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.

Cinefex at VIEW Conference 2019

If you’re a regular reader of Cinefex, you’ll know we’re committed to long-form journalism. We publish our journal of cinematic illusions six times a year, typically covering four films or television shows per issue. No soundbites. No clickbait. Just in-depth research journalism, delivered in print and through our iPad app.

Every once in a while, however, Cinefex likes to strike out. We did so last year, when we attended VIEW Conference in Italy. We’ll be there again this year at VIEW Conference 2019, catching up with our friends in the visual effects industry, and taking a few of them aside for a series of exclusive interviews, to be presented on this blog.

Just like last year, we’re aiming to bring you these interviews in as close to real time as we can. That means we’ll be transcribing, editing, formatting and publishing a wide range of illuminating conversations the industry’s top professionals within 24 hours.

Here’s a selection from the interviews we conducted last year at VIEW Conference 2018:

So who will we be talking to in 2019? Well, among the many guest speakers at VIEW Conference 2019 are Rob Legato, Rob Bredow, Hal Hickel, Guy Williams, Sven Martin, Theo Bialek, Trent Claus and Thomas Schelesny. That’s just a small selection from the wealth of talent attending the event. Also on the roster are directors Brad Bird, Peter Ramsey and Dean DeBlois, and composer Michael Giacchino, plus countless other names from the world of computer graphics, interactive and immersive storytelling, animation, games and virtual/augmented/mixed reality. Not forgetting visual effects, of course.

Will we catch everyone? Probably not – there are only so many hours in the day! Stay tuned to this blog, and to our social media feeds, and each time we get an interview in the bag you’ll be the first to hear about it.

Speaking about the upcoming 2019 event, VIEW Conference director Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez commented:

“We’re so excited that Directors Brad Bird, Peter Ramsey, Conrad Vernon, Dean DeBlois, Eric Darnell, and Sergio Pablos, will be at VIEW 2019 for our 20th anniversary celebration. It’s a further honor that Brad and Peter will give our attendees a chance to learn from them in masterclasses.  Our attendees can also sign up in advance for workshops by Danny Dimian who was visual effects supervisor on Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse, Pixar’s Ralph Eggleston, the innovative tech pioneer Tom Wujec, screenwriter David Misch, and others.  And they are just a few of the amazing speakers on our program this year.”

The 20th VIEW Conference takes place October 20-25 in Turin’s new OGR conference center. For more information and to book your place visit the official VIEW Conference website.

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.

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.

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!

Spotlight – Gong Myung Lee

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

Gong Myung Lee is a visual effects supervisor at Method Studios, and includes the following in her career highlights: Triple Frontier, Deadpool 2, Black Panther, The Defenders, The Get Down, American Horror Story, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Finest Hours, The Strain, Vikings, Narcos, and Marco Polo.

Gong Myung LeeCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Myung?

GONG MYUNG LEE: I was clearly an artist at heart. My college roommates were happy to have our apartment decorated with my paintings and I even made money on the side painting portraits. However, I studied political science, international relations and economics, believing I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a diplomat. After college, I worked in corporate law but felt restless and craved a creative outlet.

I took a continuing education course called “Computer Animation Theory.” It was a mind-blowing combination of art, physics, math, and programming that I soaked up like a sponge. At this point I decided to change my career. I got my MFA and, within three years, I co-directed and completed an animated short called Cold War, which did well in the festival circuits and the student academy. From there I landed an internship at Nickelodeon Digital – this was when they had a 3D team. I wanted to do rigging, but they were looking for lighting artists at the time. I insisted that I could do the job and spent countless days and nights doing just that. As a closet fine-artist and painter, all aspects of lighting theory and compositing maths suited me well.

I moved to fast-paced broadcast commercials at Charlex and, within a few years, I had worked on a few hundred commercials. I continued to have supervising roles at The Mill, and then moved to Mr.X Gotham, where I had the opportunity to build the studio and work on numerous television episodics and features. I’m at Method Studios in New York today, doing a blend of commercials, episodics, and features work.

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

GONG MYUNG LEE: I love working with a great team that you know you can trust. I’m highly collaborative and expect all members of the team to bring their best to the table. If you can work with a team like that, where you can also learn from each other and continually grow, anything is possible.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

GONG MYUNG LEE: It makes me so sad to see images break. That means working without regard to gamut, non-linear workflows, working in display space – color workflows that throw away the beautiful range of the original footage. As a visual effects professional, I believe the products we create have to be of excellent quality inside and out. It’s amazing when the visual effects we add look like everything was shot native in-camera. Quality is something that clients generally don’t think about, but maintaining pixel fidelity from ingest to delivery – as much as possible – is paramount to faithfully presenting the artistic spirit of the product. We need to be forward-thinking, take care every step of the process, and be aware of what’s happening to the footage from set, through visual effects, to digital intermediate, and to our audience.

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

GONG MYUNG LEE: I supervised a Dodge commercial directed by Tim Kentley in 2010 that had seven or eight characters, a car, a dog, full CG landscapes and effects. The mandate was to finish what would have taken 8-10 weeks from start to finish in one glorious week – actually five days. We agreed to this seemingly impossible task and made it through without sacrificing any of the creative aspects. I was amazed by the teamwork and final product, and very proud of everyone involved in the project. There have been many challenges since then, but this one to me was the most memorable.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

GONG MYUNG LEE: What happens in visual effects … stays in visual effects.

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

GONG MYUNG LEE: Advancements in technology have had a huge influence in the visual effects landscape and will continue to do so. Camera technology is at the forefront of this change. Almost everything is shot digitally now, not only for its ease of use, but also for lowering production costs.

The demand for visual effects has increased dramatically for major action effects as well as invisible effects. Technology has made it easier to apply visual effects, offering much more flexibility to filmmakers. Jobs are getting bigger, with visual effects shot numbers shooting up to the thousands, encouraging collaboration between visual effects facilities to share assets. Open Source contribution has become more active as well, and both visual effects studios and software/hardware vendors are taking notice. We are finding ways to be more efficient and consistent, in search of standards that maintain technical and creative continuity, both within individual studios and as a global network.

When I started in the field, you needed to commit to a specialty, as there was too much for one to wrap one’s head around in each discipline. For each task, a tool needed to be written by a programmer, and being a visual effects artist meant you needed to be just as technical as you were artistic. There were very few jacks-of-all-trades. Accurate global illumination render solutions were production-prohibitive due to the amount of time it took to render things, so one had to rely on the naked eye to achieve the photo-real. Today, with the latest off-the-shelf 3D software with procedural workflows, empowered by faster CPUs and GPUs, these calculations are easier to achieve. Most of the tools come built-in, or there are plugins widely available, and visual effects artists can better focus on the creative side of things. The disciplines are blending together – lighting into composition, for example – and strong generalists are emerging. The industry is moving towards a more agile, flexible, software-agnostic pipeline.

Technical advances such as cloud rendering, offline to real-time rendering, machine learning and AI are changing the way we work. The term “postproduction” may not be relevant in the future, as virtual production, performance capture systems and real-time game engines are bringing visual effects to the forefront of the filmmaking process. Real-time tracking and compositing lock the actors onto digital sets or set extensions during the shoot. The ability for directors of photography and directors to visualize with a CG environment and camera, and to receive immediate rendered feedback is quickly becoming the norm and is less invasive to the filmmaking process. It allows for a closer collaboration between visual effects and filmmakers.

Artists are able to more easily work from home, a big step towards a borderless workforce. A considerable amount of visual effects work is being outsourced internationally. A while back, any work that was done outside the facility was risky and faced numerous challenges, like differences in time zones, output levels, communication barriers and lower quality. Nowadays, with better communication and investment in global education by larger visual effects players, the level of trust in the global community is growing, providing new opportunities for growth, development of talent, and advancements in the field.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

GONG MYUNG LEE: Visual effects will only be as good as the data we collect on set and in real life. Lack of this is what makes for much wasted time and manual labor in visual effects. I look to a future where metadata can flow smoothly from shoot to finish without it getting lost or discarded along the way. Some of this has to do with the need for tools to better collect data – camera, tracking, image-based lighting, color – but also enhanced solutions to preserve and parse them along the way. Cameras that capture depth information, devices that capture live triangulation data, and tools that capitalize on machine learning are only a few of the things I’m looking forward to.

I’d like to see more diversity. When I was starting out, I had no women role models in visual effects creative supervision. A colleague of mine once told me: “You are a unicorn!” I felt special and sad at the same time.

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

GONG MYUNG LEE: Listen to and trust your gut. Be relentless in your pursuit and love of visual effects. Keep an open mind and learn everything you can about your job and those of the people around you by being inquisitive, asking intelligent questions and learning every day.

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

GONG MYUNG LEE: Fight Club – I remember being amazed by the opening sequence – the camera takes you to a building, into a garage, to a van and to the bombs inside, all in one camera shot – and by the effective way visual effects was used to enhance the storytelling.

Inception – the scene where Paris folds into itself was a “wow” moment for me. The director could have chosen to make the visual effects more fantastical or abstract, but I loved how the scene’s restraint made it grounded and believable. The way the lighting was affected by the directional changes kept the cityscapes intensely photoreal.

My last choice is a tie between the performances of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. These CG character performances, with their nuanced subtleties and emotional expressive details, have elevated visual effects to another level, thanks to Weta’s many years of motion and facial capture development and the performances of Andy Serkis.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

GONG MYUNG LEE: Dark chocolate and pretzels.

CINEFEX: Myung, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Sara Bennett

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

Sara Bennett is co-founder of Milk, where she also works as a visual effects supervisor. Ask her to name some personal favorites from her filmography and she’ll tell you: Ex Machina, Adrift, Harry Potter, and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Sara Bennett - co-founder of Milk

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

SARA BENNETT: I originally trained as a makeup artist as I was very keen to get into horror makeup. I moved to London to pursue this career and went to work for a special effects company; that’s where I first heard about visual effects. I was intrigued, so I applied for jobs as a runner and that’s how I got started. My first proper work on a film was doing roto work on Babe: Pig In The City.

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

SARA BENNETT: Without doubt the people I work with. This job can sometimes be stressful, with antisocial hours, so working with good company and funny people helps.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SARA BENNETT: Working on shots for months that suddenly get cut out of the show.

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

SARA BENNETT: I think our most recent work on Adrift. We had to create a CG ocean and storm with one huge continuous shot that starts off out on the stormy sea, then continues into a capsizing boat cabin, before exiting back out underwater! It was some of the most technically challenging work we had to do, and the time we had to get it done in made it hugely challenging. But we were very happy with the end result.

Watch a breakdown video showcasing Milk’s work on Adrift:

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SARA BENNETT: After winning a major award, I was asked to help sell a brand of leggings by wearing them while holding the award. I politely declined!

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

SARA BENNETT: Technology has moved on so quickly. The things we can do now compared to just a few years ago are really exciting. Photoreal digital humans were impossible not so long ago, and then we see the incredible work MPC did with Sean Young in Blade Runner: 2049 and the photoreal Hugh Jackman in Logan.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SARA BENNETT: There is a tendency to rely more and more on visual effects. But I think it is important to balance that with shooting in camera wherever possible – or shooting real elements – and using visual effects to help tell the story only when necessary.

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

SARA BENNETT: Go into a company with passion and enthusiasm to learn new things. Be open to anything, as you never know what doors will open for you. What you started out wanting to do may be completely different to what you end up doing.

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

SARA BENNETT: The Matrix – I remember going to see this for the first time, with no knowledge of what it was. I came out of the cinema grinning! The bullet time effect was something we had never seen before and it still gets talked about today.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – When I go to the cinema, I want to be entertained and come out with a smile on my face. The T-2000 chrome man was a great effect, achieved before we started using motion capture.

An American Werewolf in London – Films like this that use prosthetic makeup are the reason I got into visual effects in the first place. The werewolf transformation was awesome and horrific. It was amazing for its time and brilliantly done.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SARA BENNETT: Salt and sweet mixed popcorn.

CINEFEX: Sara, thanks for your time!

91st VFX Oscars Nominations Announced

2019 Oscar Nominations VFX

Five films have reached the final stage of the race to win this year’s Academy Award in the category of Best Visual Effects, as revealed today by actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and actress/director Tracee Ellis Ross via a global live stream. The films are:

  • Avengers: Infinity War
    • Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, Dan Sudick
  • Christopher Robin
    • Christopher Lawrence, Michael Eames, Theo Jones, Chris Corbould
  • First Man
    • Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, J.D. Schwalm
  • Ready Player One
    • Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, David Shirk
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story
    • Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, Dominic Tuohy

Cinefex Cover Montage 91st Oscar Noms

We’re proud not only to have covered four of the five nominees in Cinefex, but also to have featured them on our cover. As for the fifth film, we can only offer our humble apologies to Winnie the Pooh for not including a healthy dollop of Hundred Acre Wood honey on our editorial menu!

Voting in all nominations for the 91st Academy Awards commences on Tuesday, February 12 and continues through Tuesday, February 19. The Oscars ceremony will be held in Hollywood on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

For a complete list of nominees, visit the official Oscars website.

Image © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ® “Oscar®,” “Oscars®,” “Academy Awards®,” “Academy Award®,” “A.M.P.A.S. ®” and “Oscar Night®” are the trademarks, and the ©Oscar® statuette is the registered design mark and copyrighted property, of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Cinefex Quiz 2018

Yes, it’s time for this year’s grand quiz! We’ve posed one multiple choice question for every film or television show we covered during 2018, ranging from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, First Man to Aquaman. Test your knowledge now in the Cinefex Quiz 2018 … and good luck!

The Visual Effects of “Outlaw King”

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

When King Alexander III of Scotland died suddenly in the year 1286, King Edward I of England made a bid to seize the country for himself. During the bitter years of conflict that followed, Scottish freedom fighters rose up as heroes in a fight for independence, including William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson in the 1995 film Braveheart.

In the feature-length Netflix drama Outlaw King, director David Mackenzie picks up the story with Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), a claimant to the Scottish throne who led his forces to victory against the much larger English army at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in 1307. Under the direction of production visual effects supervisor Alex Bicknell, Method Studios delivered over 500 shots for Outlaw King amounting to roughly one hour of screen time, augmenting photography captured on location in Scotland and ramping up the action for the film’s battle scenes.

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

During the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, Bruce and his 600 soldiers use local knowledge to outwit a 5,000-strong English army. Method Studios augmented crowds of around 300 extras and 40 horses, and enhanced castle locations with historically correct architecture, weapons and props.

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

 

“This sequence was quite unusual for visual effects,” said Method Studios visual effects supervisor Dan Bethell. “Typically it’s more of a linear process, but here the sequence had about 150 shots that were all in play at the same time. We’d work on a large bulk of shots simultaneously, and with each story tweak we’d have to implement that across all the relevant shots. It was fun and collaborative, but definitely a different way of working. Our talented department leads were fabulous at keeping everything moving at a high level of quality and technical precision so that David and editor Jake Roberts could make the most informed decisions.”

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

To swell the ranks of both the Scottish and English armies, Method Studios populated the battlefield with various classes of CG soldier including archers, swordsmen and cavalry. Digital horses boasted muscle simulations, sliding skin, and authentic tack. Research ensured that clothing and armor was period-accurate, and that every faction was flying the correct flag. If plate photography contained historically inappropriate trees, artists mercilessly uprooted them.

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

Method Studios also augmented the film’s opening shot, an unbroken eight-minute take captured by director of photography Barry Ackroyd, during which King Edward’s forces attack Stirling Castle. Extending the English encampment, artists added crowds of soldiers and the gigantic Warwolf trebuchet used by the invaders to pulverize the fortress, which Method Studios constructed in digital form and then promptly demolished.

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

 

“David and Alex had a great understanding of how visual effects could enhance the historical accuracy,” said Bethell. “This helped create the believability for certain sequences when we couldn’t physically capture everything as it was in the 1300s. With so much captured on location as opposed to bluescreen, our tracking and roto departments really had their work cut out, and they did a phenomenal job giving us a foundation for the rest of the effects work.”

Outlaw King - visual effects by Method Studios

Outlaw King is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.