Cinefex – Adapting to the New Normal

Cinefex

A message to our readers from Cinefex publisher Gregg Shay

In ways large and small, barely a soul on the planet has been left unaffected by the coronavirus crisis, and the uncertainty of future developments amidst the accelerating speed of the virus’ worldwide spread, is worrisome to all, to say the least.

Almost every company I do business with has reached out in the last two weeks, offering words of support and sympathy to their customers and clients, and advising them of what’s going on in their corner of the business world.  A growing number of states in the U.S. — including ours — are in lockdown, with countless businesses, large and small, shuttered for the duration, and the populace advised or directed to stay at home.

I am happy to report to you that Cinefex has adapted to this new — and hopefully temporary — normal.  All of our team members are working at home and, subject to unforeseen events, we expect to continue publishing on our regular schedule.  Our April issue is on the presses now, and our writers are already deep into their coverage for the following issue.

For our many subscribers who receive their issues at work and, like us, are now laboring from home for an indefinite period of time, may we suggest that you consider changing your Cinefex delivery to your home address?  We’d like to think our magazine will give you an enjoyable respite from the ceaseless bad news of the day.

And for those of you who typically purchase Cinefex from bookstores and other retail outlets, may we further suggest that this would be a good time to preorder the coming issue or, better yet, subscribe to the magazine.  With people confined at home and many of our retail outlets now closed for who knows how long, arranging for receipt of your issues by mail will insure that they reliably find a way into your hands.  We’d hate for you to miss an issue. In closing, I wish you and yours the very best.  Be attentive, be cautious, and stay well.  All this shall pass.

“Undone” – Q&A with Hisko Hulsing

Anyone who tuned into Amazon Studios’ eight-episode, three-hour animated drama, Undone, last Fall knew they were in for a strange ride.

From its first episode, the series depicted its heroine, Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), as a feisty young kindergarten teacher, in painterly rotoscoped animation, with limpid eyes and a feisty temper. As Alma argues with her nuptial-obsessed elder sister (Angelique Cabral) and spars with her constantly-critical mother (Constance Marie), she communes with visions of her long-deceased father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), a former physicist, who flits in and out of existence, product of a mental breakdown possibly triggered when a car crash knocks Alma’s reality askew. 

While the screenplay – by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, veterans of BoJack Horseman – was set in the here-and-now of Alma’s family life in San Antonio, Texas, the naturalistic performances and contemporary settings played in counterpoint to the animation style. Alma’s world melts and dissolves, transporting her back and forth through time, while Jacob guides his daughter through space and time, unraveling a mystery that, he suspects, led to his premature death. 

To bring Alma’s world to life, Michael Eisner’s Tornante Company sought out Hisko Hulsing, a Dutch animation director whose work had appeared in HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, dramatizing episodes of rock star Kurt Cobain’s life with expressionistic rotoscope-based animation. The technique was an outgrowth of Hulsing’s award-winning short, Junkyard, which blended rotoscoped performance with expressive facial animation. “I think my ability to touch people with visual storytelling was what attracted the producers of Undone,” Hulsing recalled. “When they sent me the script, I loved the material. I met with screenwriters Kate and Raphael and we clicked right away. We very much understood each other, and what we wanted to do with Undone.”

Speaking from his studio in Amsterdam, Hulsing shared with Cinefex his process as production designer and director of the hybrid animated series, which sprang to life from a studio shoot in California and collaborations with Austin, Texas, animation studio Minnow Mountain and with the Amsterdam-based Submarine, who generated more than 800 oil-paintings and digital renderings of Alma’s world.

Hisko Hulsing, director and designer of Amazon Prime’s animated series “Undone.”

CINEFEX: How specific were the Undone screenplays in describing the fracturing nature of Alma’s world?

HULSING: The scripts were all very dialog-based. They had brief descriptions of transitions from one place to another, from one time to another. But some were more precise than others. We developed those ideas during storyboarding, visual effects meetings and designs.

CINEFEX: Back in 2006, Cinefex covered Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which used rotoscope animation to depict characters slipping through altered states of reality. What is it about that medium that fascinates you?

HULSING: Well, I started using rotoscoping in Junkyard, but I didn’t use it for character’s faces and heads. The same with Montage of Heck. I filmed actors, because my style of storytelling was so realistic, it didn’t feel right to animate them completely by hand. In Undone, it was different. I read the script and I figured the dialog was very sophisticated, very realistic, very subtle, and I felt we needed real actors. That way we could extract all the micro-expressions from their acting. 

Early on, we discussed if we should treat all of Alma’s realistic scenes differently from her hallucinations, her psychosis, or dreams, whatever they were. I thought that it would be much better to treat them all the same, with rotoscoping in combination with all the backgrounds painted as oil paintings. That gave us a very dreamy, almost-real atmosphere, which made Alma’s reality almost as suspect as the other scenes. At all times, I wanted to viewers to wonder, ‘What is actually reality?’

Hulsing oversaw the creation of more than 800 oil paintings that formed the basis for all of the backgrounds in the animated world, based on photographic reference of San Antonio, Texas.

CINEFEX: For your oil painting backgrounds, how did you decide what you would paint, how much you’d paint, and how that worked with the real world? For instance, did you have a location shoot?

HULSING: No, none at all. We filmed everything on a greenscreen stage, without sets. Did you see Lars von Trier’s film Dogville? What we did was very comparable. We started with a set plan on a stage. My assistant, Nora Höppener, and I taped floor plans on the ground. Wherever we needed props, we set out tables or chairs, but we had no scenery. We had to completely make up the whole world. The story was set in San Antonio, where Kate comes from. She gave us reference photos of certain churches or houses. Our designers used those as base for their designs. And then also, based on the script, we broke down the scenes and then decided what to paint. We used computer models as basis for drawings, and for layouts. And we used those layouts for all our oil paintings, which we created completely by hand.

CINEFEX: How big was each painting?

HULSING: The paintings were pretty big, about 120-centimeters horizontal, and they were conceived together with our rotoscope designs. We set up reference grids on the set to help determine background perspectives. I trained as an artist, so I am very aware of perspective, and I always kept that in mind during the storyboard process. And then, on set, I determined if we’d use very wide lenses or long lenses, and those determined painting perspectives. Those techniques were not that different from live-action filmmaking. But because everything was painted, that enabled us to put more emphasis on light and shadow, depth and drama.

Submarine generated 3D models of all environments, which allowed Hulsing and his animation team to make dramatic use of photographic perspectives in camera layouts. By projecting oil painting textures onto 3D surfaces, artists imbued painterly environments with a dimensional living presence.

CINEFEX: How long was your shoot?

HULSING: The shoot took about a week per episode. We shot everything on a greenscreen soundstage in West Hollywood. I was new in Hollywood, and so I was a little bit surprised when Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk told me that they thought I was a good director. I think the reason for that was because I was extremely well prepared. We storyboarded 3,000 shots, we had all the floor plans, we knew exactly where the cameras would be. And, although there were no sets, just tape on the ground to guide where the walls were supposed to be, I was impressed how the actors used their imaginations to follow my imagination and perform in that environment. 

What I understood was that on most movie sets performers have to wait around between setups, sometimes spending hours in their trailer. This was like doing a play for 12 hours! So, it was hard on them, but it was also rewarding because they could act all day long. We were very quick. We did two takes, maximum, per shot.

CINEFEX: What was your camera, or capture setup?

HULSING: Our budget was not big enough to afford a lot of moving cameras, so most of our shots were static, on sticks. We shot every take with two cameras. On our busiest day, we did 77 camera setups, which amounted to 144 camera angles in one single day. Our director of photography Nick Ferreiro and I worked very closely to change the camera positions on every take. And we also moved the lights around. We had a crew of about 20 people to accomplish that on set, moving very fast. 

When we did have tracking shots, where we followed actors with a camera, and we completely rebuilt the environments in 3D. For the backgrounds in those shots, we projection-mapped our oil paintings onto a 3D model of the environment. Once we built that model, we did motion tracking, and then onto that we projection mapped our oil paintings in 3D so it felt like we were moving through an oil painting.

CINEFEX: There is impressive dimensionality when Alma is in hospital and she runs through a long corridor. How did you shoot that scene?

HULSING: We laid out the floor plan first in our design. There is a difference between designs and layout – layout is a very specific rendering, made from a basis of what has been shot. The correct order was: storyboards and designs, and then the shoot, and then the layouts. So, when we came to shoot that scene, we didn’t have the layout yet, but we had a very clear floor plan, which allowed us to go into production.

CINEFEX: Who built that 3D geometry?

HULSING: That was all done in Amsterdam at Submarine. We had about a hundred people working at Submarine and at Minnow Mountain, in Texas. At Submarine, we did all the storyboards, layouts, designs, 2D animation, 3D animation, paintings and compositing. Minnow Mountain did the rotoscoping, and what they call performance capture – they traced the actors in lines, which they did very beautifully. 

Earlier, you referenced A Scanner Darkly. I did ask Tommy Pallotta, who was a producer on A Scanner Darkly, to help with our rotoscoping – he approached Minnow Mountain because some of the artists there had worked on that film, so there was a connection. But, truthfully, I was not influenced by that film, although is mentioned in almost every article I’ve seen about Undone! I understand why; but for me it was not a reference. Rotoscoping goes back to the Fleischer brothers.

CINEFEX: Yes, and what the Fleischer brothers did so well, more than a hundred years ago, is they understood an economy of line. What were the key ingredients for you to translate Rosa’s acting through renderings of Alma?

HULSING: One of my biggest fears was that the actors’ performances wouldn’t come through. I have to give credit to Minnow Mountain for that, and Craig Staggs who is co-founder and producer over there. It took us a while to get there. We created Alma as a simplified version of Rosa – ‘simplified’ because you have to know which lines to animate. Minnow then used a pencil my partner developed at my own small studio in Amsterdam developed in TVPaint, which gave the lines a soft feel. 

Working from Minnow Mountain’s sensitive rotoscoped line drawings, Submarine developed highlights and shadows that helped capture Rosa Salazar’s highly emotive performance.

One aspect that often disturbs me in rotoscoping is when it makes a performance feel shallow, and it feels flat, or like a filter. At Submarine, we animated shadows to make characters feel more three-dimensional. We used production footage as basis for those shadows, which gave us a lot of micro-expressions. That involved many layers of filtering, and many animators worked to stylize the shadows and give the characters more depth.

CINEFEX: How did you put that glint of life into Alma’s eye?

HULSING: That was very interesting, because when we were doing the first two episodes, I got very worried because that characters were going into an Uncanny Valley look. I got very scared by that, because it would have been horrible if the animation appeared scary and not at all doing service to the great acting. So, we did have to tweak our methods a little, and the highlights in the characters’ eyes was a very important part of that. 

It turned out we had to be very faithful to the lighting in the live-action, and when our 2D department drew those details they had to obey the exact position of those lights. Because if we were not accurate, or if we make it up, it became very creepy. Those highlights in the eyes were instrumental in communicating emotions; and we could never draw them where they were not present in the live-action frames.

CINEFEX: Did that involve any procedural processes, or machine learning?

HULSING: Oh, no! 2D team at Submarine hand drew all lights in the characters’ eyes; there was no machine learning there. For the shading of the characters, we used a filtering of the live-action. And then, our 2D animators worked on top of that.

CINEFEX: It was impressive how much the performers came through that medium.

HULSING: Yes, especially Rosa. All of our actors were successful, but Rosa was excellent, very precise, and expressive. I’m hoping she will break through into more live-action roles, because she is so good. But somehow, she lends herself very well for animation. She is so expressive.

CINEFEX: Tell us how you expressed Alma’s breakdown in your scene transitions – sometimes Alma appears to lose gravity, sometimes her world appears to flip like a camera lens turret rotation. How did you design those moments?

HULSING: Those techniques started back on Junkyard – back then, I never had any budget for the live-action, so I did everything very simply – and we used similar tricks on Undone. For example, when Alma is floating in space, she was half-laying on a barstool and we twisted her around. When she was in a canteen and suddenly the whole canteen broke apart, that was a stunt girl on a trampoline. She wore Alma’s wardrobe, and our animators changed the face. We did discuss hanging actors on wires, but there was no budget for that. So, we chose the simple way and, when we worked that into the animation, we got away with it.

CINEFEX: Alma’s hallucinations, or her moments of psychosis, feel very authentic. What was your inspiration for visualizing those scenes?

HULSING: Well, I’m from Amsterdam. I started smoking marijuana when I was 12, like a lot of kids, unfortunately. When I was about 17, I dropped out of school. I wasn’t diagnosed psychotic, but I think I was. That became a source for a lot of my own films, and I used those moments. It’s scary when you cannot trust your senses, and you lose ground in reality. My memory of those experiences helped my imagination. And that was also part of what led me to Undone. I actually was planning to stop doing animation because I had been feeling that the process was too complicated. And then, at that moment, they offered me Undone. I was like, wow, this is a dream project. It’s like everything I ever wanted to do, you know?

I also took inspiration from the films of Roman Polanski, especially The Tenant. That’s my favorite film, I have seen it 25 times, and I can sing along to the music. When I talked to Kate and Raphael, I showed them a clip from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the dream sequence where Rosemary floats on her bed. That was so beautiful to me. I used that as an example of how I wanted the story to be with Alma all the time, not literally seeing everything from her point of view, but I wanted to be completely in her reality, and so the audience lost track about what is real and what is not real.

CINEFEX: It felt like you were tapping into something very interesting and heartfelt with Undone; and I wanted to see more.

HULSING: Well, we are now in preproduction for a second season. And it is laborious – today, I made thumbnails for around 110 shots, and I filled seven pages in one day! It is insane, the amount of work. But when I hear that people connected to the story psychologically, then I know we did a good job. That mostly comes from Kate and Raphael. I helped; but it’s their brainchild.

Images courtesy Prime Video. Thanks to Rachel Aberly, Joe Incollingo, Shealyn Smales.

The Illusionists — Eric Brevig

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Eric Brevig

CINEFEX — You were visual effects supervisor on the original Total Recall back in 1990. Would it be easier to make that film today?

ERIC BREVIG — Yes, because now we have far more control, especially with all those things we had to create with physical effects, like the volcano explosion. In the old barnstorming days of pyrotechnics, you were at the mercy of physics and luck. Now, using dynamic simulations and so forth, you have precise control. It’s not easy, but it’s completely achievable.

CINEFEX — The effects in Total Recall were mostly traditional, but a little bit of digital work did creep in — like those animated skeletons on the X-ray scanner.

ERIC BREVIG — Exactly. They were digitally created but photochemically composited. I do remember the first time we used a computer to composite an image, on The Abyss. Prior to that it was brute force with photochemical processes and optically copied images, working blind until you saw the processed film. It was revolutionary, the ability to watch in real time when you were assembling images. That was the first milestone, and the second was creating images without having to use a camera. The two of those together is what revolutionized visual effects.

CINEFEX — Since then, we’ve progressed from animated skeletons to complete animated humans that are practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

ERIC BREVIG — Well, the digital human has been the Holy Grail for a long time. There’s an almost infinite number of subtleties in a human face. I think we’re right at the cusp of being able to do that. The Irishman is probably the best recent example of taking digital doubles of actors and putting them on camera without making any effort to hide the trickery. Some shots are better than others but, given enough time and money, we can now make something that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

CINEFEX — And if you don’t have time and money?

ERIC BREVIG — Use trickery. Don’t let the audience get a good look at something that you can’t do perfectly. That’s what filmmaking has always been about, anyway — selectively showing the audience pieces of something that’s not really complete, but convincing them it is.

CINEFEX — And telling a great story.

ERIC BREVIG — Of course. Think about E.T., which only moved people to tears because of what the filmmakers and actors were doing around the effects. I think that still holds. No matter how we get the fantastic images on the screen, we feel the power from the story that’s being told. When the two are working hand in hand, it’s amazing. It’s why I got into the industry.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Stephen Rosenbaum

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Stephen Rosenbaum

CINEFEX — What inspired you to get into the visual effects business?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — For me, it all started with Star Wars. I was teenager in Los Angeles and I waited in line probably a dozen times to see that movie — I just couldn’t get enough of it. By the time I was going into university, I knew I wanted to get into that field. I was really into computers, but in that era there were no universities doing visual effects with computers. I found a small school in Berkeley that offered some computer graphics, and somehow ended up developing my own curriculum combining computer science, design and film to create a degree.

CINEFEX — You reached Industrial Light & Magic just in time to start working on The Abyss. How did that come about?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — It was really just timing. As I came out of university, George Lucas had just sold off the original ILM computer graphics department. They moved to the next building and formed Pixar, and a new computer department was formed at ILM. I was one of the early members there, a technical assistant. I was very much that geek-artist combo, hooked on the idea of making imagery using computers. It was like a drug to me.

CINEFEX — Back then the buzzword was ‘digital.’ Now, there’s a lot of people throwing around the term ‘virtual production.’ Do you see visual effects and virtual production working hand in hand?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — I do. In fact, my role on Avatar was to straddle that fence. Up to that point, the director was always directing animated performances in postproduction, often with great frustration. You typically had characters being animated by an army of maybe 50 animators, which meant you often ended up with inconsistent or diluted performances. Here, we suddenly had a chance to flip it on its head and let the director direct the performances in camera. I spent two years on a mocap stage with Jim Cameron doing just that and it was huge, not only for Jim but for us, because we didn’t have to second-guess on what performances he wanted in postproduction, and we didn’t have the inefficiencies of the back-and-forth exchange during reviews. Avatar was the first time we’d been able to do that.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — John Nelson

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Nelson

CINEFEX — What’s your approach when you start a new visual effects project? Do you have an overall philosophy that you always tap into?

JOHN NELSON — I always ask the question: “What’s the big idea that visual effects is bringing to this movie?” When we did Gladiator, we wanted the audience to feel the overwhelming technological and sociological superiority of Rome. With Iron Man, the audience had to believe a 1,000-pound suit could fly. Then, what really excites me is making something visually beautiful, that looks real, and which supports the story.

CINEFEX — The opening sequence of Gladiator certainly does all that. Those epic shots of the Roman army pounding the barbarians.

JOHN NELSON — You know, we did that big panning shot with locked-off Vistavision plates stitched together. We took the lens distortion out, then added all the effects. Because it was locked off, it was a lot easier to sync everything. Then we did the camera move afterwards, and put the lens distortion back in.

CINEFEX — That’s the part that makes it look real. But it’s also beautiful, like you said.

JOHN NELSON — That’s Ridley Scott. He’s a master painter. I remember in our first meeting, he said, “I want it all to be a world of blue, and the only thing that’s warm is the fire they’re shooting out.” Denis Villeneuve, who I worked with on Blade Runner 2049, is another painter.

CINEFEX — What creative direction did you get from Denis on Blade Runner 2049?

JOHN NELSON — The ethos for that whole movie was restraining everything so the story could come forward. Denis did not want anything to look like a visual effects shot. He didn’t want anything to smell like a visual effects shot! Everything had to look like Roger Deakins had shot it. Then, whenever we found something that really worked, we would get incredibly excited. When we saw the two women’s eyes line up to form the third woman in the apartment scene, Denis and I were like, “Wow, that’s really something.” We’d created a picture that reverberates the storyline and looks really cool at the same time.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Eric Barba

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Eric Barba

CINEFEX — Lots of people in visual effects talk about the impact Star Wars had on them at a young age. Are you one of those people?

ERIC BARBA – Absolutely. As a ten year-old, I had my mind blown when I saw the first trailer for Star Wars on television. It literally blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was also memorable, but Star Wars reallyopened my eyes up to a whole new world.

CINEFEX — Has that sense of wonder stayed with you through your career?

ERIC BARBA — It’s what drives me. I love working with artists and sharing the excitement they have in pushing the envelope to create some cool thing that looks amazing.

CINEFEX — You’ve worked consistently with some directors who also like to push the envelope — like David Fincher.

ERIC BARBA — Certainly. I worked on many commercials and a music video with David prior to doing Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

CINEFEX — What’s he like to work with?

ERIC BARBA — David is a non-compromising filmmaker. He has a vision of how he wants to tell a story, and it’s going to be told his way or he’s not going to do it. For Benjamin Button, he had gotten a bid from this other company and they’d told him to pick a dozen or so shots to focus on and do the rest over the shoulder, or with stand-ins. His response was, “No, that’s not how I want to shoot my movie.” He wanted to shoot little Benjamin the way he shot every other actor.

CINEFEX — Which meant going all-in with a digital character.

ERIC BARBA — It became the only way. David pushed Digital Domain to develop the techniques he needed to shoot it the way he wanted, and tell the story he wanted to tell. He was supportive and gave me and my team everything we needed to succeed. By sheer will, he made sure it happened.

CINEFEX — You’ve worked with David on many films since. How important is it to have that kind of ongoing relationship, creatively speaking?

ERIC BARBA — I think it’s crucial. There’s nothing in the world like having the trust of your director, the belief that you and your team can get something done. I’ve worked a lot with David, and also Joe Kosinski, and they’re both visionaries in their own ways. They work very differently, but they’re alike in that they trust the people they hire and give them the room to run. David only has to give me a look and I’m like, “Yeah, I know, I’m on it!”

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Scott E. Anderson

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Scott E. Anderson

CINEFEX — Give us some memorable moments from your early career.

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — I remember being at Industrial Light & Magic when the script for Terminator 2 came in. I read it and thought, “I have no idea how we’re going to do this, but I believe it can be done.” What really impressed me was how Jim Cameron took what he had learned from what we’d done on The Abyss, and pushed it in the direction of both spectacle and story. He knew where we were, and put out a challenge that was a giant step beyond that line.

CINEFEX —Did each step you took feel like a new a milestone?

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — Oh, the milestones would fall regularly. I remember the first time at ILM when we got a hard drive big enough that we could fit a whole shot on. Later, I did Hollow Man, which was the first show that ran over a terabyte of storage at Sony Pictures Imageworks. That terabyte of storage was distributed along a whole city block, all the way along the building!

CINEFEX — Everything just gets bigger, year by year. Drive capacity, the number of shots in a show, the size of the team you need to get the work done.

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — Yeah, you flash back to just 12 of us in the ILM computer graphics group doing The Abyss, and now on a big show you’ve got 2,400 people scattered across the globe. What was magic when I started is now a commodity. People are shopping based on price and location and rebates. That’s worrying, but on the other hand you now have interesting independent films that have visual effects. That’s an interesting place to be as a filmmaker.

CINEFEX — So the small films can be as rewarding as the big ones, perhaps even more so?

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — Yes. In the current world of filmmaking, when almost everything is affected by visual effects, we have a much wider range of projects to work on and filmmakers to collaborate with. The early days of visual effects were more rarefied. You had only high end companies dealing with only spectacularly talented filmmakers. Of course, you won’t make the same money if you choose to work on low-budget films, but you will get to help the filmmakers you want to help. That is a great thing.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Andrew Whitehurst

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Andrew Whitehurst

CINEFEX — Where did your visual effects journey begin?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — There was a science documentary series on the BBC called Horizon. They had one episode which must have been broadcast just after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, because that was mostly what it covered — although it did have some Star Wars stuff in it. It was a 40-50 minute documentary about how all these visual effects were done.

CINEFEX — Was that the one titled How to Film the Impossible?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — That’s the one. I watched it again a couple of years ago on YouTube. I was still astonished at the work, and the magic of it, because it’s just beautiful. Watching it again, I still had that feeling of, “Wow, this is just amazing.”

CINEFEX — So that documentary sowed the seed?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — Yes. Until that point, it had never really crossed my mind that what I was seeing on a screen was a creation of anything. I don’t believe I’d ever even thought about movies being shot on sets, let alone something as specific as visual effects. But I’d always liked making models, so the idea of those people at ILM making models that looked like tiny versions of larger-scale things and shooting them with converted Nikon SLRs, or the idea that you could create an entire vista by having an incredibly skilled artist paint something on glass — all of that was just magical to me. From then on, I just started to get obsessed. When I was ten or eleven I started reading ‘making of’ books, particularly anything related to Star Wars. I was still doing that when I started going to art college.

CINEFEX — You said you used to like making models, but your visual effects career has played out mostly in the digital realm, most recently with films like Ex Machina and Annihilation.

ANDREW WHITEHURST — Professionally, I built one model and did one matte painting, both for a pilot for something that never happened. That was just as I was graduating. That’s the only hands-on practical work I’ve ever done personally, although I’ve worked on projects that have used miniatures.

CINEFEX — Do the practical skills inform your approach when working digitally?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — They do, but only in as much as I’m interested in trying to make beautiful imagery using non-standard techniques — in other words, not making a full-size set and shooting it. I like doing that as well, but I also like the magic of constructing something that, when you look at it, you think it’s something else.

CINEFEX — So you’re more interested in the final illusion, rather than the means of producing it?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — For me, it’s all about the final image. At college, whether I was doing a painting with a brush on a piece of board, or with a mouse on an Amiga, it didn’t really matter. I was more interested in how that image made me feel. What that image did to other people when they looked at it. The actual technology, in and of itself, has just never been that important to me.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Tim Webber

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Tim Webber

CINEFEX — What route did you take into the visual effects business?

TIM WEBBER — Well, I actually got into the digital side of the industry working on adverts and pop promos, before feature film visual effects were being done digitally. As the digital work moved into film, I moved with it. I started at Framestore when it was just 15 people, and we weren’t working on films at all. Framestore and I sort of grew into the industry as it developed.

CINEFEX — You picked up a Oscar for visual effects on Gravity, but what was your first job as visual effects supervisor on a feature-length project?

TIM WEBBER — That would be the mini-series Gulliver’s Travels with Ted Danson. We had hundreds of visual effects shots, back in a time when a movie would have been lucky to have 20 shots. I’d started out using an early Quantel Harry, one of the first one or two in the world. The storage on it was something like 90 seconds! By the time I did Gulliver’s Travels we were using a Quantel Henry. At the time, that was a massive step forwards.

CINEFEX — Did your experience on ads and music videos help you make the transition to features?

TIM WEBBER — Yes, it did. One advantage was that, on those short form promos, the whole visual effects department would be me! I would see everything through from beginning to end over a period of a few months, and be very involved in the whole process of filmmaking and everything to do with it. That flowed quite well into visual effects supervising on films, even though the technology was quite different. I was still about deciding what to shoot, what to do in post, what worked and what didn’t, how to distract the eye. There was a lot more sleight-of-hand in those days, because you couldn’t just do everything.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Paul Lambert

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Paul Lambert

CINEFEX — What films inspired you as a kid?

PAUL LAMBERT — I spent my youth watching and rewatching Star Wars. That and The Sound of Music were the only films I had on home video, and I watched them hundreds of times. They’re both very close to my heart. At that time, it didn’t register that these fantastic worlds were actually being created by people. Later on, I went to college and did aerospace — I was actually on my way to making rockets. But it wasn’t really for me and I got a bit lost. I went to art school because I had a deep urge to be creative, then got a job servicing Steinbecks and Moviolas. That’s how I found the film industry.

CINEFEX — No doubt your interest in aerospace paid off while you were working on First Man. How did you make the switch from servicing the equipment to using it?

PAUL LAMBERT — I started off as a runner at Cinesite, where I spent all my nights learning how to use the Flame and Inferno setups. It was a different time back then. The Flame suites would be unlocked and you could go in there and learn in your own time. Nowadays you go to school for all that stuff.

CINEFEX — Visual effects facilities are much more structured now, in so many ways.

PAUL LAMBERT — That’s true, and it’s partly because they have to protect themselves from client changes for this, that and the other. You know, I think the key to managing all that is having an independent team close to the director to do quickfire test and visuals. Then you can leave the photoreal part to the bigger facilities who have that kind of infrastructure.

CINEFEX — You’re talking about the in-house team, which has become increasingly important in recent years. As overall visual effects supervisor on a show, you’re working cheek-by-jowl with that team during post. Does that give you the chance to get hands-on yourself?

PAUL LAMBERT — Well, I’m working on Dune at the moment, and just the other day I got on my laptop and turned around a quick temp shot of an ornithopter taking off. I was actually quite proud of myself — it’s been a while!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists