Spotlight – Helen Newby

by Graham Edwards

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

Helen Newby is head of compositing at Cinesite. Helen lists her career highlights as The Shipping News, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Skyfall , The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mute.

Helen Newby

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

HELEN NEWBY: Back in ’91, I was lucky enough to land a job at RSA Films as assistant to photographer and director Lester Bookbinder. I learned all sorts including attending the telecine and postproduction sessions. It led me to have a rethink and I went on to train on Domino, a film-in, film-out digital optical system. At the time, Mill Film Shepperton had a Domino system in place and a position opened – and that’s how it started. I remember grading and outputting the title sequence for Beautiful Creatures through Domino in 2000 and thinking it was magic.

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

HELEN NEWBY: When a sequence is finaled, I like to think about the myriad parts that went into it – including the lucky accidents.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

HELEN NEWBY: Running out of time.

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

HELEN NEWBY: V for Vendetta in 2005. It was my first show at Cinesite and I was tasked with compositing a shot previously started in Inferno. It was a lovely wide shot of Natalie Portman in the ‘Evey Reborn’ sequence. The client-side visual effects supervisor was due to fly home and was waiting for this one last shot – which added an interesting edge. On the plus side, I was bought flowers when it finalled.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

HELEN NEWBY: Three talking dog shows. Really.

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

HELEN NEWBY: From a compositing point of view, the way we used to work and make images was very different to now. We had no access to cameras or anything outside of the 3D scene, unless we popped into Maya. The idea of projecting onto a piece of geometry was not an option. Interestingly, greenscreens still seem to be a regular feature.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

HELEN NEWBY: Alongside constant advancements in technology – whether it’s the way on-set data is gathered or how we process it – comes a faster pace to the whole process. I would like to see these advancements being used to the benefit of our industry, to allow us to find new and unexpected approaches and techniques, rather than them causing any detriment.

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

HELEN NEWBY: Be flexible – the industry is changing alongside technology. Be open to feedback – only one version can end up in the final film.

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

HELEN NEWBY: Solaris (1971) – technically it’s not an effects movie. Oh, but the opening 20 minutes … the set design …

Forbidden Planet – the matte paintings, the models, Dr Morbius and his ‘brain booster’ machine. And a serious Leslie Nielsen!

Ex Machina – I think maybe I love it for the same reasons I love Solaris. It has a slowness, an unrushed quality. The minimalism of it all. Oh, and that dance scene!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

HELEN NEWBY: Popcorn, giant-size for stealth reasons.

CINEFEX: Helen, thanks for your time!