – Catch Me if You Can, Munich, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The Post – which had interesting, albeit less voluminous visual effects. My eighth is in the works, with Ready Player One scheduled for Cinefex 159.

As part of my research, Warner Bros. invited me to participate in an event at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, in Hollywood. On a vacant lot, across from the Taft Building, a corner of The Stacks has recently sprung up. Without giving too much away, the Stacks is the setting in Ernest Cline’s novel where the novel’s hero, Wade Watts, resides in a ramshackle mobile home bolted on top of a pile of other shacks in the outskirts of Oklahoma City, 2045. For the next two weeks, leading up to the theatrical release of the new movie, anyone can visit Ready Player One – Challenge: The Maze.

Steven Spielberg greets the crowd at San Diego Comic-Con. Photo credit: Eric Eric Charbonneau.

Steven Spielberg greets the crowd at the “Ready Player One” presentation at San Diego Comic-Con. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau.

Sign a waiver, get tagged with a radio-frequency identification wristband, and after a trip through the velvet ropes, step into the dystopian nightmare. Guests are free to wander, probe and generally tinker around, under the watchful gaze of virtual-reality-helmet-wearing Stacks residents and the occasional unsmiling officer of Innovative Online Industries. I admit, I was expecting holograms, but these are the real deal.

At the end of one glowing corridor, Batman awaits, and he will exchange only terse words. Harley Quinn and a nightmarishly huge Care Bear are friendlier inside a 1980s disco-lounge, where passersby are invited to dance (at least, I did). That’s where I learned there are keys afoot, and this is an Easter Egg hunt. By interacting with the maze and its occupants, and scoring a really lousy game of Pac-Man, I located two of three magic totems, and for each was rewarded a rubber stamp on the back of my hand. I’m not sure where they would have stamped the third.

My favorite chamber was an enigmatic mirrored room, which reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But that may just be me, as that Russian sci-fi classic appeared in 1972. Most of the maze ephemera echoed the book and film, set in a 1980s’ flavored vision of 2045. My only criticism: too many Starlogs, and no vintage Cinefex – but perhaps they were worried Stacks residents would sell those precious magazines on the 2049 equivalent of eBay?

Steven Spielberg, "Ready Player One" author Ernest Cline and cast members brave the mirror room. Photo credit: Steven Spielberg / Twitter.

Steven Spielberg, “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline and cast members brave the mirror room. Photo credit: Steven Spielberg / Twitter.

At the end of the maze, an IOI sentry unlocked a secret door to another mirrored corridor, this one flashing colored lights, which led into a chamber of movie artifacts. To find out what those are, you’ll have to visit, or dig around elsewhere, as there are story spoilers. On my way out, a maze security operative pressed a box into my hands, so there are tchotchkes to be had, coming soon to a Funko retailer near you.

It’s a funhouse experience, with a carnival atmosphere – a savvy bit of marketing, and a thrill if you’re a Spielberg fan because there are items from the film tucked away among the stacks (Aech’s bus is parked in there toward the back). The next day, my Twitter feed revealed that I missed a few celebrity visitors who, unlike me, snapped selfies in the maze (hello there, Mr. Spielberg). I’m still working on that interview.

Ready Player One will be in theatres March 29, and in Cinefex this June.

Thanks to Suzanne Fritz, Loraine Valverde.

Spotlight – Noah Vice

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

Noah Vice is a CG supervisor, and look development and lighting supervisor, at Rising Sun Pictures, with screen credits including Thor: Ragnarok, Avatar, Logan, Game of Thrones and Super 8.

Noah Vice

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

NOAH VICE: When I was a young boy, my father brought an Apple Macintosh back to Australia from the US and it was love at first sight. I quickly traded in my pencil for the hockey puck-like mouse and dove in head first. My first big break was at Micro Forte Games in Canberra, where I designed, built and rendered 3D levels for their isometric space game Enemy Infestation.

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

NOAH VICE: Being in a packed cinema on opening night, and seeing the faces of the audience light up as they enjoy my work.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

NOAH VICE: Last minute shot omits at the end of a project. Running out of time on a shot before I’m really truly happy with it.

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

NOAH VICE: On Avatar, I was tasked with picking up a complex asset that the project supervisor had look-developed himself. That supervisor was one of my idols, John Knoll. It was a daunting task, however having reviews at John’s desk and learning to work to his standard was incredibly rewarding.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

NOAH VICE: On You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, I brought to life a CG piranha that was trapped in Adam Sandler’s swimming shorts. Enough said!

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

NOAH VICE: Probably the biggest change that I’ve observed first hand has been the industry’s move towards raytracing and physically based rendering. It’s now standard practice on set to capture lidar and HDRs, and that’s the foundation of the lighting process in post production. The acceleration and automation of creative tasks throughout the entire filmmaking process has also been streamlined and democratized. Every day it’s becoming increasingly easier to plan, visualize, and prototype things rapidly throughout the entire process.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

NOAH VICE: I would love to see the increased use of VR/AR and real-time rendering in our daily workflows. I think there is a tremendous opportunity to heighten the level of interaction an artist has with their materials that could dramatically improve our speed and quality.

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

NOAH VICE: Believe in yourself – if you don’t, you can’t expect anyone else to either. Never give up – persistence will get you everywhere. Smile in the face of adversity and hardship – if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

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

NOAH VICE: Terminator 2: Judgment Day – this is where it all began for me and the visual effects still hold up today. The L.A. aqueduct bike chase is a stand out sequence, for sure.

The Matrix – it’s a triumph of futuristic coolness and it changed the visual effects scene completely. The lobby shoot-out sequence is off the chart.

Blade Runner 2049 – it’s the genre I love the most and it’s executed perfectly in this film. Too soon? No way! The flight to L.A.P.D. headquarters, Las Vegas ruins, and Chinatown sequences are gorgeous.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

NOAH VICE: As a part-Hawaiian, I can’t go past mochi crunch or some good sushi rolls.

CINEFEX: Noah, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Anthony Smith

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

Anthony Smith works as head of 2D and visual effects supervisor at Rising Sun Pictures. His feature film experience runs the gamut from spy thrillers to outer space epics, with highlights including Gravity, Thor: Ragnarok, Alien: Covenant, Logan, Paddington, Iron Man 3 and Quantum of Solace.

Anthony Smith

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

ANTHONY SMITH: Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s meant the worlds of movies like the ‘Indiana Jones’ films, Back to the Future, Alien, Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park had me glued to the screen. I discovered Photoshop in the late ‘90s while studying at Central St. Martins College of Art in London and it was a revelation to me. This turned to the realization that visual effects was an actual job that wasn’t done only by a bunch of guys in their 50s in the U.S.! The visual effects breakdown on the DVD of Contact was watched many times.

A degree in Computer Arts turned into a job as a runner at a small London facility doing broadcast visual effects where I learnt to comp with Shake. My big break was a compositing role at Framestore on one of the Harry Potter movies. I spent an amazing 11 years there, working with some wonderful supervisors, artists and producers, riding the wave of the London visual effects boom and progressing through compositing supervision to visual effects supervision before moving to Australia with my family.

I never did work on that Harry Potter in the end, nor did I get to work on any of the others during my time at Framestore. So, before I left, I made sure I got a Potter-world wand effect in by assigning myself one on the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trailer. A big visual effects bucket list item done for me after all those years Potter-free!

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

ANTHONY SMITH: By far the best aspect is sitting in a theatre with my family to watch a movie that I’ve contributed to. The magic of movies is so clearly visible in the very human reactions we have to the emotional journeys that we get taken on as viewers, and nowhere is this more obvious to me than when I watch my kids watching movies. To know I’ve helped contribute to their reaction is priceless.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANTHONY SMITH: That ‘See it in 3D’ is still a tagline at the end of trailers.

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

ANTHONY SMITH: The pressure of operating the real-time compositing software that provided the imagery for the lightbox for the first time during the shoot for Gravity. Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the most celebrated DOPs of all time, was the voice talking to me through my headset, directing me in animating the sun and earth to light Sandra Bullock’s face while she was strapped into the rig inside the box, and all the while Alfonso Cuarón and the entire crew were watching and waiting. Making a mistake was not an option!

While at Framestore, Anthony Smith worked as compositing supervisor on "Gravity." Photograph copyright 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

While at Framestore, Anthony Smith worked as compositing supervisor on “Gravity.” Photograph copyright 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANTHONY SMITH: While on an aerial element shoot in Slovenia for Narnia: Prince Caspian, flying by helicopter through the mountains to find river water elements for the River God sequence, I realized that one of the most impressive elements was when the downwash of the rotor created some cool textures along the river surface between some canoeists who were on the river. After innocently mentioning it to the camera operator – who was a local – he had a word to the pilot. Clearly wanting to get the job done so he could head to the pub, the pilot proceeded to descend quickly to about 10 meters above the canoeists’ heads, giving them what was probably the shock of their lives and ruining their serene day out on the river. Apologies to the canoeists if they ever read this, but the elements were perfect!

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

ANTHONY SMITH: The globalization of the industry and the increase in creative quality in regions such as India and China. The increase in quality of student work – watching the student shortlist for the VES awards each year is incredible. The sad fact that movie attendance is falling, and the exciting fact that on demand services are growing. That’s something facilities need to be prepared for, with the increase in lower-than-tentpole-movie visual effects budgets but quality expectations that are as good, combined with timeframes that are more challenging.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANTHONY SMITH: An industry where the visual effects facilities and artists have a level of respect given to them by studios that’s appropriate, given the contribution they make to the industry.

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

ANTHONY SMITH: Be passionate and dedicated. Take criticism constructively. Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop seeing the world around you, and don’t stop being curious about why it looks the way it does – understanding that as much as you can makes pathways to re-creating it much more obvious.

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

ANTHONY SMITH: Contact – because the DVD breakdowns and explanations were one of the reasons I wanted to comp. The standout shot for me is the shot where Ellie runs to get her father’s pills from the bathroom cabinet. Superbly shot and delicately comped.

Gravity – because I have such good memories from the show, from the pre-shoot, to being on set, to supervising a great compositing team and working with a fantastic supervisor in Tim Webber. And it still looks great today. The standout shot for me was the airlock shot, which I helped light with the LED panels and then comped in post. A double page spread in Cinefex was the icing on the cake!

Jurassic Park – because when I saw it for the first time I was 13, and I remember not knowing how it was done, but wanting to know so much. It became one of the seeds of inspiration for my career. The standout sequence for me is the T-rex chase and car attack. Such a great blend of practical and digital effects. It’s forever burned into my memory.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANTHONY SMITH: None. I like to eat – and drink – afterwards with friends instead and talk about what we’ve watched.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Anthony!

Spotlight – Charmaine Chan

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

Charmaine Chan works as a compositor and area technical lead at Industrial Light & Magic. Her feature film career highlights include Black Panther, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Pacific Rim. Charmaine is also the founder of Women in Visual Effects, an online project highlighting and advocating women who work within the visual effects industry.

Charmaine Chan

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

CHARMAINE CHAN: I have always had a passion for both art and technology. I was an art major in University, but had a knack for programming and scripting on the side. I wanted to get into a field that combined both of my passions, and visual effects was just that. While I was at University, I worked part time at Deluxe doing motion graphics for DVD and Blu-ray menus – that was kind of my first taste of what it was like in Hollywood. Once I graduated, I mass applied to every television- and film-based company there was in California. My big break was an entry level position at ILM as a digital resource assistant.

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

CHARMAINE CHAN: Our industry is global, so a lot of my co-workers are from many different parts of the world. When you bring together such a diverse group of people, that’s when you find unique and new perspectives on where we can take visual effects. Seeing all these people of different backgrounds working together to produce such stunning imagery every single time is what makes me most excited for our field.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I think one of the biggest issues with visual effects is that the industry has become very dehumanized. We’ve somehow become just machines that push buttons to produce imagery. But we’re not – we are talented and passionate individuals who love what we do, and our industry needs to reflect that. We need better work-life balance, better hours, better support of families, and overall care of every individual who puts all their heart and creativity into those images.

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

CHARMAINE CHAN: On Transformers: Age of Extinction, I was faced with setting up a whole new pipeline for stereo compositing. It was the first large show that was shot natively with stereo cameras, and trying to configure that while working on shots proved to be a difficult endeavor of time management and multitasking. It was pretty brutal with the overall show schedule, trying to get everything done at once, but our shots and images were fun and exciting and the final results made all the work worth it.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I think one of my weirder tasks was to hide the apple box that Tom Cruise was standing on in Mission: Impossible to make him look taller. Movie magic, right?

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

CHARMAINE CHAN: There’s been a nice influx of women coming into our industry, whether that be entry-level positions or other artistry roles. I think there’s a need for a higher inclusion of diversity overall, but the more we educate younger diverse generations about our industry, and teach them that they can thrive in such environments, the better we can make the future of our industry.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I personally would love to see the inclusion of more women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ individuals in supervisor and leadership roles. Only through diversity do we get new perspectives and ideas we’ve never thought of before. A homogenous environment doesn’t breed innovation – a diverse one does.

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

CHARMAINE CHAN: If you have the love and passion for film, television or any medium for visual storytelling, this is the industry for you. It is filled with so many brilliant and creative minds that you can’t help but absorb all that knowledge and want to create more from that. But it’s a tough industry – there are long hours and grueling requests. People right now are trying to make those standards better, but it’ll take a while. Until then you will need work and learn as hard as you can!

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

CHARMAINE CHAN: 2001: A Space Odyssey – Kubrick used visual effects in a way never done before. While no computer or digital imagery was really used, his ways of manipulating the sets, cameras, and compositing made such impactful images and scenes that constantly stick in my mind – specifically the jogging in the rotating room, and walking down the hallway in the spacesuit scene.

Blade Runner – because of the amazing cinematography. The lighting and color palette is such a great nod to film noir. The scenes that stand in my mind are the wide establishing shots, like the opening shot flying past this dystopic, run-down version of L.A. Then the city night shot with the geisha billboard on the building.

Jurassic Park – this was the film that inspired me as a kid to want to work in the visual field. The dinosaurs felt real to me, and the visual effects still hold up to this day. My favorite scene, of course, is when they’re first welcomed to Jurassic Park and you see that wide shot of all the dinos.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

CHARMAINE CHAN: Sour Patch Kids! I know this is totally weird, but I feel like the movie experience isn’t complete until the roof of my mouth is completely shredded by all the sour crystals from the candy.

CINEFEX: Charmaine, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Kenneth Calhoun

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

Kenneth Calhoun is a special effects makeup artist and technician at Legacy Effects, with a portfolio of work on films including The Shape of Water, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain America: Civil War, Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys.

Kenneth Calhoun

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

KENNETH CALHOUN: When I was a kid, my mom was into horror movies. Every other weekend we would go to the video store and she would buy me a horror movie from her childhood, usually something with a creature. I watched a lot of Ray Harryhausen and giant monster B-movies, and from as far back as I can remember I was always obsessed with dinosaurs, monsters and creatures.

That obsession followed throughout my childhood. I was always drawing vampires, ghosts and creatures in my notebooks. When I was 14, my family took a trip to California and we went to Universal Studios. At the time they had a show called ‘Creature Factory’ all about the special effects in their movies. That was the lightbulb – I realized that Universal had been the ones working on a lot of those movies I had seen as a kid. I also realized that making monsters was a career option and quickly became more familiar with the men and women who had worked on these films.

After that trip, I started playing with latex and cotton and anything I could find around the house. I loved makeup and special effects, and would watch anything I could to find out more about how everything was done. I wasn’t really sure about how to get into the effects industry – being in Seattle, all I knew was eventually I would need to move to Hollywood. I stayed in school and went to college for business, saving up for my move to California. In 2011, I entered a local makeup competition at a convention called ‘Crypticon Seattle.’ During the competition, while I was working on the makeup, I ended up getting three job offers to do makeup from convention attendees. I won the competition, which gave me an opportunity to intern with a local makeup artist Doug Hudson.

Makeup artist Kenneth Calhoun competes in the 'Crypticon Seattle' makeup competition in 2011.

Makeup artist Kenneth Calhoun competes in the ‘Crypticon Seattle’ makeup competition in 2011.

I worked on a lot of short films and low budget movies in Seattle before finally being able to move to L.A. Shortly after my move, I met up with an artist named Christina Kortum, who recommended me to Brian Sipe. Brian gave me my first big break. I was running prosthetic transfers for his ‘Got Flesh!?!’ line while he was working at Legacy Effects. At the time, Brian was leading Terminator Genisys and he thought I would be a great choice to help run the transfers for the film. I was hired at Legacy and that was where everything gained momentum.

Since starting at Legacy I have worked on commercials, television and movies. I’ve gotten the opportunity to go to set and apply makeups, paint, do hair, sculpt, mold and run appliances of many different types. I was fortunate to lead a department for the character Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’m very appreciative of all of the opportunities I have gotten so far, and I continue to strive to be a better artist and look forward to where my skills, hard work and dedication will take me.

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

KENNETH CALHOUN: Working on movie franchises and licenses that I am a fan of! Working on Jurassic World was a big deal for me, because Jurassic Park was one of my favorite movies as a kid. Seeing my name in the Terminator Genisys credits, and knowing I got to help work on Spiderman for Captain America: Civil War, mean so much to me because these franchises are part of who I am and what shaped my interests.

Another thing is getting to meet and work with the artists who worked on those early films. Some of those artists who were huge influences on me are now some of my closest friends and mentors. I never imagined the men and women that used to inspire me as a young artist in Seattle would be hanging out with me! I really can’t help but smile.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KENNETH CALHOUN: SLC Punk! and The Iron Giant. Though in all honesty it doesn’t take much for me to cry in a movie.

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

Kenneth sculpting Drax replica scars for Got Flesh!?! Prosthetics in 2017

Kenneth sculpting Drax replica scars for Got Flesh!?! Prosthetics in 2017.

KENNETH CALHOUN: Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, no question. I was asked to figure out how to turn the original silicone pieces into transfers while also resculpting the designs a bit. The lead artist was out of town, so I was basically on my own to figure out how to redesign this makeup. This was the first big character I was involved with so I was nervous as can be, and being a fan of the first movie and David White’s work doubled that feeling. After some trial and error the sculptures were finished, but then the second hard part began – running my first department. I was 24 and had never led a department, much less for a blockbuster movie. I am so grateful for all the responsibility I was given because I gained a lot of confidence during that movie. My department ran smoothly and my team was great – we all worked so hard. I really didn’t know what my true potential was until I had to figure out so much for such a complicated character.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KENNETH CALHOUN: Making female genitalia for The Human Centipede 3. They had to be edible, but we some had issues with the molds so I had to make them by hand because it was faster. It was a really fun experience getting the chance to work on the movie, but it was definitely the strangest first day on the job I’ve had!

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

KENNETH CALHOUN: While I haven’t been in the industry that long, I have loved the resurgence of audiences being aware and appreciative of practical effects. When I started, most movies were moving towards digital effects, and I would constantly see articles and discussions over whether or not practical effects were dead. With movies like the recent ‘Star Wars’ films, Wonder, and television shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story openly talking abut their use of practical makeup, there has been such an impact on the demand for makeup artists in our industry. I can recall low-budget movies deciding to go digital with all of their effects – even basic cuts and scrapes – and now I see low budget movies wanting puppets and in-camera effects. I really have hope that since many movies are using a balance of digital and practical we will see this wonderful harmony continue.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

KENNETH CALHOUN: I would love to see more monsters and creatures. As an artist, I like seeing beautifully executed old-age and character makeups, but in my heart I always have a soft spot for monster movies. I’m hoping The Shape of Water helps kick off the monster/creature genre again because as a fan I was so happy to see a practical man-in-a-suit creature utilizing modern technology and digital capabilities. Having an underwater-capable suit using silicones – but also having digital augmentation and an amazing suit actor – really created a beautiful and stunning creature performance that was so refreshing to see after the long span of digital creatures that have starred in movies.

Kenneth Calhoun (left) assists special effects makeup artist Pepe Mora on a ‘Jam City’ Halloween commercial in 2017.

Kenneth Calhoun (left) assists special effects makeup artist Pepe Mora on a ‘Jam City’ Halloween commercial in 2017.

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

KENNETH CALHOUN: Know your history and practice constantly. Know who John Chambers and William Tuttle are. You always have to look back and respect the greats and at the same time continue to practice and push the limits of what you can do. Make something innovative. Make an improved old-age makeup. Don’t just copy tutorials – learn from them and then change them and make something new. This is a very demanding business and you constantly have to be creating something audiences haven’t seen before. Utilize new methods and technologies, and develop more new ones because our industry will keep moving whether or not you keep up with it.

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

KENNETH CALHOUN: Return of the Living Dead – if you want to know what I’m all about, watch that movie. Punk rock fashion, 80’s makeup effects, killer soundtrack. Can’t get any cooler than that! Tarman is one of my all time favorite effects, and the skeletal zombie design is amazing! The first time you see tarman in the basement is incredible. I actually made this movie required viewing for everyone on my Drax transfer team.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of my favorite movies. Milicent Patrick’s design was so ahead of its time and the beautiful sculpture done by Chris Mueller is perfection, in my opinion. I think that it is the greatest monster/creature of all time and can’t be topped.

Demon Knight would be the final pick. Todd Masters’ work is incredible in that movie. I love the demons, all punked out with dreadlocks and piercings. My favorite scene is when Billy Zane says, “The property is hereby condemned!” He cuts his hand and drips blood into the ground, then the demons begin to grow where the blood had fallen and they’re covered ultraslime. Amazing creature design, and such a fun scene.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KENNETH CALHOUN: I’ve never really been into eating popcorn at the theatre, but my girlfriend and I have really been enjoying big soft pretzels. So, a soft pretzel and a soda.

CINEFEX: Kenneth, thanks for your time!


The Shape of Oscar

Guillermo del Toro poses with both the Oscar® for best picture and achievement in directing for work on “The Shape of Water” at the Governors Ball following the live ABC Telecast of The 90th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Photograph by Nicholas Agro / A.M.P.A.S.

Guillermo del Toro poses with both the Oscar® for best picture and achievement in directing for work on “The Shape of Water” at the Governors Ball following the live ABC Telecast of The 90th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Photograph by Nicholas Agro / A.M.P.A.S.

The Shape of Water did an amazing thing last night. Although some might argue it is more a romantic adult fantasy, rather than a horror film, it is the first time a monster movie has won ‘best picture’ and ‘best director’ at the Academy Awards.

Not even The Exorcist did that, although it was nominated for seven Oscars, and won for ‘best adapted screenplay’ and ‘best sound mixing’. Typically, genre films only win in ‘below the line’ or technical craft categories. And the genre has included significantly talented filmmakers, Francis Coppola, Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, George Romero, Ridley Scott, Richard Donner, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton and John Landis to name a few. James Whale, who directed two of Universal’s most enduring horror classics, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in 1931 and 1935, was never nominated. Many more have been ignored, or set aside as second class cinematic citizens.

The last borderline monster movies to receive Oscar’s big awards were Jonathan Demme’s 1991 grisly and terrific thriller The Silence of the Lambs, which won Jodie Foster ‘best actress,’ and Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 disturbing psychodrama Black Swan, which performed similarly, nominated in top categories, and winning Natalie Portman ‘best actress’ award. But neither are considered true genre entries.

1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde won Frederic March ‘best actor,’ tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ. And Bette Davis won ‘best actress’ for the modern gothic melodrama Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. Rosemary’s Baby won ‘best adapted screenplay’ in 1962, similar to this year’s Get Out, which is another notable achievement for the genre. But other than that, out-and-out monster movies have been Oscar pariahs. The original King Kong, although it inspired so many filmmakers and resides on the National Film Registry, did not receive a single AMPAS nomination, technical or otherwise.

So, bravo, Guillermo, on breaking the glass ceiling. We know you eat, breathe and dream monsters for a living, so it is fitting that you have carried the torch for all outsiders and children of the night. Let’s see what you’ve got next.

The Shape of Water in Cinefex

Cinefex covered The Shape of Water in issue 156, published December 2017 and available to purchase from our online store. Our lavishly illustrated article includes interviews with Guillermo del Toro, Doug Jones, the teams at Legacy Effects and Mr. X and special effects supervisor Warren Appleby. In fact, we’ve been chronicling Guillermo’s career for many years, as the links below will testify.

Spotlight – Andrea Lackey Pace

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

Andrea Lackey Pace is executive director of editorial, production services and resources at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Andrea has contributed to numerous features – her favorites include Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Matrix Reloaded.

Andrea Lackey PaceCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Andrea?

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: As a kid, I was fully in love with animated movies, and luckily had a computer programming course in BASIC way back in high school. This was right around the dawn of the birth of computer graphics and I vowed to somehow combine my love for movies with my new computer programming skill. Then I went to my first SIGGRAPH where I saw Pixar’s Luxo Jr., and I knew right away that I had to be a part of this budding industry. So I packed my bags and moved to California to finish school and get my degree in computer science. Then I landed my first job at Symbolics, where I started as the tech support girl for their cutting-edge hardware and animation software packages.

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

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: I manage several teams at Imageworks today, and the favorite part of my job is when I’ve been able to help groom and send out my entry-level team members to land jobs in their dream careers. To date, I have over 145 alumni who have come through my program and been promoted to roles within the company. I also love watching my alumni spread all over the industry and seeing how many LinkedIn connections I have in fantastic places doing impressive work. Oh, and the parties! I used to be in charge of throwing some award-winning company shindigs. Each one was epic and I have photos to prove it!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: The worst part of the job is when the scheduled work doesn’t quite line up and I have to release some of the team members I’ve been grooming in the nest.

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

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: Our company was beginning to establish its headquarters in Vancouver, and I was working on building a new workforce there. I had already been successful in building the Canadian team for my initial group that I was managing, for a set of technical behind the scenes roles. This task was big, but because I grew up as one of these types of team members, I knew exactly how to find and prepare new people in Canada. And then … they gave me jurisdiction over a completely new department that I had no experience with and expected me to build it from the ground up in Canada as well. This was one of the most challenging managerial tasks I’d ever tackled – but I did it!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: Our team was once asked to cover up an actor’s cold sore and shave off an actress’ pot belly.

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

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: The main change I’ve seen is the exponential amount of resources and effort it now takes to make movie magic, as well as the migration of the workforce across the border to Canada.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: I would love to have a significant visual effects workforce back in Los Angeles again.

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

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: Since I often hire for a ‘footstep in the door’ position here at Imageworks, I often get asked what it takes to work in this business. My main advice is to first have a passion for visual effects and animation, to love seeing the images, and to be proud to be a part of them. Next, having skills in computer programming – especially Python – is a huge plus, since many of the studio tools are written in that language; you can also control the major packages like Maya and Houdini, giving them more power to do special things. Being able to automate and make the computer do more is extremely valuable in this industry.

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

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: Big Fish – I thought the visuals were stunning and whimsical, especially the scenes with the Siamese sisters. But even more, what makes this film dear to my heart was the team I worked with on that movie. At the time, I was the overnight technical assistant who made sure the movie was continuing to render after hours. Victoria Alonso was the digital producer at the time, and she took pity on this poor working mother who slaved from 10pm-8am each day. She even offered to help me get an autograph from Tim Burton – I got not one personalized message from him, but two! I like to brag about that and often bring out my signed treasures at parties!

Gravity – I was totally captivated by the effects in this film and the performance that was delivered to go along with them. The scenes where she was in open space being tethered by a cord to fix something were frightening. I completely felt like I was experiencing being lost in space – totally believable.

Avatar – The magical introduction to the alien world was breathtaking, especially the glowing tree of life. Seeing this film in 3D sucked you right in and my eyes couldn’t get enough of all of the detail and color in that fictional world.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDREA LACKEY PACE: Champagne!

CINEFEX: Andrea, thanks for your time!


Spotlight – Mark Breakspear

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

Mark Breakspear is a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Over and above his feature credits on films like Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Suicide Squad and American Sniper, Mark describes his main career highlight as “getting home before midnight once.”

Mark Breakspear

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

MARK BREAKSPEAR: My first big break came at age 16, when I sent my 50th-or-so letter begging for a job to a company called Oxford Scientific Films, which was conveniently situated in the village where I grew up in England. I would travel past it every day on the school bus, and for about five seconds I would see over the tall hedge and get a glimpse of what they were working on: huge sets for underwater shots; tanks full of fish; scaled versions of everyday objects; and lights – many, many lights. I once even saw a Doctor Who Dalek in the parking lot!

Anyway, I decided this letter was going to be my last. They had politely rejected the previous 49 letters saying everything from “Thank you, but …” or “Due to your lack of experience …” and I’d finally reached the point where a career in archaeology seemed to be my new direction. But I decided I was going to go out with a bit of a bang, so I stapled a teabag to the letter and said simply: “Dear OSF – me again, don’t rush to say no. Have a cup of tea on me and let’s talk!” I sent the letter and waited. About two weeks later I received a large parcel from OSF and in it was a bag of sugar. The letter that was strapped to it with an elastic band read: “Dear Mark, NO! Hope that isn’t too bitter a pill, here’s a sweetener.” I laughed back the tears of disappointment but it felt good that I’d destroyed my dreams on my own terms.

The next day I received a phone call from the head of the studio at OSF. I could tell they’d put me on speakerphone, and they were asking if I got their package. I said yes, and heard them all laughing. Then the main cameraman said: “Why don’t you come in next week and we’ll give you a chance.” Boom! I was in! I worked insane hours for the next six months – basically for free – watching tree frogs jump off branches and flowers being tricked to open using 15-kilowatt HMI lights. I’d never been happier. Thanks, teabag. I owe you one!

Mark Breakspear sneaks into an early issue of Cinefex, in the background of this photo of the Oxford Scientific Films water tank.

Mark Breakspear (right) sneaks into an early issue of Cinefex, in the background of this photo of the Oxford Scientific Films water tank.

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

MARK BREAKSPEAR: There is nothing better than when you get to step back from thousands of decisions over hundreds of shots and see it all starting to work. It’s even better when the client also thinks so. That moment of creation that comes from hugely complex systems all working together is rewarding in a way that most people never get to see. I’m always humbled by the power of creative problem-solving – all voices get a seat at that table. But laugh or grin? That would be the day-to-day ways in which we all cope with the stress. We often spend more time at work than we do with our families, so having a team that works well together is essential – critical, even. Sometimes, all it takes for me to be genuinely happy is to see that people are enjoying what they are doing and working well together. From that comes the magic. The occasional dad-joke never goes amiss either.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MARK BREAKSPEAR: When I’m on set and the craft service table doesn’t have a tent or electrical power – normally a bad sign for the way the movie is going to go. I was on a movie where craft was a table on its own in a field, with a kettle but no power – that was a nightmare movie that flopped at the box office. On a different movie, where craft had two dedicated chefs, the film made close to a billion. I’m just saying there is probably a scientific relationship between craft service table size and box office takings.

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

MARK BREAKSPEAR: I was once working as a compositor on The X-Files in Los Angeles, at a company that was making great strides in television visual effects. We’d been asked to make changes by the director so late in the game that the front part of the show was already airing on the East coast while I was still making tiny changes to shots in the last act! A satellite truck in the alleyway outside sent it to wherever it needed to go to before the air-time for the last section. That was a stressful nightmare, for sure.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MARK BREAKSPEAR: While at OSF, I was asked to go to Brussels to pick up some special products for a Tampax commercial we were going to work on. Of course, I was very excited to be offered a business trip so early in my career – I was a young lad with no money and the company was going to send me through the Channel Tunnel to Europe. Sounds great, right?

I got to Brussels, went to the address given and let the receptionist know I was here to pick up the tampons for the commercial shoot – it had been explained to me that these were special ‘film ready’ tampons. The receptionist gave me a bag that contained several boxes, but as I turned to leave she indicated for me to wait. From a door to the side of the reception desk came two people carrying a six-foot model tampon for me to take back. It was so huge that the mean people at Eurostar made me buy it an extra seat on the train for the return journey. When I got back to OSF, everyone was laughing because they could have had it shipped but thought it would be funnier to send the new guy.

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

MARK BREAKSPEAR: I used to love having clients over my shoulder when I was a compositor on Flame and Henry – and Domino, if you remember that! Now, our teams are huge, remote and unknown half the time. I try to connect with everyone on a show because, for me, the best learning moments used to come when a client leaned over and pointed something out and I went: “Oh, of course!” I want people working on a show to feel like they learned something, rather than just turning out the same old sausages again and again.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MARK BREAKSPEAR: The AI world is going to be interesting. I think it will find the steep cliffs of creativity hard to climb, but climb them it eventually will. We’re going to see a massive reduction in the need for vendors to do roto, matchmove and so on, which will have a big impact on jobs overseas. Jobs in animation are probably the safest for now, but who knows? I’m basically the farmer from the 1720s saying that the steam engine might alter the way I plant potatoes but other than that, it won’t change much else. I think much of our industry – and most others – has its head in the sand regarding AI.

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

MARK BREAKSPEAR: Be creative first. Be careful of the courses that focus on teaching you how to press buttons – that’s important but if you don’t have an eye, button-pushing will only get you so far. Also, if you want to earn your stripes, be prepared to travel long distances for next to nothing and pick up large-scale feminine hygiene products.

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

MARK BREAKSPEAR: Nightmare question! I have no idea. There are the obvious ‘greats’, like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, War for the Planet of the Apes – the snow on the fur, wow! But then you go back and you think of all the little moments that come and go in visual effects movies all the time that somehow push the boundaries of what can be done, making the dream just a little bit bigger and making some small kid think that life is going to be better.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MARK BREAKSPEAR: My fingernails. If it’s something I worked on, I’m more interested in the audience reaction than being able to eat anything.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Mark!


Spotlight – Joel Harlow

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

Joel Harlow is a makeup and special effects makeup artist and designer with a career spanning decades. He created 56 unique alien species for Star Trek Beyond and has been Johnny Depp’s makeup artist for many years. Recent screen credits include the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films, Hellboy (2019), The Lone Ranger, LoganBlack Mass and Black Panther.

Joel HarlowCINEFEX: Joel, how did you get started in the business?

JOEL HARLOW: I always knew I wanted to create characters. After graduating from high school, I went to New York’s School of Visual Arts and enrolled in the animation program, since there were no makeup classes I could find – a far, far cry from today. I figured that I could create characters using two-dimensional techniques, stop-motion and clay animation, while still working on makeup techniques outside of school. It was here that I met some very talented artists working in the makeup effects world, and helped out on some of the projects they were working on at the time. After a couple of years in New York, I wound up on the makeup crew of Toxic Avenger 2 and 3. It was a rough project every step of the way! It was 24/7 work, for no money, with incredibly long commutes. But we did it because we loved it.

Those early projects really thinned the herd, leaving only the truly passionate. It’s different today. It’s so easy to enrol in a school and learn the techniques – we had to learn through experimentation and word of mouth. It’s almost too easy because, in my opinion, the struggle adds to the appreciation of the opportunity.

Anyway, after my time in New York, I relocated to Los Angeles where I shopped my portfolio around. I landed a job at Steve Johnson’s XFX, where I stayed for about eight years, learning from some of the industry’s most innovative artists and technicians. It was at the height of makeup effects – digital had not yet found its place, so effects that could be easily done digitally today had to be done practically. It was a great time for the industry.

Joel Harlow and Werner Pretorius transform actress Ashley Edner into the nautilus-like Natalia, one of 56 unique alien designs created by Harlow for "Star Trek Beyond." Photograph by Kimberley French and copyright 2016 © by Paramount Pictures.

Joel Harlow and Werner Pretorius transform actress Ashley Edner into the nautilus-like Natalia, one of 56 unique alien designs created by Harlow for “Star Trek Beyond.” Photograph by Kimberley French and copyright 2016 © by Paramount Pictures.

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

JOEL HARLOW: When it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of what I do, I love that moment right when I finish a makeup – especially if it is a makeup that I have designed and sculpted. The moment when all the months of work and thought come together on an actor, and you see your character come to life for the first time. That ‘creation’ moment is priceless.

When it comes to this career, I love the people I work with. My crew. They are some of the very best I have ever worked – and played – with.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JOEL HARLOW: Well, I’m not sure about this one. We work in a world of fantasy, and I think its important we remember that. Artists are a sensitive breed, but all of the inevitable pressure and scrutiny that comes with a career in this industry is temporary. I’m not saying it should ever be treated lightly. I’m saying that you shouldn’t make it more than it is – both the failures and the successes. Family and friends – true friends – are far more important.

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

JOEL HARLOW: Every project poses its own challenges – that’s why it is so difficult to compare one film to another in an awards arena. No two films offer the same opportunities or obstacles. I would say that budget and time oppose quality at every turn. The biggest challenge I’ve ever faced is trying to maintain that quality in the face of those obstacles. Fortunately, my team has the same goal. It isn’t worth doing if it isn’t worth doing right.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JOEL HARLOW: One of the weirder challenges was on one of my very first films. I was shooting down in Florida on a low-budget horror film. Maybe it was my lack of experience at the time, but we hadn’t coordinated with the wardrobe department when we started building our prosthetic makeups. This particular makeup was a melting, bubbling skin victim of demonic possession – go figure. Well, I built the prosthetics up to the mid-forearm, thinking the wardrobe would be a long sleeve shirt. He came out of his changing room in a tank top. Fortunately, the colour of the makeup was a purple and brown mix, so I filled the bare skin on his arms with peanut butter and jelly from the craft service table! It worked.

Joel Harlow creates Johnny Depp's Tonto makeup for "The Lone Ranger." Photograph copyright © by Walt Disney Pictures.

Joel Harlow creates Johnny Depp’s Tonto makeup for “The Lone Ranger.” Photograph copyright © by Walt Disney Pictures.

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

JOEL HARLOW: When I started out, the movie magic in character creation really focused on practical makeup effects. As the digital art form gradually advanced, there was absolutely a swing away from makeup effects. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a slight swing back towards practical makeup. The recent films I’ve worked on have been very much a collaboration between the two art forms. There are obstacles in building that I absolutely count on the visual effects departments to help with, just as there are practical elements that we have created for those departments. With an open dialogue and mutual respect, we have all created some pretty amazing cinematic moments.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JOEL HARLOW: Advancements in materials and techniques have continued ever since I started out. We have materials now that allow for more realistic skin prosthetics, stronger and lighter moulds and parts. I think I would like to see an advancement in the field of digital printing. There is very immediate crossover potential in this arena that hasn’t been completely explored yet. Easier, faster, more and more user-friendly, rigid and flexible printouts. It’s coming.

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

JOEL HARLOW: You need to love it. When I started out, I would work on films for free, just to get the experience. Information and materials were much harder to come across than now – today, there are dozens of really well-designed makeup schools. I think, overall, that’s a great thing. The one critique I’d voice is that, if anything, it has become too easy to follow this path. Don’t get into this business because you want to work on movies or meet movie stars. Do it because you love the art form.  Do it because you want to create characters. Whether you are being paid or not, always create! It’s a great thing to have ambition as long as its supported by passion.

Joel Harlow designed this prosthetic makeup for actor Ron Pipes, transforming him into a fish-man inhabitant of H.P. Lovecraft's fictional town of Innsmouth.

Joel Harlow designed this prosthetic makeup for actor Ron Pipes, transforming him into a fish-man inhabitant of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of Innsmouth.

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

JOEL HARLOW: An American Werewolf in London has everything. An amazing transformation presented in bright light, an outside-the-box werewolf design, a gradual decomposition progression of a main character from makeup to puppet over the course of the film, and a showcase of imaginative dream-demon characters. It still inspires me as much as it did the first time I viewed it.

Then there’s The Thing. It’s one of the first films that really inspired me. Every transformation effect in The Thing is mind-blowing, and continues to inspire me.

Finally Jaws, by far my number one cinematic experience. It is about as close to a perfect film as I’ve seen, in spite of – or because of – the technical issues that the crew faced making it. I could watch it on a loop and never get tired of it.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JOEL HARLOW: Popcorn! Movies and popcorn – it just fits.

CINEFEX: Joel, thanks for your time!