Spotlight – Todd Vaziri

by Graham Edwards

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

Todd Vaziri is a lead artist and compositing supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. His list of career highlights includes American Pie, Avatar, six Star Wars and two Star Trek films, three Transformers movies and an episode of The Colbert Report, and you might enjoy rummaging through his entertaining effects-centric blog FX Rant.

Todd Vaziri

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

TODD VAZIRI: I saw Return of the Jedi on my tenth birthday, and afterward devoured anything I could find about how the film was made. I vividly remember reading an official Lucasfilm magazine about the film – there was an entire section on the miniatures and stop-motion animation in the Endor battle, created by a company called Industrial Light & Magic. That made an enormous impact on me. Seeing how the magic was created didn’t ruin the movie experience for me at all. Quite the contrary – I was intrigued and inspired to see pictures of modern-day magicians creating these amazing illusions, like Paul Huston setting up the AT-ST on the miniature Endor set. Years later, I discovered Cinefex, which satisfied my cravings for more detailed stories on how these intricate visual effects were created, and the challenges faced by artists in bringing these otherworldly effects to life. Strange to think that Paul Huston is a colleague and friend now – we worked together on a shot for The Force Awakens.

After film school, and a few years spent writing about visual effects for my website, Visual Effects Headquarters, I packed up my car and drove from Chicago to Los Angeles with the dream of working in visual effects. I was fortunate enough to have been given a chance by Van Ling at Banned From the Ranch Entertainment. Aware of my visual effects writing and understanding my passion for the craft, he gave me a chance to help test out a new piece of software called Commotion, which was, at the time, a brand new and revolutionary tool for rotoscoping and digital painting. Van was a tremendous mentor and I owe him so much for giving me a chance.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

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

TODD VAZIRI: At the start of every production, I am overwhelmed with anticipation. The prospect of doing something new and exciting in a movie is daunting, intimidating and exhilarating.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TODD VAZIRI: When the harsh realities of the project schedule kick in, along with the inevitable design changes – that’s when I reach for the Kleenex.

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

TODD VAZIRI: I’m a bit of a heat ripple snob. Most digital effects trying to replicate heat shimmer from jet engines don’t appeal to me. They frequently end up, from a design perspective, too sci-fi and fantastic, calling attention to the effect rather than allowing it to exist as a part of a realistic scene. For Avatar, we tackled several shots with intense jet engine heat ripple, and I privately tasked myself with creating the best-looking heat ripple system we’d ever produced. The effects team and I worked together on a system that included the right kind of particles, the right animation, the right kind of displacement and blur, and other design elements that are usually ignored – like refraction, shadowing, and tiny bits of soot. I was really proud of how it all turned out. Later, hearing that Jim Cameron loved the look of our heat ripple made me very happy.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TODD VAZIRI: I had to create dog urine for an Adam Sandler film. I used Particle World in After Effects to create the pee stream, and the splashing and splatter on the ground. I drew roto mattes and color-corrected the photography to simulate the growing puddle of pee. If I remember correctly, I think I also had to paint out the dog’s testicles.

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

TODD VAZIRI: Between the time I started doing feature film work and today, the biggest change has been the ubiquity and democratization of high-quality, highly complicated visual effects. Complex fantasy environments, creatures and invisible effects are no longer solely available to the five or six biggest-budgeted movies per year. Filmmakers like Scorsese, Cuarón, Iñárritu, DuVernay and del Toro now have access to effects that were previously unavailable to their types of films. As a movie fan, I’m thrilled that a movie like Ex Machina can be made today, with the same kind of complicated, high-quality visual effects that previously were relegated to only the biggest superhero films or sci-fi blockbusters.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TODD VAZIRI: Where to begin? I’d like to see a more level playing field on many dimensions. Right now, movie studios are understandably taking advantage of massive global incentives to make films in certain localities, but this severely tilts the scales and has serious repercussions on all sides.

In addition, just like the rest of Hollywood, we need to make visual effects production a more diverse, inclusive environment. There are too many people making movies who look like me, and who have similar histories, tastes and skill sets. We will be able to tell more dynamic, interesting stories by including more women and people of color in our industry.

We have a work-life balance problem in our industry, too. The hours and stress take their toll on visual effects workers around the world. Finally and more broadly, it is inexplicable how little power the visual effects industry has in Hollywood, while our work remains critical to the success of modern films.

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

TODD VAZIRI: The advice I’d give is similar to the advice I’d have for anyone who is interested in Hollywood filmmaking. Firstly, understand that this is not a glamorous job. The people who make films, both in front of and behind the camera – and behind the computer – are passionate and committed to their craft. If you’re not all-in on this as an idea, you might want to consider something else.

More practically, young visual effects artists sometimes get hung up on questions like: “Which piece of software should I learn?” My personal view is that the most successful visual effects professionals in my sphere are not obsessed with software or the technology itself, but are more interested in using those tools to create the imagery or tell the story that’s in their heads. I’m not technically minded at all, and yet I get by because the tools have become so accessible and approachable that even a dummy like me can operate the controls. Also, it’s incredibly important for young visual effects artists to watch and analyze non-visual effects films, and study as much photography as possible.

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

TODD VAZIRI: Citizen Kane – don’t roll your eyes at me, millennials! You’ll watch this black-and-white movie and like it! Orson Welles and his team were using the camera to tell a story like no-one did before – you can see many now-standard cinematic techniques used for the first time in this film. They pushed every department to its limits and beyond; the film includes special effects and optical work, several ingenious matte paintings, animation and miniatures. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography gave the film a striking look, as did all of the hidden optical tricks made possible by Linwood Dunn’s optical printer breakthroughs – like the massive set extensions at the political rally, or the building of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu.

Star Wars (1977 theatrical edition) – come on, do I really need to say why I chose this?

The Abyss – Jim Cameron’s epic underwater adventure used pretty much every single visual effects trick in the book, including the debut of a creature of a kind never seen before on film – the computer-generated pseudopod. The movie is an encyclopedia of photographic effects from the dawn of cinema to that moment, and simultaneously presents a prelude to cinema’s digital era.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TODD VAZIRI: Popcorn, no butter, a tiny bit of salt.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Todd!