Spotlight – Sara Mustafa

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

Sara Mustafa is head of global operations and resources at Pixomondo. Her job entails examining and building global capacity, and overseeing resources both creative and technical. In November 2016, Sara launched the company’s new Vancouver office.

Sara Mustafa

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?

SARA MUSTAFA: I’ve always worked in the creative and digital space. I was fascinated by moviemaking and effects, so I actively looked for a career in one of the biggest companies in Toronto – Pixomondo I started working in the Toronto office as a human resources manager, and held different positions, then after a year I moved to the head office in Los Angeles to take on a more global role. Little by little I became a visual effects addict! Now I direct global operations and I cannot ask for a better space to be.

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

SARA MUSTAFA: Watching artists so intensely figuring out shots and getting excited about it. Also, delivering shots and watching ‘making ofs.’ The adrenalin rush makes me very happy.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SARA MUSTAFA: Clients – no, I’m kidding! I don’t think I ever sob, at least not at work. I might get sad occasionally about losing a show, but it’s all a fair game. Also when I see good talent being wasted or misused in some way. As you have figured by now, I’m very pro- artists, and if they are sad I get a little sad too.

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

SARA MUSTAFA: Opening a new facility in one of the most competitive cities for visual effects – Vancouver. That was exciting and a little terrifying. It was challenging because we 100 percent needed to open a new office, and it made the most sense to open it in Vancouver, but we were gambling on a very strong market. But guess what – we now have a full-on office in Vancouver and are expanding.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SARA MUSTAFA: We needed to do a same-day delivery from Los Angeles to Toronto. I was the only person who had their passport in the office, so I flew from Toronto to L.A. and back in the same day. I also bartended in one of our parties once, but I’ll tell you about that some other time …

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

SARA MUSTAFA: The migration of artists from region to region every three to five years, based on production and postproduction tax incentives, and on where the work lands. As for changes in the technical arena – shifting to remote working, also GPU- and cloud-based applications.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SARA MUSTAFA: I would like to see more artist appreciation. People easily forget that behind the machines and software are great artist who make the impossible shots happen. I want to see it recognised that people matter and artists are very valuable.

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

SARA MUSTAFA: Get an internship and be current with all the new trends. Also, train yourself on work-life balance from the very beginning, so that you work hard and enjoy life too. Most importantly, you are responsible for your own career, so don’t hesitate in exploring new avenues, shorter contracts on cool projects and, if the situation allows, new cities and adventures! It will all be worth 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?

SARA MUSTAFA: That’s a tough one! I’m a fan of the ‘Fast and Furious’ movies because I love fire and car crashes. Hugo, with its CG effects in the opening shot, is fascinating because of all the optimization that went into it. The Jungle Book, because the amount of work and tenacity that goes into creature effects is fascinating to me.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SARA MUSTAFA: Popcorn and Maltesers!

CINEFEX: Sara, thanks for your time!

Edlund, Kroyer and Oscar 2018


It is perhaps impossible to summarize the careers of Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer without turning a blog into a full-blown magazine article. But, for the uninitiated:

Richard Edlund with Millennium Falcon at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund, with Millennium Falcon, at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Richard is a four-time Academy Award visual effects winner – for Star Wars, Empire, Raiders and Return of the Jedi – governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, founding chairman of the AMPAS visual effects branch, chairman of the AMPAS Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, 2007 recipient of the AMPAS John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, 2008 recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers Presidents Award, board member of the Visual Effects Society and co-designer of the Pignose amplifier.

Bill Kroyer, professor and director of the Chapman University Digital Arts Program. Image © Chapman University.

Bill Kroyer, professor and director of the Chapman University Digital Arts Program. Image © Chapman University.

Bill, for the last eight years, has been professor and director of the Digital Arts Program at Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, at Chapman University. He is AMPAS governor of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch, co-chair of the AMPAS Science and Technology Council, former animation co-director at Rhythm & Hues Studios, first recipient of the International Animation Society’s June Foray award, Oscar nominee for his 1989 short Technological Threat, Disney alumnus, and shared credit, with Jerry Rees, as ‘computer image choreographer’ overseeing digital animation on Disney’s 1982 feature TRON.

Both gentlemen are mellifluous, talented and passionate about their crafts, and are currently honoring the art by mentoring students of film and animation at Chapman University, in Orange Country, California, where Edlund recently embarked on the Dodge College Pankey Distinguished Artist program. “I guess I’m considered a distinguished artist,” Richard Edlund wryly observed. “I’ve done about 30 features, a lot of commercials and ride films, and so I’ve gone through the School of Hard Knocks. I’m now going down memory lane, revisiting a lot of movies that I’ve worked on, and trying to give young filmmakers a sense of how we got here.”

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with "Star Wars" visual effects and special effects Oscar winners from the 50th Academy Awards. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with “Star Wars” visual effects and special effects Oscar winners from the 50th Academy Awards. Image © Chapman University.

Across campus, Bill Kroyer’s students, undergraduates in the animation visual effects program aged between 18 to 22, engage in the creation of animated films or visual effects, working with live-action filmmakers in Chapman’s graduate program. “We are also getting into virtual/augmented reality projects now,” related Kroyer. “It’s pretty active, innovative stuff.” As an early adopter of digital technology, Kroyer still espouses core disciplines. “The fundamental skills are unchanged. Those include performance, staging, composition, design – all the qualities that attract the eye, and create an emotional impression. On the other end of the spectrum, technology is evolving daily, and my kids are way ahead of their professors. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you’ll never know more than the kids, because the stuff they’re learning about was just invented yesterday. I’d put my sophomore cinematographer up against any member of the Academy for testing VR cameras. It’s unbelievable what these kids are doing, and it’s a very exciting time. It’s very different from the old paradigm where the professor had all the knowledge. Now, it’s more like I’m teaching you this and you teach me that.”

Richard Edlund, with hyperspace Wookiee. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund, with hyperspace Wookiee. Image © Chapman University.

Edlund’s teaching experience, at his alma mater University of Southern California in the Peter Stark Producing Program for visual effects and emerging technologies, influenced his current course trajectory. “It is invigorating to be dealing with young talented students,” Edlund concurred. “At USC, students were neurologists and lawyers who didn’t want to follow those professions and wanted to get into film. I had all these fertile minds, 50 of them in a class, and they’d all seen just about every film that had been made in the recent times, so I was being quizzed by people who were really up on what’s happening in the world of modern technology, upper the upper echelon IQs, and they’d ask questions that cause you to rethink your own ideas.” Edlund’s current curriculum, surveying visual effects from the analog era to this year’s Academy Award-nominated VFX films, emphasizes the breadth of film history. “I’ve done a lot of sci-fi movies, but that’s not my main interest in cinema. I enjoy great dramatic accomplishments in film, but I find that many of my younger students don’t go back much further than The Lord of the Rings. They’ve seen all the modern movies, but when you mention Citizen Kane or Casablanca, they haven’t seen those milestones of cinema. I’m trying to bring them back a little bit further, and I’m working on a series of one-hour shows on visual effects, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the present, showing how we got here by interviewing the people that came up with those stepping stones. The kind of ingenuity we had to us in the analog era was entirely different from the ingenuity we have now. We’ve gone from blacksmithing to neuro-surgery. It’s a whole different Megillah.”

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with Grant McCune and X-wing, at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer, with Grant McCune and X-wing, at Chapman University. Image © Chapman University.

Viewed in historical perspective, the crop of five visual effects nominees for the 90th Academy Awards – from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes, Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 to Blade Runner 2049 – may be unique in that each prominently features digital characters interpreted, in varying degrees, through interactive human performances and animation. “Technology allows us now to solve problems and introduce new characters in ways we never could before,” noted Kroyer. “That has opened up the field creatively and that will only continue as the years go by. There is no question about that; and it poses two questions. On the creative side, what will people do that the audience will respond to? And on the awards side, how to evaluate those factors as a voting member of the Academy, the Visual Effects Society, or the Animation Society? How do we reward those performances if they have become a team endeavor? That’s something that we are looking at very critically, especially in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, involving all our branches.”

The increased prevalence of visual effects has had manifold effects on audience expectations.  “I think it has been liberating,” observed Edlund. “It’s an arduous process. A lot more people put a lot more work into shots nowadays than there used to be. And there are so many shots in effects films. It seems there’s not a day that Marvel doesn’t have a thousand shots in the pipeline. And that that means people are fighting for the opportunity of getting into some of these shots. We have monstrous shows with monstrous needs. And the interesting thing is that audiences have seen so much, and the material is so transparent, nothing excites them. It gets to the point where you’ve been so over-exposed to super reality that it’s like, so what’s new? Even for those of us who’ve spent our lives in visual effects, when we’re evaluating the work, we don’t know what’s been added and what wasn’t. That’s why recently we’ve asked visual effects supervisors to put ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots into their presentation reels so we can see what they started with and what we’ve wound up with. That’s a new development for us. Back when Doug Trumbull was presenting his work on Close Encounters, he did a before and after effects reel, and we felt that that was not copacetic – but Star Wars won, anyway!”

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer explain motion control miniature photography. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer explain motion control miniature photography. Image © Chapman University.

The incorporation of ‘making of’ reels into visual effects evaluations informs more detailed award categories. “We have to have intelligent and informed data about exactly how performances are created to make our decisions,” said Kroyer. “The VES is now is finally incorporating the ‘making of’ reels because even the most trained eye can no longer tell what’s been manufactured and what is natural. That has extended into the area of character performance – whether it’s a photo-real human, or an anthropomorphic monster or ape, it is impossible to evaluate the work, unless you really dig in and look at it. Years ago, when Bob Zemeckis directed The Polar Express, the Academy sent me in to look at the files and the data to see exactly what the animators had brought to those performances, and how much was straight parse-through from the actor. In that case, when I sat with the animators, I examined the source files and the finals, and it was very obvious that the animators had keyframed and tweaked almost every frame. Our definition of an animated film is that the performances are created by the animators.” The five current AMPAS animated feature nominations include diverse stylizations of computer graphics, and a hand-painted independent feature based on the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. “Look at Loving Vincent – that is not a photo-real CG film, but the question was, is this a film where filmmakers have simply rotoscoped live actors? We examined all the files, and we found that animators were making critical performance decisions, and we decided, even though the film made use of actors, what was on screen was done frame-by-frame by talented animators. It was not just parsed through a technical process, these were real performances, by top-rated, experienced, professional character animators who made decisions to create that work.”

Richard Edlund, and Death Star. Image © Chapman University.

Richard Edlund, and Death Star. Image © Chapman University.

Voting procedures have evolved alongside technology. “We go through this every year,” said Edlund. “You have people thinking that maybe Andy Serkis should get an Academy Award for motion capture. But you have to realize that his motion capture then gets tweaked by numerous animators. If, at some point, we’re going to recognize motion capture actors as actors in a movie, we will then have to include the animators in those awards. It will be similar to the question of numerous writers writing a screenplay, when each screenplay along the road gets reworked by another screenwriter: each draft gets read by somebody, who then has to decide who gets the ‘ampersand’ and who gets the ‘and’ – ‘and’ and ‘ampersand’ are a big deal different – and the positioning of those credits falls into the Writers Guild’s domain, not the producer.”

Students at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Image © Chapman University.

Students at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Image © Chapman University.

Despite the mainstream media spin – pitting digital against analog, motion capture against keyframe animation – visual effects voting criteria remain an open field. “As an artist and an animator, an audience member and a film-lover,” remarked Kroyer, “I really don’t care at all how they do it. I only care if I am moved by a performance. My problem comes with being an Academy voter, where I have to make decisions about who should be rewarded. There’s no evil or good in technology, and the idea of trying to say, ‘this is better than that’ – that’s an irrelevant argument in everything except the awards process. That’s when we have to analyze what really makes a performance, what really had the impact on the audience, who was chiefly responsible, and to what degree were they sharing that performance. Very few organizations are digging into these questions as deeply as we are at the Academy. We have access to the people who are driving the bus – Oscar-winning actors, technologists, and visual effects artists – and we are getting them together, having extremely interesting examinations, and I must say we are having fun looking at these questions. Everybody is interested, because it is relevant. The educated step that we can take right now is one of learning, because there’s so much happening in this field, you really have to understand its nuances.”

Thanks to Ryan Smith, Rogers & Cowan, Meagan O’Shea, Chapman University.

Spotlight – Omar Morsy

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

Omar Morsy is head of animation at MPC. His feature credits include Blade Runner 2049, and he lists Wonder Woman and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as being among his recent personal career highlights.

Omar Morsy

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

OMAR MORSY: I’ve always wanted to be an animator. I would watch the old Disney films on VHS and hit play-pause-play-pause to study every frame of any shot I loved. I was animation director at a big videogame company when a friend of mine asked me to join the team at Mokko Studio to animate an alien Doberman on Riddick. After a decade working on AAA games, I wanted a change, so I jumped at the opportunity.

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

OMAR MORSY: Creating animations that I know will live forever. It’s great to think that 100 years from now, people will still have access to my work.

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

OMAR MORSY: Animating 83 spaceships flying around and attacking each other in outer space. What a mess!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

OMAR MORSY: Animating a rabbit peeing on a folding chair.

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

OMAR MORSY: When I first started animating back in 1997, it really was a male-dominated field. Things have changed so much now. The animation team has never been closer to 50/50. MPC is one of the studios that is really trying to address diversity imbalances.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

OMAR MORSY: Being able to animate complex, heavy rigs at 24 frames a second without a hiccup.

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

OMAR MORSY: Understand realism! Always do your research, look at references, and make sure your work is as credible and as realistic as possible.

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

OMAR MORSY: Terminator 2: Judgment Day – I remember watching that movie with my dad and hearing him ask, “How did they do that?” specifically when the T-1000 walks through the prison bars. Inception – I was not only blown away by the story, but I had never seen visual effects of buildings curling upwards and above. I thought it was brilliant. Riddick – because we used my dog, Tyson, as reference for the alien dog. My boy is now immortal!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

OMAR MORSY: Beef jerky. But I have to sneak that in – shhh!

CINEFEX: Omar, thanks for your time!

Songs for the Unsung

16th Annual VES AwardsOstriches, apes, dragons and a Land of the Dead tour guide took top honors at last night’s 16th Annual Visual Effects Society awards presentation. I was lucky enough to be sitting at the Game of Thrones table, where there were big grins and much shaking of hands as the HBO series won recognition in several categories, including the granddaddy Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode. Its feature film corollary, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature, went to War for the Planet of the Apes, whose visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri, also won the prestigious Georges Méliès Award for his body of work, which goes back to 1993’s Jurassic Park. Samsung’s ‘Ostrich – Do What You Can’t’ ad also won kudos, as did Pixar’s animated feature, Coco.

I was having too much fun reconnecting with old friends in the business to take copious notes, but here are a few of my off-the-top-of-my head recollections of the evening’s highlights:

Host Patton Oswalt kept the very large crowd in the Beverly Hilton Hotel laughing with a series of to-be-expected nerd jokes. He also lambasted the 1970s and 1980s musical selections that accompanied recipients on and off the stage – but the elder statesmen at my table were grooving to it. (Game of Thrones visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer enthused, “I want the soundtrack to this awards ceremony!”)

Jon Favreau’s speech as this year’s recipient of the VES’s Lifetime Achievement Award was heartfelt. The actor/writer/director seemed genuinely moved by the honor, and he noted what, to him, seemed an irony: he was receiving an award for the privilege of having learned so much from so many of the people in the room. A particularly poignant moment in his speech, for me, was his mention of someone who was not in the room, and to whom he owed so much – the late Stan Winston. As someone who knew Stan for many years and was entrusted to write the definitive book on his long career, The Winston Effect, I am always happy when Stan is remembered.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with "Game of Thrones" visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer at the 16th Annual VES Awards.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with “Game of Thrones” visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer at the 16th Annual VES Awards.

A filmed tribute to Joe Letteri included congratulations and remarks by James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, all of whom showered the venerated visual effects supervisor with praise for his role in bringing films such as Avatar, The BFG, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen.

Presenter Gabriel ‘Fluffy’ Iglesias, looking considerably less fluffy than he used to, impressed me. He was given the task of presenting one of the evening’s more technical awards, that for best simulations, but he had obviously taken the trouble of learning just what a simulation is. He could have just read off the teleprompter, but he went the extra mile to understand just what was being honored, and I don’t know how many celebrities would do that.

The night’s two top awards were presented by surprise guest Mark Hamill, who received a standing ovation from a crowd to whom Star Wars means so very much. Hamill was charming and self-deprecating, noting the recently instituted ‘Jedi Pension Plan,’ no doubt a reference to the recent series of Star Wars films.

Patton Oswalt said goodnight to the crowd, instructing the men to get out of their tuxes and back into their usual cargo shorts. (Patton must have visited a VFX company or two in his time, because cargo shorts are, indeed, the preferred uniform item.)

That was the evening – wish you all could have been there!

Now Showing – Cinefex 157

Cinefex 157

We’ve always had a soft spot for dragons. It began way back in 1982, when the cover girl for Cinefex 6 was Vermithrax Pejorative, the scaly star of the classic fantasy Dragonslayer.

It took 14 years and 60 issues for us to fall for another dragon. In 1996, the film was Dragonheart, and the fire-breathing beast in question was the charismatic Draco. Fast-forward to 2014, and we graced the cover of Cinefex 137 with the sinister Smaug from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Now we’re dragons all over again, with a spectacular shot from HBO’s Game of Thrones showing Daenerys Targaryen astride her flying steed, Drogon.

Cinefex dragon covers featuring Dragonslayer, Dragonheart, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Game of Thrones

And that’s just the beginning. Cinefex 157 also contains our in-depth article on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, not to mention … well, why don’t I let our editor-in-chief, Jody Duncan, give you a guided tour of our first issue of 2018:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

As the ‘Cine’ in Cinefex suggests, in our nearly 40 years we have concentrated on movie visual effects, only very rarely venturing into television. Every so often, however, a television project is so worthy of coverage, it grabs us by the lapels and shoves us out of our ‘movie’ box. Game of Thrones is just such a show, and we’ve covered its seventh season in a nearly double-length article with a lot of behind-the-scenes photos and fascinating commentary. Using wave machines to splash water onto a dressed ship sitting in a parking lot in Northern Ireland … braving the elements on a glacier in Iceland … dropping army of the dead performers into a water tank by way of a hydraulic rig … setting wagons and stunt men ablaze on a field in Spain – all the stories are here.

As if that weren’t enough for a single issue, Cinefex 157 features Joe Fordham’s coverage of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Joe is our resident ‘Star Wars’ guy, and he doesn’t disappoint. The story of Neal Scanlan’s team unpacking a box to find Stuart Freeborn’s original Yoda molds – well, that’s worth the read right there.

We follow Star Wars with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Confession time: I did not much like the original Jumanji. I remember describing it to a friend as a movie in which ‘this bad thing happens and then this bad thing happens and then this bad thing happens.’ So imagine my surprise when I guffawed all the way through Jake Kasdan’s sequel! Interviewing Jake, I immediately realized where the movie got its sense of humor. To find out where it got its visual effects pizzazz, look no further than this issue of Cinefex.

We round out the issue with our Downsizing story. Reading it reminded me of how I struggled to understand the technologies involved in bringing tiny characters to the screen for one of my earliest articles – Willow, Cinefex 35, 1988. As Joe Fordham’s Downsizing story illuminates, the technologies have changed but the same artful execution is required.

The next time we meet, spring will be in the air. Winter Is Going …

Cinefex 157 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already winging its way to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.


Spotlight – Trey Harrell

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

Trey Harrell is a visual effects supervisor, CG and lighting supervisor, and 3D generalist at Mr. X. His film credits include Tron: Legacy, Crimson Peak, The Hundred Foot Journey and, most recently, The Shape of Water.

Trey Harrell

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

TREY HARRELL: I’d had nearly 20 years in the advertising world before there was a big decline between 2006 and 2009. The shake-up steeled me to send my reels out again, and I ended up as lead lighting TD on Tron: Legacy for Mr. X in Toronto.

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

TREY HARRELL: Literally every skill I’ve learned over my career, from my eye, to programming pipeline and database management, to simming and lookdeving viscera. I never have the same job two days in a row. There are still days I wake up and I can’t believe I’ve made a career out of playing with monsters!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TREY HARRELL: My first feature began about 10 years ago with a 12-month post schedule. Some recent projects I’ve seen have five-month schedules with three in post – the demand for this type of work has increased exponentially since prestige television got added to the mix. It’s a serious quest worldwide finding talent who are up for the challenges of such compressed post schedules. Also, committee creative has always made me weep uncontrollably, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future.

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

TREY HARRELL: I think if you’ll talk with anyone at the various shops involved, you’ll find that Tron: Legacy was incredibly difficult for all of the studios from a sheer brute force perspective. It was simply a lot of intensely grueling hours. That’s different than, for example, The Shape of Water where we had to get to know the creature as well as the director and sculptors knew him, after spending years designing him in preproduction. We had to be able to look Guillermo del Toro in the eye and say with no doubt whatsoever that his eyes and face were 100% on-model in a shot. I’m not sure your body recognizes the stress any differently between the two scenarios when you’re in the moment, but with the benefit of hindsight it becomes clearer. That’s no different than any creative endeavor, though. Every single one plays out differently.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TREY HARRELL: Well, I’ve worked with Guillermo a fair bit to date, so several of my strangest stories naturally revolve around his shows. I’ve had Robocop (Peter Weller) direct an episode of The Strain, pulling out his trumpet to riff jazz between takes – all that after I grew up on a steady diet of Cronenburg and Naked Lunch. More recently, I’ve had days-long text message chains with close friends detailing how Beauty and the Beast is okay because the beast has fur, but the idea of scales crosses an imaginary line somehow in a fantasy where the heroine has agency …

Watch a breakdown reel of Mr. X’s work on The Shape of Water:

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

TREY HARRELL: I see conversely the need to specialize more due to the sheer workload at hand versus the need – now more than ever – for generalists who can speak the language of all of the disciplines at play. The demand for quality work at the television level and the shrinking post schedule everywhere are probably the biggest changes visible day-to-day.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TREY HARRELL: Where to begin? I would like to see the largest software vendors throw R&D at their products like they did in the oughts. This is still not a mature industry and there’s immense room for growth. Incorporating third-party plugins annually does not justify support fees. I’d like to see post schedules level out to a manageable pace. And I’d like to see more filmmakers commit to getting as much as they can in-camera instead of shooting a scene on green with a dozen softboxes overhead and a tennis ball for eyelines – if you’re lucky – and then figuring out what the shot is later.

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

TREY HARRELL: This is a production business – product and deadlines, and brute force hours will only get you so far. You’ll get one show in ten that’s special – you might dig it, critically it might be a success, or it’s just a great time working with the crew. You can’t show up for work differently on one show versus another. Also, work a job you hate for a few years before settling into a career doing something you love – perspective is important.

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

TREY HARRELL: Assuming I’ve got decent gear at said festival, I’d pick a 70mm print of Blade Runner: The Final Cut to start, for sure. Popcorn cinema would come second – I’ve got a soft spot for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I’d have to cap it with something from my guilty pleasure bucket – today let’s call it Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TREY HARRELL: It’s a toss-up between Raisinets and Sno-Caps, but I make absolutely certain to dispose of the plastic wrap before entering the theater. I die inside a little bit when every package in the cinema opens up simultaneously on the first line of dialog.

CINEFEX: Trey, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Joe Bauer

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

As production visual effects supervisor on HBO’s epic television show Game of Thrones, Joe Bauer leads teams of artists around the world to bring the fantasy realm of Westeros to life – including its ever-maturing contingent of fire-breathing dragons.

Joe Bauer

JOE BAUER: Mentally and emotionally, I started out in the industry while still living in Springfield, Missouri, at the age of 11, ogling a few minutes of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the Joplin channel on a snowy black and white television screen. Next was The Golden Voyage – Sinbad again – in full color in a movie theater. Then, before I knew it, I had a masters in film and was lighting miniatures on a motion control stage in Van Nuys. David Stipes made me part of his team on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then I was figuring out in- camera forced perspective shots for Elf. Now I’m the stepfather of digital dragons. Pretty normal progression really.

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

JOE BAUER: Watching audience reactions of things I’ve worked on on YouTube.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JOE BAUER: The ‘mad elephant’ scene in Dumbo.

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

JOE BAUER: My first feature visual effects supervising job involved Jean-Claude van Damme, an untrained Bengal tiger, a Hong Kong wire team and the need to nuke the Roman Colosseum and, with it, a deranged character played by Mickey Rourke. My wallet had been stolen by a gypsy and I had to save per diem in order to buy a coat. The next hardest was shooting twenty stuntmen in a bullring in Spain with a 50-foot flamethrower attached to a motion control crane, in order to have actual fire for a dragon attack. I was so nervous my top lip swelled up like Donald Duck. Fortunately, the Colosseum blew up and the stunt men didn’t.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JOE BAUER: Aah – should have saved my Van Damme story! Second to that might be tracking a butt-crack onto a too-shy body double, and then covering that with a bluescreen tree branch when the nudity was deemed inappropriate.

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

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) rides her dragon Drogon into battle in HBO's "Game of Thrones."

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) rides her dragon Drogon into battle in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” in this visual effects shot created by Image Engine.

JOE BAUER: How good everyone has gotten at what they do. On a show like Game of Thrones, where a tremendous volume of work must be completed in a very short time, multiple vendors of all sizes must be utilized, and across the board the technical and artistic accomplishment is shockingly consistent and staggeringly good. In the early days, only the fattest wallets and most prestigious pictures got the A-game from the relatively slim list of top talent. Now the baseline is excellence, so planning and design – and time and money, still – are what separate the great from the greater. When’s the last time you saw a matte line or a color mismatch?

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JOE BAUER: I’d like to see the community of artists better taken care of. The skill level is that of medical professionals and yet as a specialized workforce they are still expected to live like carnival workers, except for the lucky ones under large company umbrellas. I think the community deserves organized protections, pensions and benefits. These are life choices, not summer jobs.

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

JOE BAUER: I would say study art and photography in addition to software. If you don’t know what the real world looks like and how a camera photographs it, you’ll have no sense of how to re-create it in a visual effects shot. Even more to the point, unless you’ve seen sunlight on objects through the eyes of the greatest artists of civilization, you might miss how grand and great and emotionally affecting a particular shot can be constructed. There’s no harm in making each and every visual effects shot a masterwork.

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

JOE BAUER: Star Wars, Jurassic Park and the 1933 King Kong. Runners-up would be George Pal’s The War of the Worlds and MGM’s Forbidden Planet. I think those would display fine art, wild imagination, industriousness and determination in the face of obstacles. Nothing is handed to you in the business of telling stories with memorable visuals, and yet the end result needs to seem as if it has always been. Those movies, among many others before and since, display those qualities, whether using rubber and steel or pixels.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JOE BAUER: Salted popcorn

CINEFEX: Joe, thanks for your time!

Watch the trailer for Games of Thrones Season 7:

Spotlight – Howard Berger

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

Howard Berger is co-owner of makeup effects company KNB EFX Group, which specializes in character prosthetics, animatronics and creatures. Howard’s film credits number in the hundreds and include The Chronicles of Narnia, Kill Bill, Lone Survivor, Hitchcock, Oz the Great and Powerful and Army of Darkness.

Howard Berger applies Krill makeup to actor Scott Grimes for an episode of the Fox television series "The Orville."

Howard Berger applies Krill makeup to actor Scott Grimes for an episode of the Fox television series “The Orville.”

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

HOWARD BERGER: I grew up in LA and loved monsters and movies, and knowing that someone made them, I wanted to be one of them too. I stalked my idols – Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Dick Smith – at 12 years old. My break came when Stan hired me fresh out of high school at 18 years old.

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

HOWARD BERGER: When I see the audience reaction.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

HOWARD BERGER: Watching The Thing and An American Werewolf in London.

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

HOWARD BERGER: The first “Narnia” film was unbelievably difficult. Eight months of prep in LA at KNB EFX. Then eight months of filming in New Zealand. The hours were monstrous, and the turnaround would sometimes be as little as three hours. It kicked my ass – but it was the greatest experience professionally for me.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

HOWARD BERGER: The film The Cell, which I hate and had a terrible time on. They were filming a scene where Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the killer, hooks himself up over his naked, bleached-skin female victim and masturbates. I looked at my set mate, Garrett Immel, and asked “What the f*** are we doing here?!”

Howard Berger applies Freddy Krueger makeup to Robert Englund in 1987 for "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master."

Howard Berger turns Robert Englund into Freddy Krueger in 1987 for “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.”

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

HOWARD BERGER: The partnership of practical special makeup and visual effects working together. I love when we do it. I love the visual effects teams as there are things we can’t do and things they can’t do, and together we accomplish amazing magic.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

HOWARD BERGER: Better training in my union. And a different criteria as to how to become a union member. The qualifications now are passé and no art is required to become a member. It’s about days, and that is not enough. There are great people out there that should be members and are kept out due to rules that don’t apply anymore.

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

HOWARD BERGER: Do your best always. Listen more and talk less. Crawl before you walk. Learn from everyone as no one knows everything. I don’t know it all and I learn every day. Use good judgement in the way you present yourself and be ready, because not everyone gets a trophy for participating in the game.

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

HOWARD BERGER: The Thing – it still amazes me. I think it’s so inventive and brilliant. The Howling – my favorite werewolf, very Bernie Wrightson. So badass! Creature from the Black Lagoon – my favorite monster of all time, and the most perfect creature suit ever.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?


CINEFEX: Howard, thanks for your time!

Adam Savage’s Tested crew visited Howard Berger at KNB EFX – watch the video:

“The Commuter” — VFX Q&A

The Commuter - Cinefex VFX Q&A

In The Commuter, businessman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) embarks on his daily commute home, only to be caught up in an explosive criminal conspiracy. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the action-packed film features 860 shots by lead visual effects vendor Cinesite, which created a CG train and digital environments, set extensions, explosion effects and the film’s climactic train crash, under the leadership of production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg. Nvizible handled previs and additional visual effects, with further shots delivered by Iloura.

Cinefex spoke with Cinesite visual effects supervisor Stephane Paris about his team’s work on The Commuter, with CG supervisor Luke Wilde and lead effects artist Alexandre Aillet chipping in.

Liam Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley in "The Commuter."

Liam Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley in “The Commuter.”

CINEFEX: Stephane, you spent about six weeks at Pinewood Studios near London, working alongside production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg. Tell us about the sets they built there for the train interiors.

STEPHANE PARIS: They set up two stages. The first was a single train carriage adapted and dressed to look like multiple carriages – this was used to film all the main action on board the train.

CINEFEX: Was this a bluescreen set?

STEPHANE PARIS: Yes. The carriage was surrounded by bluescreen and shot on a hydraulic system to give realistic shake and movement. In one notable shot, the camera pulls back through the entire length of the train and through the carriage walls. A camera rig was set up on the roof and programmed to repeat the same pullback move through each iteration of the carriage – this was subsequently stitched together by our visual effects team.

CINEFEX: What about the second stage?

STEPHANE PARIS: That was mainly used for stunts. It had sections of two rear parts of the train on a raised 50-foot platform. One example of where this was used is a sequence where Michael jumps from one moving train to another at the climax of the film.

Watch a behind the scenes featurette about The Commuter:

CINEFEX: Michael’s journey begins in the New York City Subway. Was the production able to film there?

STEPHANE PARIS: Only limited filming was possible in the subway, due to strict restrictions. Space was also limited because of the narrow structure of the carriage, so three cameras were pointed out of a side window to achieve a 130-degree panorama, with a front-facing camera about 30-50 feet away. Because of the distance between the two rigs, it was not possible to stitch the front and side views together. In addition, what was shot was not particularly dynamic and did not really show the distinctive cavernous stations with their large pillars.

CINEFEX: So you used that footage as reference to create a CG subway environment?

STEPHANE PARIS: Right. The live-action was shot in the dressed bluescreen carriage at Pinewood Studios and we built a flexible CG asset for the environment which could be used in multiple shots. We created the walls, platforms and exteriors in CG, complete with cable systems, columns, tracks and so on, and joined it all together to create a half-mile-long section of tunnel, rendered through eight cameras and projected onto geometry. This meant that for any shot we could track the camera, drop our asset into the environment and have the required control over the lighting to ensure it matched the lighting on the actors. Using this system, we were also able to achieve continuity between shots and limit environment repetition. Although the setup was heavy, the flexibility that this asset gave us really paid off and we ended up using it in approximately 200 shots.

The Commuter - visual effects by Cinesite

CINEFEX: The action moves above ground as the train journeys towards Tarrytown. Did you use digital environments there too?

STEPHANE PARIS: Well, whenever the audience sees the outside of the moving train en route to Tarrytown, it is CG – so is the environment – apart from a few shots filmed from a helicopter. To create these environments, Steve Begg and his team went in and around New York and filmed 360-degree elements from the back of a truck, and also from trains and a helicopter. While the journey is based on a real route, it was not possible to shoot the exact line from the story, so similar environments and locations were selected, based around New York’s Northern Line. Steve and editorial then picked backgrounds and matched them with the appropriate section of the action.

Cinesite composited moving backgrounds into live-action shot on train carriage sets at Pinewood Studios.

Cinesite composited moving backgrounds into live-action shot on train carriage sets at Pinewood Studios.

CINEFEX: Was it a tough job to composite the live-action train interiors with the exterior views seen through the carriage windows?

STEPHANE PARIS: Reflections and lighting from the shoot with the actors often did not match the selected exterior environments, so these required clean-up and extensive keying. Sometimes we toned down the live-action, and at other times it was necessary to add additional lighting.

CINEFEX: Tell us more about the CG train that you built.

STEPHANE PARIS: We modelled a full train of six carriages, inside and out, for wider shots where the various locations along the route were established. The art department sent reference, including a blueprint of the train, but the underneath was entirely made up by the visual effects team. We had to create this area at particularly high resolution, with textures, grease and surface scratches, so that it would stand up to very close scrutiny. This was particularly important for a sequence where Michael, in an effort to engage the emergency brake on the dangerously speeding train, climbs underneath and hangs precariously just above the track.

020a_Cinesite_The Commuter ©2018 STUDIOCANAL. All rights reserved

CINEFEX: Things start going wrong when a bomb goes off, destroying the train’s brakes. How did you tackle this dramatic moment?

STEPHANE PARIS: We did an entirely CG shot that included the train, environment, brakes, explosion effects, tracks, smoke, sparks and CG water complete with explosion reflections – it was very challenging! Also, this was a long sequence, shot under different lighting conditions and environments that had to play within the CG environment surrounding it. There were a lot of live-action lighting cues that were very difficult to reconcile with the creative requirements for time-of-day and location. Making this work required a lot of back and forth with layout and lighting to get buildings, trees, and other occluding objects lined up properly with the on-set look and camera cuts. There was also significant animation work required to reconcile live-action performances with the physics of an accelerating train, and the optical illusions introduced by shooting a foreground live-action character from a low-angle with a wide lens against a large object.

CINEFEX: There’s a fight on the train that plays out in a continuous two-minute shot, no cuts. How did you put that together?

STEPHANE PARIS: The fight scene was filmed as 17 separate plates, which the visual effects team stitched together. The shot included action inside train carriages with interactive live-action lighting effects, so we had to create a seamless CG background to be displayed outside the carriages that included this interactive lighting. Despite the excellent quality of the takes, there were significant camera and pose differences take-to-take, in what was supposed to be continuous action – this required a lot of creative matchmove and comp work to hide the transitions. We also created bridging CG elements to track across these takes.

Cinesite created full CG shots of the train crash that occurs at the climax of the film.

Cinesite created full CG shots of the train crash that occurs at the climax of the film.

CINEFEX: Let’s fast-forward to the train crash.

STEPHANE PARIS: Oh, that was our most complicated effects sequence. The team built a one-and-a-quarter-mile asset of the environment approaching Beacon and the wide station yard, dressed with buildings, tracks, trains and general industrial content. The CG environment included a large curved section of track to match with the action. The environment needed to align with a section of real set, captured using photogrammetry, which was built at Longcross Studios in England for shots where the passengers disembark the end carriage.

CINEFEX: Did you have previs to work from?

STEPHANE PARIS: During the preproduction phase, the previs for the full CG shots was not totally locked off, so some adjustment was still required for editing, camera movement and set dressing. We knew that the train, once derailed, would have to hit some electrical pylons, breaking them and making wires snap. The big question during preproduction was which pylons – we had at least four variations –and how could we keep to the schedule, pre-empting possible last-minute changes? We came up with a procedural solution, switching from a two-mast set to a three- or four-mast set, so that we would not need to start the shot from scratch all over again if the requirements changed.

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CINEFEX: In addition to building a big station yard asset, you must have churned out a heck of a lot of effects simulations.

STEPHANE PARIS: Yes! The impact of the train crash required realistic simulations of bending and crumpling metal, dynamic interactions between the derailing train and the destruction of the environment, and the generation of a large number of secondary dust and fire/smoke simulations from the resulting carnage. We ran the majority of the heavy effects work in Houdini using the finite element model solver and cloth components to art-direct the train destruction, simulating the bending and shearing of metal panels and the shattering of windows. We used the results as collision objects for the environment destruction and volumetric effects such as explosions, smoke and dust, all using Houdini’s rigid body destruction, particle and fluid simulation processes. We simulated the crash interaction with the environment and destruction of track rails and sleepers, track gravel ballast, dirt and particulate passes, as well as subsequent dust kick-up and smoke trails from these elements.

The Commuter - full CG train crash by Cinesite

CINEFEX: Quite a challenge.

ALEXANDRE AILLET: Strangely enough, the challenge was more about finding proper references which would fit our action movie requirements. Footage of derailing trains is difficult to find, and when you do find it you quickly notice that train carriages are not designed to tear and break the way you would like them to in an action movie! Naturally, they are constructed to be safe, with lots of energy absorption compartments and equipped with auto triggering safe mechanisms. So, putting reality aside, we devised a visually exciting and dangerous movie train crash for Jaume, complete with lots of metal crumbling, shattering windows and multiple large-scale impact explosions.

The Commuter - full CG train crash by Cinesite

LUKE WILDE: As a result, we had to ensure we were maintaining the destruction continuity across the sequence of shots as the train progressively derails and crashes. We applied a high number of re-simulations to the train and environment destruction whenever there was a change to one of these in a shot earlier in the sequence. Devising efficient workflows using in-house tools to streamline this where possible was key in order to deliver a large number of effects-heavy destruction shots, whilst maintaining accurate continuity and remaining responsive to the clients’ notes during the show.

CINEFEX: Stephane, Alexandra and Luke – thank you for talking to us.

Special thanks to Sophie Hunt. All images copyright © 2018 STUDIOCANAL. All rights reserved.

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire

It’s the dream of every Star Wars fan to actually visit that fabled galaxy far, far away. In the new virtual reality experience Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire from The VOID and ILMxLAB, you get to do exactly that, in an immersive adventure that recruits you into a Rebel Alliance mission to infiltrate an Imperial base.

The experience relies on the real-time rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine 4. ILMxLAB visual effects supervisor Ben Snow commented:

“Unreal was essential to creating ‘Secrets of the Empire’ because we really wanted to lift the visual bar on this project and make it as immersive as possible. There are a lot of components going into this, all of which have to be viewable at 90 frames per second in stereo by every single person in the experience.”

Watch a behind the scenes video:

Cinefex spoke last year with John Gaeta — then executive creative director at ILMxLAB and now senior vice president of creative strategy at Magic Leap — for our overview of the virtual reality industry in Cinefex 151. Here’s what John said about the ILMxLAB approach:

“Early on, we were fascinated by the computer game Myst. Not the puzzles and the gaming, but its idea of a story explorer and sandbox play. We had arrived at this premise that cinema captures a linear story throughout which you are introduced to characters and see fantastic places. But what if you take away the framing of the media and say that these places are actual destinations? Story could flow through these places and you could follow it, but if you chose not to you could still explore and interact with this space. Our work converges on fascinating areas of research — for example, intelligent characters, reactive worlds, simulation in environments. All of those things are perfect for painting a vision of a Star Wars place.”

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is available in Anaheim’s Downtown Disney, London’s Westfield shopping center in Shepherd’s Bush, and Disney Springs in Orlando, Florida. New locations coming soon in Glendale, CA, and Las Vegas.