Spotlight – Michael L. Hutchinson

by Graham Edwards

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

Michael L HutchinsonMichael L. Hutchinson is information operations manager at Atomic Fiction. Among his filmography highlights are movies such as Star Wars, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man, Stranger Things and The Women of Marwen.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: In film school, a long-haired, bearded, leather jacket-wearing representative from ILM came and did a presentation on The Mask and digital effects. Learning about ILM being the best of the best sold me – that’s where I wanted to work. My first big break after finishing film school, moving to LA and working as a runner for a trailer house for a couple years, was getting an interview at ILM and then getting hired in their video editorial department as a machine room tape operator. I literally was yelling “Woohoo!!” in my truck on the drive into work each morning for about a year. A couple years later I’d be working late, digitizing footage on an AVID for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and think to myself, “I’m working on Star Wars, at ILM! How did this happen?!” Good times.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: When a piece of code I’ve written suddenly works that automates processes and makes my life or the life of people in my department easier and more efficient. Or times when I get to contribute to the filmmaking process in a more personal and visible way – like when I had a brother living in Afghanistan who sent me pictures for reference on Iron Man. Those images were instrumental in building the digital buildings of a town used in the final film.

Then there was the time I got to be Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones. My hair and beard were a solid match, so I was used as a body double in some shots where Obi-Wan is in a Magnaline 3000 transport helping take Anakin and Padme to a spaceport to go hide on her home planet. After that, my nickname became Obi-Hutch. It’s stayed with me my entire career.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Working with kids who have never seen the cult classic movies that I grew up with.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: I was hired at The Orphanage to help develop their HD pipeline. It was rudimentary and not working properly – it would take up to three days to get files processed and transferred to a server, an EDL built, and everything conformed in order to layoff dpx frames as HD video to tape for client deliveries. I built my own code and tools to optimize and automate processes. In the end I was able to get the time down to about 15 minutes.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Backing up an entire HD server with all the images for Attack of the Clones every weekend. This was done to digital tape using a Philips D6 VTR – at the time there were only four in the world, each costing something like a quarter of a million dollars. Using proprietary software, the process would back up each image in a digital lossless data format, splitting it into four quadrants of data that were recorded on different fields/frames. The machine was never consistently frame-accurate and an offset would have to be verified and applied each time. The process of laying off the data to tape could take over eight hours. There went my Saturdays for months!

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Going from using VHS, Betacam, Digibeta, HDDs and other formats for image acquisition and delivery, to seeing them all disappear and only using online digital file transfer services.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: The newer entities in digital streaming and content creation adopting former film industry standards such as file naming, editorial best practices, and turnover of helpful information for working with digital files and media.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Figure out what you want to do. Get working at developing your skills and talents. Start making connections and get working. Build your resume with real skills and accomplishments. The most important traits are dependability, hard work, being humble, teachable, and good communication skills.

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

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: The Matrix, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Inception – three of the coolest movies ever! The visual effects were integral to telling the great stories. Many of the effects are pretty obvious, these being fantasy films, but so much was subtle and unnoticed, yet key to creating the worlds and realities. It’s too difficult to single out shots and sequences in these movies as their entirety is what makes them complete and so great.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MICHAEL L. HUTCHINSON: Salted buttered popcorn.

CINEFEX: Michael, thanks for your time!