Spotlight – Sheena Duggal

by Graham Edwards

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

Having learned her craft during the very earliest days of digital compositing, and with a career as visual effects supervisor stretching back 20 years, Sheena Duggal has many stories to tell of her experiences in the industry – not to mention her work promoting diversity and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She lists her career highlights as including Mission Impossible, Contact, Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio, Matchstick Men, Spider-Man 3, Body of Lies, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Agent Carter, Doctor Strange and Venom.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "VFX Convergence" event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “VFX Convergence” event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: I grew up in England and attended art school for five years specializing in animation. When I left art college in 1985, I passed on a traditional animation job to work in London on high-resolution computer design work for musicians and photographers. It was there that I was first contacted to work on the feature film Super Mario Brothers.

I do have some great memories from my life before features. I worked on Elton John’s singles, albums and tour brochures – Prince’s too – but my all-time favorite client session was the time I spent one-on-one with George Harrison designing the first Traveling Wilburys album cover. George had a demo cassette of the album, which I listened to on my Walkman while I worked. I didn’t realize at the time the gravitas with which I should have held this experience! I was in my early ‘20s and the music scene I was into was very different, so it sounded dated to me. I didn’t realize the band was actually Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn – that was still a secret. I listened politely, racking my brain about how to authentically say something positive – I know, that sounds crazy now! George asked my opinion of the album, and I recall saying I liked the song Tweeter and the Monkey Man. He’d written that one, so he was happy! I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a Beatle!” But it was really hard to sustain that awe, because he was just a nice, down to earth, generous, likeable guy with amazing stories of his trips to India, who took me out for dinner and gave me money for my cab fare home when we worked late.

CINEFEX: How did Super Mario Brothers come into the picture?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Sorry, I digress! A friend of mine, Phillipe Panzini – who went on to win an Academy Sci-tech Award for his work on Flame software – had shown the film’s producers a VIP brochure where we’d composited athletes onto NASA images of the Earth for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and they hired me as a matte painter. I was living in London at the time, didn’t know a soul in Los Angeles, and I had never used Flame. Then again, nor had anyone else. How hard could it be?

CINEFEX: So how hard was it?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, it was all very bleeding edge. There was a group of us working on about 20 SGI workstations with VGX graphics, and no such thing as batch or background processing. You’d set up a comp with as many as 26 layers, document all your setups by hand so you could reproduce them, then wait for it to render. It did that in the foreground, so there was a lot of downtime. Gary Tregaskis, the architect of Flame, was there with us constantly writing new code to allow us to create the effects we needed, and the late Peter Webb – who was the only person who had actually used Flame before – graciously shared his knowledge with us.

After that, I moved to San Francisco to work for the amazing animation company Colossal Pictures, under Brad De Graf who was exploring motion capture characters with his real-time CG character Moxy – considered to be the first real-time cartoon broadcast live. Using Flame, I composited a Robocop theme park ride for Iwerks, and using an alpha version of Flint – which Discreet Logic wrote for me to run on an Indy – I worked on the award winning Coke Sun commercial with director Tony Stacchi. I briefly moved back to Los Angeles to be a compositor on Terminal Velocity, before heading to ILM in the mid ‘90s to work on a Tales from the Crypt episode directed by Bob Zemeckis. After working on films such as Village of the Damned, The Indian in the Cupboard, Congo, Jumanji, Mission Impossible and the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope, I left ILM with a team of amazing artists and technologists lead by Ken Ralston to help found Sony Pictures Imageworks as creative director of the high speed compositing department.

I became a visual effects supervisor in 1998 on Patch Adams, continuing to run the HSC department and comp shots until it became impossible for me to do it all. I left Imageworks after 14 amazing years to work as an independent production-side visual effects supervisor on The Hunger Games, then spent four years working with Marvel. I’m currently visual effects supervisor on Venom with Paul Franklin.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Meeting people who have been touched by the work we do in the film industry. It’s easy to forget how much the dazzling visuals that we create impact people we’ve never met. In creating fantastical stories, we allow our audience a moment of escapism from their real lives, or we hit an emotional tone that resonates within them.

I remember meeting someone who asked me for an example of a film I’d worked on. I mentioned Contact, because I was very proud of the work I’d done designing the beautiful, ethereal look of the beach sequence on Vega where Jodie Foster speaks with her dead father. She immediately teared up, and told me that for her it was an amazing moment in the film. She explained that her father had passed away, and that the scene had felt to her like a depiction of heaven, and had touched her deeply. I was surprised, but I’ve heard many people over the years express similar sentiments.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

Along the same lines, when I was at Marvel, we did a one-shot short directed by Louis D’Esposito called Agent Carter. I was the visual effects supervisor and I also created the main on-end title design – which was so much fun! Bob Iger liked the short so much it spun off into a television show on ABC. We did two seasons and when the shows aired, together with the actors and show runners, we live tweeted with the fans. It was so incredibly rewarding to tweet with these young girls who found in Peggy Carter an empowered female character that they could look up to.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Being the only woman in the room in a craft role. The lack of ethnic diversity is also disheartening. Diversity issues have been brought to the forefront of our industry recently, and it really is a very big problem. As a woman, you just don’t get the same opportunities as men. Often you can’t even finish your sentence, because some people still find it difficult to listen to a woman in a technical role. I’ve discussed these issues with women and people of color in other disciplines of the film industry and it’s the same story across the board. Some sectors of the industry, like cinematography and composers and visual effects, are very far behind in terms of gender equality and diversity.

I don’t often speak about these issues publicly. I’d much rather work towards a better solution for the future and be an agent of change, which I aim to do as chair of the Academy visual effects branch Diversity and Inclusion Sub-Committee and as a member of the A2020 Committee, whose initiative is to have a substantial and lasting impact on the diversity and inclusion issues in all aspects of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. I’m excited by the initiatives we’re working towards to create real and positive change within all branches of our industry.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: One of the most challenging and rewarding tasks – because those often go hand in hand – was sitting with Pietro Scala and Sir Ridley Scott cutting the car chase and helicopter sequence on Body of Lies. We’d shot the sequence in the Sahara Desert but ran out of time at the end of the schedule. No one really wanted to go into the Mojave Desert to shoot additional photography, so we solved it by using visual effects to Frankenstitch together plates we’d shot, adding a few CG shots to help with storytelling. It came out brilliantly.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, I’ve supervised a few Adam Sandler films, so lots of weird tasks there! One in particular, on Fifty First Dates, was to make a walrus puke. On the day of the shoot, I was banned from set for safety because the walrus became amorous. I don’t think it gets weirder than that!

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Oh, things have changed so much since I began working in visual effects. Back in the early 1990s, we didn’t think about it as a business. Everything we did was a challenge and every day we were pushing the forefront of technological development. Creating an effect we had never seen or done required everyone in the filmmaking process to take a huge leap of faith. It was really challenging, we worked long hours because we were devoted to our tasks, and it was always a thrill to see what we were able to pull off. We were fortunate to be working with filmmakers like Bob Zemeckis who pushed us to innovate and create their vision despite the magnitude of the task ahead of us. We formed bonds and shared our innovations and techniques. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

I don’t know the exact point at which visual effects became big business. We didn’t anticipate how rapidly the technology and hardware would advance, become cost-effective and precipitate a mature toolset. Tasks that would have taken complex setups to complete 25 years ago can now be done with the push of a button and rendered in no time at all. But still, for those of us who have been in this industry for any amount of time, the objective remains the same – to create, innovate and push the envelope.

Aside from the tools and technology, the way we make films has also changed a lot, with many films driven by schedule and release dates. Today, there’s an increased level of difficulty in managing the complexity and number of shots. You could say that the challenge of feature film visual effects has become resource management – can we do the work given the schedule and budget available?

This is why I believe visual effects producers are so integral to the visual effects process. In fact, I’m encouraging our industry to further include and recognize their contribution. We couldn’t succeed in our craft without their contribution, which is often creative actually. The success of a project relies on a successful partnership between visual effects supervisor and producer. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great visual effects producers, and I was delighted to see a number of them admitted to the Academy visual effects branch in 2017. We didn’t admit any this year, but this is a great start and goes a long way towards acknowledging and recognizing their contribution.

Of course, another big change is that we have dispersed our industry around the world in pursuit of tax credits, displacing thriving visual effects communities and forcing so many visual effects companies out of business.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SHEENA DUGGAL: More diversity and inclusion, period.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: If you’ve found what you love and it’s visual effects, there are four broad categories you can choose from – creative, technical, production management and facility management. Look on the big visual effects studio sites like ILM, DNEG, MPC, Framestore and the rest. Check out the job postings and careers pages. Understand what’s required and what you need to learn technically and artistically. Know what the positions are, what the titles mean, and how each contributes to a movie. Some software vendors offer students free non-commercial access to their products. Look in particular at Autodesk Maya, The Foundry Nuke and Side Effects Houdini.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Blade Runner – because every frame is a work of art. It’s emotionally moving on a number of levels, the beauty of it speaking to you as much as the story and characters do. For me, it’s visual storytelling using lighting and atmospherics in tandem with a spectacularly emotional color palette. It’s about the visual effects supporting the story so you can get lost in the world that Ridley created. It really stands the test of time – even today in VFX films you can see futuristic city builds riffing off that original Blade Runner production design.

I want to say Terminator 2: Judgment Day – because visually it blew my mind. It was the first time I thought, “Wow, it’s possible to photorealistically visualize anything you can imagine!” I also grew up watching the Ray Harryhausen films – the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts was my previous gold standard because who doesn’t love a brilliant piece of stop-frame animation? But I’m going to have to say my second pick is The Abyss.

The alien creature in The Abyss is not only a beautiful design, it’s also haunting, melodramatic, and integral to the success of the storytelling. It looks great, and I love the scene with the sea water snake that mimics the faces of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, whose superb acting really sells the believability of the visual effects. At the time, we’d really never seen anything quite like these effects before.

Contact – because it has a woman at the center of the story, I know it so intimately, and I’m proud that the work we did in 1996 still holds up today. It was a magical time with an incredible team of talented people. The standout for me is the beach sequence, which I put my heart and soul into designing, and the mirror shot that became something magical once we’d composited it. People still ask me how we did that today. The way we move the camera and employ visual effects to change the perspective of the viewer is brilliantly executed. It was a challenging show – the beach sequence was first time in film history that anyone had a shot a full 360-degree bluescreen and replaced it with a digital environment. And Jay Redd’s beautiful opening sequence, combined with the audio design, is still one of the best openings to any film – it sets the tone perfectly.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Dark chocolate with sea salt.

CINEFEX: Sheena, thanks for your time!