Spotlight – Andrew Whitehurst

by Graham Edwards

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

Andrew Whitehurst is a visual effects supervisor at Double Negative, with feature credits including Annihilation, Ex Machina, Spectre, Skyfall and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Andrew WhitehurstCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Andrew?

ANDREW WHITEHURST: I studied fine art and then filmmaking at college, but I’d always liked mucking about with computers and modelmaking. My final project was a mixture of CG and traditional puppet animation. I found the armatures I built for the puppets the other day and it made me very nostalgic. All of these craft interests, along with the possibilities that making pictures with computers offered in the ‘90s, were an irresistible draw. After college, I worked as a runner at a visual effects facility that went out of business, before working for an animation studio that went out of business. My first tiptoe into visual effects, as an artist, was on Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and I’ve been working in visual effects ever since.

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

ANDREW WHITEHURST: I get out of bed to make, and help others make – hopefully – beautiful pictures that tell a story. I love seeing an audience react to the work we do, and seeing a finished shot and thinking about the creative journey we all took to get there. Most of my favorite shots don’t look at all how I initially imagined that they might, and that’s the joy of collaborative creativity. Doing good work with interesting people is a huge privilege.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDREW WHITEHURST: I hate waste, so omits break my heart. I have worked on so many projects where visual effects artists’ work is treated so casually and thrown away on a whim, often at the last minute. I think there is still a belief amongst many in filmmaking that ‘it’s all done with computers nowadays,’ so you can do what you like and it doesn’t affect anyone ‘important.’ But, as we all know, it’s done by humans, whose creativity and efforts deserve respect.

Andrew Whitehurst was visual effects supervisor on "Ex Machina," with visual effects by Double Negative, Milk VFX, Utopia and Web FX.

Andrew Whitehurst was visual effects supervisor on “Ex Machina,” with visual effects by Double Negative, Milk VFX, Utopia and Web FX.

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

ANDREW WHITEHURST: The establishing shot of the Achean armada in Troy is probably the hardest single shot I’ve ever worked on. We had to track the open ocean, create 1,000 unique ships, and get them to blend with the three real ships they had on the shoot – and it had to be completed months ahead of schedule for a Superbowl commercial. It was over 1,000 frames long initially, and just the shadow pass was taking 12 hours per frame to render. I can still remember the shot number – wp_026_0010 – which tells you it must have been a widow-maker.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDREW WHITEHURST: Being driven to an unmarked office, to be locked in a room – having been relieved of my phone and any technology that might enable me to take notes – and given just an hour to read a script printed on eyestrain-inducing red paper – to stop me photocopying it with the photocopier I clearly didn’t have – and then being summoned to a meeting to explain, in detail, how all the visual effects should be achieved. It seemed, shall we say, excessive.

Left to right, Mark Ardington, Paul Norris, Sara Bennett and Andrew Whitehurst celebrate their visual effects Oscar win for "Ex Machina" at the 88th Academy Awards. Photograph by Phil McCarten and copyright © AMPAS.

Left to right, Mark Ardington, Paul Norris, Sara Bennett and Andrew Whitehurst celebrate their visual effects Oscar win for “Ex Machina” at the 88th Academy Awards. Photograph by Phil McCarten and copyright © AMPAS.

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

ANDREW WHITEHURST: The notion that anything is possible has, latterly, made it possible to defer almost all creative decision-making until deep into postproduction. If a production is chronically indecisive about what it wants, the result you see on screen is the time from the last change of mind to the deadline, so it is often not the best work the visual effects artists can do, it’s just what can be done in the time left. The best work always was – and still is – achieved by formulating the plan, shooting to the plan, and then seeing it through in post. Call me old-fashioned …

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDREW WHITEHURST: Filmmaking, and visual effects in particular, is still very male, white, and middle-class. The industry has to become more diverse.

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

ANDREW WHITEHURST: Try to understand as much about filmmaking techniques and technology as you can, and absorb as much art as you are able to. Good creative professionals know their tools, but also have the cultural knowledge to know how to apply them, and why.

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

ANDREW WHITEHURST: Man With a Movie Camera – because it’s an exploration of every way you can creatively use a film camera. It’s as if Dziga Vertov looked at the technology, thought, “What could I do with this?” and then did all of it.

2001: A Space Odyssey – it’s a staggeringly beautiful film where the effects are created to have the maximum aesthetic and emotional impact. The shots are planned, considered, and exquisitely executed. Everything is done for a reason in that film, and I love that rigor combined with an experimental attitude. I will be a showing a pristine 70mm print, naturally.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – I would like to suggest this is the perfect adventure movie, and the effects are so integral to the story, and so stylishly executed. That final matte painting is one of cinema’s great moments in its own right.

Once Upon a Time in the West – is still the greatest movie of all time, but it’s not really an effects film so I can’t pick it here. Unless you count the dead fly being pulled up the side of a chair on fishing line as a special effect …

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDREW WHITEHURST: Nothing. When I’m in charge of everything, the first thing I will do is ban all food and drink that make any noise from cinemas. World peace will be achieved later, but I have my priorities.

CINEFEX: Andrew, thanks for your time!