Spotlight – Anthony Smith

by Graham Edwards

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

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

Anthony Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

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

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Anthony!