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.

VFX Q&A – The Two Popes

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

As the Catholic Church faces a pivotal moment in its history, an unlikely friendship blossoms between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Directed by Fernando Meirelles, the Netflix film The Two Popes is set largely within the walls of the Vatican City. Facing restricted access to the real location, the production shot on sets at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, including a full-size – though roofless – replica of the Sistine Chapel.

Union VFX handled an eclectic mix of visual effects including environments and de-ageing, and performed the all-important task of adding the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling. Visual effects supervisor James Etherington-Sparks and visual effects producer Jan Guilfoyle led the Union team, with Dan Victoire as 2D lead.

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

CINEFEX – What was Union’s biggest challenge on The Two Popes?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Building a fully CG St. Peter’s Square for the inaugurations of the two popes at different stages in the film. We had to facilitate very wide shots, as well as close-ups from several different viewpoints. Our environments supervisor, Jamie Schumacher, and his team needed to produce a really high level of detail in both geometry and textures.

CINEFEX – The square is packed with onlookers during those scenes. How big were the crowds?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – The crowds were 200,000-strong. That was by far the most complex aspect of the shots. We couldn’t shoot in the location, and the end result had to stand up at 4K in very close proximity to the camera. The crowd was very custom as everything was based on real events and had to intercut with archive footage.

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

CINEFEX – How did you go about generating such a gigantic crowd of people?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Our effects team had to design a Houdini-based system from scratch in a very tight timeframe to cope with the unprecedented number of assets and their clothing, in a way that we could easily art-direct them as individuals. This allowed the director to choreograph the crowds and deliver a believable result.

Watch a video breakdown of Union VFX’s work on The Two Popes:

CINEFEX – What about the animation itself? Was that a complex business?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Well, in terms of animation, the crowd didn’t do much a lot of the time. But they couldn’t look static. That’s very hard to achieve in a wide shot. We had agents shifting weight from one foot to another, peering over people’s shoulders and slowly walking through the crowd. We also had shots with more pronounced movement, where a large crowd had to do the same thing at the same time – like breaking into applause or bowing their heads in prayer. That kind of thing can very easily look repetitive. We had our work cut out adding the nuances of timing and movement to 200,000 individuals!

CINEFEX – Did you use motion capture to help drive the performances?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Yes, we purchased a Perception Neuron motion capture suit and did several shoots in-house to provide some specific animation cycles that married with the occasions we were re-creating. This provided even more flexibility to the team during postproduction, resulting in authentic-looking crowds. And, of course, flags and camera flashes will always be a crowd sims best friend!

VFX Nominations Announced for 92nd Academy Awards

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced this year’s nominations for achievement in visual effects. The nominations are:

  • Avengers: Endgame
    • Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Matt Aitken and Dan Sudick
  • The Irishman
    • Pablo Helman, Leandro Estebecorena, Nelson Sepulveda-Fauser and Stephane Grabli
  • The Lion King
    • Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Elliot Newman
  • 1917
    • Guillaume Rocheron, Greg Butler and Dominic Tuohy
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
    • Roger Guyett, Neal Scanlan, Patrick Tubach and Dominic Tuohy

All five nominees have received – or will shortly be receiving – the full Cinefex treatment, with in-depth articles featuring interviews with all the Oscar-nominated teams. We covered Avengers: Endgame in Cinefex 165, and The Lion King in Cinefex 166. Our article on The Irishman is in our December 2019 issue, Cinefex 168 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is coming along in Cinefex 169, our 40th Anniversary issue which is out February and available to pre-order now. Look out for our coverage of 1917 early in 2020.

The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood. The ceremony will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.

The Aeronauts – VFX Q&A

The Aeronauts - VFX Q&A by Cinefex

Set in 1862 and based on true events, The Aeronauts follows daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) on a record-breaking ascent into the upper atmosphere. Their journey — in a giant gas balloon called Mammoth — reveals not only the hidden wonders of the natural world, but also its perils, and all too soon their voyage of discovery becomes a fight for survival.

Tom Harper directed the period drama, with Louis Morin in the role of overall visual effects supervisor. Framestore created the majority of the film’s cinematic illusions, with Christian Kaestner as visual effects supervisor and Stuart Penn supervising preparatory work for the main shoot. Rodeo FX delivered a rousing finale, led by visual effects supervisor Ara Khanikian, and Alchemy 24 provided additional effects support. The Third Floor visualization supervisor Jason Wen oversaw previs and techvis for the film.

Louis Morin

CINEFEX — The production hired aeronautical engineer Per Lindstrand to build a full-scale gas balloon for the production shoot. How much of that balloon footage made it into the finished film?

LOUIS MORIN — The real balloon was great reference, but there is only one live shot of it in the movie, and one shot of the actors in the basket in a live flight. The rest is visual effects. Roughly 70 percent of the movie was shot in front of bluescreen.

CINEFEX — Bluescreen shoots can be sometimes be difficult for actors. Did you have any way of previewing the background environments on set?

LOUIS MORIN — Well, my first idea was to shoot plates and create 360-degree environments that we would actually use on set. That was ultimately considered too time-consuming, so instead Framestore developed a custom augmented reality iPad application called fARsight. We had our sky backgrounds prepared, and every time we were ready to shoot, Tom Harper and George Steel, the director of photography, were able to see where we were. And so were the actors, of course. It was a great tool to make sure the lighting matched the background environment, which is the key in bluescreen shooting.

Eddie Redmayne stars as pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher in "The Aeronauts."
Eddie Redmayne stars as pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher in “The Aeronauts.”

CINEFEX — These backgrounds were 360-degree wraparound skies?

LOUIS MORIN — Yeah. I shot with a multi-camera array in Louisiana for five days with six 8K RED Helium cameras — the first time this had been done. All those plates were stitched together and heavily matte-painted, and those became our environments.

CINEFEX — Did these same environments make their way into the final shots?

LOUIS MORIN — No. They were good enough to help on set, but there was no way we could finish them to a high enough level. Everything was redone in post. I shot more plates with the multi-array, this time in South Africa. At one point we went up so high that we needed special oxygen tanks for the helicopter. We had all six 8K cameras running every second. You lose a bit when you stitch them together but we still ended up with final plates at something like 42K. Imagine the data — it was insane! We used those plates either as a full live-action environment, or we used just part of them. Then everything was enhanced by mid-ground CG clouds.

CINEFEX — For the storm sequence, Framestore went the whole hog with fully volumetric digital clouds.

LOUIS MORIN — Actually, there are two big volumetric cloud sequences. I have to say, trying to do clouds in CG is a nightmare. From the way sunlight goes through and scatters in infinite ways, to the infinite levels of gradation from light to dark — the guys went nuts creating the amount of detail we needed.

CINEFEX — There’s a nail-biting sequence where Amelia climbs up the outside of the balloon. What challenges did that bring?

LOUIS MORIN — The actors did a good chunk of their own stunts. Felicity Jones was so good. I couldn’t believe a main actress would be as daring as her. She had bruises all over the place by the end! The same for Eddie Redmayne. At some point they had to stop the shoot because he had a sprained ankle. They even did some stunt work on the real balloon — a stunt woman climbed up on top while it was actually flying. Out of respect, we kept her stunt work in our shots, although the balloon and the environment are totally digital.

CINEFEX — The drama continues into the descent sequence.

LOUIS MORIN — Which is funny, because that descent would be so boring to look at in reality — you would probably be falling through just one layer of cloud. Our idea was to have multiple layers everywhere, so we would never stop going in and out of cloud, just to enhance the drama. It’s almost like a Road Runner cartoon when Wile E. Coyote falls down and the clouds go up past him!

CINEFEX — The camerawork throughout is quite naturalistic. Was that a conscious creative decision?

LOUIS MORIN — Absolutely. George Steel handheld the camera for almost all the movie, and if we had a camera in the air it had to feel like a helicopter shot. There’s a shot where Amelia slides down the balloon, and the camera follows and does a 360-degree flip. Tom wanted that to look like it was being filmed by a guy with a parachute who just fell. That’s great for me, because I hate when camera moves are too perfect and feel CG. We were really careful to make sure every shot had that handheld movement. Sometimes it’s those imperfect details that make it real.

CINEFEX — All this helps The Aeronauts feel realistic, but the film also has a magical quality. Was there a balance you were trying to strike there?

LOUIS MORIN — Tom Harper wanted it to look real, but like those moments of reality that you see maybe once in a lifetime. For my part, I always try to achieve seamless visual effects, but on this film we were taking it beyond that. We were bending reality to tell a story. An old lady came up to me after a screening in Los Angeles, and said. “I had to close my eyes because I got vertigo.” That’s exactly what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to go beyond just making things look real. We wanted to create sensation.

Felicity Jones stars as daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Wren in "The Aeronauts."
Felicity Jones stars as daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Wren in “The Aeronauts.”

The Third Floor

CINEFEX — What were the major previs sequences you handled at The Third Floor?

JASON WEN — We worked on the opening at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, various balloon establisher shots, the storm sequence, the butterfly sequence, the balloon at its maximum altitude and the crash. The director shared with us a completed script and extensive boards. We tried to stay close to the spirit of the boards, concentrating on camera, lighting and blocking balloon animation. The biggest challenge was keeping the movement of the balloon and camera relatively realistic, and based on what could be achieved with the accurate curvature of the earth. To achieve this, we modeled the Earth to scale and built different versions of the sky and Earth to represent the different altitudes outlined in the script.

CINEFEX — Tell us how your techvis helped with the live-action shoot.

JASON WEN — Several shots were engineered to a specific stage in West London. We constructed techvis using the plans for the stage, also incorporating a 64-foot techvis crane rig matching what the client planned to use on set. We also did techvis for a number of helicopter shots, to inform the shooting parameters that would be required from the air.

Framestore

CINEFEX — Tell us about the early days of the project.

STUART PENN — I remember we had our first production meeting at Ealing Studios in February 2018. It was a roundtable meeting with Tom Harper, the producers and the heads of departments. Tom is a very collaborative director, and we worked our way through the script discussing methodologies and how the different departments could work together to achieve his vision. The team also included world renowned balloonist Colin Prescot, who provided the team with valuable real life knowledge and experience of an aeronaut.

CHRISTIAN KAESTNER — Our brief was clear from the beginning. The visual effects work needed to support storytelling and remain invisible otherwise. In order to allow the audience to fully immerse themselves into the story, our integration had to be seamless. At no point could we afford to take the viewer out of the film.

CINEFEX — Did you get a chance to go up in a balloon yourselves?

STUART PENN — Yes, Tom was keen that heads of departments and key members of the crew got the opportunity to experience balloon flights. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne did several flights to gain the experience of real aeronauts. I was lucky enough to have two flights in a hot air balloon. They were inspirational. They definitely helped to bring authenticity to the project, and to relate to experiences of the characters in the film.

CINEFEX — We’ve heard how you worked with The Third Floor during the previs phase. It seems like preplanning was the key to this project.

STUART PENN — Oh, the film was meticulously planned. I supervised the previs of key action and balloon establisher shots, and also worked closely with the stunt and special effects teams. We would check the action was achievable and identify any shots that would need digital actors — although, for the most part, we tried to use footage of the actors. Working from the previs, the stunt team would rehearse shots and film stuntvis that could be fed back to the previs team to make adjustments.

CINEFEX — You handled the entire flight of the Mammoth up to the final part of the descent. Can you summarize the scope of Framestore’s work?

CHRISTIAN KAESTNER — We start with the opening sequence at Vauxhall from where the Mammoth was launched. We extended the partial build of the stadium and filled in a crowd of thousands. Right after take-off, Amelia and James glide over a full CG build of 1862 London. The balloon disappears into thick clouds and ends up in an unexpected storm inside a cumulus cloud. After the storm, we break through the clouds to see the mesmerizing beauty of an endless sea of clouds wonderfully lit by a late afternoon sun. As we continue the ride we encounter a swarm of several thousand butterflies elegantly dancing in the wind, before we reach the moment of breaking the height record.

CINEFEX — At which point the lack of oxygen starts affecting our heroes.

CHRISTIAN KAESTNER — That’s right. James passes out, and Amelia attempts to climb the balloon and break open the top valve, which has frozen shut. We used carefully art-directed sun positions and camerawork to enhance the effect of vertigo, combined with stunning visuals of cloudscapes and stars. After the valve is opened, Amelia also passes out and the balloon begins descending with her lying on top, creating an almost graphical top-down image. The last of Framestore’s sequences shows Amelia’s struggle to re-enter the balloon and wake James in lower altitudes. A beautiful and intimate moment occurs when it starts snowing and the descending balloon catches up with falling snowflakes which appear to float suspended in mid-air.

CINEFEX — What was the most challenging aspect of the show for you?

CHRISTIAN KAESTNER — Without a doubt, translating the striking concept art from Framestore’s art department into believable, photorealistic volumetric renders. Tom had a very clear vision of what the establishing shots needed to look like. That was fantastic because it gave us a wonderful guide, but at the same time there was little room for shortcuts, technically or visually. Even with today’s render power and physically accurate shaders, mimicking the light scatter within the vast volumes of our cloudscapes was a difficult exercise and required all hands on deck from the whole team, from shader writing to compositing.

CINEFEX — The aeronauts travel through many different atmospheric zones, each of which has its own character. Was it hard to keep track of continuity?

STUART PENN — Well, a key part of the story is the timeline of the balloon ascent. We had diagrams and charts that plotted the height of the balloon through the film, and we linked this to the temperatures they would experience and the types of clouds they would see. Working with Tom, I created per-scene mood boards of clouds, lighting and atmospherics. These were then used to create templates for the backgrounds for each scene.

CHRISTIAN KAESTNER — Yes, and Tom had a very clear idea of what he wanted his sky cinematography to look like. The shape of the clouds, the screen composition, even the color palette, were all well-established. Tom worked closely with Martin Macrae in our art department to bring his vision to life. It was a pleasure turning Tom’s vision into these remarkable images.

Rodeo FX

CINEFEX — Rodeo FX handled the climactic balloon descent. What was your reaction when you found you’d be handling this wild ride down through the sky?

ARA KHANIKIAN — You know, there’s something very exciting, and somewhat terrifying, when someone tells you, “We need to design a scene where a 19th century deflating balloon freefalls through layers and layers of clouds and crash-lands in trees in a period-accurate English countryside during a glorious sunset!”

CINEFEX — The Framestore team identified the cloudscapes as being one of the most challenging aspects of their visual effects work. Was the same true for Rodeo?

ARA KHANIKIAN — Yes, our main challenge on The Aeronauts was creating and lighting photorealistic cloudscapes in CG. It was clear to us that we could not use a digital matte painting approach, based on how dynamic the shots were in terms of lighting, camera, and overall complexity of action. Using Terragen, we created a number of custom cloudscapes with diameters ranging from three to six miles and scattered them into two separate cloud covers, at different altitudes. We used anisotropic volumetric effects for distant build-up of atmosphere, natural light spill, warm glow from sunset, and low-lying humidity on the Earth’s surface.

CINEFEX — There must be some interesting physics going on inside a deflating gas balloon. How did you simulate all that rippling silk?

ARA KHANIKIAN — One of the big challenges was developing the look and the interaction of the fabric with its enveloping rope netting. The simulation of the Mammoth was done accurately by having a CG volume exerting pressure at top of the balloon, simulating how hydrogen gas would react for additional realism. Created the proper hierarchies and constraints allowed us to deflate the balloon, while keeping control of the tension of ropes and their connection with the hoop from the bluescreen photography. We created a master scene and choreographed the Mammoth’s path and speed from start to end. This removed any subjectivity in regard to height, horizon line and speed from shot to shot. Designing the entire choreography in one master layout scene ended up being a very smart decision on the show — nobody ever second-guessed layouts in shots.

Special thanks to Rachel Aberly, Christina Baron, Agathe Jarnoux, Carmen King and Kara Misenheimer. Images copyright © 2019 by Amazon Studios.

Spotlight – Steve Murgatroyd

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

Our latest Spotlight interviewee is Steve Murgatroyd, a visual effects supervisor and Flame artist at Freefolk. Read on to learn about Steve’s experiences in the business, and his advice for people seeking a career in visual effects.

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

Steve Murgatroyd

STEVE MURGATROYD: I studied fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, and started using a bit of video for installations in the final year of my BA. They had a relatively new post graduate course called Electronic Imaging that specialised in video and computer based art, and after graduating I stuck around and did that. Again, a fine art course – they were rather scathing of anyone who enrolled thinking they’d be trained up for jobs in the TV or film industry.

The facilities were incredible for the time, with a well-equipped studio, good cameras and high-end linear edit suites. They had a few Apple Macintosh computers – at that time, a ‘Mac’ was still something you wore when it rained – called Symbolics and two Quantel machines, a Paintbox and a Harriet. I spent a lot of time on these. I was absolutely in awe of this technology that allowed you cut things out, move them around and even paint pixels. All this and a capacity of 323 frames of full 720×576 PAL! This felt very much like an artist’s tool and at this stage I never envisaged using the technology for anything other than my own work.

After graduating, I moved to London and soon realised it’s not a great city to be an unemployed artist in. I only had one skill worth touting and even then I’d never done anything with it commercially. But my knowledge of Quantel was all I had. I managed to get a couple of weeks work experience at The Mill, at the end of which the head of production sat me down and said, “If I offered you a job as a junior compositor, do you think you’d be up to it?” The job involved making mattes and producing graphics for three non-linear edit suites, as well as assisting with several Henry and a couple of new fangled Flame suites. I answered that I’d be rubbish at it but if I wasn’t up to it in three months time I’d leave of my own accord. I’d got my first visual effects job

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: The collaboration. People successfully working together toward a common goal must be rewarding in any occupation that requires more than one person. I think it’s particularly true of visual effects. Much of my job is problem-solving, so being able to call upon people from different disciplines and skillsets to find the best solution is such a privilege. I’m constantly surprised by people’s ingenuity. I’m working on a show at the moment where I thought a particular effect was obviously in need of CG, but one of our Nuke guys did some tests and found a cheaper, but equally effective, approach that has saved days of work. At Freefolk, the artists, production and pipeline all sit on one floor and I think this really helps the sense of camaraderie.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEVE MURGATROYD: Only one word – email.

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: There have been so many head-scratching moments and frustrations, so many late nights and weekends, that it’s impossible to single one out. There is, however, one constant challenge – a struggle that never seems to go away – and that is time, or lack of it. I’m acutely aware that, given the opportunity, artists would tinker and finesse ad infinitum, but schedules – on longform and commercials, at least – are always too tight.

This is especially true as resolutions and shot counts continually rise, not to mention expectations and the productions’ reliance on visual effects. I’m thrilled it’s such a boom time for the industry, but creativity needs time and throwing more people at a task never achieves the same results because it totally disregards the natural gestation of the work. I can’t imagine this issue will ever go away. It’s an aspect of the job you just have to deal with. But more time would make the job infinitely more satisfying.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEVE MURGATROYD: By far the weirdest request I’ve ever had came from Chris Cunningham. It wasn’t bizarre in a way you’d expect from the director of Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy music video. We were finishing up Portishead’s Only You, and it was about two in the morning when Chris thought it’d be amusing to put film dust on the clock – the slate at the head of the video. We’d added some over the picture when crackling can be heard in the track. That was inspired, but this was never going to be seen by anyone, other than by me, him and the handful of VT operators who have noticed it over the years. I guess that’s part of his genius.

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: Thinking about this question is making me feel old! After nearly 25 years in the industry, absolutely everything has changed. The clever tools available to compositors today were literally unimaginable in 1995. When I first started, you would create the best matte you could with a key, garbage with masks that didn’t have splines, and spend the majority of your time in the painting tool, painstakingly tidying up your comp.

There are a few advances in the technology that really stick in my mind, though. The advent of camera tracking and projections was truly game changing. Suddenly you could contemplate comp shots with elaborate camera moves without always resorting to motion control. I can remember moving from 8bit to 10bit and having to learn how to pull a key all over again – worked on Gladiator, which was finished in 8bit 2K. More recently, deep compositing and the emergence of Arnold’s Cryptomattes has not only given compositors greater control, but also brought 3D and 2D much closer together.

Not everything has been an improvement. Supervising shoots used to be far easier in the days of film, when directors would rehearse everything before turning over, giving you plenty of opportunity to interject where necessary. Nowadays, even the rehearals are recorded. You need to cover all bases and generally overcompensate for the lack of preparation.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEVE MURGATROYD: I’d like to see an end to all the really dull bits of comp work like rotoscoping and tracking. I’ve seen some encouraging developments in image learning software, but I feel the answer has to be optical. I remember getting really excited by a demo of Lytro’s movie camera and thinking, “This is it.” That is, until they revealed the image specs, the size of the camera and the hardware needed to drive it. I hope light-field technology will continue to be developed though, because I believe it will eventually sound death knell of what I call ‘digital labouring.’ That can only be a good thing for everyone.

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: There’s an Anthony Burrill print in Freefolk’s reception which simply states: “Work Hard & Be Nice To People.” Perfect advice, to which I’d like to add: “Be inquisitive, do the job you’re being paid to do to the best of your ability – however lowly – but take an interest in the work of those around you.” If you’re struggling with something, don’t waste too much time trying to figure it out on your own as there’s likely to be a number of people who can help. Don’t be too precious, because you’ll be expected to make changes you don’t agree with. Finally, I’d recommend a visual effects career only to those who are truly passionate about the work because, although it is hugely rewarding, it is also extremely demanding.

There are so many fantastic visual effects courses nowadays, with good industry connections, that if I were starting out today, I’d be doing one of these. Failing that, I’d get a job as a runner in one of the smaller post houses, make the best tea and coffee imaginable and spend my spare time learning. Best of luck!

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: This is a tricky question. There’s so much to choose from, and good visual effects and good films don’t necessarily go hand in hand. I have two boys aged 10 and 12, who love going to the movies and are huge Marvel fans, so I’d need to include something from that universe. We are Guardians of the Galaxy fans but for sheer scale it would have to be Avengers: Infinity War. For my boys, the battle of Wakanda is the standout scene in the film because it is so relentless. What impressed me most was the evaporating dust. The weight and dissipation is so incredibly believable and it looked so serene for something so destructive.

I’d also throw in Star Wars (the original), not because it revolutionised visual effects – which it obviously did – but because as a seven year-old kid going to the movies for the very first time it transported me to another world. It really was the most mind-blowing cinematic experience I’ve ever had. Luckily, my boys really enjoy Star Wars so we’ve continued to watch the saga together. The final assault on the Death Star is such a thrilling climax but I remember my favourite scenes at the time were those on Tatooine and, in particular, Luke’s landspeeder. I was utterly convinced by this hovering car and dreamed of owning one.

As we’ve mostly been in space we might as well keep it as the theme. I’d choose Gravity for my final film. It’s not difficult to see why this film swept the boards at the Oscars. The debris scene at the beginning is truly one of the most intense pieces of film I have ever watched. Gripping my chair so much, I think I fully realised the term ‘white knuckle ride’ for the first time. I love how the scene builds from the gentle nonchalantly drifting camera work, with the Earth coming into view as the sense of jeopardy is introduced with news of the satellites, to the all-out disorientating chaos as the shuttle and crew are ripped part. I know it was a long time in post but it was thoroughly worth it.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEVE MURGATROYD: I’m not a huge fan of sugary things but, when it comes to the cinema, pick and mix is the only choice.

CINEFEX: Steve, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Andy Morley

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

Andy Morley is head of visual effects at Outpost VFX. His list of filmography highlights includes such movies as Sunshine, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Avatar and Avengers: Infinity War.

Andy Morley

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

ANDY MORLEY: Hah – this question makes me feel old! After upgrading from a Commodore 64 to the much more graphically powerful Amiga in 1990, I started dabbling with animation and Boolean modelling on programs such as Imagine and Real3D. It was amazing what you could do with just 1Mb of RAM those days!

When university beckoned, I had the choice to use my traditional A-levels to do boring mathematics- or physics-based stuff, but then stumbled on an exciting computer animation degree in the UK seaside resort of Bournemouth. I thought, “Why not? Computers and art – let’s give it a go.” My first big break consisted of working for Dave Throssell at The Mill in high-end television commercials in 1998. In 2000, I moved to Industrial Light & Magic in the US to work on Star Wars and dinosaur films. Amazing fun to have done all that so early on!

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

ANDY MORLEY: I love computers, and I love making pictures – the blend still immerses me. These days, the market is much more driven by schedule and production, due to the quantity of visual effects work needed. But there are still times when I just sit back, look at a shot and think, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDY MORLEY: These days, I do not let the job get to me emotionally as much as it might have done in the past. However, the bit I dislike the most is those times when your work gets pushed back or criticized. Often this is because there are other factors at play beyond the actual imagery – which is what I tell myself, anyway!

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

ANDY MORLEY: I have had many challenging tasks. Ultimately, they have all had a question related to them such as: “Can we deliver the show?” It all comes down to time, staff, money, or a mix of the above. What I will say is that a super-challenging task is smashed apart by calm and methodical thinking. Often you can fix everything by starting with a ‘what can we do?’ foundation and building on top of this. Mind you, these challenges often end up with sleeping bags under desks and going home just to pick up fresh clothes!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDY MORLEY: Going for a casual London job interview, and 36 hours later finding myself in Mumbai. Weird, but very, very fun.

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

ANDY MORLEY: So many changes – due to far too many years! From a tech standpoint for a standalone user, when I started in 1996, an SGI computer with a full suite of 3D software would cost anywhere between £50-80K, depending on what color the case was. Now, most of the software is cheap enough for a hobbyist to buy, and a PC from a local shop can do a high level of visual effects work.

The sheer scale of visual effects – in what seems like every film and television show out there – means render allotments have become render farms in local server rooms or floating in the cloud. The throughput of data, caches, images, QuickTime movies – all at resolutions the human eye almost cannot differentiate – has simply exploded. With streaming services all creating their own competing content, this mountain of data only continues to grow. In some ways, the visual effects industry feels like it has matured a lot, but there is still plenty of room for further refinement across the board.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDY MORLEY: I would love to see more collaboration between visual effects companies, more getting along and sharing work and people. When I started in Soho at the end of the ‘90s, films were split up so much – because they had to be – but there were just not enough artists or computers. These days, I feel the business side of things has overtaken the artistry at all levels.

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

ANDY MORLEY: The industry continues to change, and so my main advice would be to remain flexible to all aspects of it. The tendency over the last five or ten years has been for work to move wherever the tax breaks go. It is easier to keep busy if you are happy to jump on a plane occasionally. This worked for me in my earlier years, and has given me what I call ‘extensive paid-for working holidays’ – it has been great fun to experience different cultures in the US, Singapore, India, Turkey and so on. I cannot see the way work is placed into specific countries changing too much in the short to medium term but, with the onset of superfast internet, working more remotely continues to improve and gather pace. I am keen to see how this will evolve, especially with the restrictions of the various security rules that govern the industry.

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

ANDY MORLEY: I watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day again last weekend. I had forgotten just how good a film it is, and never mind the visual work, which was simply groundbreaking at the time. This is my first choice and it was pretty much the reason I did the animation degree a year or so after I first saw it. There are so many great shots – the reforming of the T-1000 is particularly impressive.

Second choice is Avatar, due to the sheer scale of what was achieved. The production design is gorgeous, particularly where the hoverships and dragon creatures are flying around the floating islands.

My final choice would change for every mini-festival, depending on my mood! At the moment I’d say Elysium. The visual effects look stunning. It also shows the evil of the large-scale corporation versus the lowly people – and the people win!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDY MORLEY: Chocolate Minstrels – always perfect. To avoid crunching the packet and making too much noise, I open at the start of the trailers, and they are gone by the start of the film.

CINEFEX: Andy, thanks for your time!

VIEW Conference Q&A with Hal Hickel

Hal Hickel joined Industrial Light & Magic in 1996 as an animator on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, before progressing to animation supervisor on such shows as Pacific Rim, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the upcoming The Mandalorian. At VIEW Conference 2019, Hal talked about his role in a talk entitled Anatomy of an Animation Supervisor. Afterwards, Cinefex sat down with Hal to discuss some of the topics he covered in his presentation.

Hal Hickel

CINEFEX – What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

HAL HICKEL – Probably the relationship with the director, especially if it’s a director I haven’t worked with before. It’s a lot of fun to figure out what makes them tick, and what their goals are for the film. What makes them laugh? What do they like? What don’t they like?

CINEFEX – Do you get to spend time on set?

HAL HICKEL – Often I do. ILM has been very supportive in budgeting travel for me to be on set for some key scenes, or longer if the film requires it. I find that invaluable. Listening to the director on set, how they speak to their crew and the actors, is one of the most valuable things in terms of getting to know them. Then there are the basics of what I’m there for. I might see something I know is going to be a problem, and now’s my moment to jump in and say, “It won’t hurt the scene any, but if you just do this a little differently it’ll make our lives easier later on.”

CINEFEX – It must be helpful being able to watch the actors rehearse, maybe improvise, see how the chemistry of a scene develops. You can bring your memory of all of that back to ILM.

HAL HICKEL – That’s exactly right. You understand the scene from the inside out. Often the shape of the scene will change once it goes through editorial. If there’s a problem to solve partway through the animation process, the solution might come from understanding what the intention was at the beginning. You’d never know that if you hadn’t been there on the day.

CINEFEX – You’ve explained how you work on set. Where do you fit in with the rest of the team within ILM?

HAL HICKEL – Animation supervisors have always been given a fair amount of autonomy at ILM. Maybe that’s for historical reasons that have to do with some strong characters in our history like Phil Tippett, Steve Williams and Rob Coleman. On shows that have a significant amount of creature work, we’re seen as the creative partners of the visual effects supervisor, if not quite their equal in terms of the overall hierarchy. Then, of course, you’ve got your animation team that you’re supervising.

CINEFEX – So it’s still all about relationships.

HAL HICKEL – Yeah, it’s all about forming alliances, and that includes the other departments in the facility. If you can make allies of people rather than having a turf war over whose job it is to do this or that, your life’s going to be a lot easier. Film is perhaps the most collaborative of all art forms. It’s no surprise that being a good team player and learning to get along with folks is a big part of the job.

CINEFEX – Do you ever get the chance to go hands-on and do a little animation yourself?

HAL HICKEL – At the very beginning of a project I don’t really have a team, for practical reasons. So, if we need to do a test or a proof of concept, quite often I do that myself, or I have maybe one other animator working with me. It keeps my hand in. But, to animate properly, you have to get in the zone. That’s a different job to focusing on all the animation on a show. Shifting from the macro to the micro is really tough to do when you’re getting interrupted with calls or getting pulled away to meetings and video conferences every half an hour. For that reason alone, it’s hard to do much animation during the show. I’ll sometimes try to steal a shot or two for myself later in the show, if I think I can get them done in a timely way. I don’t want to hold things up just for my own vanity.

CINEFEX – As a supervisor, how do you balance the animator’s need to express themselves as an artist with steering them along the right path, according to the needs of the show?

HAL HICKEL – That’s one of the challenges working in a creative capacity, but where you’re not the master of your own destiny. I want people to be passionate and invested, but not so much that when they have to scrap something, they can’t. Sometimes I might have to ask for a big change, but it’s a lot of work and heartbreak for the animator so instead they make little incremental changes to what they’ve already done. It can be a challenge to get them to scrape back down to the canvas.

CINEFEX – When there’s a lot of work spread across a big team, how do you keep everyone invested?

HAL HICKEL – I try to give animators a group of shots rather than one-offs, as much as possible. I feel the animators have more authorship that way. I also encourage them to do things that aren’t in the brief. I try to give them the intent of what the director is after and just let them go. There’s nothing I like better than to get a shot back that doesn’t look exactly how I pictured it, but it’s actually better because they did something unexpected and awesome.

CINEFEX – Even if it goes against the intent?

HAL HICKEL – Even if I think it might not be quite the right tone, I’ll try to give it a shot with the director. I’ll at least get the animator to do it again the way I think it should be, but still show both ideas. I’ll try to always credit an animator with a great idea. Likewise, if I’m wrong about something, I’ll own up to it. And there’s plenty of times I’ve been proven wrong!

CINEFEX – Do you get your animators to sit in on director reviews?

HAL HICKEL – I do that as much as possible. There are some directors who don’t like a big crowd when they’re giving reviews, but most of the directors I’ve worked with really like knowing their animation team and talking to them directly. It’s great for the animators when that happens.

CINEFEX – Do you assign certain shots to certain animators, based on their strengths?

HAL HICKEL – Absolutely. Casting shots is crucial. But you don’t want to pigeonhole them. You want to give people a chance to stretch. Also, I’ll tell my animators to look at the sequences we haven’t started working on yet. If they see something they really want to do, they can tell me and I’ll try to make it happen, within the boundaries of resources and scheduling.

CINEFEX – You came to ILM from Pixar. Was that because you saw visual effects animation as something you really wanted to do?

HAL HICKEL – I like animation of all kinds, but I always gravitated to what Ray Harryhausen did – this whole idea of putting a creature into the real world and trying to make it look as real as possible. I was fascinated by his Dynamation process.

CINEFEX – You’ve stuck with visual effects ever since, although you did step briefly back into feature animation with Rango.

HAL HICKEL – It’s funny, because if Rango had come through the door five years earlier, I would have been like, “Meh, I came here to do visual effects.” Instead it came along at just the perfect point and I thought, “Yeah, let’s do this, it’ll be great.” It was fun to do it at ILM because we didn’t have a history of making animated features. We didn’t know enough to know what we didn’t know, so we just barreled ahead and did it our way, and had a blast doing it.

CINEFEX – Rango’s an example of cross-pollination between the different animation arenas. Or Bumblebee, where ILM adopted some of LAIKA’s stop-motion techniques like stretching parts of the digital puppet to cheat extreme angles.

HAL HICKEL – Yeah, I’d love to do a live-action film that afforded not just cheats for visual impact, but cheats to make things weird and bizarre. I’d love to work on a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry film – something odd or unconventional. Or maybe something with a central animated character who isn’t in the middle of a massive visual effects film, where I can just put everything into that character. Right now, at the stage I’m at, that’s my dream project.

VIEW Conference 2019

VIEW Conference Q&A with Guy Williams

Guy Williams, visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, was at VIEW Conference 2019 presenting the company’s groundbreaking work on Gemini Man, for which artists created an uncannily realistic digital version of Will Smith as the 23 year-old ‘Junior.’ Cinefex spoke with Guy before his presentation to discuss some of the extraordinary changes he’s seen since starting his career in the early 1990s.

CINEFEX – What was the first project you worked on as a visual effects artist?

Guy Williams

GUY WILLIAMS – My first job was at Boss Film, when I was fresh out of college. We were doing the Budweiser Superbowl commercial. They had made the decision to go all-CG with the bottles for the first time, and Boss was hired to do 40-50 shots of bottles playing football. I was at Boss for just over a year, then I went to Warner Digital for two years, then bounced around a few other places in Los Angeles. Back then, I knew just enough about computer graphics to get in trouble!

CINEFEX – Boss Film was set up by Richard Edlund after he left ILM. Was this around the time they were transitioning from photochemical work into the digital realm?

GUY WILLIAMS – Right. ILM got into computer graphics first, but in the early ‘90s a lot of companies moved rapidly in that realm. You had two different kinds of companies crop up – the ILM spin-offs like Boss, and new teams like Digital Productions, The Secret Lab, Rhythm & Hues. Boss started in photochemical and then made the transition to go CG – they had one of the biggest CG departments at the time. Boss doubled down really hard on digital, but couldn’t figure out how to make a business model out of it and ended up collapsing under the expenditure. But they did a lot of really big projects.

CINEFEX – What was it like at Boss back then?

GUY WILLIAMS – On my first day, I was expecting to walk into this beautifully polished operation, with 35 talented people and five new hires. I got there and there were two people with experience and 38 new hires!

CINEFEX – Why was that?

GUY WILLIAMS – Because there weren’t even 100 people in the industry worldwide at that point. Staffing your company with 40 people would have drained every other company and even closed a bunch of them down. So they had to draw people into the industry. That was the first big swelling of computer graphics in visual effects.

CINEFEX – What was your specific role?

GUY WILLIAMS – You didn’t have 10-15 different departments in a company back then. You just had CG artists. Everybody got on the same team and solved all the problems. As time went on, Boss made the decision to split that into two – you had people doing the 3D side of things – modeling, animating, lighting – and then you handed off to the second team which did the paint and compositing.

CINEFEX – Things are certainly different today. The tools you were using must have been very different, too.

GUY WILLIAMS – There were no real compositing packages back then. We did all our compositing with command line tools. If you wanted to put image ‘A’ over image ‘B’ and output image ‘C,’ you would do all that just by writing a line of code. If you wanted to blur it, colour correct it, add a drop shadow, you ended up with these big, complex scripts that ran each composite individually, one line of code at a time.

CINEFEX – It sounds painfully slow.

GUY WILLIAMS – Oh, it was hugely inefficient. The early systems would read in the images one pixel at a time, do the math on the pixel, render the pixel back out. Blurs were really hard to do, because your program had to read enough pixels in to do the blur. The larger the blur, the more pixels you had to read in. That really slowed things down.

CINEFEX – So you were artists and coders, both at the same time.

GUY WILLIAMS – If you wanted to do something but there was no tool to do it, you’d write it yourself. That’s how the industry worked in the beginning. We were a bunch of special forces kids who would solve problems as they cropped up.

CINEFEX – Can you give us a specific example from your own experience?

GUY WILLIAMS – We were doing a Kelloggs cereal commercial. The milk pitcher was shaped like a little cow and got accidentally stuck into the cereal. It was a full CG milk pitcher, but the animation tools didn’t allow for overlapping lattices in the deformation, which meant we couldn’t have facial animation and bend the neck. I wrote a tool that merged the models together so we could do the facial animation in one file, do the neck animation in another file, merge the result together and get a final render.

CINEFEX – Could you have foreseen the speed of change since those early days?

GUY WILLIAMS – I was too young to think that smart! It’s not because the future was clouded to me – I just didn’t think to look in that direction. I don’t think I would have predicted that we would have gotten departmentalised so much, because back then it wasn’t necessary. People actually saw departments as a restriction, because the financial impetus wasn’t there and there was a morale hit. In hindsight, we should have known it was coming, because the projects were always going to get bigger.

CINEFEX – That’s something that hasn’t changed – projects getting bigger year by year.

GUY WILLIAMS – You know, we used to have this joke that every frame would take an hour to render. That first Budweiser commercial I did, by the time you added up all the passes – one hour. The cereal commercial – one hour. By the time I was working on the first Lord of the Rings movie – maybe two hours. After that it really ramped up. For King Kong you’re talking six hours. Now, on Gemini Man, you’re looking at 400 hours, and we had some renders that took well over 1,000 hours per frame. That’s parallelised across a lot of processors, of course.

CINEFEX – So, even though computers are way faster than they were in the ‘90s, the stuff you’re asking them to calculate is way more complicated.

GUY WILLIAMS – Here’s an example of that from Gemini Man – one of my favourite things about what we did. In the past, we would have painted a texture map for the face, then taken out some of the red so by the time we added the subsurface back in, with the bloodflow, it would end up at the right colour. On this show, we painted separate maps for the two layers of melanin in the skin – eumelanin and pheomelanin. The maps work together so when you look at his face from the front, you see yellow in a certain place, and when you look from the side you see yellow in a different place. That’s because you’re seeing past the darker melanin layers into the paler skin colours that lie beneath. That’s one reason each frame takes so long to render, but it’s that attention to realism that really makes the difference. If you want to believe this thing is 100 percent living and breathing, you have to treat it as if it really is living and breathing.

CINEFEX – So you’re simulating more accurately the way light passes through the various skin layers.

GUY WILLIAMS – And I’ve only scratched the surface on that. On the subject of light transmission, we don’t do RGB math on our rendering any more. We don’t talk in terms of red, green and blue and how they make any colour possible. Our math is all done in waveforms, frequencies of light. That’s important, because it means we can feed in the correct absorption terms for pheomelanin and eumelanin. So, when you shine a certain colour of light on the skin, it gives you the correct result.

This all dates back to Avatar, by the way, where we had saturated blue creatures carrying around orange torches. If you do the RGB math, orange times blue equals zero, so you see hardly anything – well, if the orange light is bright enough, you might get a little bit of brown. But that’s not right. If you take a blue ball and put an orange light next to it, you’ll still see blue. That’s because it’s about absorptions of frequencies of light. We do all that stuff now on our renderer.

CINEFEX – Each new step takes the craft closer to scientific accuracy. But some things are still approximations. With a typical creature rig, for example, the animator moves the bones, and the bones drive the muscle simulation. But that’s backwards – in the real world it’s the muscles that drive the bones.

GUY WILLIAMS – Exactly. When I raise my arm, I do it by firing my bicep. When I reach out with my finger to touch something, a dozen or more different muscles fire to get it to land right where I want it to. That’s because of years and years of hand-eye coordination training. But imagine animating like that – it would be incredibly hard to do. I don’t know if we’re ever going to go there, but we’ll go much closer to it. We’ll still animate the bone, but then we’ll pass it through a filter that goes back, turns the bones off, and fires what it thinks the muscles would be doing. That’s definitely one for the future.

CINEFEX – What about other kinds of simulations, like water and cloth?

GUY WILLIAMS – I think we’re going to see more coupled sims in the future. Right now, we cheat coupling by doing one sim and using it to affect another sim. But the truth is they should affect each other equally, constantly.

CINEFEX – Can you elaborate on that?

GUY WILLIAMS – Here’s an example. When I started in the industry, one of the first things you learned to simulate was a flag fluttering in the wind. The depressing thing is that the technology we use today to do that exact same thing is very similar to what it was back then. All you’re doing is putting forces on the flag and using the inertia of the flag to make it look like the flag is billowing. There’s no accounting for the density of air.

CINEFEX – Which affects the movement of the flag?

GUY WILLIAMS – You ever see a sheet hanging on a line? The breeze picks up and the sheet swells like a parachute, then collapses as the wind passes through it. You cannot do that with a single cloth simulation – you have to couple it. You need to do a fluid sim for the air that responds to the sheet at the same time as the cloth sim responds to the air movement. All that’s part of the next round of cool tricks we’re coming up with. In a way it’s nothing glamorous – except it is, because finally cloth will really start to look amazing.

That’s what’s beautiful about our industry today – all this stuff is ongoing. Ten years from now, there’ll be a whole bunch of new things that we’re figuring out. We are still growing.

Read in-depth coverage on the visual effects of "Gemini Man" in Cinefex 167.
Read in-depth coverage on the visual effects of “Gemini Man” in Cinefex 167.
VIEW Conference 2019

VIEW Conference Q&A with Trent Claus

As a visual effects supervisor at Lola VFX, Trent Claus oversees the artists responsible for reshaping some of Marvel Studios’ most iconic characters. Trent’s hour-long presentation at VIEW Conference 2019 covered Lola’s work from ‘Skinny Steve’ (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger to a youthful Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Captain Marvel. After the presentation, Cinefex caught up with Trent to discuss the challenges of de-aging some of the world’s most famous actors.

Trent Claus

CINEFEX – How did you first get into the visual effects business?

TRENT CLAUS – I’m originally from Nebraska. I’m a fine art major – drawing, painting, sculpture – and I was determined to not be one of the many art graduates who don’t do anything with their degree. I wanted to work in film but they don’t make movies in Nebraska, so I had to apply to anywhere I could. I was lucky that I had an ‘in’ at a company in Los Angeles – Lola VFX. They were looking for a matte painter, which was a pretty good transition from fine art. I went on to do compositing, then supervising.

CINEFEX – Specifically, you now supervise all the Marvel shows that Lola works on, right?

TRENT CLAUS – Yeah, I’ve become the Marvel guy. That’s because I’ve had a good relationship with Marvel through the years, but also because I’m a comic book nerd. My first job ever, at the age of 13, was working in a comic book store. It’s a dream come true to be contributing to those characters I grew up with.

CINEFEX – It’s not hard to see the correlation between a fine art background and the kind of work you’re known for now.

TRENT CLAUS – Almost everything we do is done by compositors, which directly relates to my 2D approach to things, and my reluctance to go full CG. I really appreciate the qualities and textures you get with the footage that was shot on set, and I try to maintain that as much as humanly possible.

CINEFEX – In your presentation, you talked about the importance of studying facial anatomy. In a way, you’re using modern techniques to do what Leonardo da Vinci was doing. He would study cadavers to inform his art.

TRENT CLAUS – It’s funny you bring him up, because one of my favourite art history classes was on the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. You know, people often talk about there being some qualities of Leonardo da Vinci’s face in the Mona Lisa. It’s this idea that when you’re doing self-portraiture, in some way you’re painting your own features, although you’re doing it subconsciously.

CINEFEX – Is that a view you subscribe to?

TRENT CLAUS – I think it’s partially true, because when I see the de-aging comps from the 50-60 artists on our team, most times I can tell which artist did which comp. Sometimes they adjust proportions to match their own face more closely.

CINEFEX – If it’s subconscious, what’s driving it, do you think?

TRENT CLAUS – I have a personal theory. We’re ingrained from birth to recognise human faces. Not just actual faces – we see faces everywhere, in trees and forests, in a brick wall. We’re wired to find human faces whether they’re there or not, and when we find them we’re able to judge emotion really quickly.

Now, I think most of our learned responses to that data are based on seeing our parents’ faces when we’re babies. So, our subconscious ability to analyse human faces is in fact based on the structure of our parents’ faces, and that is what artists  are subconsciously matching when they produce something that resembles a self-portrait.

CINEFEX – It’s a convincing theory.

TRENT CLAUS –  It could be totally wrong!

CINEFEX – It’s clear the work you do at Lola is meticulous, hand-crafted stuff. That’s all very well when there’s just one artist involved. As a supervisor, how do you maintain consistency across an entire film?

TRENT CLAUS – It’s really hard. When we first get turnover from the client, I’ll go through and pick a hero shot from each sequence. I pick a single frame from that to do our initial look on, and that gives us one frame of the best shot looking exactly like we want it to. We expand that to the remainder of the moving footage of that one shot, then we expand that to every other shot in the sequence. Then we repeat that for every sequence in the film.

CINEFEX – That can’t be as simple as it sounds.

TRENT CLAUS – It’s great in theory, but of course it doesn’t always work out to just be an easy match. There’s all sorts of other considerations like lighting, angle, movement, motion blur. I have to take into account the different skill levels of the artists, their own idiosyncrasies. We have a rigorous internal review system where they get daily notes, and it isn’t until we’ve got the look nearly there, or really there, that I send it off to Marvel. The production supervisor repeats the same process and sends back more notes on things that their eye sees. Oftentimes, just looking at it from a fresh perspective, they see things that I miss.

CINEFEX – Does it help that you tend to work with the same production supervisors over and over?

TRENT CLAUS – Definitely. We’ve been lucky with Marvel in that respect. Chris Townsend was the overall supervisor on the first Captain America, the second Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel. Because we’ve worked together several times, we have a trust and a shorthand. We can speak to each other honestly and not get offended by anything the other one says.

CINEFEX – It’s vital not to take criticism personally. It’s all in service of the film.

TRENT CLAUS – That’s another skill that comes to me from fine art school, where there was pretty rigorous peer review. You would put your work up on the wall, and people would critique you and give you notes. You had to learn very quickly not to take offense because they’re not telling you you’re a bad artist, they’re just telling you how to improve. That’s a skill that all artists in visual effects need to have, although it’s something people from more technical backgrounds can sometimes struggle with.

CINEFEX – In order to keep a character on model, do you establish a broad set of starting points. Things like: “We’re aging this character 30 years so the nose is going to be three percent bigger.”

TRENT CLAUS – Nothing that analytical. No numbers, no math. It’s all done by eye and reference is king. When we’re de-aging, we bring up reference of what the actor actually looked like at that point in the past, and I insist artists keep that reference up on screen as they’re working.

CINEFEX – Your presentation included clips of a de-aged Kurt Russell as Ego at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. You explained how important it was to find reference of him not just at the right age, but playing the right kind of character, which is why you went for how he looked in Used Cars.

TRENT CLAUS – Yeah. You might find a fantastic dramatic press shot of Kurt at that age, but if you need a big smiley Kurt that’s not going to be all that helpful. It takes some effort to go through the old movies frame by frame and find the right expressions, and also the right angles. With big actors like Kurt Russell and Michael Douglas there’s plenty of reference out there. But that’s not always the case. When we de-aged Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he wasn’t a big actor at the age we were de-aging him to. His appearance in Thelma and Louise was the closest we could get, but even that wasn’t precise to what we wanted.

CINEFEX – What do the actors themselves think about the work you do?

TRENT CLAUS – I don’t know to what extent they get approval – that all happens on the studio side – but they do get shown our work. It’s always nerve-racking because you definitely want to impress them. Sam Jackson was very complimentary and really excited about the work we did on Captain Marvel. Michael Douglas joked that he wanted to buy the company! It’s exciting to make them happy because they’re the stars, and we’re doing a very intimate thing to their appearance.

CINEFEX – Actors care a lot about how they look. Many have a preferred makeup artist that they use consistently from film to film.

TRENT CLAUS – Yeah, and we do have actors who have a preference for Lola. They’ll insist that they use us, which we love of course.

CINEFEX – This year we’ve seen two distinctly difference approaches to de-aging. There’s Lola’s 2D approach, and the fully CG work done by Weta Digital on Gemini Man. How do you see things developing in the future?

TRENT CLAUS – They’re definitely two very different methodologies, and I think there’s a need for both. I think there’s a lot of room to do it full CG, but then reintroduce some organic elements from a plate back onto it using our process. That’s something that I would like to experiment with.

CINEFEX – In Avengers: Endgame, you aged Chris Evans to portray Captain America at the age of 120, and took Michael Douglas as Hank Pym back to the year 1970. How far can you push your approach? Is there a point at which it breaks down?

TRENT CLAUS – It’s really hard when you cross the line of adolescence. The changes that happen at puberty are immense, so trying to believably take an actor past that threshold is really hard. Thankfully it hasn’t really come up, because it would be nearly impossible to do. I would definitely try to convince the production not to do it!

CINEFEX – So there’s a threshold of youth. What about old age?

TRENT CLAUS – Going the other way there’s much more free rein, because there’s no reference. I don’t think there’s any limit going that way. If we can do 120 years old for Captain America, I think we can do anything.

VIEW Conference 2019

VIEW Conference Q&A with Thomas Schelesny

A visual effects supervisor at Image Engine, Thomas Schelesny was part of of the Emmy Award winning visual effects team on the final season of HBO’s fantasy epic Game of Thrones. Cinefex caught up with Thomas at VIEW Conference 2019, for a sit-down chat about some of the challenges faced by the visual effects artists and supervisors tasked with transporting audiences to the mythical world of Westeros.

Thomas Schelesny

CINEFEX – You started your career at Tippett Studio back in the 1990s. Do you still find yourself drawing on lessons you learned back then?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – Absolutely. What I’m doing now is a result of everything Phil Tippett taught me, and everything Phil taught me came through Ray Harryhausen, who was his mentor when he was young. If you don’t understand your place in the lineage, then you’re almost disrespecting the fact that so much has come before. There is a torch to be carried.

CINEFEX – And now you’ve carried it all the way through to Game of Thrones.

THOMAS SCHELESNY – Game of Thrones actually takes a special significance. If I think about Ray Harryhausen, the first thing that comes to mind is the fighting skeletons. Well, in Season 4 of Game of Thrones, we did fighting Walkers as an homage to Ray Harryhausen. Then I got to work on dragons. What’s Phil Tippett famous for? His work on Dragonslayer.

CINEFEX – The first film you worked on at Tippett Studio was Starship Troopers. How have things changed in the industry since then?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – When I went to Tippett Studio at the beginning of 1996, it was relatively easy for them to create a super-team of people because there were so few companies around. Now, there are so many facilities working on so many projects that it’s hard to find that talent. Also, since artists’ careers are so much more transient, it’s harder to foster that talent.

CINEFEX – People move on too quickly?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – I nearly did myself! When I went to Tippett Studio, I planned to be with Phil for Starship Troopers and then go back to Canada having learned everything about visual effects – well, I was young and dumb! It took me roughly ten seconds to realise I didn’t know a thing about animation or visual effects. I ended up staying with Phil for 14 years.

CINEFEX – That certainly doesn’t count as ‘transient.’

THOMAS SCHELESNY – It took me the first seven or eight years to learn the broad strokes, but I’d been there ten years before I knew enough to recognise the small lessons. I don’t think it’s as easy now for young artists to spend enough time in any particular facility to learn those lessons. Maybe the next Phil Tippett is in a giant company, unrecognised, and not able to realise their super-talent because they’re lost in the shuffle.

CINEFEX – You talk about lessons. Is that part of your role as a visual effects supervisor, to teach?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – To help, maybe. For me, every dream I could possibly have wished to come true in my career has happened. I would love for just one another person to have that same kind of arc in their career and so I’m looking for those people, just to try to steer them along, put a little bit of wind in their sails. 

CINEFEX – What specifically are you looking for in a person?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – With a show like Game of Thrones, the one thing I desperately need as a supervisor is highly motivated artists. It’s not about experience. It’s about motivation. And nothing motivates a person more than when they see their dream becoming a reality. If an artist becomes a superstar on the show, then I’m happy.  If I have a team that’s motivated, the project will succeed.

CINEFEX – On Game of Thrones you had a relatively small team at Image Engine, big workload, tight deadlines, the whole nine yards. How do you keep artists motivated under those conditions?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – I spend a lot of time asking artists, “What do you think?” Actually, I have two questions when I go by an artist’s desk: “What have you done? What were you about to do next?” My favourite note is this: “Sounds great, let’s do it your way.” As I’m walking away, I may add, “Make it a little bit redder,” or something to throw in a little pepper. If the artist knows what they’re doing, the greatest hindrance could actually be me. If I hammer everybody with notes and seven-day weeks, I will lose my crew. Oh, and I’d better quit my job, because nobody is going to want to work with me again.

It’s also important to know how things are going in their personal lives, so I can tell which way the wind is blowing with that person. Are they having a good day or a bad day? Do they have a young family? I have to tailor my words to suit every single artist’s place in the industry, in their career, and in their personal life, because it really is about the people.

CINEFEX – So is it more about facilitating talent than directing it?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – Well, in my opinion, the artist is right two-thirds of the time. Here’s how that works. First, if their idea is better than my idea, they’re right. Second, if their idea is worse than my idea, I’m right. Third, if our ideas are of similar value, they’re right by default. You see, if I always made it about me on that final third, then I would end up telling them what to do two-thirds of the time – I wouldn’t wish that on myself as an artist. But, it’s my responsibility to own it if it all goes pear-shaped. That’s my responsibility as the visual effects supervisor.

CINEFEX – Where does your own motivation come from? What drove you to work in visual effects in the first place?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – You want to hear my journey? I was a failed athlete, into bike racing. I went to the Olympic trials, didn’t make the team, then went off and taught scuba diving for a year while I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Then I decided I was going to do the same thing I did as a child which got me in trouble, which was draw pictures, build models and blow them up in my parents’ back yard. So I went to film school. That’s my career journey, but it’s of little use to anyone else. There are an infinite number of paths. You can’t replicate my goofy way of going through it.

CINEFEX – So is there any advice you can offer to aspiring artists?

THOMAS SCHELESNY – The things which are absolutes are persistence and honesty. I have never been a quitter – I learned that as an athlete. Honesty is about your relationships with people. It doesn’t mean just bluntly telling people an opinion. I’m not saying be impolite. It’s about protecting the honest relationships you have with all the people you deal with. Artists know that if I tell them something, it’s for real. Clients know that I’m not going to give them a snow job on why we’re doing something. Persistence and honesty. I’m sure these truths go way beyond the visual effects industry. But pursuing them is a good way to have a great career.

Read the full behind-the-scenes story on Game of Thrones Season 8 in Cinefex 166.

VIEW  Conference 2019

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.