“2036 Origin Unknown” – VFX Q&A

Origin Unkown - VFX Q&A

While recent planet-wide dust storms raged on Mars, a small sci-fi movie unspooled 33.9 million miles away, in a handful of theatres across the United States. 2036 Origin Unknown, released by Gravitas Ventures June 6, is an indie sci-fi thriller set mostly in an underground bunker on the Red Planet where a lone U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) and her artificial intelligence system, ARTi (Steven Cree), probe the mysteries of a giant cube unearthed in a Martian dune sea.

Filmmaker Hasraf 'HaZ' Dulull directs Sackhoff in the USPC set.

Filmmaker Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull directs Katee Sackhoff in the U.S. Planetary Corp set.

The film marked the sophomore feature from young British filmmaker and former visual effects artist, Hasraf Dulull, whose directorial debut The Beyond featured in an earlier Cinefex Blog a scant six months ago. Cinefex caught up with the prolific Dulull, who we learned one addresses as HaZ.

CINEFEX: Good evening, HaZ. We previously spoke with you about your early career in visual effects. We’re curious, where did you come from before that, and what were the influences that led you to become such a prolific filmmaker?

HAZ: I was born and raised, and went to school and university in London. I am the eldest of three boys, raised by my lovely parents who are from Mauritius. My dad loved renting VHS sci-fi and horror films from the library and video store, so he is to blame for all my early age film binges – I remember watching Silent Running, Blade Runner and Alien and being just mesmerized by the world of sci-fi. At the time, I had no idea what my career path would be, I just knew I wanted to do make stuff like that, where I could let my imagination run wild.

I got into visual effects and CGI at an early age, as a teenager, and I was self-trained. Instead of going out to play with my friends, I would hack away on my Atari ST, creating Basic-coded graphics, and then I got enough money to buy a PC and learnt 3D Max R4 and Lightwave. I’ve wanted to make films since the age of 12, but I didn’t go to film school. Instead, around 1998 I started working in video games creating cinematics, or ‘FMV’s, full motion videos, as they used to be called. I then moved into VFX and rode that career for over 10 years, starting as a compositor and then working my way up to becoming VFX supervisor and then VFX producing.

CINEFEX: What gave you the idea for Origin Unknown?

U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars in the indie science fiction thriller "2036 Origin Unknown."

USPC operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars.

HAZ: Around 2014, I was in a supermarket queuing up to pay for my groceries. I remember thinking, where are all the cashiers? I missed having small-talk with the cashiers as I was scanning and packing my groceries – instead, we now have self-service systems, with only one or two staff on stand-by. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow! What if this was the future of space exploration, a way to afford more missions by minimizing cost and human error?

I wrote the idea as a treatment, and a lot of people told me not to set the film on Mars, as many Mars films were flopping at the box office – but I wrote it the way I wanted, just to get it out of my system and shelved it. A year and a bit later, I was working as a VFX producer on various TV shows, a colleague introduced me to Anis Shlewet and James T. Ryan, producers at Parkgate Entertainment, and I was pitching them various projects and then this came up during our ‘what if?’ conversation. They were both heavily into grounded sci-fi, and it was a great meeting outcome, which got the ball rolling. It also helped that Ridley Scott’s film The Martian, had just come out around that time and it was a hit, so Mars was back in!

Anis and James hired a writer Gary Hall to develop the Pathfinder script further. It was great to collaborate with another writer as we are both self-proclaimed nerds who love space exploration while keeping the story grounded.

CINEFEX: How did you manage to create Origin Unknown just six months after the release of The Beyond?

HAZ: Both Origin Unknown and The Beyond happened pretty close to each other, but not simultaneously. For example, we shot tons of second unit for Origin before I started shooting Beyond, and then there was a break on Origin while we went through casting and financing, and in that time, I shot The Beyond. By the time I finished Beyond, we were already moving into prep to shoot Origin. It was interesting, I spent years making short films and trying to get a feature film made, and then the two projects happened back to back. Either I am every lucky, or I am cursed. I prefer to think I was very lucky, and I was also grateful to be doing what I love, even if it meant lots of caffeine and late nights.

CINEFEX: How did your experience with visual effects disciplines influence story development and production plans?

Production design previz.

Production design previz.

HAZ: During script development, I generated tons of previz and visual material to help Gary Hall see what I had in my mind as he was writing. Sometimes, I created visuals to test what we could achieve on our budget. If our ideas were too ambitious, I’d tell Gary to modify scenes to help our approach production-wise. So, it was great to be involved in the script stage to help shape production as opposed to writing a script and then having to make sacrifices later, due to budget and schedule constraints.

While doing previz, I worked closely with production designer Jon Bunker and cinematographer Adam Sculthorp to discuss mood and tone, and types of lens we wanted to capture certain moments. Jon Bunker provided me with FBX – Autodesk Filmbox – files of the set he designed. I moved those around in Maya to figure out my shots. It was a very tight collaboration to ensure we were all on the same page, spending the budget correctly and not building stuff which wouldn’t get seen. Before we cast the film, I used our second unit material of Martian landscapes and space scenes and cut together a sizzle reel which the producers used to raise more financing.

CINEFEX: How did you cast Katee Sackhoff – who, of course, is a sci-fi genre star after playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica?

HAZ: From what I know, our producers and sales company sent Katee’s agent the script. She loved the complexity and layering of the story, but she had a million questions. I spent months getting to know her on Skype, discussing plot and character and coming up with more ideas. We ended up reshaping the script in a very collaborative way, and Katee influenced so much about Mack’s character, pushing us to take it further, both during script development and shooting.

Mack spars with ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) her USPC artificial intelligence computer interface.

Katee shares my love for improv. That was a challenge for my lovely script supervisor, Hannah Kenneally Muir, tracking all the changes on set, but it was important for the shoot that we all worked in synchronicity in a creative fun process, finding special golden moments, which you find in the moment and feel it on the day.

The idea of Mack using a stress ball – shaped like planet Earth – was something Katee came up with during blocking, and if you watch the film closely you will realize the ball actually has a strong metaphor with the main plot of the film.

CINEFEX: Mack spends most of her screen-time in one room, USPC HQ on Mars – how did Jon Bunker design that set?

HAZ: Jon is a very humble and experienced guy, who has been doing this since the 1980s, but also worked as a concept artist on films such as Gravity.

I created a look-book containing lots of images of NASA mission control rooms; Jon contributed ideas on how to take that technology into the future, while keeping it grounded. Jon was very invested in my pitch that the location should feel like a character in the film, and he made the set as spacious as possible, with just the right amount of tech to make it feel functional, while ensuring all the panels lit up as light sources for cinematography.

We had a very tight shooting schedule of 11 days, so that contributed to the idea of building a full 360-degree set, with functional buttons and controllers. It was important for Mack to be able to interact with objects in the room to keep it feeling natural. We also created a lot of screen graphics in preproduction. Jon and his team had those printed onto the screen surfaces, which we animated later animated with blinking lights and graphics, so it all felt authentic to Katee while she was on set, rather than asking her to stare at blank screens.

CINEFEX: Mack’s robotic co-star, ARTi, is an ornery but very non-athropomorphic fellow –a ball on a stick – how did you create his interactions with Katee on set?

ARTi offers counsel via an orb on a mechanical arm suspended from the USPC bunker ceiling. Territory Studio designed and animated the robotic appendage.

HAZ: I wanted ARTi’s design to be simple, with the slickness of Apple products, but I also wanted to him to have enough articulation in his movements to create a character, like the robot Max in Flight of the Navigator.

We had a real-scale ARTi head built for the close-ups where Mack would be interacting with ARTi physically. But for the main bulk of his scenes, ARTi was created digitally by the talented team at Territory Studio. Visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason worked with us on set and at Territory, designing and animating the character. And Territory animator Ashley Pay did an incredible one-man job of blocking, animating, shading, lighting and rendering ARTi shots. Compositing supervisor Caroline Pires then led the Territory team to integrate ARTi into footage in Nuke. Paddy Eason was also very hands-on with shot creation, too. When we needed additional closeups of ARTi, Paddy and his team generated new back-plates by projecting Canon 5D stills of the set onto simple geometry, and then they animated ARTi with little camera moves. All the time we were shooting, Paddy and his on-set VFX assistant Tizzy Gregory were snapping away with the 5D and they placed GoPros in hidden locations to grab witness camera footage to help with animation.

CINEFEX: How did you work with ARTi’s voice artist, Steven Cree, in creating the dynamic between Mack and ARTi?

HAZ: ARTi’s voice was one of hardest things to get right. On set, a stand-in actor, Jud Charlton, provided Katee with voice interactions. Jud’s voice also helped the animators, and I worked with editor Jeremy Gibbs to sometimes come up with more ARTi moments to help make the robot/human relationship feel more intimate.

We cast Steven Cree during postproduction. He never got to work with Katee directly. He worked with the animated shots – often works in progress – and he fell in love with ARTi. Steven approached the character the same as he would approach a human character, and I think that allowed the audience to empathize with ARTi. Like Katee, Steven sometimes came up with additional lines on the spur of the moment, which also helped ARTi feel relatable and real. Our sound designers, Richard Lewis and Steven Parker at Pindrop in London, then added subtle effects to make ARTi’s voice feel a little processed but not computerized. The idea was, when ARTi speaks, the room is speaking. And so, the guys at Pindrop carefully mixed the voice to resonate with the room acoustically.


Mack remotely activates a probe, containing a rover, to launch from an orbiter ship above Mars.

CINEFEX: What went into your spaceship designs, and how did you decide on creating miniature elements?

HAZ: I knew I didn’t want to go the route of building CG spaceships, mainly because I had done that in most of my VFX career. Instead, I wanted to go back to how films like 2001 and Alien were made – using practical models where you can feel the texture as light bounced off the ships.

We brought on the amazing team from The Model Unit at Ealing Studios, in London. Mike Tucker and his team built the orbiter ship, the lander probe, the rover, the cube and the Mars landscapes. I began by creating CG geometry versions of those objects and then sent the Maya files to Mike and his team to work from, both as reference and for 3D printing components. The amount of craftsmanship, attention to detail and passion that went into building those objects was so inspiring and helped the shots look real.

The orbiter ship miniature under construction at The Model Unit, Ealing Studios, in London.

During our second unit shoot, the Model Unit team added more textures to the spacecraft as Adam Sculthorp and his team lit the scenes against a black backdrop. We wanted to emulate the lighting of NASA footage. Adam mounted lights to a motion control arm and moved those to create the sense that the spaceship was moving as shadows slid across the surface. We later added stars to create depth, as well as the planet Mars and effects of rocket boosters igniting.

CINEFEX: How did you create your Martian surface scenes?

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.


Preparing the miniature set of the lander probe to launch from the orbiter ship.


Lander probe miniature element.


Lander probe composite.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the cube.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the mysterious giant cube.

HAZ: Mars was a hybrid of landscape model work created by the Model Unit, taken further in VFX using digital set extensions. For most of our rover shots, we used Model Unit’s practical rover, built and operated via remote control, filmed on the real landscape. We extended into the distance stuff. We used a CG rover for the aerial shots and wide vistas of it entering the dust storm. During second unit, we also shot elements of dirt, smoke and atmosphere at various speeds on black for use later in compositing. We used imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover to help with the digital set extensions.

The Martian storms were mainly digital, rendered out of Houdini by effects artist Aleksandr Uusmees. I then took those into After Effects for compositing and I integrated lighting strikes, stock footage of retimed clouds and additional Houdini simulations along with some keyframe warping effects.

CINEFEX: How did you divide the work among your visual effects team?

HAZ: Territory Studios and Paddy Eason handled all the scenes involving ARTi, our hologram scene and our big end sequence. Andrew Popplestone and his team at Territory also created our opening titles, and visuals for ARTi’s points of view.

Filmmore VFX and visual effects supervisor Hans Van Helden, in Amsterdam, handled wireframe animated renders of the rover in action and a few full CG shots involving the rover and parachute lander.

Squint VFX and visual effects supervisor Jonathan Harris handled a few shots involving the CG cube on a terrestrial ice shelf, as well the Martian One crash footage.

I supervised a small team at my own company, HaZ VFX, handling all the heads-up displays and screen graphics for playback, previs, the launch of the probe, the orbiter space station, all the Mars storm scenes, the Cube scenes and several key sequences. A ton of shots cropped up during editorial that we didn’t have additional budget to award to a facility, so we handled a lot of those shots ourselves.

Cube miniature under construction at The Model Unit.

The cube miniature, under construction at The Model Unit.

Cube miniature on Martian landscape set.

The cube miniature on the Martian landscape set.

CINEFEX: Without giving too much away, your third act gets into some narrative pyrotechnics as Mack confronts the mystery of the cube on Mars – how did you design and execute those sequences? There are some pretty big ideas there, quite ambitious for an indie sci-fi film.

HAZ: We always knew the film needed a big twist, ramping up in scale and cranking up the imaginative sci-fi content toward the end. I was inspired by films like 2001, Jacob’s Ladder and Contact, where the last act blows your mind – we knew that was what was going to make the film more memorable, and this meant that sequence needed to be less exposition-based and more visual-narrative based.

We didn’t have the budget to execute the sequence the typical CG way, so we relied on the amazing compositing team at Territory who had pushed Nuke to its extremes with particle systems and high dynamic range lighting on some epic shots, to make them feel grand in scale and concept. The design of those scenes took shape during postproduction. As we were editing, I was working closely with Andrew Popplestone on our title sequence. Andrew and his team and his team tend to work in a very design + story approach, and they had developed so much high resolution imagery for the titles, we decided to incorporate some of that into our special ending scene. This wasn’t in the script – so, again, this was one of our many ‘think out of the box’ approaches that we used in the making of this film.

The cube responds to Mack's investigations and launches triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

The cube responds to Mack’s investigations and triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

I built a sequence that involved 3D renders of the cube and cosmic imagery, using assets generated from the title sequence. Andrew supplied me with large 6K textures. Visual effects artist Lee Medcalf, a frequent collaborator of mine, then built the cube using planes textured with those renders, and then animated the camera and lit it all in After Effects. He supplied me with the After Effects file and I added additional animation and effects. We used cosmic visual treatments seen in the opening title sequence, so the film opened and ended with this style.

There were really no rules when it came to the last act of the film. I felt the more mind-bending it became visually, and the more depth and layers we had in those shots the better, to make those scenes feel complex and large. This would not have been possible, or affordable, on a typical indie-scale film. And it was all result of the collaboration between myself, Andrew Popplestone, Paddy Eason and their teams.

2036 Origin Unknown is currently on limited theatrical release in the U.S., and is now available on digital streaming platforms. The film will have its U.K. release, on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD formats, August 13.

Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.

Spotlight – Stephen Clee

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

Stephen Clee

Stephen Clee is an animation supervisor and animator at Method Studios, and lists his career highlights as Okja, Thor: Ragnarok, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Way back in high school I wanted to be an architect – until I did some work experience at an engineering firm and nearly died of boredom. I loved the design aspect but hated how mundane most of the tasks were. My drafting and design teacher, who also taught the digital animation course at my school, saw that I had a passion for the creative part of the work and told me about Capilano University. I applied to their well-respected 2D animation program but was promptly rejected due to my – in hindsight – utterly terrible portfolio. I decided that I really wanted to pursue animation as a career, so I spent a year working in a restaurant while taking as many drawing courses as I could in my spare time to build a better portfolio. I was accepted the following year.

My first job was on Reader Rabbit, a Flash-animated children’s show for Studio B, now DHX. I worked in television for a few years at local studios Atomic and Bardel to get some experience under my belt and improve as an animator. In 2007, I went back to Capilano University to learn 3D and got a job working in videogames upon graduation. Visual effects had always interested me and offered the higher level of quality that I was striving for, so, two and a half years later, I quit my job at Capcom and took a three-month contract at Method Studios, then CIS. I’ve been there ever since. Working at Method has helped me grow as an animator and work on a myriad of different projects ranging from Avengers to Okja. Getting to work here has been my big break and taught me more than all my other jobs combined. I’ve been fortunate enough to find mentorship here and grow in my career as an animator, lead and supervisor.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: So many things make me happy at work: taking a really challenging shot to completion; finding creative solutions with the animators for their shots; working with my colleagues to come up with better acting choices; figuring out better workflows with the team; being surprised in dailies by a fun performance choice an animator makes. And finishing the last shot on a show!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEPHEN CLEE: Probably the most frustrating part of the job is when we get drastic edits to a sequence while under the gun to deliver. It can be tough for morale when things change that are out of our control, or shots are omitted when we’ve put a lot of work into them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Puppeteering Okja the superpig on set for five months … then getting back into the studio and realizing we had to animate to everything we shot. Our goal was to build a relationship between Mija and Okja, and getting that right took lots of interaction between our CG, our on-set ‘stuffie’ puppets, and the actors. Director Bong Joon-Ho was amazing in that he would give us nearly minute-long shots with a barely-moving camera in which to let our creature breathe. That offers you a lot of opportunity but also a ton of room to fail. He was open to our ideas and we were often able to make the creative choice over the easy one. We didn’t shy away from letting the actors push, hold, ride, or sleep on Okja and because of that I hope you believe their bond to be real. It was by far the most rewarding show of my career, and the most difficult.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEPHEN CLEE: Being on set at two in the morning puppeteering the head of a six-ton superpig with my arm in a foam-filled sock representing a tongue sticking out of its mouth ‘licking’ the face of a 12-year-old actress – Ahn Seo-Hyun – who was playing a crying emotional scene in front of a crew of middle-aged men operating a Technocrane with incredulous looks on their faces. Yeah, that’s probably the weirdest.

Watch Stephen Clee puppeteering superpig stuffies in this Netflix featurette on the visual effects of Okja:

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

STEPHEN CLEE: The quality of the work overall has gotten to be so high. It’s amazing to watch television shows like Game of Thrones and see sequences like the convoy attack that Image Engine did last year, and be utterly convinced that dragons exist and are out there burning up the countryside. I also love that recent movies like Blade Runner: 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Dunkirk are emphasizing blending special and visual effects together to make things feel even more real. I think utilizing more practical effects and achieving things in-camera really helps push the quality bar and lets visual effects focus on what we’re good at.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEPHEN CLEE: I’d like to see an increase in the speed of our rigs and rendering to the point that we could get real-time feedback consistently at a high level of detail. My dream is to get myself and my animators focusing on the creative, not burdened by the limits of our technology. I’ve seen a lot of these types of workflows being developed and would love to be a part of working with them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Start small and don’t be discouraged if you fail. I think working in television for a few years helps imbue a sense of confidence in your skills because of the quick turnaround. It teaches speed, accountability, great posing and fundamentals in a short amount of time. Visual effects can be a tough nut to crack for some animators jumping in right out of school as the level of detail and quality can be intimidating and the timelines quite demanding for someone lacking experience. Becoming a good animator takes a long time. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and still learn from my colleagues on a near-daily basis.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Jurassic Park – for a kid born in the early ‘80s, this landed at the perfect time in my life to inspire and awe. The introduction to seeing the T-rex for the first time in the movie theatre was terrifying and opened up a whole new idea of what I could do with my life.

The Incredibles – Pixar … Brad Bird … superheroes … I mean, what else do you want? The animation in this film is still some of my favorite work out of Pixar. The acting choices and the simple, graphic style of the film really hold up.

Mad Max: Fury Road – talk about spectacle and the marrying of special and visual effects in a beautiful way. The way the story was told defied all normal convention and was so refreshing. I love how insane some of the design choices were – any film that thinks a man strapped to a truck playing guitar is a good idea is all right in my books.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEPHEN CLEE: The theater down the street from me serves booze. So, beer and Sour Patch Kids.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Stephen!

Spotlight – Sandra Balej

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

Sandra BalejSandra Balej is a digital effects supervisor at Method Studios, and lists her filmography highlights as Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: It was not the love of effects that got me into this industry but my love for movies in general. As long as I remember, I have loved to go to the theater to watch a movie up big! We had this amazing old-fashioned theater where I grew up and my parents took me there to watch movies like Babe and Cinderella. I still remember how I loved the whole experience, when the lights went out and the curtains opened – yes, they had curtains back then – and I was taken to this other world for few hours. I guess I just kind of got addicted.

If I had to pinpoint one moment when I decided I wanted to work in the movie industry, it was when I watched my first action film in theater: James Bond in The World is Not Enough. Granted, looking back, I question the quality of it, but I just loved the action and explosions. While I was still a teenager my aspirations were all a bit naïve: “I want to be a director.” But over years of doing research, I realized that I wanted to have a sustainable career where I actually might have a chance to break into this industry that seemed so out of reach. Visual effects seemed to be the right choice. That’s when I decided to go to Vancouver Film School.

Luckily, it turned out I love doing effects. I got a job in Germany right after I graduated, at a small visual effects company, Exozet, mostly doing effects for television. The CEO Olaf Skrzipczyk took his chance with me, hiring me as a generalist but mostly focused on compositing. He and his team taught me so much and groomed me into a proper artist. I will forever be grateful they took me under their wings. We used Fusion back then to composite and that’s what helped me to get my first big break in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. Still to this date, it’s one of my favorite projects I have ever worked on. Fusion compositors were hard to come by in Germany at the time, so the compositing supervisor Rony Soussan took his chance and hired this greenhorn of a compositor.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Seeing the fans’ reaction to a movie you have been working on for a very long time. Working on high pressure effects movies with tight deadlines, you sometimes lose sight why you were doing in it in the first place, and whenever I start working on a new project I go into this kind of hibernation mode where I put my real life on standby and give everything to the project. Probably not the healthiest approach, but I just can’t help but pour all my energy into something once I start. The year I was working on Doctor Strange, we just had finished delivering the Comic-Con trailer so I was able to escape for a few days. I was a bit in zombie mode after working such long hours but then I saw the fans’ reactions to the trailer. It was goosebump-inducing. That for me makes it all worth it.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SANDRA BALEJ: Omits. I know they are part of the process of moviemaking and need to happen, but it still hurts when a shot gets cut – especially when you’ve in a lot of work.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Designing a particular new environment for Ant-Man and the Wasp. I can’t say much since the movie is not released yet, but coming up with this very important look for the movie with the creative team has been the most challenging thing of my career so far.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SANDRA BALEJ: It was part of that Comic-Con trailer I mentioned earlier. It was a Sunday morning when I got this frantic call from our producer that Marvel needed 10 more frames for a trailer shot – not a weird request in itself. I was the comp supervisor back then, so I just rendered the frames and sent it to them. What was weird was that I received a phone call from Victoria Alonso herself to thank me for doing it on such a short notice. She’s probably already forgotten about it, but I really appreciated the gesture.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: In these times of social media and the internet where the fans have lots of opinions, moviemakers have become a bit more flexible in postproduction. Social media platforms and test screenings give them the chance to have their finger on the pulse of the fanbase’s wants and needs. As a consequence, the effects industry has to plan accordingly to keep up with any last-minute changes that need to happen.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SANDRA BALEJ: I wouldn’t shed a tear if we saw fewer stereo-converted movies. I like a good 3D movie like any other guy, but that mostly goes for native stereo movies. The conversion companies nowadays don’t get to spend a lot of time on the process and the experience suffers from that.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Try to find a life-work balance. The effects industry is tough on body and mind, especially when you start out. After 10 years in the business, I am still struggling to find it, but sometimes it helps to remember that this is a marathon not a sprint.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: The Man from Nowhere – I am a big fan of South Korean cinema, and this film is very much a case of incredible invisible effects. Some of the stunt work and the subtle use of effects is just incredible. I worked in Asia for some time as well and it was a great experience. I enjoy seeing the amazing progress the effects quality has made over the last few years over there.

Gravity: I have always been a fan of Alfonso Cuarón’s famous long shots. The 17-minute-long opening shot in Gravity was absolutely stunning.

Independence Day – this classic inspired me a lot when I was a kid. The effects still hold up so well even today. My favorite shot is the spaceship’s first appearance when it’s coming out of that big cloud. Perfect example of how cloud tank footage can sometimes beat heavy effects sims.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SANDRA BALEJ: I’ll go with the classic – popcorn. But not that weird salty stuff you guys have in North America. I thought I was poisoned the first time I tried it.

CINEFEX: Sandra, thanks for your time!

Now Showing – Cinefex 159

Cinefex 159 - From the Editor's Desk

Sometimes we just can’t decide what to put on the cover of our new issue. Given the lineup of great films in Cinefex 159, is it any wonder we went for one of our legendary double cover options?

On one cover you’ll find a glorious portrait of Thanos, the undoubted star of Avengers: Infinity War, courtesy of our talented friends at Digital Domain. The other cover rewards with a stunning image of Parzival, the virtual reality avatar of Ready Player One’s Wade Watts, crafted by those clever artisans at Industrial Light & Magic.

Whether you end up with Thanos or Parzival – or complete your collection by grabbing both! – you’ll get the same great articles inside. Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to guide you through the contents of our June 2018 issue, Cinefex 159.

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

A friend recently pointed out that while we tend to think of ‘nostalgia’ as a benign term, its suffix suggests that it is a malady of sorts, and those who wallow in it are exhibiting unhealthy states of mind. Pardon my pathology, then, but as I considered our new issue 159, I became curious as to where we – ‘we’ meaning Cinefex, cinema and the art and craft of visual effects – were 100 issues ago. ‘What was going on with issue 59?’ I wondered. So I turned to the handy ‘Cinefex back issues’ page on our website to find out.

On the cover of that issue was a shot from James Cameron’s True Lies, Cinefex story written by founder Don Shay. A blurb on the web page describes the film’s main visual effects vendor, Digital Domain, as a ‘startup company.’ Twenty-four years later, that same startup, along with Weta Digital (only a year old when Cinefex 59 hit the stands) delivered some of the most extraordinary computer character animation ever seen on screen with Thanos, in Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War, which graces the cover of our current issue.

The True Lies page also notes the film’s 100 digital and traditional visual effects shots. A hundred visual effects shots barely gets you five minutes into Infinity War, which boasted a total of nearly 3,000! Another difference? Cameron hung poor Jamie Lee Curtis from a hovering helicopter to get his shots in True Lies. Today, that task would fall to a digital double, and Jamie Lee could stay comfortably in her trailer.

Ah, yes, things are so different now … how I long for the good old days of slow-speed white Ford Bronco freeway chases and $1.15 a gallon gasoline and The X-Files and Sheryl Crow and Dumb and Dumber … wait, huh?

Okay, enough of that. We’re all happy to be in the present, covering the colossal Avengers: Infinity War, along with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Pacific Rim Uprising and the artful and intriguing Annihilation, from Ex Machina director Alex Garland. The successful marriage of visual effects and art department concepts in this last is of particular interest.

Enjoy the summer!

Cinefex 159 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already punching its way towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Jurassic World VR Expedition — Q&A

Jurassic World VR Expedition logoIn Universal Pictures’ Jurassic World, advances in genetic engineering lead to the creation of a dinosaur theme park on the remote island of Isla Nublar. By the end of the movie, the genie is out of the bottle and the prehistoric beasts are roaming free.

The sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom — covered in our August 2018 issue Cinefex 160 — picks up the story three years later. Meanwhile, a new virtual reality experience neatly bridges the gap between the two films, by inviting dino-devotees to explore the island and save as many of the wandering critters as they can.

Launched on June 14, 2018, at over 100 Dave & Buster’s venues, Jurassic World VR Expedition whisks four people at a time to Isla Nublar. Hopping aboard a proprietary two-axis motion base rigged with HTC Vive headset technology, each brave quartet navigates through jungle, valley and coastal environments in search of seven prehistoric species — gallimimus, brachiosaurus, stegosaurus, mosasaur, pteranodon and, of course, the iconic velociraptor and T-rex. Scanning devices allow them to tag each animal as they spot it. If interactivity is not their thing, they can set their scanners aside and simply enjoy the ride.

Jurassic World VR Expedition was created by The Virtual Reality Company under license from Universal. Cinefex caught up with writer and director James Lima, visual effects supervisor Carey Villegas, animation supervisor David Schaub, and VRC co-founder and chief creative officer Robert Stromberg, to discuss the creative and technical challenges involved, and the place of the experience within the ever-evolving world of virtual reality.

With "Jurassic World VR Expedition," The Virtual Reality Company development team of animators, visual effects artists, and technicians took a novel approach to VR, combining visual effects and gameplay to achieve the level of integrity expected of cinematic-quality virtual reality. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

With “Jurassic World VR Expedition,” The Virtual Reality Company development team of animators, visual effects artists, and technicians took a novel approach to virtual reality, combining visual effects and gameplay to achieve the level of integrity expected of cinematic-quality VR. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

CINEFEX — Millions of people are already familiar with Jurassic World, whether through watching the films or playing the videogames. What does this virtual reality experience bring to the party?

JAMES LIMA — This is a portal into the Jurassic World franchise, another way to enter into the story universe. Because virtual reality is immersive and has some interactivity, there is this level of agency that you just don’t get in watching a film. At the same time, we didn’t want to abandon the emotionality that you get from a film. We wanted to add the sense of fear, the magnificence, all the things that inspire us and make us love the medium of film.

CINEFEX — Cinematic sensibilities are all very well, but virtual reality has a rather different visual language. You don’t have cuts, or establishing shots, or closeups. How did you go about choreographing the action, and directing the attention of viewers?

JAMES LIMA — I started looking at the choreography of old musicals, because people like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were geniuses. They would typically do a single shot with a 1,000-foot magazine, and it was brilliant in terms of how they moved from one idea to the next. The construction of the set focused your attention into a general area, then a sound or a movement narrowed that view to a specific area. Another thing we looked at was the first virtual reality experience ever created — Disneyland. When you go to Disneyland, you transition from one environment to another, and the sounds and smells are different, and suddenly you’re in a new location.

CINEFEX — In Jurassic World VR Expedition, you’re trying to direct the attention of four people at once. Does that complicate things?

ROBERT STROMBERG — Well, you’re being driven through the environment remotely, so the points of interests approach all four people at the same time — although you still have the choice of where to look. Using those points of interest — whether it’s something visually stimulating or a sudden shock — we purposefully draw the attention of all four people to certain areas.

CINEFEX — Does the experience change depending on where you sit on the motion base — left, right, in the middle?

DAVID SCHAUB — Yes, we’ve choreographed things that way. The person seated on the far left is going to get one experience, and the person on the right is going to get a different experience. We get velociraptor moments on the left that are very profound, but at the same time we don’t cheat the people on the right because later on they get their own close-up opportunities. It’s all balanced out.

CINEFEX — Are these the same dinosaurs that are in the movies?

DAVID SCHAUB — Absolutely. The models and textures came from Industrial Light & Magic. They were massive files, of course, but we very carefully decimated and retopologised them, while keeping the resolution high — somewhere around 100,000 polygons for each dinosaur. Then we took them through a typical visual effects pipeline, rigging them, building all the controls you would need for a film, and animating them. All that got piped through to Unreal Engine, so you are in fact seeing dinosaurs rendered in real time at 90 frames per second. If you were standing up, you could literally walk around them.

CINEFEX — How do you keep up the image quality when you’re rendering all these complex assets in real time?

JAMES LIMA — We put all of the dinosaurs through a texture evaluation stage — that helped us to match what was done in the films. Also, Carey Villegas did something that surprisingly is not common in virtual reality or videogames. Like a colorist, he went through and relit all the scenes, all the dinosaurs, with kind of a director of photographer’s eye. It was cool. A lot of people would come in and watch what he was doing, and they were like, “I’ve never seen this before.”

CAREY VILLEGAS — I think that was probably one of the more complicated things we had to figure out. We had ILM’s full suite of textures, yet there was no way to utilize all of those great things because you’re limited with the color correction tools you have available in game engines right now. They don’t give you the kind of control that we’re used to in a digital intermediate, say, where we can pretty much have our way with any portion of the image. We figured out how to extract the best parts of each texture, and distilled them down into the two or three or four fundamental components that we needed.

CINEFEX — How important was this process to the overall look of the experience?

JAMES LIMA — Critically important. One of the challenges that I put to the team was that I wanted this experience to happen at first light — there’s this time of day before the sun rises that’s spectacular, but it’s not your classic orange sky picturesque thing. The first iterations they gave me of what that light would look like in the game engine was, to put it mildly, perfunctory. They looked like bad matte paintings. But then Carey got in there and suddenly we started finding the magic.

ROBERT STROMBERG — I would also say that the quality of the experience is only partly about image resolution, or how much we can render as fast as possible. That’s why we brought in seasoned visual effects animators, with their decades of accumulated experience. That’s what takes it to another level.

CINEFEX — Did the high frame rate affect the way the animators worked?

DAVID SCHAUB — We started animating at 24 frames per second because that’s our world. Then we transitioned over to 30, because that divides into 90. But when we started actually looking at the stuff at 90, we found it tended to soften a lot of the animation. Those hard hits that you really need to enforce big gravity impacts, we had to pump those up. That was one of those interesting discoveries.

CINEFEX — Did the artists work in front of monitors in the usual way, or were they able to put on headsets and work in the virtual world?

DAVID SCHAUB — Maybe 90 percent of the time they were working as normal, on the desktop. Occasionally we would put on a headset because, while something may look wonderful on the monitor, in the virtual world you pick up on things that you just don’t see in the 2D view. If a character is slightly off balance, for example, an animator might not pick up on that. When you put on a headset and walk around, you get a different perspective and see all those flaws.

In "Jurassic World VR Expedition," up to four people at a time put on an HTC Vive headset and board a Dave & Buster's motion simulator, where they will be transported into what remains of Jurassic World for a five-minute interactive expedition. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

In “Jurassic World VR Expedition,” up to four people at a time put on an HTC Vive headset and board a Dave & Buster’s motion simulator, where they will be transported into what remains of Jurassic World for a five-minute interactive expedition. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

CINEFEX — How did you integrate the animation with the movements of the motion base?

CAREY VILLEGAS — You know, we work with motion simulators all the time in the visual effects world — typically six-axis bases with rotators that we can pretty much move any way we choose. In this case, however, we were limited to a simple two-axis rig with just pitch and roll, because it has to be durable enough to run thousands of times all day long.

CINEFEX — So was it simply a case of piping the animation data into the motion base and getting it to respond accordingly?

DAVID SCHAUB — Not quite! If we used data straight out of the box, people got motion sickness. It was a little distressing, actually, because everything we tried in the beginning was just instant vomitosis!

CINEFEX — Sounds messy. How did you get around that?

DAVID SCHAUB — We stripped it down to bare bones and went one layer at a time. The first pass was basically just a glide through the experience. Then it was about deciding things like how much of a bank do we need to put into the turns? If we put in a little bit too much — guess what? — we started to feel nauseous. Once we got that first gliding layer, we started introducing bumps over every single rock — that really made you feel like you were grounded. It really was an artistic choice. All the time we were looking for that sweet spot.

CAREY VILLEGAS — Even then, we couldn’t just pump our data straight into the platform and expect the visuals to be in line. Instead, we came up with a technique that reads what the platform is actually doing physically, because the inertia is different depending on how many players are on it. That really reduced the possibility for motion sickness. It was something we had to push hard for, because that wasn’t built into the design of the platform.

ROBERT STROMBERG — We also had to get over latency issues. Our inner ear is so sensitive that, if things are off even a fraction, you feel it. And we learned that people are very sensitive to where the horizon is. That always has to be where it needs to be, because we’re aware when it’s not.

CINEFEX — It sounds like motion sickness is caused by lots of different stimuli, all interacting with each other. How did you isolate each individual thing that was causing a problem?

CAREY VILLEGAS — Every time we added a new physical component, we would bring in different people as test subjects. Then we would try and figure out what it was — latency in the frame rate, or some motion that we’d introduced that wasn’t sitting well with the inner ear. By building things up with this layered approach, we were able to quickly decipher where the problem lay.

CINEFEX — How important is the interactive dimension, using your scanner to tag dinosaurs?

JAMES LIMA — The idea was to keep it simple and fun so that even Aunt Pickle could do it, but it’s not necessary to the experience. It’s the icing on the cake. Colin Trevorrow, the executive producer and writer of Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, rode on it and he was like, “I couldn’t give a f*** about using the scanner!” But some people are kickass with this thing, and they’ll tag themselves a lot of dinosaurs.

"The Dreamsmiths Unleashed" in Cinefex 151

CINEFEX — Towards the end of 2016, we published a long article in Cinefex issue 151 looking at the state of the virtual reality industry. One observation that kept coming up during interviews was that virtual reality was a bit like the Wild West — wide frontiers, no rules, everyone trying to stake their claim. You commented, Robert, that it was like trying to build an airplane in flight! How have things moved on since then?

ROBERT STROMBERG — Well, we’ve attached the wings!

CINEFEX — That’s progress.

ROBERT STROMBERG — Right! Actually, what I have seen over time is a big shift from working with people from the gaming community to a bigger presence of visual effects artists. That’s making a big difference to the quality. There’s a bar that visual effects reached a long time ago and we want to take advantage of that. It’s a kind of embedded knowledge about what we need in order to make things look real. That’s not to say that there isn’t some sort of fusion with elements of the gaming world. We just wanted to take it to a higher level, and work with people who wanted to be bold. Our biggest hurdles have been in trying to find that perfect balance.

CINEFEX — Creative advances are one thing, but how does the business model stack up?

ROBERT STROMBERG — This experience will be the widest-released virtual reality content to date. Our first rollout is with the Dave & Buster’s franchise, going out into 116 stores. It’s a little bit of a business experiment, but I think it’s positioned in a way that’s unique and for the first time has great potential for revenue, because we’re putting it into a place where people are accustomed to spending money. We’re going after other share partners and outlets, of course, and it’ll eventually be worldwide.

CINEFEX — So, has virtual reality’s time finally come?

JAMES LIMA — You know, I really think this is as exciting a time as 1992, when Jurassic Park ushered in the digital era of filmmaking. Here we are with that same franchise and we’re doing it again with virtual reality — this might even be considered a first step into what film might one day become. We’re at that baby stage right now of a whole new technology, a whole new medium. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it.

Special thanks to Jeff Fishburn.

Spotlight – Rudy Grossman

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

Rudy Grossman

Rudy Grossman is a digital effects supervisor at Atomic Fiction, and lists his career highlights as Pirates of the Caribbean, Deadpool, Maleficent, King Kong, Star Wars, X-Men and Game of Thrones.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: My first big break was at a visual effects studio focused on creating photorealistic humans using a proprietary facial motion capture system called LifeFx. We were working with Jim Carrey doing some tests for a Warner Brothers project and it was an amazing learning experience – the first time photoreal facial motion capture had been used to create a digital actor. Looking back, it really was pretty groundbreaking. A lot of super-talented industry gamechangers came out of that group, including Dr. Mark Sagar, David Taritero, Kevin Smith and Guy Williams.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: I love the whole visual effects process. From the early planning and preproduction, to prepping the asset builds, putting together the shots, adding that last bit of polish, and finally sitting in the theater to watch all that hard work come together on the big screen. Working in this industry has provided me with so many amazing experiences, traveling and living around the world, experiencing different cultures, getting to meet and work with directors and actors who have inspired me so much, people I’d never in a million years imagined I’d meet. Most of all, making so many friends along the way, and watching them grow and succeed in their own career paths, seeing colleagues who once shared the same wide-eyed enthusiasm when new to the industry, now veteran supervisors.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

RUDY GROSSMAN: The first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up. Oh, no it’s happening again, just thinking about it. What kind of question is this? Everything’s going blurry …

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: Switching from front-end character setup to lighting. After years of working primarily in rigging, model, creature effects, facial mocap and tech-anim, it was difficult to switch into back-end work – lighting and compositing.

During King Kong, I was involved in creating Weta’s first facial mocap performance, with Andy Serkis playing the title character. It was months of long hours, working nights and weekends. Around the same time that we were delivering the last Kong face shots, an email went out asking if anybody could light shots. I had a little experience lighting, but not enough to make a reel, so I was really excited about the chance to get more experience. To be honest, I was also already completely exhausted! I don’t know where the burst of energy came from – I guess it’s like when you get close to the end of good book and you just don’t want it to end. Anyway, next thing I knew, I was moved over to a different building where I was assigned a lighting shot – this completely awesome shot of Kong towards the end of the film. So there I am at my desk, thinking this must be a mistake, there’s no way they are going to assign this awesome shot to me, sooner or later the production team will stop by and reassign it to a more experienced lighter. My heart was literally racing with excitement, and a little fear.

That night, I slept under my desk so I could periodically wake up, check the renders, and resubmit if anything was broken. Next morning, I was informed the shot would be handed off to a different artist. I understood, and mentioned that I’d just submitted a version to dailies, so they could review its current state for handing it off. They reviewed the shot, liked it, and decided I should keep going with it. More shots were assigned and, before I knew it, I had enough shots for a lighting reel, which then led to more jobs in lighting and eventually compositing too. Weta’s supervisor Chris White and production coordinator Rebecca Downes were incredibly supportive about transitioning me into lighting. Their encouragement was inspirational.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

RUDY GROSSMAN: Creating the facial blood flow effect for the three CG photoreal pixie characters in Disney’s Maleficent. In reality, the human face has subtle hue shifts as blood is dynamically compressed and drained by the motion of our expressions, temperature conditions, and emotional states. At the time, this had been an unexplored area in feature film CG characters. Mathias Whitman, the facial animation supervisor, and John Feather, the face lead, were equally passionate about doing everything we could to make these characters feel real. We listed blood flow as one of our goals while strategizing for the project, but we couldn’t find the resources to get it started. I had promised them that if we couldn’t find anybody to work on this, then I would do it.

A few months passed and we still couldn’t get anybody allocated to take this on, so I started working on it as a side project, mainly in the evenings and weekends. Paul Debevec’s ICT team shot some amazing reference footage of one of our main actresses going through an extreme range of facial expressions. Using this, I was able to really understand what conditions caused the blood to flow in and out of the different facial regions, and the effect that had on the skin’s subsurface scattering. The first step was re-creating the performance of the blood flow – to do this I used a cgfx shader. This way, I could quickly and interactively focus on fine-tuning the way blood moved within the face and not have to wait around for lengthy render times. The first time it all worked, interactively animating the character’s face and watching the blood flow change in real time was super-exciting!

The next step was taking the formula from the cgfx shader and using that to create higher resolution results with an appropriate time delay on the blood flow recovery. I plugged those results directly into the subsurface scattering of our V-Ray skin shader. Besides adding an extra illusion of life to the characters under normal conditions, it was also really helpful to add realism when they were yelling or upset, and having the faces flush slightly while flying at a higher altitude in colder air.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: The biggest change has been globalization. The visual effects industry, once very centralized in California, is now spread widely across world. But the challenge of making visual effects is still as exciting. As our community continues to grow and get better and better at making visual effects, the complexity of the movies being made and the appetite of our audience is also growing.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

RUDY GROSSMAN: There is still a lot more we can do on-set, during our acquisition phase, to improve our overall process and allow higher quality work to be achieved more efficiently in areas like digital lighting and lookdev. We need to periodically question our standard workflows and find new ways to get better results.

It would be amazing to see more improvements in plausible simulation. Instead of trying to narrow in on the exact dynamic settings to accurately achieve the desired outcome, we should be flipping this on its head, and have our desired outcome accurately determine the settings required to achieve it – essentially resulting in simulations which are driven by the creative target.

I would also love to see improvements in markerless motion capture. The ultimate goal would be to accurately track and construct correlated 3D deforming data of actors’ faces, bodies, costumes and hair on-set under the actual lighting conditions, synced with the filming.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: First, think about what you want out of life and what’s important to you. If consistency and predictability are a high priority – like living in the same town with the same routine – then this industry may not be the best fit. Most people in visual effects move around through different job opportunities. It used to be moving up and down the California coast; now it’s moving to new countries. You will know this career is the right choice for you if the work calls to you, gives you a sense of satisfaction, and you have fun doing it.

Second, find a place where you like the people you work with. If you find yourself at a studio where the people around you are mean-spirited, get out – it’s a toxic environment and you will be unhappy every day you are there. Atomic Fiction is a really good example of a studio filled with fun people who are excited to work together. I’ve worked with Ryan Tudhope and Kevin Baillie for years, and I know their intentions are sincere and they care about the people who work here.

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

RUDY GROSSMAN: Deadpool – a surprise hit that kind of came out of nowhere. It is such a fun movie to watch, and it was a fun movie to work on. The team at Atomic Fiction really came together and built a foundation that launched us forward into several exciting projects. I’m super-proud of what we achieved. For a lot of us, it was also a great chance to work with Jonathan Rothbart again. It was like a visual effects reunion!

Maleficent – the pixies’ faces are digital re-creations of the actresses. That required a herculean effort from everybody involved, and the results were simply gorgeous. A significant portion of the face mocap technology used in the film had evolved from the face development work at IMD, and it was really exciting to see the evolution of that technology, and its results recognized with Nicholas Apostoloff’s sci-tech Academy Award.

King Kong – it was a great team, with an unwavering commitment to strive for quality. Peter Jackson is one of those rare big-feature directors that puts in the effort to make people feel involved, appreciated, and important to the process. Spielberg, Zemeckis, and George Miller are other great examples of that rare group. The years of previous work in facial motion capture that had barely seen the light of day, the initial controversy amongst the actor’s guild during the testing in the late 90’s, and even the initial skepticism within our own industry, finally came to fruition with a fully believable, emotionally complex performance. The film itself won an Academy Award for best visual effects, and Mark Sagar was given a sci-tech Academy Award for leading the charge that established performance-driven facial motion capture within the filmmaking process.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

RUDY GROSSMAN: Lounging in a recliner seat while dipping cantucci biscotti into a glass of Vin Santo. It’s like milk and cookies, but for grownups!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Rudy!

Spotlight – Michael L. Hutchinson

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

Michael L HutchinsonMichael L. Hutchinson is information operations manager at Atomic Fiction. Among his filmography highlights are movies such as Star Wars, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man, Stranger Things and The Women of Marwen.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: In film school, a long-haired, bearded, leather jacket-wearing representative from ILM came and did a presentation on The Mask and digital effects. Learning about ILM being the best of the best sold me – that’s where I wanted to work. My first big break after finishing film school, moving to LA and working as a runner for a trailer house for a couple years, was getting an interview at ILM and then getting hired in their video editorial department as a machine room tape operator. I literally was yelling “Woohoo!!” in my truck on the drive into work each morning for about a year. A couple years later I’d be working late, digitizing footage on an AVID for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and think to myself, “I’m working on Star Wars, at ILM! How did this happen?!” Good times.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: When a piece of code I’ve written suddenly works that automates processes and makes my life or the life of people in my department easier and more efficient. Or times when I get to contribute to the filmmaking process in a more personal and visible way – like when I had a brother living in Afghanistan who sent me pictures for reference on Iron Man. Those images were instrumental in building the digital buildings of a town used in the final film.

Then there was the time I got to be Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones. My hair and beard were a solid match, so I was used as a body double in some shots where Obi-Wan is in a Magnaline 3000 transport helping take Anakin and Padme to a spaceport to go hide on her home planet. After that, my nickname became Obi-Hutch. It’s stayed with me my entire career.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Working with kids who have never seen the cult classic movies that I grew up with.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: I was hired at The Orphanage to help develop their HD pipeline. It was rudimentary and not working properly – it would take up to three days to get files processed and transferred to a server, an EDL built, and everything conformed in order to layoff dpx frames as HD video to tape for client deliveries. I built my own code and tools to optimize and automate processes. In the end I was able to get the time down to about 15 minutes.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Backing up an entire HD server with all the images for Attack of the Clones every weekend. This was done to digital tape using a Philips D6 VTR – at the time there were only four in the world, each costing something like a quarter of a million dollars. Using proprietary software, the process would back up each image in a digital lossless data format, splitting it into four quadrants of data that were recorded on different fields/frames. The machine was never consistently frame-accurate and an offset would have to be verified and applied each time. The process of laying off the data to tape could take over eight hours. There went my Saturdays for months!

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Going from using VHS, Betacam, Digibeta, HDDs and other formats for image acquisition and delivery, to seeing them all disappear and only using online digital file transfer services.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: The newer entities in digital streaming and content creation adopting former film industry standards such as file naming, editorial best practices, and turnover of helpful information for working with digital files and media.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Figure out what you want to do. Get working at developing your skills and talents. Start making connections and get working. Build your resume with real skills and accomplishments. The most important traits are dependability, hard work, being humble, teachable, and good communication skills.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: The Matrix, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Inception – three of the coolest movies ever! The visual effects were integral to telling the great stories. Many of the effects are pretty obvious, these being fantasy films, but so much was subtle and unnoticed, yet key to creating the worlds and realities. It’s too difficult to single out shots and sequences in these movies as their entirety is what makes them complete and so great.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Salted buttered popcorn.

CINEFEX: Michael, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Oliver Schulz

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

Oliver SchulzA visual effects supervisor at RISE, Oliver Schulz considers his career highlights to include Black Panther, Babylon Berlin, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: Initially, my goal was actually not to get involved in computers. I had always loved drawing and painting, but I think it was my brother who introduced me to Maya. I tried it out for two or three weeks, closed it and probably didn’t get back on for three or four months. When I did reopen it I was hooked, in particular with the 3D capabilities.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: The process of bringing together all the little parts and fitting them together for that grand end result. I find that to be really rewarding. Also, coming into work in the morning and screening renders that were sent into the farm the previous night. Being impressed by what turned out well, and seeing the surprises – that never gets old.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

OLIVER SCHULZ: When renders were sent in the previous night don’t come out!

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: The sequences that we did for the first Captain America – we got pretty close to the end deadlines there, but ultimately we pulled through those crazy weeks. Getting up during some of those mornings were notable feats of strength and stamina.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

OLIVER SCHULZ: Standing on the set of Captain America: Civil War in Atlanta and seeing the locations where many other notable productions had been filmed – that was a surreal but incredible opportunity. For example, The Walking Dead was shot in the same areas we were setting up in.

RISE constructed the mountain city of Jabariland as a fully CG environment for Marvel Studios' "Black Panther."

RISE constructed the mountain city of Jabariland as a fully CG environment for Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.”

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: I think one trend that is becoming mainstream is the increasing amount of last-minute changes, and how frequently they come in. This reflects overall advancements in how streamlined the technology and workflows have become.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

OLIVER SCHULZ: The continued development of our workflow processes – where we can improve and what we can do away with.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: Train your eye. That is the most important thing for anyone interested in this field. Know how to quickly and efficiently distinguish between what is good and what doesn’t work. This will save you time and give you more energy to go into other tasks which require more attention.

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

OLIVER SCHULZ: Actually, a couple of videogames come to the top of my mind first. The cut scenes from the 1990s PC game Command and Conquer: Red Alert. Also, the cut scenes from the first Warcraft were impressive at the time. For movies, I would say the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films, with the work done to create Bill Nighy’s tentacle-faced antagonist, Davy Jones – for me, that is one of the most successful visual effects character creations of all time. Oh, and Cameron’s Avatar, too.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

OLIVER SCHULZ: I don’t do snacks in cinemas. Only beer from time to time.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Oliver!

Spotlight – Simon Ohler

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

Simon OhlerSimon Ohler is a pipeline developer at RISE, with career highlights including Black Panther, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Cloud Atlas.

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?

SIMON OHLER: I wanted originally to be a director and a graphic designer. In university, there was this 3D course that I decided to enroll in and it was then that my eyes really opened up to the possibilities of what this field can achieve. I knew that this was what I wanted to do and from then on worked towards getting into more facets of 3D work.

One scenario I wanted to work on was large-scale destruction sequences, such as a city being toppled. So, for my final university project, I did a 30-second shot of a building collapsing during an earthquake. Even with all the resources available now, this is still a challenging task – 10 years ago even more so, as many of the tools that are pretty much industry standard now just weren’t available back then. Fortunately, the sequence came out quite nicely, and landed me my job at RISE.

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

SIMON OHLER: The chance to work as a team. When I was starting out, a lot of the tasks you had to complete whether as a student or in a similar role were solitary. In a team environment, you share a lot of previously unknown or unconsidered approaches and techniques that will benefit your own workflow. The people here definitely make coming into work all the more enjoyable.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SIMON OHLER: Those short turnarounds.

RISE delivered visual effects for the Netflix series "Babylon Berlin."

RISE delivered visual effects for the Netflix series “Babylon Berlin.”

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

SIMON OHLER: The first Captain America film, which was also the first Marvel Studios production we had worked on. At the time, this was all about proving our facility could easily deliver and produce quality work in an already competitive industry. That was certainly challenging for me as an individual, but was also critical in making sure we got off on the right foot with what turned out to be a heavy visual effects-dependent franchise. Some of these earlier difficult tasks included matching perfectly an effect that another vendor had built. This was highly rewarding when we got it right.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SIMON OHLER: Those happy accidents – although, of course, you cannot always foresee them. For example, when something breaks in the viewport and it just looks awesome. You have to love those magical moments.

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

SIMON OHLER: Open formats becoming a standard for data exchange – not only from one application to another but often from one studio to another. Having formats like alembic and vdb at your disposal make the transfer of data much, much smoother compared to previous pipelines. You can now easily build off something that a team of hundreds of developers were previously working on – all you have to do is integrate it into your workflow.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SIMON OHLER: Something that is already happening is the shift towards real-time rendering. There are already examples of feature-length animated movies being rendered in real-time engines. When it comes to photorealistic visual effects, this is still limited to single characters and smaller, more manageable sets. But, some years from now, I imagine we’ll be assembling sets and placing effects elements with a much clearer preview of how everything will look in the final shot.

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

SIMON OHLER: Pay attention to detail and never work with the mindset that tasks are truly finished. When something is done, don’t stop there and say “I’m fine” – there are probably a hundred different ways that it could reworked or improved upon. Keep an open mind and continually test your own abilities – those are the top pieces of advice I can offer.

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

SIMON OHLER: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds – I would say it is the film that brought me into the world of visual effects. Seeing what they did, I wanted to be a part of the destruction and mayhem sequence developments. Mad Max: Fury Road – because it was a really nice blend of CG and practical effects. And the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

For a specific shot, I would say the scene in War of the Worlds where Tom Cruise is escaping with his family by car, and as they look back a freeway overpass is completely flipped on end with them barely having cleared it. It looks like a massive special effect with the level of detail that was put into the shot.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SIMON OHLER: Beer, if available.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Korbinian Hopfner

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

Korbinian HopfnerKorbinian Hopfner is a Houdini effects TD at RISE, and has worked on films including Avengers: Infinity War, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: When I first watched the massive battle sequences in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I thought that I would like to get involved in this line of work by helping to make these visual effects-heavy productions. I started by reviewing as many available tutorials as I could find. My research also included how effects were achieved throughout previous decades when digital technology was in its earlier years – particularly in understanding how exactly they got around the technical hurdles by developing their own tools and processes. It still motivates me to take my work further.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Those lucky shots where the first attempt gets to final – that’ll always make me smile.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: The sad sight of a broken espresso machine and the chilling reality that the day has only begun.

RISE was part of the global visual effects team on Marvel Studios' "Doctor Strange."

RISE was part of the global visual effects team on Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange.”

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Probably Captain America: Civil War, where we went through a lot of look development phases for a specific effect and needed to change it in a very short time.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: We had to create an effect for rocks that consume light. Conceptually, that was a strange task.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Effects work is always a very time-consuming process – at least, it can be when it comes to big simulations. Of course, every year it becomes easier as the software and hardware are continually improved upon. A positive aspect of these advancements is that becoming involved in this industry is easier now for beginners. The software has evolved to be more user-friendly, albeit still offering the tools that artists need to complete their tasks.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Real-time photorealistic physics and simulations – I would definitely like to see this more and more implemented.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Start with some simple tutorials, followed by an internship. If you’re still on board after that, I guess you’re good to go for the next level. Go step by step, and don’t ever give up after a hiccup. Keep practicing.

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

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: I would begin with the classics – Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. They still have some of the most ground-breaking effects of all time. I mean, who doesn’t get goosebumps when the T-1000 melts through the iron bars? Seeing that in theaters for the first time is a memory that will be hard to top, if even. The third one would certainly be Mad Max: Fury Road. Every time I rewatch the sequence where they are racing through the encroaching mega-sandstorm, there are always previously unnoticed details I love discovering.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KORBINIAN HOPFNER: Movie time is popcorn time. I choose you, salty popcorn!

CINEFEX: Korbinian, thanks for your time!