Spotlight – Catherine Mullan

by Graham Edwards

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

Catherine Mullan is an animation supervisor at MPC. Her career highlights include her work on four Harry Potter films, Happy Feet, The Chronicles of Narnia, Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

Catherine Mullan

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Whilst I loved movies growing up, it never occurred to me that working in the industry was a possibility. I was only ever presented with more traditional career paths and, of course, this was back in the days before the internet. I always loved to draw but also liked math and problem solving, so I was looking for something that could combine both the creative and the technical.

When faced with the decision of what to do next, I stumbled across a book in my school’s careers library that ultimately set me upon this career path. The book allowed you to cross-reference different subjects, then listed courses suited to those subjects. This is how I discovered the computer animation course at Bournemouth University in the UK. Although I had little knowledge of the subject, I applied and was accepted. It was there that I discovered a love of animating. The university had ties with the London studios and upon graduation I was invited to interview with Framestore. Luckily for me, I was offered a job as a junior animator, and that’s were I really started to learn about animation.

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: A beautifully animated performance, one that evokes feeling, that makes me sad or brings me joy. I love to review the work of the animation team, and often I’m presented with an idea or an execution that surprises me, that really brings character and believability, and I know the audience will buy it. This is the best part of my job.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I do find it hard when teams disperse, when the end of an era is reached. It’s a changeable industry – teams come together and move apart often. When I look back on projects, I’m proud of the work, but I also think so fondly about the crew. The bonds that are created during a production are a huge part of what makes this industry special. I’m also a sucker for a sad story and I’m known to blubber watching movies!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: I can’t quite find an answer to this. Every project I’ve worked on has presented its own challenges – from animating a simple shot as a junior animator to supervising a large team on huge project, and the hundreds of tasks in between. If you’re growing and pushing yourself to the next level, the work will always be a challenge.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I remember a near miss from several years ago – a beatboxing camel toe! It was a cringeworthy shot I was scheduled to animate. I was dreading it! Much to my relief, the show I was working on pushed longer and it was reassigned to another artist. Phew!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: The size and scope of the projects have grown massively since I joined the industry. A project 15 years ago would consist of a couple of hundred shots, whereas now 1,000 is normal. Each year the boundaries are pushed and the seemingly unachievable is achieved.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I would love to see more women working in creative roles in film, visual effects and animation, especially as leads, supervisors and directors. Whilst it seems more women are joining, the shift isn’t nearly enough.

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Do plenty of research. There is so much information available online – podcasts, blogs, articles like this. There are lots of tutorials and free software available for students, so try it out at home before spending a lot of money on a course. You have to love your chosen field and education is expensive so, if you go down that route, choose the school wisely.

For many disciplines, it’s key to use real-life reference. Don’t start a piece of work without it. Don’t be scared to show your work – in fact you must seek feedback from those who work in your field. Constructive criticism will only help you learn and grow. Do persevere – it will not come easy, but the rewards can be great!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – I loved this movie growing up. A powerful story, filled with in-camera effects and marvelous puppets. I learned only recently that the owl in the opening credits is considered the first realistic CG animal to appear in a movie.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – one of my favorite movies of the time. The visual effects were groundbreaking and allowed the T-1000 to become one of the most terrifying characters in movie history.

The Jungle Book (2016) – I loved the remake of the Disney classic and was blown away by the visual effects. Across every discipline, the work was pushed to a new level, from the creation of the characters and environments to the animation and effects. The team at MPC did a spectacular job creating such imagery.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I don’t like to eat when watching movies – it’s too much of a distraction. However, my favorite cinema in London does serve delicious wine to your own comfy sofa.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Catherine!

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