Spotlight – Philipp Wolf

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

Philipp Wolf is currently a visual effects producer at DNEG, having previously worked at MPC, Scanline VFX and Pixomondo, and in a freelance capacity. His personal filmography highlights include Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Ghost in the Shell, The Predator, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Game of Thrones.

Philipp Wolf - photograph by Myriam Ménard.
Photograph by Myriam Ménard.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: It all started with a project in school when I was 15 years old. We were tasked to found a made-up company and I decided to dive into the world of web design. The demand for this kind of work was high in the year 2000. A couple of months after I turned 16, I decided to found my first actual company. Designing and maintaining web-sites turned into software development, and planning and management of IT infrastructures.

2001 was a pivotal year for me – with the release of The Fast and the Furious, my love for cars was born. When the time came to graduate high school and go to university, I chose to study automotive engineering, specializing in process management and quality control. It took about two years for me to realize this path was not for me, so I moved to television where I worked as a journalist and a story producer amongst other things. When one of those projects came to an end, I remembered the feeling I had watching The Fast and the Furious for the first time and started looking around on how to be involved in the production of these movies – maybe visual effects?

I ended up applying to Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg for their newly introduced Animation Effects Producing course. After not even one year of studies, a tutor introduced me to Pixomondo where I ended up doing my first feature film project as a junior visual effects producer. My third project and my first big break was working on the second season of Game of Thrones as an associate visual effects producer – all while I was still studying.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: In short, enabling people to do what they love. Visual effects brings together talent from all over the world, to create content for people all over the world to enjoy. If you fuel these teams with empathy, you create an environment in which people not only understand one another’s perspective and care for each other, but also thrive and achieve more than they would have ever dreamed of. Fostering this environment and seeing the team excel is the most amazing feeling you can imagine.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

PHILIPP WOLF: One word: abstraction. Abstraction is the process of removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to its essential characteristics. Projects are broken down into numbers; numbers translate into a schedule; the schedule informs us about the resources required. We make our decisions based on those numbers – which is necessary to cope with the scale.

The numbers might tell us we need to increase this number or reduce that number. For example, 30 resources complete an average of 30 tasks per week. Next week they need to complete 45 tasks. The answer seems to be easy: increase the number of resources or decrease the quality. But neither one is an option. Conclusion: increase the working hours by factor 1.5. Not too bad, and an easy decision – if we base it purely on numbers.

Now, let us remove the abstraction. We are really asking 30 human beings with families each to spend 60 hours in the next week at work. Is the decision still as easy as before? No, and it should not be. We tend to forget the people affected by our decisions. Fostering an abstract environment creates a weak culture in which people only do what is right for them and not what is right for the team.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: My biggest challenge so far was creating an environment enabling a team at MPC to deliver about 660 highly complex shots for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. When I started on the show, production was already in progress, first look development shots were turned over and we had sophisticated previs scenes for most of the sequences in-house. Using those scenes, we broke down all elements needed to finish each individual shot. We had in hand over 400 creature animation shots, over 3,000 effects tasks and several environments – including a fully digital Boston – which needed to be completed to achieve the vision of Michael Dougherty, the director. Looking at the work, I knew the only way to get this done was to build a strong foundation of trust and empathy.

The first step was to empower my production team with tools and knowledge to take their own decisions, while mentoring them all the way throughout production. We ended up with amazing team who cared and stepped up to help each other.

The second step was to split up the work between the production and supervision team, to help MPC visual effects supervisor Robert Winter and myself to focus on the overall strategy of the production, while not slipping into a reactionary state.

Third step was figuring out the numbers to deliver the movie, while keeping the individual artist mind. The effects department alone had nearly 100 artists – the biggest effects team at MPC to that point.

The fourth step was creating a work environment in which everyone could do what they do best, as a team. With a team working around the globe, sometimes the little things help to make everyone feel part of something bigger. For example, early on we introduced a weekly newsletter with the latest show information, crowning our employee of the week, sharing fun facts, even having a little Godzilla statue traveling around the departments – who ended up meeting the director!

Empathy turned out to be the glue holding the production together. All the challenges we faced we pulled through together as a team – a team I could not be prouder of. Thank you!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

PHILIPP WOLF: Producing a pack shot for a foot fungus cream television commercial. As usual, you deal with the agency and the production company, who have prepared a vision for the pack shot. Early on, they told us we would need to produce a high-risk and a low-risk version of the pack shot so the commercial could be switched to the low-risk version if the pharmaceutical company got litigated – which they seem to plan for.

The idea of the pack shot was to show how to apply the foot fungus cream to the foot. How many different ways are there? Well, we created the pack shot, the commercial went on air, and the pharmaceutical company got litigated. This is where it became interesting. At that point, I only dealt with representatives of the pharmaceutical company and their lawyers to produce an even lower-risk version and to get the commercial back on air as soon as possible.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: The biggest change for me is the rising demand for visually appealing content. We are surrounded by visual stimuli wherever we go, in a world with an average attention span of eight seconds, according to a study by Microsoft Corp. We need to fill those eight seconds with content that makes people willing to continue to watch, be it in theatres, at home, or on their phone displays. The expectations of viewers are increasing as most of them grew up with the internet, videogames and the ever-evolving visual effects in movies and television.

To keep up with these demands, we see universities and schools implementing courses in visual effects, and companies like DNEG are implementing programs like Greenlight to support the development of the next generation of talent. Non-profit organizations like ACCESS:VFX have been founded to pursue inclusion, diversity, awareness and opportunity within the industry. We have created more awareness for the industry as a career. But we still have a long way to go.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

PHILIPP WOLF: We are at a pivotal point for our industry – I like to call it the “industrial revolution of visual effects” – moving from hand production to new manufacturing processes. We already see simple automation happening in things like one artist launching multiple shots on the render farm, or compositing templates creating a first pass for a shot.

To meet the rising demand, we need not only more people, but also to innovate our processes. Technology for example. Why does an animator need to match a real reference of a tiger jumping when a machine learning algorithm could do the first pass? Then, all the animator has to do is focus their work on bringing the story across. We should have algorithms take care of the first step, or the technical aspects like packaging a shot for the next artist to pick up. This would free up artists to actually do the artistic work.

We also need to implement international standards for visual effects. Doing that ensures our services are reliable and of high quality, while reducing costs due to increased productivity. These standards would help level the playing field for companies around the world. Additionally, it would be easier for schools and universities to create curricula to feed into those standards. Both of those points are incredibly important to me as they are part of creating a healthy work environment within our global growing industry.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: Be honest, be humble and be hungry – this will get you a long way.

Visual effects might be the most exciting industry to work in today. The demand is higher than ever before and there are jobs within pretty much every field imaginable. From artist to production to baristas, and so on. When you join a visual effects team, integrate yourself, get to know your peers, get to know what is going on around you, be empathic and open minded. Most of your days will include a lot of decisions, and you want to make sure to decide and communicate them efficiently. One tool I always give my production teams is called “Decision Tree”.

Imagine a tree. It is made out of leaves, branches, a trunk and roots. Now think about this in terms of your decisions. A leaf decision can be taken on your own and you don’t have to communicate it to anyone. If a tree loses a leaf, nothing bad is going to happen. If you damage a branch, still nothing too bad is going to happen, but you should inform your superior about it.

But the trunk – a crucial part of the tree – can only be harmed so much before it dies. These kinds of decisions should not be executed before approval from your superior. Damage to the roots might kill the tree. In this case, you should present all information about the issue, and your superior will take the decision.

The amazing thing about this metaphor is if you categorize your decisions based on it, you will notice how you and your tree will grow over time. Trunk decisions will become branch decisions, and ultimately leaf decisions.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: We all have a pretty good idea where we are right now, but where did we come from? My playbill brings us to the beginnings – Georges Méliès in France, Fritz Lang in Germany, all the way to James Cameron in the United States.

Le Voyage dans la Lune – every time I watch this pioneering movie, I have to remind myself it was 1902, over a century ago, when Georges Méliès created it. The spaceship flying to the moon was one of the first uses of a miniature – if not the first. It was uncharted territory. Méliès had to invent as he directed – stop-motion jump cuts, matte paintings, superimposed images, substitution shots, to name a few.

Metropolis – since I come from Germany, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece had to be part of the list. The movie employed ground-breaking special visual effects like the Schüfftan process – an early version of the bluescreen – used in the stadium scene. Utilizing a glass plate angled at 45 degrees between a miniature set and the camera, Lang was able to place the reflection of the actors into the set with the ability to adjust their size based on the distance to the glass plate. Another amazing effect was used to illustrate Maria’s transformation. A sophisticated multiple exposure shot introduces the robot with light rings falling and raising around it.

The Abyss – the first time I saw the watery snake-like creature was on television in the ‘90s. I was not even close to understand how it was done. Years later, when I started diving into visual effects and rediscovered the movie, I learned it was the first example of a digitally animated three-dimensional creature composited with 70mm footage. A creature which also mimics the actress’ performance who ultimately interacts with it – all back in 1989.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

PHILIPP WOLF: Popcorn. Funny enough, I do not like it outside of the movie theatre. It is part of the experience.

CINEFEX: Philipp, thanks for your time!

Cinefex 165 - Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Cinefex covered “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” in issue 165, June 2019.

Now Showing – Cinefex 165

Cinefex 165

When the time comes to write a ‘From the Editor’s Desk’ piece for the current issue, I usually think back over the previous two months – during which time we wrote the editorial content for that issue – and whatever bubbles up to the surface of my brain, that’s what I write about.

What bubbled up this time was profound gratitude for my writing team, Joe Fordham and Graham Edwards. Every two months, these dynamos generate about 60 pages of editorial content. To put this in perspective: remember in college when you had that ‘big’ ten-page, end-of-semester paper due? Remember the dread with which you approached that project? Joe and Graham write ten pages every few days. A three-page paper? Shoot – they  do that before their first cup of tea in the morning! And what they produce isn’t exactly easy-breezy content. It is often highly technical, dense and complicated – but for the reader, Joe and Graham have to make it, in the words of Albert Einstein, ‘As simple as possible, but not simpler.’

They came through again in our current issue, Cinefex 165, with articles covering Godzilla: King of the Monsters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Amazon Studios’ Good Omens series. I wasn’t sitting around eating bon-bons, either. I wrapped up ten years of covering Marvel Studios productions with my long article on Avengers: Endgame.

Each article carefully balances technical detail with the more human story of why creatives made the decisions they made, what they were going for, their victories and frustrations. The movies are big, the stories are big, the effort – every two months – is big.

Thank you, guys.

Cinefex 165 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already stomping its way towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Godzilla — Conceptualizing the Monsters with ADI and Legacy Effects

Godzilla: King of the Monsters - Rodan clay sculpture by Tim Martin at ADI
Amalgamated Dynamics sculptor Tim Martin created this clay maquette of Rodan as part of the concept design process for “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”

As the title suggests, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is packed to the brim with battling behemoths. All the monsters in the film reached the screen thanks to the digital artistry of the visual effects team at MPC, supported by DNEG, Method Studios and Rodeo FX. However, concept designs for the film’s three new monster characters — Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan — first took shape in a variety of media, including traditional clay sculpture.

“I want to emphasize that we utilized a lot of traditional methods for designing the creatures,” said director Michael Dougherty. “For Rodan, it was a traditional clay sculptor who cracked that design. We utilized every tool possible — CG, traditional sketches, everything. Even with our previs sequences, we started with very simple storyboards, just black and white line drawings. I don’t want to give the computers all the credit. I want to make sure those artists are acknowledged.”

I explore this design process — along with the visual effects, animation and special effects, of course — in my article on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which you’ll find in our June 2019 issue, Cinefex 165.

Interviewing for the article, I chatted at length with Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. co-founder Tom Woodruff Jr. — who directed design development for Rodan — and Legacy Effects co-founder Shane Mahan; led by show supervisor Lindsay MacGowan, the Legacy Effects team was responsible for Mothra and, building on earlier work by concept artist Simon Lee, Ghidorah. As an online sidebar to our main magazine story, I’ve assembled a few of the interview outtakes into a round-robin discussion reflecting on what it takes to conceptualize monsters in the modern movie world.

Concept design for Ghidorah, created by artists at Legacy Effects, developed from original designs by concept artist Simon Lee.
Concept design for Ghidorah, created by artists at Legacy Effects, developed from an original design by concept artist Simon Lee.

CINEFEX: So, are there any Godzilla fans in the room?

TOM WOODRUFF JR. — I love the original 1954 Godzilla. I thought that was superb. But honestly I never thought those films of the ‘60s and ‘70s were that great. By the time it got into Mechagodzilla and all that crazy stuff, the fun to me was just watching these intricately built miniatures get destroyed by guys wearing monster suits! I don’t want to be dismissive — I think I was just a bit old for them by that point. So it was great to join Michael Dougherty’s point of view and see these monsters in a totally renewed sense. Not just the look of them, but the power of what these creatures are and what they mean to the story.

SHANE MAHAN — I remember watching the Japanese films on the creature feature television channels on Saturday afternoons. There was a magic to those movies. If you watch the original Japanese Godzilla — especially the un-Americanized one without Raymond Burr in it — it’s a very serious movie. It’s touching upon fears about the atomic explosion, the horror of it all and what Godzilla represented. As they got further along, they were more childlike, and in some of the later films the costumes and the effects weren’t quite as good. But the original Mothra movie is pretty great. With all due respect to Toho for what they did, it was great having the opportunity to go in and fix those costumes a little bit!

Legacy Effects concept artist Darnell Isom led the work on Mothra for "Godzill: King of the Monsters."
Legacy Effects concept artist Darnell Isom led the work on Mothra for “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”
In its Mothra designs, Legacy Effects referenced the aggressive stance of mantises and certain species of Japanese wasp.
In its Mothra designs, Legacy Effects referenced the aggressive stance of mantises and certain species of Japanese wasp.
Legacy Effects balanced the inherently fragile look of moth wings with the need to portray Mothra's vast size and strength.
Legacy Effects balanced the inherently fragile look of moth wings with the need to portray Mothra’s vast size and strength.

CINEFEX: You both cut your teeth in the very physical world of creatures and special effects at Stan Winston Studio, and have continued to fly the flag for practical effects ever since. On this show, your involvement was purely with the concept design. How did that come about?

TOM WOODRUFF JR. — We got a call from Legendary Pictures inviting us to join the design team for the film. My understanding was that came directly from Michael Dougherty, because we had been involved with him on a couple of shows. Most recently, we had turned in a bid and a proposal on Krampus. Ultimately the studio went in a different direction, but Michael told us he had been a fan of our work ever since he was young. I loved everything he did on Krampus, so I was very happy that he got us involved with Godzilla. He said, “I want to put you to work.”

SHANE MAHAN — We’ve known Michael Dougherty for a long time, and we also tried to work with him on a couple of things in the past, like Krampus and Trick ‘r Treat. He really understands creatures, so we knew he would offer a lot of insight.

CINEFEX: So you don’t mind that you didn’t get to actually build any monsters?

SHANE MAHAN: You know, in this day and age, for a studio like Legacy Effects to be on the ground floor of visual effects development is something we’re proud of. We’re not just a creature effects house. I really consider what we do to be just another branch of visual effects.

TOM WOODRUFF JR. — I was just really happy that Legendary gave ADI a chance to be part of the design team, knowing that everything was going to be digital in the end. In addition to that, for me personally, it was great to work more as an art director, where I wasn’t out there pushing clay around. I wasn’t doing anything other than working with talented artists, pointing to things, and saying, “Try this, try that.” It really was an incredible feeling, just letting these guys go off on their own.

CINEFEX: I believe Simon Lee did an early Ghidorah sculpture in clay, and Tim Martin did a physical Rodan model at ADI to consolidate various design strands. But, in general, all the concept artists were sculpting digitally in Pixologic ZBrush. What’s the advantage of that?

SHANE MAHAN — You can always do a clay piece or study quickly, for gesture or form. But what we supply to visual effects has to be super-tight and complex, with really fine detail. ZBrush is a miracle for that sort of thing, and also for quick changes. In today’s world, we get notes and they expect them to be done in three hours — I’m not kidding! That’s just what you have to do.

ADI sculptor Tim Martin details the Rodan clay maquette, used to consolidate design concepts into a single physical sculpture.
ADI sculptor Tim Martin details the Rodan clay maquette, used to consolidate design concepts into a single physical sculpture.

CINEFEX — In the original films these are guys in suits. Is there any way there could be a human performer inside your monster designs?

SHANE MAHAN: We did try to incorporate some of the man-in-a-suit idea with Ghidorah, in that he has some human anatomy. I think Michael was very much after that familiar silhouette. It was a fine line of modernizing the look but not going too far from your childhood memory of these things.

CINEFEX: How about Rodan? Could you squeeze a guy in there somewhere?

TOM WOODRUFF JR. — No. In fact, emphatically no. If you could, I would have been begging for a chance to be the guy inside the suit. They were very clear to make sure I didn’t go down that road. Everything was always going to be digital.

CINEFEX — They just knew, didn’t they: “Uh-oh, we’ve got Woodruff on the books here, better not encourage him to get inside this thing.”

TOM WOODRUFF JR. — That’s true! I’ve done my duty.

CINEFEX — You’ve given up suit performances?

TOM WOODRUFF JR. — Oh, absolutely not. We did a gorilla thing a couple of months ago. It was a goofy thing with a lot of dancing and running around. But, I’ve got to say, it’s not as easy as it was 30 years ago. Of course, I say that hoping no one’s going to read this interview and say, “Hey, remember that phone call we were going to put in to Tom about this movie? It sounds like he’s too old!”

Cinefex 165 - Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Read our comprehensive coverage of Godzilla: King of the Monsters in Cinefex 165, out now in print and for iPad. Our June 2019 issue also contains in-depth stories on Avengers: Endgame, Good Omens, Dark Phoenix and Detective Pikachu.

Photographs copyright © 2019 Legendary and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights reserved. Godzilla TM & © Toho Co., Ltd.

“The Dead Don’t Die” – Q&A with Alex Hansson

Zombies come in many flavors. For many horror devotees, George A. Romero defined the genre with his Pittsburgh-made 1968 Night of the Living Dead. The black and white, 16mm shocker depicted shuffling corpses with a hunger for flesh ostensibly triggered, per a half-glimpsed TV news report, by a crashed Venusian probe. Romero’s own sequels DawnDay and Land of the Dead hinted at deeper themes of social unrest as cause of the undead pandemic. The Bela Lugosi 1932 feature White Zombie offered Haiti voodoo as trigger for reanimating the dead, as did Wes Craven’s gripping 1988 thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow. Lucio Fulci and other European imitators piled on zombie gore with tropical zeal through the 1980s. More recent filmmakers goosed the undead into jittery hyena-like packs in 28 Days Later and Train to Busan. Zombies were played for laughs in Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. They went primetime in AMC’s The Walking Dead. And World War Z presented the Z-word as Hollywood extravaganza.

Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch was aware of the cinematic legacy piled behind him when he offered his own take on the zombie phenomenon in Focus Features’ The Dead Don’t Die. The indie cinema mogul had a rich history of playing with Hollywood stereotypes in his slow-burning, deadpan style in Down by LawNight on Earth, Dead Man and his 2013 postmodern vampire fable Only Lovers Left Alive. When news of Jarmusch’s foray into the zombie genre was announced at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, an all-star cast of Jarmusch collaborators signed on – including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Tilda Swinton.

New to the team was visual effects supervisor Alex Hansson, founder of Haymaker in Gothenburg, Sweden. After a landing the assignment, Hansson joined Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes to scout locations for their small-town zombie apocalypse in upper New York state, offering digital solutions to augment in-camera zombie makeup effects created at Mike Marino’s Prosthetic Renaissance. After ten months of intense postproduction, followed by a premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Hansson joined Cinefex to recall his zombie experience with Jarmusch.

CINEFEX: The concept of Jim Jarmusch doing a zombie movie is quite mind-boggling. How did this come about, and how did Jim explain his intentions to you?

HANSSON: Well, preproduction had been going for about a year when I received the script. About a week later, I had a Skype call with Jim. The producer decided, ‘Well, you’ll have to be here next week to have a briefing with Jim and you guys are going to go location scouting.’ That was it. It was very fast-paced. When I was in New York on the briefing I asked him, ‘How do you visualize the zombies?’ He said, ‘Well, I want them to be filled with dust.’ I thought, okay, that sounds cool. I had references from Bladegoing through my head. 

When we went location scouting, I got to know him more, because that’s far less stress than shooting. I hung out with Jim and Fred Elmes for a day or two. We were viewing a graveyard location and we discussed one of Tilda Swinton’s big scenes. 

CINEFEX: Tilda plays the town mortician, who is very skilled with a samurai sword.

HANSSON: Yes, I told Jim, from the script, it read like a great scene for her character, and I suggested we could shoot her attacking all these zombies as a one-take action moment. One zombie coming up behind her, she turns around and she does a vertical slice right through him, and then she turns again. I suggested we could stay in frame, not cut away, all in one hero shot. And for the vertical split, I asked could we make that guy be bald, to make our visual effects work a little easier without the hair. Jim said, yeah, we can do that. And by the way, that happened – when we returned to shoot that scene, the guy was bald.

CINEFEX: It’s good to hear that he was so receptive. Did Jim like to use storyboards?

HANSSON: Yes, and that turned out to be good reference. He didn’t always shoot storyboards exactly, but it was a very useful for visual effects.

CINEFEX: Jim’s films are so much about character and mood, it’s hard to imagine him doing a lot of previs and technical preparation.

HANSSON: That’s right. To wind back a little bit, when we were in the briefing room before we went out location scouting, one of Jim’s first comments was, ‘I’m used to doing movies with people talking, so you have to tell me what to do here.’ He was very open-minded about visual effects from the first minute I met him, which is extremely rare. When people have asked me about how it was working with Jim, I’ve often told them it was my best experience ever working with a director. And this was working with a director who confessed he didn’t know visual effects. He might not have understood the process, but he had so much respect for it. 

CINEFEX: Did you discuss previous zombie films?

HANSSON: Yes, Jim loved the old-school zombie films. That was the direction he wanted to go. He was not a fan of fast-paced zombies. He made that clear from the beginning. One of the notes he gave me was we wanted to see ‘dust’ when zombies were killed. 

CINEFEX: So, the undead were not wet inside?

HANSSON: Exactly – just ‘dust.’ I was trying to get into his head, so I asked him, did he imagine this dust might be like when you go out in the woods, you find a piece of a log that has gone rotten and, when you touch it, it just goes pfft. I asked him, ‘Is that it?’ As if, the bones inside the body might still be solid, but everything else is like more of the log. He said, ‘Yes, you nailed it.’ That was my brief.

CINEFEX: How did you develop zombie dust effects?

HANSSON: After I flew back home to Sweden, right away I brought my camera to my parking garage and I started shooting plates with myself acting as a zombie. I gave that footage to my artists, and we started working on the zombie dust effect. The shoot was coming up fast, and so, within about a week we did some tests, and I sent a couple of different proposals over to Jim. He said, ‘This is exactly what I want!’ We weren’t sure what he was looking for, but that was encouraging, and my team kept refining that effect all the way to shot production.

CINEFEX: Did you try physically throwing dust on people on set?

HANSSON: There were a few zombie deaths-by-gunshot where the special effects team tried to spray a dust effect. There was supposed to be more of that. I wanted dust to end up on the clothes of the zombies getting hurt and, initially, I had asked to have practical dust on-set, as a secondary effect. For instance, when Bill Murray’s character was shooting off zombie heads, I wanted dust to land on the actors’ clothes. They couldn’t make that happen. So, we did that 100-percent digitally. I kept working with my artists. We tried Vector Paint in Nuke, and when we ended up adding that to shot, that was a big surprise to Jim because we had not been able to achieve that during production. It was something that I wanted to add to make the visual effects work better, and it ended up working great.

CINEFEX: How did you work with makeup effects? We know Mike Marino’s work from Black Swan, and more recently True Detective, and he is a very talented artist.

HANSSON: Yes, Prosthetic Renaissance designed all the zombie makeups. They had different levels of detail – hero makeups, makeups where zombies were within a 10-meter distance, and then the extras who wore custom masks. There were a couple of scenes where the script indicated heads falling off. My first criteria for those was to make sure they were not featured in close-up, with heads spinning and rolling on the floor right next to the camera, which could have involved visual effects. Mike’s team built those heads practically. In two shots, they ended up quite close to camera, but thanks to the great work they did, those shots did not need visual effects. My other request was that when we were going to chop off a head, I asked for a sharp and detailed cut point. Mike’s team made the makeup to work with that.

CINEFEX: What were your criteria for decapitation scenes? 

HANSSON: For all decapitations, I asked Fred Elmes to shoot using a large frame area. He was open to that and we ended up shooting 4K, using the new Arri Alexa LF. I also asked if we could use master prime lenses, to make use of Arriflex’s Lens Data System. For some reason that didn’t work out, so I had no metadata. On difficult shots, where it was obvious that we would have tracking problems, we added tracking markers to the zombie actors, and then we lidar scanned every scene. After Jim was happy with a take, I’d immediately run in with my own custom rig – which captures high dynamic range images and lidar. That was part of the deal that I made with the producers and the film crew, and it was a very efficient way to light CG elements that we were adding to the scenes. That helped us track the environment, and gave us data so we could mesh the lighting and the environment. We then used HDRI textures to map lighting back onto the mesh. After that, we did a lot of roto animation to add digital effects to zombie deaths.

CINEFEX: You had a lot of those – there’s Bill Murray with his shotgun, Adam Driver beheads Carol Kane and many others with a machete, Danny Glover uses gardening shears – was each zombie death a custom build?

HANSSON: This was a low-budget production, so sometimes we would finish shooting, redress the same stunt person, Mike Marino’s team would redo the makeup, and suddenly we had another zombie. In each instance, when we knew we were going to be doing a zombie death, I’d ship them off to be scanned. Travis Reinke, founder of SCANable, scanned all the actors for us on set. They gave us raw scans back, and then we went to work. 

One of our toughest challenges was we had so many zombie deaths, I wanted to avoid them feeling repetitive. I asked my artists come up with different techniques. For Steve Buscemi, we blew off half of his head. For another zombie in the graveyard, we blew off his head but decided to keep his jaw going as he fell. The deaths were part of the humor of the film, so we tried to make them feel comedic, in terms of how they came apart in different places every time.

CINEFEX: Did you build a kit of body parts?

HANSSON: We built custom parts. We did a quick rig for each head that was blown off. If we wanted the neck to flap in the air, we did a quick and dirty rig, and then we figured out what worked for that specific shot. It had to be time-efficient.

CINEFEX: How did you animate the innards?

HANSSON: Going back to the R&D, where I used myself as a zombie, I had my Houdini artist to work on an effects setup that he refined so we could customize the rig to each shot. That’s how we did every shot. We rendered Side Effects Deep Camera maps, which allowed us to work with skin shaders in Autodesk Maya and 3D rendering in Chaos Group V-Ray. We took Mantra renders from Houdini and V-Ray renders from Maya, combined them in the composite and rotoscoped the actors from the plate. That gave us control of depth for our dust effects.

CINEFEX: Where did you make the blends to the actors?

HANSSON: We scanned most of stunt guys from the sternum up. Once we had an edit of a scene, we studied each specific shot to decide how far up we needed to roto-animate, and then it was up to comp to find the magic point for each transition. I tried to limit custom shaders and textures, and instead used camera mapping from the plate and re-mapped onto the 3D model using manual roto animation. In a few places, we had to use cloth simulations for flesh effects, depending what happened after the head was chopped, or the angle of the character in the plate.

CINEFEX: When Tilda is using her katana, and she gives the bald guy a vertical slice, how did you create his internal anatomy?

HANSSON: We had the neck bone together with the skull. And we found some textures to map his insides and inside his head. It is interesting what you can find online.

CINEFEX: What was your brief for the science fiction finale?

HANSSON: Jim and his production designer, Alex DiGerlando, wanted to see a 1950s-style flying saucer. At first, they were talking about shooting that as a model, because they wanted it to feel old-school. I wasn’t sure about that, because I knew there would be a lot more work if they went that way. Pretty soon, I heard they moved away from that, which gave us much more control, but they wanted to keep that retro feeling. They gave me a reference picture from a black and white UFO sci-fi movie. I suggested to my team that we could give that a modern touch, using volumetric lighting and textures that could make it feel more interesting than the typical aluminum finish they used back then. We rendered a still frame for Jim and he loved it right away. 

CINEFEX: How did you integrate Tilda and all the zombies?

HANSSON: When we did the location scout, Jim told me he wanted somewhere in between 150 to 200 zombies. We animated those digitally using Houdini’s new crowd simulation tool, which was very effective. We modeled 25 to 30 individual zombies and then made small adjustments so each one looked unique. Like most of the film, we shot day for night, and that made this scene so difficult, as the saucer was coming down with its light beam reaching out to Tilda. They wanted her to disappear into the light, but I knew when we were shooting in full sunshine there was no way we’d be able to create that interaction, with a very strong light coming down on her from above. To accomplish that, we did a full body scan of Tilda, and that enabled us to light her correctly when we added the effects.

CINEFEX: It is a strange ending to an amusing film. You must have asked Jim Jarmusch ‘what did the zombie represent for you?’

HANSSON: Well, I think it’s obvious when you see the film. They represent us. That was Jim’s take on the world, where it’s at now. It was funny, my wife was with me in Cannes, and we talked to Jim at the after-party and she asked him, ‘So, do you like zombies as much as my husband?’ Because I’d been in this for 10 months straight, 7 days a week and it had become a part of my life. Jim answered to my wife, ‘I hate zombies! I hate everything about them. I have always done. They’re stupid, they’re slow, they’re not sexy, like vampires. They’re dumb.’ That was such a funny answer. You’ll have to see for yourself. There are a lot of political statements.

‘The Dead Don’t Die’ imagery © 2019 Focus Features, Animal Kingdom and Kill the Head. Thanks to Jim Jarmusch, Arielle de Saint Phalle, Carter Logan, Joshua Astachan and Alex Hansson.

VIEW Conference 2019 Preview

The first batch of speakers has been announced for this year’s VIEW Conference, due to take place 21-25 October, 2019, in Turin, Italy.

Cinefex readers will immediately recognise the name Rob Legato, veteran visual effects supervisor whose track record includes features such as Apollo 13, Titanic, Avatar and The Jungle Book. Rob will come to the conference fresh from the release of this year’s remake of The Lion King, and ready to talk about the film’s behind-the-scenes secrets.

Also speaking at the conference is ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel, Captain Marvel additional visual effects supervisor Janelle Croshaw Ralla, and Image Engine visual effects supervisor Thomas Schelesny and animation supervisor Jason Snyman, who recently completed work on Game of Thrones Season 8. Other key speakers include prolific composer Michael Giacchino, writer/director Brad Bird and directors Dean DeBlois and Conrad Vernon, plus a host of big names from the fields of animation, virtual reality and games.

With the list of speakers set to grow over the coming months, conference director Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez said, “I’m excited to reveal a stellar group of speakers who are the top professionals in their fields. I know they will educate, collaborate with, and inspire our attendees. I look forward to welcoming them to Torino and to our VIEW Conference community.”

Just like last year, Cinefex will be at VIEW Conference 2019, interviewing the key speakers and reporting back through the week. Watch this blog for all the news and updates. You’ll find our comprehensive coverage of The Lion King and Game of Thrones Season 8 in Cinefex 166, out August and available to preorder now.

VIEW Conference 2019 takes place 21-25 October, 2019, at OGR (Officine Grandi Riparazioni), Turin, Italy. Visit the official VIEW Conference website to book your place now.

Spotlight – Spencer Cook

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

Spencer Cook is animation director at DNEG, having worked previously at companies including MPC, Framestore, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Tippett Studio. Ask him for his filmography highlights and here’s what he’ll give you: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Alien: Covenant, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Gods of Egypt, Men in Black 3, all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Cursed, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Hollow Man, Blade and Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Spencer Cook

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

SPENCER COOK: Animation was a hobby when I was a kid. I grew up watching monster movies like King Kong, Godzilla, all the classic Universal monsters and basically anything fantasy, horror and sci-fi. I was particularly inspired by the works of Ray Harryhausen.

By age 11, I was experimenting with stop-motion animation and had decided I wanted to make my living as a stop-motion animator. I studied all aspects of film, video and fine arts at The School Of Visual Arts in New York City where I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, after which I began my career as a stop-motion animator. For the next decade, I animated and directed dozens of television commercials in New York, Los Angeles and Europe, animating classic characters like the Pillsbury Doughboy and segments of the Saturday morning series Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

I then moved to Los Angeles and began a new chapter in my career working on movies. By that time, the industry had changed from traditional animation to digital. Luckily, all my stop-motion experience applied to digital character animation, so it was just a matter of learning a new tool. This transition wasn’t easy for me at first – I wasn’t very familiar with computers – but eventually I got the hang of it and started to enjoy all the amazing possibilities.

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

SPENCER COOK: I like the collaborative nature of filmmaking, working with a team and mixing the best ideas together. The creative process isn’t like following a recipe; it takes experimentation and exploration. I like the process of figuring out performances and body language. Every project is different and requires a process of discovery.

I enjoy looking back at previous generations of animators and visual effects artists and appreciating that I’m continuing the cinematic legacy of creating fantastic settings and characters. I’m thrilled to be a part of the movie industry, contributing to images that might be inspiring the next generation of animators.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SPENCER COOK: I hate the terms ‘CG’ or ‘CGI.’ I wish we could remove these from our lexicon. Saying ‘computer graphics’ or ‘computer generated images’ makes it sound like a computer does the work.

These terms seemed odd to me when I first transitioned from stop-motion to digital animation, but it really hit me a few years ago when I was reading an article about Pirates of the Caribbean. The article said something like, “Johnny Depp stands in front of a greenscreen and the computer adds the background.” I was like, “No, this is wrong! This isn’t how things work in animation and visual effects!”

Computers don’t create images any more than a paintbrush creates a painting. A computer is a tool. Would you call The Mona Lisa a ‘paintbrush generated image?’ Talented artists and technicians create the images in movies. It’s the same as it was in the beginning of cinema, we just use a different tools now. Calling it ‘CGI’ minimizes our creativity and hard work.

I know the term is deeply embedded in the industry but I think a better option is ‘digital modelling,’ ‘digital compositing,’ and so on. This would be consistent with all other art forms that refer to the medium instead of the tool, such as ‘oil painting’ or ‘marble sculpture.’ In animation, we broadly specify traditional techniques as ‘stop-motion animation’ and ‘cel animation.’ Why not just add ‘digital animation’ to that? It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s right.

See Spencer Cook’s recent work as senior animation supervisor at MPC in the final trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters:

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

SPENCER COOK: Wow, it’s a challenge to pick just one! Every production has unique difficulties to overcome and problems to solve.

One of my most formative challenges was the wall-crawl shot in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. I was the lead animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles with Anthony LaMolinara as our animation supervisor and John Dykstra as visual effects designer. We were tasked with creating a photoreal Spider-Man for the first time. At that time I was still fairly new to digital animation, so while working on that movie I learned a lot about animating on a computer, as well as client interactions and the movie biz in general.

The wall-crawl was incredibly difficult. The shot was hundreds of frames long and the camera moved all around the character as he climbed. I spent many long hours working on Spidey’s physics and body language to make it as believable as possible and to see his thought process, while mixing in the iconic poses from the comics.

I learned a lot about how to use reference, how to mix reality and fantasy into a believable performance. I gathered footage of spiders, frogs and lizards, and even went to a local park with our coordinator to shoot video of me climbing a chainlink fence! That was one of the key components that helped me find the reality in that shot. To get a feel for the grip and the pull against gravity, what it felt like to climb a vertical surface, was incredibly important to my final animation.

Spencer Cook on the set of "Alien: Covenant."
Spencer Cook on the set of “Alien: Covenant.”

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SPENCER COOK: Superheroes and giant monsters aren’t weird to me. What I did find really weird was working on television commercials. As animators, we need to think about a character’s thought process, but many of the stop-motion commercials I animated involved anthropomorphized food like the Pillsbury Doughboy or various other happy, dancing snack foods. I admit that this is way over-thinking the concept, but I always thought it was weird that a living creature would be so happy about being eaten. Living snack food is at the bottom of the food chain. They only exist to be eaten and yet they’re thrilled about it. They’re either unaware of their situation or completely insane! This was the kind of stuff we talked about when I was animating television commercials. It was twisted fun!

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

SPENCER COOK: One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the mainstream acceptance of genre movies. It used to be that monster movies and superhero movies were for kids. I think this was because of the limitations of traditional techniques – the visuals weren’t always realistic enough for a mainstream audience.

I feel like today we’re in a new golden age of genre cinema. Digital tools allow us to create fantastic images and characters with more realism than ever before. I think that’s why these kinds of movies are now acceptable to mainstream audiences and not just confined to genre fans. Plus, filmmakers now take this material seriously. Along with advances in make-up, costumes and stunts, the sci-fi and fantasy genre is now much more accepted than in previous generations.

Another big change I’ve noticed is the number of people involved in animation and visual effects. When I started in stop-motion it was a smaller community, most of whom got into animation as fans of either Ray Harryhausen or Disney movies. Today there are animators from every part of the globe who got into animation in many different ways. It adds a great diversity to our animation teams. I frequently encounter great ideas for shots and poses from my team that I never would have thought of.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SPENCER COOK: As much as we’re all used to it, I don’t like the crude interfaces we use to work on computers. A mouse and keyboard is unintuitive and archaic. Wacom tablets are a little better but, as a former stop-motion animator, I just want to grab the puppet and pose it. I feel our current technology forces me to conform to the computer’s way of understanding input rather than the computer adapting to my human way of moving.

Maybe virtual reality or augmented reality will help us advance in this area. I recently visited the National Film Board of Canada here in Montreal. They’re researching and developing tech that could help artists interact with computers in a way that’s more comfortable and intuitive. However, most studios are reluctant to invest in new tech like this. It would be expensive at first and the learning curve for the team would add to the cost of production at a time when most studios are looking for ways to cut costs.

Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short "Mad God."
Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short “Mad God.”

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

SPENCER COOK: Learning to use a computer is easy. Learning to bring a character to life is hard.

Pay attention to life. Study how people move and interact. Those kinds of human qualities are the difference between a character that’s moving and a character that’s alive. As artists, we need to see things that most people take for granted.

Use reference as much as possible. YouTube is an amazing animation library but be smart about how you use it. Don’t just copy or roto one to one – unless that’s the direction. Mix in moments from the reference with your own poses. Make aesthetic choices consistent with the style or tone of the movie.

Act out the shot yourself. It’s important to get a feel for the action or performance. Even if it’s something so fantastic a person could never do it, there’s still value in acting it out. You may find a little human moment amid the spectacle that can bring your shot to life.

I think it’s also important to love movies and have an appreciation of cinematic history. Animators should have a good understanding of the visual language of cinema – camera angles, continuity and editing, lighting, and the basic structure of cinematic storytelling.

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

SPENCER COOK: It’s hard to only pick three – there are so many films that have inspired me. But these three are standouts for portraying monsters with personalities.

King Kong (1933) – The original King Kong is top of the list. I was spellbound when I first saw it as a kid – I think I was around eight years old. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I had no concept of stop-motion animation or visual effects but I knew this was something special.

The incredible pioneering achievements in animation, miniatures, matte painting and optical effects cannot be overstated. This movie laid the foundation for all cinematic visual effects and animation to come, and the work we do today stands on its shoulders. But it’s not just a milestone in animation and visual effects – it’s one of the most iconic movies in cinema history. Who doesn’t recognize Kong fighting the T-rex or Kong atop the Empire State building? Also, this isn’t a mindless monster smashing through a city. The story is mythic and dramatic. Motivated by beauty, Kong has a personality, a goal and great pathos.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – all of Ray Harryhausen’s work is immensely influential to me but 7th Voyage stands out. Ray’s incredible artistry was light years ahead of anything else being done at that time. His creature design and the way he added little quirks of body language gave each of his creatures a distinct personality.

The standout sequences are when Sinbad and his crew encounter the Cyclops on the beach, and then later when the Cyclops captures some of the crew and begins cooking them for his dinner. The Cyclops has a personality and a thought process that Ray conveys wonderfully through body language. Another standout is the sword fight between Sinbad and a skeleton. The technical achievement is impressive and Ray’s distinctive choices for posing really bring the fight to life.

War of The Gargantuas – one of the best non-Godzilla Toho monster movies is this story about brothers. It just so happens the two brothers are giant monsters. The brown Gargantua – the good one – is a gentle giant who lives in the forest. The green Gargantua – the evil one – lives in the ocean and eats people.

This was a traditional Toho production with the same crew as the Godzilla movies. The Gargantua designs were more ape-like than most Toho Kaiju, allowing for more expression. The two suit actors did an amazing job of portraying each brother with a distinct personality through body language. A standout sequence is the terrifying first appearance of the green Gargantua when he attacks a fishing trawler at night during a storm. Another is the final fight – a mythic brother versus brother scenario played out as an epic battle smashing through Tokyo. The tragic ending makes their war all the more poignant.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SPENCER COOK: I like Dibs – chocolate covered ice cream bites – but Montreal cinemas don’t have them!

CINEFEX: Spencer, thanks for your time!

Now Showing – Cinefex 164

Cinefex 164

Spring is here, and it reminds me that, for Cinefex, every year is a bifurcated one. Roughly, the six-month period of April through September brings with it the release of many large-scale, effects-heavy movies – the kind of movies that are our raison d’être. In contrast, the six months between October and March offer up a very different – shall we say, ‘more serious’? – type of film, those in which Nicole Kidman’s fake nose piece in The Hours is the most effects-y thing on the menu. Those are the ‘What the heck are we going to cover?’ months for us – not always, of course (thank you, movie gods, for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Interstellar and First Man) – but often.

The lineup for Cinefex 164 features the effects spectaculars we’ve come to associate with flowering blossoms, warm breezes, and purchases of Costco-sized bottles of Zyrtec. Captain Marvel graces our cover and is the fascinating subject of Joe Fordham’s comprehensive story, liberally laced with commentary from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend, and effects principals at no fewer than 13 top-drawer visual effects companies.

Graham Edwards’ interview slate was similarly extensive, both for his exploration of Hellboy, and for his second article on the history of animals – real, stop-motion-animated, animatronic and digital – in the movies, from Rin Tin Tin to Caesar.

And speaking of cinematic beasts, we round out the issue with my coverage of Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Full disclosure: I’d never seen the 1941 original, but spent a lovely afternoon with my four-year-old granddaughter to watch it in preparation for my story. (Her review: It was sad when Dumbo’s mommy went away.)

Happy Spring!

Watch a video preview of Cinefex 164:

Cinefex 164 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already speeding towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

“Playtime” – Q&A with Alec Gillis

"Playtime" by Alec Gillis and StudioADI

Co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, Alec Gillis has been in the film industry for 38 years, creating – with partner Tom Woodruff Jr. – makeup and practical characters and creatures for films such as Tremors, Death Becomes Her, Alien 3, Starship Troopers, Jumanji and It.

Gillis has now written, directed, produced and performed roles in Playtime, a 13-minute short – presented on ADI’s YouTube channel – that explores the question: what becomes of an animatronic star in the digital age?

The protagonist of Playtime is Billy, a ‘Chucky’-like 80’s-era animatronic doll whose hopes of returning to the big screen are raised with Variety’s announcement of a current-day reboot of the ‘Playtime’ horror film franchise. Billy is ready for his closeup – until he learns that his role will be played by a computer-animated character.

I spoke with Gillis about the film’s evolution and message, and where he – and animatronics – fit within today’s movie-making machine.

Writer/director Alec Gillis coaches Billy, the animatronic star of his satirical short film "Playtime," available to view on the studioADI YouTube channel.

Writer/director Alec Gillis coaches Billy, the animatronic star of his satirical short film “Playtime,” available to view on the studioADI YouTube channel.

CINEFEX: How did Playtime come about?

GILLIS: A number of things converged to make Playtime happen. After all these years in the business, I’m constantly trying to stay relevant, and it is a challenge, especially as technology changes. So I’m always thinking about that. And then, I started immersing myself in silent films, and looking back at those people who didn’t make the transition to talkies – a subject that is brilliantly portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. There’s another movie, The Comic, about a silent film star who ages and ends up sitting on a park bench.

CINEFEX: As does Billy.

GILLIS: Exactly. The character in The Comic is named ‘Billy Bright,’ and that name stuck with me. I love all those stories of Hollywood, partly because they point out how superficial we all are in the industry, and how we attach so much importance to what we do – which is ultimately just entertaining.

CINEFEX: So your experiences and observations from inside the film industry were the inspiration for this movie.

GILLIS: Yeah – I joke that it’s an autobiography, but in a way, it really is. And then, of course, if it makes a statement about practical effects, which is my first love, and if I can create a character that emotes and even gets some emotion out of the audience, then I’m enforcing the idea that animatronics are still viable as a technique. Those are all the dry reasons I made this movie – but ultimately, I love writing and performing comedy, and I wanted to have some fun with this. I wanted to do something where I would be unfettered by commercial concerns or movie executives.

Watch Playtime on the studioADI YouTube channel:

CINEFEX: You not only wrote, directed and produced Playtime, you are the voice of Billy, and you play the role of movie producer ‘Robert Gorman.’

GILLIS: I really wanted to play that part because I sometimes find myself in a producer role, adopting a producer-like sensibility; and then, Billy is arguing the other side. The dialogue they have during that exchange, the producer explaining why Billy can’t be in the new movie – what Gorman says in that exchange are all paraphrasings of real things that have been said to me by executives. Things like, ‘Reality isn’t inspiring.’ So I loved this character – this producer who has a thin veneer of courtesy, but really, he’s just tolerating you, and he feels as if he is doing you a favor by entertaining your silly little notions of using practical effects.

CINEFEX: ‘Robert Gorman’ – can’t help but think of ‘Roger Corman’ in that name.

GILLIS: It’s a deliberate homage to my old boss, Roger Corman – who, by the way, never had that attitude. But I had to pay homage to him, one way or the other.

CINEFEX: You even wrote and sang the end credits song – Hahahaha Hollywood.

GILLIS: That was fun. Actually, Ben Brown, who shot the movie, wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics. I’m always writing dumb rap poetry, usually for my family. But then I thought: ‘Why should I contain my genius to the family? I need to share my gift with the world!’

CINEFEX: And the world thanks you. Tell me about how Billy’s design evolved.

GILLIS: Obviously, he’s a riff on Chucky from Child’s Play, but beyond that I wanted a design that would play to the strengths of animatronics. Rather than come up with a design I fell in love with, and then do anything to build to that design, I decided to come at it from the other direction. What do I need? I need good facial expressions, emoting and performance – and that required a head that was proportionately larger than any real doll’s head. Dave Penikas, our animatronics designer and engineer here, said, ‘As long as you don’t give me a head that’s too small, I’ll be able to give you a beautiful performance.’ So that was the start of the design – this oversized head that would enable us to fit in all the animatronics we needed for a good performance. Then I brought in Tim Martin, who is an excellent sculptor, and he designed Billy’s face based on his own kid.

CINEFEX: When we first see Billy, in the 1980s ‘Playtime’ movie, he’s a pristine looking doll. But when we cut to current-day Billy, he looks very much the worse for wear.

GILLIS: Yes – so we shot all of that beginning, with the kid and the babysitter in the mock Playtime movie, first. And then I went in and jacked up Billy’s look. I glued the eyelids down and made the skin look like it was peeling. I actually used the forehead mold of Pennywise the clown from It on Billy’s forehead, so it would have that cracking, corroded look. And then I painted him with a kind of Norma Desmond-ish makeup, making him look as ghastly as I could.

CINEFEX: There is so much expression in Billy’s face – that must have been a fairly sophisticated piece of animatronic machinery.

GILLIS: It was, but it was mounted on top of a cable-articulated body, which was not a particularly sophisticated bit of machinery. I knew we needed his face to perform and emote, but that his body could be a little funky. It was okay if the body looked like a cheap animatronic. So we built the body in a very simple way, but the face was very complex and realistic.

Alec Gillis and puppeteer Mike West put Billy's cable control system through its paces.

Alec Gillis and puppeteer Mike West put Billy’s cable control system through its paces.

CINEFEX: In the movie, there are three people puppeteering him – was that the actual number?

GILLIS: Yeah, it was – Dave Penikas, Mike West and Zac Teller, and they all worked on the build, as well. Dave was in charge of the head, with assistance from Mike West; and then Mike was in charge of the motion control system, where I pre-recorded all of Billy’s facial performance. Normally, we do facial functions live so the performance can be directed by the director. But in this case, since I was the director, I just blocked out the scene in my mind and did some rough storyboards, and then I preprogrammed all the facial expressions. We had complete control over the eyes, brows, cheeks, and there was even a little animation in his hair, so the wig could move back and forth. And then, Mike West preprogrammed all the lip-synch animation.

CINEFEX: Even though the point of the film was to use practical effects, there must have been some visual effects necessary.

GILLIS: We had a couple of visual effects shots. One was when it is revealed that Billy is watching his old movie – he walks up to the television set, and his reflection is in the TV, and the image degrades to look like VHS static. Andrew Ceperley did those shots. There were also visual effects shots for the little greenscreen demo you see on a kid’s iPad, and in a shot of girls outside a convention hall, screaming ‘Billy, we love you!’ Those shots were done by Stephen Norrington, my old buddy who directed Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He thought the project was a hoot, and so he wanted to help out.

CINEFEX: Any visual effects required for Billy operator paint-outs?

GILLIS: No, we always just framed them out – except for those moments where I wanted to show them for comedic effect.

Puppeteers Mike West and Zachary Teller with Billy on the ADI stage.

Puppeteers Mike West and Zachary Teller with Billy on the ADI stage.

CINEFEX: At the end of the movie, Billy discovers that there is still a place for him in the film industry – that there are fans of what he represents.

GILLIS: That’s autobiographical as well. Because there are a lot of fans of practical creature effects, and there is no reason to have a knee-jerk negative response to all things digital – because digital frees you. I wish fans of practical effects would embrace the overlap between the digital and the practical. There’s nothing wrong with CGI; it’s just that techniques should always be used to their strengths, no matter what the technique is. I wanted to end the movie with a message about the practical and the digital coming together.

CINEFEX: Do you have plans to enter Playtime into any film festivals?

GILLIS: I haven’t done that. I did this primarily for Studio ADI’s channel on YouTube. It was kind of a gift to fans of practical effects.

CINEFEX: Thank you, Alec.


“True Detective” Prosthetic Makeup Effects

Mahershala Ali stars as Wayne Hays in Nic Pizzolatto's "True Detective," aged into his 70s in Season Three by Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance.

Mahershala Ali stars as Wayne Hays in Nic Pizzolatto’s “True Detective,” aged into his 70s in Season Three by Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance.

In Season Three of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, the two main characters – Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) – inhabit three different time periods: the 1980s, 1990s and present day. The storyline called for both characters to be aged into their 70s, a task awarded to prosthetic makeup designer Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance in Englewood, New Jersey.

The more dramatic of the two age makeups is that created for Wayne ‘Purple’ Hays, a long retired detective exhibiting signs of dementia as he grapples with a child abduction and murder case that has haunted him throughout his career.

As it happened, Mahershala Ali’s own grandfather had been a police officer in Los Angeles, and though he was a bit older than the character in the series, he served as fitting inspiration for what Hays might look like as an old man. “I already had a relationship with Mahershala from a previous project,” recalled Mike Marino, “so we had ongoing conversations about it via texts. Then, when I met with him to do the lifecast, we talked more about how his grandfather had aged, and I kept that in mind as I designed the makeup. Mahershala gave me photographs of his grandfather and I used those as reference.”

Marino also considered the character’s psychological traits and life experiences in designing the makeup. “He’s a detective,” Marino noted, “a very worried guy, a drinker, a smoker. I had to take all of those things into account. If someone says, ‘create a prosthetic makeup for someone in their 70s,’ there are a hundred different ways to go just because people age so differently. There are 70-year-olds who look like they’re 50!”

The age makeup was sculpted over a lifecast of Mahershala Ali.

The age makeup was sculpted over a lifecast of Mahershala Ali.

More than anything else, the actor’s lifecast dictated the direction of the final old-age makeup. “I couldn’t just randomly make up wrinkles,” Marino explained. “I had to study Mahershala’s face very carefully and go from there. I took a series of photographs of him in all different facial positions – squinting, raising his brows, smiling, making weird faces – so I could identify where his own wrinkle pattern would be. Once I determined where those wrinkle patterns were, I knew where I could accentuate them.”

Marino did the lifecast of the actor in silicone. “The advantage to silicone is that you can do a lifecast in much thinner layers,” said Marino. “The cast is much less distorted by the weight of the casting material; and so, you get a more accurate cast than what you got in the 80’s or 90’s with alginate.”

Marino sculpted the old-age look over the lifecast, and from there produced nine prosthetic pieces made of a custom formulation of encapsulated silicone, working with prosthetic makeup artist Mike Fontaine. The prosthetics included a neck-and-half-cheek piece, eyebags, outer-corner eye pieces, inner-corner eye pieces, a center brow piece, an upper lip, lower chin, and a forehead piece. A wig finalized the look.

“My prosthetics are a little strange and unorthodox,” commented Marino. “I’ll sometimes do half-cheeks, or even a quarter of a cheek, or an eyebag that is only half an eyebag. I try to cover the face only where it is absolutely necessary. I avoid excess prosthetics so I can retain as much of the natural face as possible. And I can do that because I’m not afraid of landing an edge in the middle of nowhere. I know I can paint it and glue it down so it’s invisible; and so, I’m not worried about hiding anything. I’ve put edges where you would normally never want an edge and made it work. That approach allows me to use partial prosthetics, rather than having to cover an entire area; and that allows me to better retain the actor’s likeness and essence.”

Michael Marino and Göran Lundström apply the age makeup to Mahershala Ali, a process that took around three hours.

Michael Marino and Göran Lundström apply the age makeup to Mahershala Ali, a process that took around three hours.

Marino’s ability to do partial prosthetics is due, in part, to the custom silicone material, which has properties that mimic real flesh. “It responds with a really great memory,” Marino said. “If you touch real soft skin, even aged skin, it bounces back very quickly – it doesn’t stay pushed in and mushy. A lot of silicones, when you press them, they stay pressed in a little too long. My formula of silicone reacts more like real skin, and that’s part of the reason for the makeup’s success. But it is also about the design. The material doesn’t give me the license to add prosthetics wherever I want. The design still has to be right for the character. In this case, there was so much movement and acting that had to come through in this character, I didn’t want to overdo it.”

Prosthetic Renaissance also created age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West.

Prosthetic Renaissance also created age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West.

Once Marino and crew members Kevin Kirkpatrick and, later, Göran Lundström got into the swing of the project, application time was three hours. The application of the old-age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West, took a bit longer due to Roland’s longer hair and scruffy beard. “We first had to flatten his hair down with a resin paste and blank out the color of it,” Marino recalled, “and then put a bald cap on him and a prosthetic piece over that. A thin, gray partial wig was then combed into his own hair. Another additional step on Stephen was his stubble, which was important to the essence of this character. We flocked his beard onto his face using a special gun that works with static electricity. We put glue on his face, and then we shot these little prepared chopped hairs onto it. When we combed it out, it looked like hair was actually growing from the face, sticking out like a beard would, rather than laying on top of the face. The hair and beard added about a half hour to Stephen Dorff’s makeup application time.”

To avoid the grueling prospect of the actors enduring the makeup chair for three hours or more each day, production scheduled old-age scenes for a maximum or three to four days per week; for the remainder of the week, the actors were either off or shooting their 1980s and 1990s scenes. “It would have been too much to have the actors in prosthetics five or six days a week,” Marino stated. “The producers on the show were the best ever because they really navigated the schedule to accommodate the makeup needs.”

“The Orville” – Smarter, not Harder

"The Orville" space battle - visual effects by Fuse FX

The recently aired Season 2, Episode 9 of the Fox Network’s The Orville featured an epic space battle that rivaled – and arguably surpassed – those seen previously in the Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica television series. Working under the guidance of production visual effects supervisor Luke McDonald and visual effects producer Brooke Noska, FuseFX visual effects supervisor Tommy Tran and his team delivered all but about a minute of the space battle within a remarkably short eight-week time frame, without compromising anything in terms of dynamism and realism.

Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, The Orville is, at one level, a space comedy loosely based on Star Trek; but MacFarlane and everyone associated with the show, including the visual effects teams, fully understand that satire works best when the core elements of the subject being satirized are duplicated with precision and specificity. “Comedy or not,” said Tommy Tran, “this space battle had to look and feel like a dramatic space battle, without crossing the boundary from sci-fi reality to absurdity. The sequence does pay homage to the ‘red shirt guy’ from Star Trek, and there is also a Top Gun moment in there; but other than that, the space battle was presented as cinematically as possible.”

Watch the space battle in this clip from The Orville:

In addition to the Orville starship, the sequence features Kaylon, and Krill spaceships and fighters. Though the angular, green Krill ships had been seen previously on the show – their designs already well established – the Kaylon fleet was only introduced in Part 1 of Episode 9. Pixomondo, another vendor on The Orville, built CG models from Kaylon ship designs by in-house digital effects supervisor Brandon Fayette. “Brandon is a very talented CG artist,” said Tran, “and he worked with Seth starting on Season 1 to design the look of every ship in the Union fleet, the Krill fleet, and the Kaylon fleet. However, FuseFX did design the space station from a basic concept, as well as the little robot ships that repair the larger ships.”

Integrating the Maya assets provided by Pixomondo required the use of optimization tools developed by FuseFX as a means of producing shots quickly and efficiently – crucial, given the company’s eight-week schedule. “Our pipeline TD, Changsoo Eun, created a tool that allowed us to auto-populate the shots before they went to the lighters,” Tran said. “So all the tracking data was there, and all the CG assets were there. Without that, we would have had to manually bring in hundreds of ships and place them in 3D space, which would have been daunting.”

The optimization tools enabled shots to be auto-populated not only with ships but also with explosions and space debris. “We looked at several recent films to get a sense of the look and feel of space battle scenes – the look of fireballs and explosions and so on,” recalled Tran. “That’s where we started. From there, I sat the effects artists down for about two weeks to do nothing but make small, medium and large explosions, fireballs and debris. Then Changsoo took all those assets we’d pre-built for the explosions and put them into a library. He wrote some code, so when the lighters needed an explosion, they could just go to the drop-down menu and find a fully rendered Houdini explosion we could plug in anywhere in 3D space.

“We did the same thing for space debris – bits and pieces of broken ships. We sat our modelers down for a couple of days, and said, ‘Run several varying destruction simulations.’ Each asset then was categorized in our library; and so, when the lighter needed to fill the background with space debris, he just went to the drop-down menu through our pipeline. Doing that, we could populate shots with varying amounts of space debris. That was a very robust feature. We’ve been able to auto-populate scenes before but not at this level. It was like we’d auto-populated trees in a park before; but for this, we had to auto-populate Yosemite National Forest!”

In the end, the space battle was such a monumental task, Tran brought in the help of FuseFX visual effects supervisor Kevin Lingenfelser. “He ran part of the episode with me,” Tran said. “We just split it – I’ll do this, you do that. It was a big help; the task was bigger than any one supervisor could manage That’s the thing I’m most proud of – that we were able to deliver that incredible sequence in eight weeks, to the quality that we did. We did it through optimization and teamwork and communication. We did it through working smarter, not harder.”