About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Spotlight – Michael Illingworth

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

Michael Illingworth is a visual effects supervisor and owner of Vine FX. His feature career highlights include all the Harry Potter films, Black Hawk Down and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while on television he’s a veteran of the Canal+/Fox adaptation of War of the Worlds, Merlin, Atlantis, Black Mirror and Patrick Melrose.

Michael Illingworth

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: As a kid I saw a promo by MPC called Monkey Business which featured a Quantel Paintbox. I thought it was really cool that they could paint on to a monitor, and this led to me study Moving Image Design at Ravensbourne College, which was one of the few places in the UK that had Quantel equipment. My first big break was at The Mill. After a long day running I offered to de-spot a Reebok commercial, digitally removing the film dirt, which I did through the night. Thankfully my efforts were rewarded and I was offered a position as a junior artist using Quantel Harriet.

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Seeing seamless visual effects. There’s a moment in shot or asset evolution where it sings.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Nothing much really. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: I comped what I believe was the most expensive shot that Mill Film had worked on at the time. In A Knight’s Tale there’s a fly by over an arena that combines motion control, modelmaking, digital matte painting and lots of other stuff. The story goes that all the various elements were so expensive to produce that they were hoping it would be too costly to consider. The day after the bid was submitted they received a purchase order. I think I spent over a month simply trying to lock all the various plates together.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Removing the testicles from a bulldog for a UK Labour Party political broadcast. The story even featured on the television show Have I Got News for You, much to everyone’s amusement.

Watch a breakdown video showcasing Vine FX’s work on the Canal+/Fox adaptation of War of the Worlds:

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: We still use the same techniques we used back in the ‘90s. It’s all about having an eye for detail, but the computers get quicker each year and I’m continuously amazed by what is achievable.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Fewer pandemics.

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: If you love creating films or effects and playing with computers then you’ll love working in visual effects. It’s a cliché, but if you do a job you love you never have to work a day in your life. Just don’t let anyone take advantage!

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of big visual effects movies. If I had to choose, I’d pick films I have worked on and then bore everyone about which shots I did!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Popcorn

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Michael!

Snowpiercer – VFX Q&A

Snowpiercer - Cinefex VFX Q&A

When climate change and global war caused the Earth to overheat, scientists used technology to cool the planet. But they went too far. Temperatures plummeted to minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit, the world’s entire ecosystem crashed, and the few surviving humans took refuge in a giant train built by mega-rich inventor Mr. Wilford. Known as Snowpiercer, the train was designed as a haven for billionaires. But as the train left the station to begin its endless circuits around the frozen Earth, its tail section was invaded by a horde of ordinary citizens. A highly stratified society has since evolved inside the train’s 1,001 cars, in which the impoverished ‘tailies’ are an underclass ruled by the wealthy elite who ride in pampered style in Snowpiercer’s luxurious forward compartments.

The ten-part series Snowpiercer premiered on TNT on May 17, 2020, starring Daveed Diggs as tailie detective Andre Layton and Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, the train’s ice-cool Head of Hospitality. Showrunner Graeme Manson worked with a creative team at Tomorrow Studios to adapt the show from the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Bong Joon-ho, and from that film’s original source material, the 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.

Cinefex spoke with Geoff Scott — visual effects supervisor on season one of Snowpiercer and currently working on season two — about the challenges of driving a 1,001-car train through an hostile ice-locked world.

CINEFEX: How did you get involved with Snowpiercer?

SCOTT: I’d worked with Graeme Manson for five seasons on Orphan Black, where I was visual effects supervisor for the show, so I was known to him and also to Mackenzie Donaldson, our producer. Initially there was another supervisor involved, then after a few weeks they asked me if I would consider coming on board. I was a huge fan of the earlier film, and I had the original graphic novels that I bought when I was younger, traveling in Paris. So I said, “Absolutely!”

CINEFEX: Who else did you have on the visual effects team?

SCOTT: Our visual effects producer was Darren Bell — who I’m working with again on season two — and I had another on-set supervisor to help me out. We had a team of five or six internal compositors, and we used Method Studios and Encore VFX as our main vendor; the supervisor there was Eric Gambini and their CG supervisor was Christopher Ryan, who was responsible for building the train. FuseFX was our secondary vendor; their supervisor was Jon Cowley. For smaller incidental things we used a small shop out of Toronto called Torpedo Pictures.

CINEFEX: Tell us about the creative development of the Snowpiercer train. In many ways she’s the star of the show.

SCOTT: I started out discussing creative ideas with James Hawes, who was our directing producer. Then I hired a team of concept artists to start the ball rolling — this was before I even had the job. We threw around some steampunk ideas but I’m actually a huge fan of the dieselpunk look, pulling in more of the heavy machinery from the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I love the Art Deco style of the ‘20s. There are some amazing-looking trains from that period when train design was almost an art form. I really liked a train called the Mercury, and that was our starting point for the aesthetic of our Snowpiercer. It closely matched the train from the graphic novel, with that giant bullnose and those two little slit windows, so it felt cohesive and respectful to both the film and the graphic novel, while still having our own unique look. We even went so far as to design how the train actually works. It’s not just a single engine pulling all those cars. It’s a heuristic system where all the wheels along the whole train are attached to bogie motors that recycle energy.

Snowpiercer pulls out of a frozen Vancouver. The train design was inspired by the streamlined locomotives of the early 20th century including the Mercury, operated by the New York Central Railroad during the 1930s.
Snowpiercer pulls out of a frozen Vancouver. The train design was inspired by the streamlined locomotives of the early 20th century including the Mercury, operated by the New York Central Railroad during the 1930s.

CINEFEX: Did you develop the concept into a single master digital train, or did you have different Snowpiercer assets to perform different functions?

SCOTT: There was a primary train asset that did everything. As scripts developed, it did need to evolve, and we would upgrade it as per the requirements of the shot. We had 15 variations of cars, like the agriculture car, the cattle car, the container car. Ultimately there are a lot more variants and we’ll be building those in future seasons.

CINEFEX: According to the story, Snowpiercer is 1,001 cars long. Surely you didn’t actually build the whole train?

SCOTT: Well, the thing is the train is over ten miles long. You’d have to be hundreds of feet in the air to be able to see it from tip to tail — I calculated that when we first started. It literally drops beyond the horizon. Writers would describe shots going from the engine all the way to the tail and I’d be like, “You cannot travel ten miles in a five-second shot. It’ll look ridiculous.”

CINEFEX: Was it hard designing shots to communicate that scale?

SCOTT: The biggest struggle was trying to find shots that put you in this impressive frozen world, but didn’t detract from the train itself, because it’s the titular character. The wider you go to try and showcase more of an environment, the more you make the train look small. It looks like a model. You take its power away.

CINEFEX: You do have wide shots, but there are also several close-up shots down at track level showing the train thundering along, where you get a good look at the wheels spinning and the coupling rods rattling back and forth.

SCOTT: We deliberately gave the engine wheels that traditional arm coupling mechanism, which adds a level of dynamism to those shots. It’s actually something you’d associate more with steam engines and early diesel engines, but there is one electric train that has a similar thing. So it is real. Graeme was very particular about that kind of thing. I said to him, “We’re safe. If anyone mentions it at Comic Con, you can point this engine out to them!”

CINEFEX: Do the animators get hands-on with all those moving parts, or are they controlled by the rig?

SCOTT: It’s a physics-based rig. The animators move the train along and everything else is propagated back up the chain, and all the various settings can be dialed up or down.

CINEFEX: How fast is Snowpiercer traveling, on average?

SCOTT: We set our speed at around 65 miles per hour. It was all about finding the right proportionate scale: we wanted it to feel powerful but not too fast. I drove around at various speeds shooting reference on GoPro at different frame rates. There are a few places — particularly in episode ten — where we cheated the speed because it looked cool, but mostly we kept it real.

Visual effects created frozen environments procedurally using Side Effects Houdini. Most of the landscapes were based on real locations.
Visual effects created frozen environments procedurally using Side Effects Houdini. Most of the landscapes were based on real locations.

CINEFEX: Tell us more about this frozen environment. The characters mention specific places at times, like Yukon territory or the Sierra Madre. Did you try to replicate actual locations from the real world?

SCOTT: Absolutely. Graeme wanted places to be real. We would decide exactly where our train was at any moment in terms of longitude and latitude, and then use all the facilities we could — satellite data, lidar, Google Earth — to work out what we needed to see. We generated most of the environments procedurally in Houdini, either extracting geometry from the reference or building it to eye. Then we destroyed it and covered it in snow. It was all real — oh, except for one canyon in episode six. We cheated that. Don’t tell anyone!

CINEFEX: The landscape is littered with towns and ruins of various kinds.

SCOTT: Yes, one of our big things was that we wanted to show evidence of humanity. We were always looking for way to have small towns or cities along the line, or anything recognizable. We even have an opening shot going through a dead Vancouver. The one problem is at minus 184 degrees everything would be insanely brittle. Trees would shatter; bricks would crumble, timber-framed houses would not exist. But that’s not interesting to look at.

CINEFEX: What are the challenges of lighting shots in a world that’s essentially in perpetual white-out?

SCOTT: Obviously we followed the lighting direction inside the train, which was determined by our two cinematographers, John Grillo and Thomas Burstyn. We realized that if it’s minus 184 degrees there’s not going to be a cloud in a sky, and if there’s no clouds, there’s no drama. So we decided there would be clouds in our world. We had to have something in the air to help us create dramatic skies — whether that’s moisture or carbon nanoparticles from whatever it was they used to freeze the world. I went down the rabbit hole of figuring all this out; at one point I realized the sky could have looked very red because of the theoretical particles they used to pollute it. But we didn’t want it to look like Mars.

A Class 4 avalanche hits Snowpiercer as the train speeds along perilous mountain slopes.
A Class 4 avalanche hits Snowpiercer as the train speeds along perilous mountain slopes.

CINEFEX: In episode two, the train gets hit by an avalanche.

SCOTT: That was entirely handled at Method and Encore. In the script it’s a class four avalanche, so we researched how much mass would be coming down. Technically, that class of avalanche could possibly derail a train, so we went with a powder snow type of avalanche rather than a slab type. If you look at the last shot in episode one, where they’re going into bad weather and they talk about how they hate this stretch of track, there’s actually a tiny avalanche on the mountain in the distance. Just a little piece of foreshadowing.

The visual effects team at Method Studios and Encore VFX simulated the catastrophic event based on the physics of real-world powder snow avalanches.
The visual effects team at Method Studios and Encore VFX simulated the catastrophic event based on the physics of real-world powder snow avalanches.

CINEFEX: The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. How much work was involved with the interior shots for that sequence?

SCOTT: Before I came on board, they shot scenes with real cows in the cattle car. That set was taken down and the cows were sent back to their fields, but then they changed the narrative a bit and we needed a whole bunch more work done. We reshot some scenes entirely on bluescreen, and we rebuilt the set in visual effects as a patchwork of existing footage and stills. The scale of the original set was enormous — something like 30-40 feet wide — so we brought the width down to a more realistic level of 12 feet. We also extended it to suggest the cattle car is two stories tall and several chambers long. We extracted the actors off the background and put them into these digitally altered sets; for some shots we created digital actors. The cows are fully CG. We had eight variants, all based on photographs of real cows.

The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. Visual effects rebuilt live-action plates, altering the size and shape of the cattle car interior and introducing digital cows and human characters.
The avalanche smashes open the cattle car. Visual effects rebuilt live-action plates, altering the size and shape of the cattle car interior and introducing digital cows and human characters.

CINEFEX: Some of the cars have windows through which we see the landscape flashing past — notably the engine room at the front of the train, which has a wraparound windshield giving a panoramic view of the track ahead. What methodology did you use for those shots?

SCOTT: We shot the engine room with bluescreen at the front. I prefer to use bluescreen over greenscreen. It doesn’t cast as far, so we were dealing with fewer spill issues. We had chase lights down the side window to give the impression of objects passing by outside.

CINEFEX: Did you have physical movement with the cars on the set — jostling and rocking and so on?

SCOTT: We did. Our special effects coordinator Gary Minielly and his co-supervisor Charles Desrosiers suspended some of the cars on airbags — that included the engine room, the tail cars, the third class corridor, and the classroom which doubled as the third class lunch room. They had these eight-foot-long poles on either side — they were almost like giant hockey sticks — and they would just pump them back and forth.

Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) meet in the glass tunnel of Snowpiercer's aquarium car. The actors performed in a bluescreen set. Method Studios and Encore VFX created the aquarium and its aquatic inhabitants.
Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) meet in the glass tunnel of Snowpiercer’s aquarium car. The actors performed in a bluescreen set. Method Studios and Encore VFX created the aquarium and its aquatic inhabitants.

CINEFEX: There’s a scene in episode one where Melanie meets Jinju at a bar in the aquarium car, where there’s a glass tunnel entirely surrounded by water. How much of that is real?

SCOTT: Everything at the bar is real and everything else is all digital — the glass corridor, the water, all the fish and plant life. The actress playing Jinju, Susan Park, swam with safety divers in a tank with bluescreen behind. There was a tiny piece of rock wall for the shots where she’s picking up a sea urchin, but that was super-small. Even those tight shots of her hands working we still had to extend out the sides and top. As the season goes on, we kept adding a few more bits of life into the tank, so every time you see it there are one or two more creatures. That was all done by Method and Encore; they had done the aquarium in the original film, although that was coincidence more than anything.

Jinju Seong (Susan Park) dives to retrieve an urchin from the aquarium floor. Visual effects artists extracted the actress from the plate and composited her into a digital aquarium filled with schools of fish and other creatures.
Jinju Seong (Susan Park) dives to retrieve an urchin from the aquarium floor. Visual effects artists extracted the actress from the plate and composited her into a digital aquarium filled with schools of fish and other creatures.

CINEFEX: Also in episode one, we get a glimpse of a hidden transit system that conveniently speeds characters along the length of the train. It looks a little bit like a suspended mine cart.

SCOTT: That’s the sub-train. It’s our deus ex machina to get people ten miles up and down the train between scenes. We had one car length and a single cart that went painfully slowly, for the safety of the actors. We sped that up and extended it. FuseFX did all the work on that.

CINEFEX: Was there a lot of set extension work, in addition to the sub-train?

SCOTT: Oh, we did a ton of internal set extensions. A lot of times we were shooting with one car, or maybe two cars attached to each other. In the tail section we had four cars attached, and then a fifth and sixth one in addition. Just after the battle when Layton and Melanie are talking in the utility car, either side of that are set extensions done by our internal team.

CINEFEX: What about action enhancement in the various fight scenes. There’s plenty of blood flying.

SCOTT: The action enhancement throughout the season was handled by several vendors, and it gets bigger as the season goes on. The tailie attack in the opening episode was handled entirely by one of our internal compositors, Jason Snea. He’s my blood guy; whenever I need realistic looking blood, I go to Jason.

Snowpiercer - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Snowpiercer airs weekly through May-July 2020 on TNT in the United States, and on Netflix across the rest of the world.

Special thanks to Jordan Acomba.

Spotlight – Dan Bethell

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

Dan Bethell works as a visual effects supervisor at Rising Sun Pictures. His personal filmography highlights include Batman Begins, Mad Max: Fury Road, Thor: Ragnarok and Outlaw King.

Dan Bethell

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

DAN BETHELL: I was lucky enough to find a University course for Computer Animation and Visualisation when I left secondary school. As a student I really wanted to be a graphic designer, but I’d spent (nearly) my whole life programming computers, so this seemed like a perfect way to combine what I loved with a craft I understood.

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

DAN BETHELL: Happy accidents! Having spent a few years doing effects simulations, I love nothing more than opening up a render to something unexpected and random but beautiful. If the client likes it too, then that’s even better!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

DAN BETHELL: I rarely sob any more but when I have in the past it’s been over having to let a shot go. It happens all the time; sometimes for editorial reasons and sometimes for aesthetic reasons. Regardless, seeing a shot that you’ve become attached to cut from a project is hard. But you get used to it over time and it’s a good reminder that we’re part of something much larger than visual effects; we’re a small, but significant, part in the story-telling process.

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

DAN BETHELL: Fury Road was the most challenging but also most rewarding project of my career. I ended up spending eight months in the Namibian desert supervising the visual effects for the ‘Action Unit’ – which is like a normal second unit but on steroids. Every day saw multiple stunts, bigger than anything I’d seen before, captured with upwards of six cameras. It was logistically challenging to say the least! It was a great lesson in how important visual effects can be as a supporting craft. Some of the visual effects work was done so that stunts could be performed safely; some was to enhance special effects; and some was simply to make the environments look more awesome than they already did. The whole project was really something special, and an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

DAN BETHELL: There are plenty, but shooting elements is always fun and often an “am-I-really-doing-this?” moment! I have witnessed a lot of crazy – from crew sat on stepladders shooting flamethrowers into the African sky, to poking tin cans with small blue hands attached to long blue sticks, all in the name of visual effects.

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

DAN BETHELL: The convergence of rendering towards raytracing and physically based approaches has been a game changer for me, especially in a supervision role. Whereas we used to rely on cheats and hacks, we can now spend our time moving and shaping lights in a way that is intuitive to us as humans. It’s moved the whole aspect of lighting a scene away from a laborious technical exercise to a more interactive, creative process. As a supervisor, it means lighting a scene has finally become cinematic. I can ask an artist to increase exposure or flag a light, and everyone understands what to do. Hopefully we never have to use shadow maps again!

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

DAN BETHELL: Not so much a change as a continuation – I’d love to see visual effects continue to collaborate with other film departments early in the process. When visual effects is considered a last resort, or simply a post-process, then the whole project suffers. Often if we’re involved in a project earlier, not only can we bring the visual effects shot-count down, but the shots that do have to be visual effects can be planned and executed more efficiently, which means better results in a more cost-effective manner. Everyone appreciates that.

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

DAN BETHELL: Focus on some things that might not be immediately related to the day-to-day work we do. Mental and physical well-being is so important, especially when working long hours in a stressful environment. Also, I find a good work ethic, a disciplined approach to your day, and a pragmatic, stoic attitude to what we do is really valuable. There will always be problems to solve and hard challenges that come up; rather than worrying about them, or trying to avoid them, your time will be much better spent preparing for them.

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

DAN BETHELL: It’d be a 80’s family affair featuring Labyrinth, Ghostbusters and The Goonies. These are three great movies that show that visual effects can be a spectacle whilst still serving a story. All the visual effects work here is well-considered and beautifully executed. On a personal level, these are movies that inspired so much awe and imagination in me as a child, and I love to see that same emotion evoked in other young people. I’ve no doubt that it’s that magic and inspiration that got me where I am today!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

DAN BETHELL: Popcorn of course. No butter though – that’s weird.

CINEFEX: Dan, thanks for your time!

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.

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