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.

The Illusionists — Dennis Muren

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

The Cinefex Illusionists - Dennis Muren

CINEFEX — What’s the appeal of visual effects for you?

DENNIS MUREN — You know, ever since I was a little kid watching effects films, I always had an opinion about what I saw. Always. I would think, “That doesn’t look real,” and I would also think, “Why doesn’t that look real?” In those days, you could look at the screen credits to find the names of the guys who did the effects, and then look them up in the Los Angeles phone book. You could talk to them, even go and meet them. Doing that, I learned that this looked real because of this, and that looked fake because of that.

CINEFEX — Has that early sense of curiosity endured over the years?

DENNIS MUREN — Yeah, because I’m unsatisfied with everything. Whenever I finish a show, I put in my mind that it’s obsolete, so what’s the next thing? That’s a conscious thing that I do.

CINEFEX — So each show is part of a continuum, and you’re moving from one, to the next, to the next.

DENNIS MUREN — Exactly, and that all started because George Lucas kept Industrial Light & Magic going after the first Star Wars. As more films came in, we could stay in the business and continue to learn, doing effects year after year. That was wonderful. We had an opportunity to improve the technology, and also our own mental vision of what we were trying to do. We were able to get our minds out of the nuts and bolts and start thinking, “We’ve got a great toolset. Now, how can we improve it and make something better?” That ultimately opened the way to where we are now, when we can almost do anything.

CINEFEX — You were a real mover and shaker during the digital revolution. To what extent were you taking a leap of faith back then?

DENNIS MUREN — Oh, every step was an unknown. We just went with the best information we had. We did a CG dinosaur test for Jurassic Park that came out really terrific, then we did a second test and it was horrible — and we never fixed it. But it wasn’t like I was just being foolish about it. I had backup systems for everything, even for Terminator 2 and The Abyss. If the CG didn’t live up to a certain standard, we were going to do shots in a more traditional way. In my mind, there was always a way we were going to be able to get through it in time and on budget.

CINEFEX — Now that almost anything is possible in visual effects, given time and money, are there any real challenges left?

DENNIS MUREN — It used to be you would spend a huge amount of time just getting things to look real. That’s much easier to do now, so what’s more important is designing the shot in the first place. How can I take this sequence and make it different and more entertaining than the other eight films that have had the same thing in them? It’s an incredibly important question, and it’s where the effort ought to go in, because the end part is now taking care of itself. There’s enough money and talent and people to get the stuff to look real. What we have to ask now is, “Was it worth getting it to look real?”

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

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Richard Edlund

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

The Cinefex Illusionists - Richard Edlund

CINEFEX — What do you remember about watching films as a youngster?

RICHARD EDLUND — I remember being in the seventh grade, going down to one of the movie palaces in Minneapolis and seeing The Robe, the first Cinemascope movie. I remember seeing Victor Mature standing on top of a mountain with this green halo vibrating around him. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d spotted a matte line!

CINEFEX — You spent many hours later on trying to keep matte lines out of the picture on Star Wars. How did you get that gig?

RICHARD EDLUND — After I had gotten out of college, I was a rock‘n’roll photographer for three or four years, and then I worked in commercials with Bob Abel, which was where I got involved with visual effects. One day I got this call from John Dykstra, who wanted to talk about a sci-fi movie he was going to do for George Lucas. I jumped in my car, drove out to what was then Industrial Light & Magic, and wound up talking to John and Gary Kurtz. After about half an hour I was given the job as director of photography for the miniatures.

CINEFEX — What did you think when you first read the script for Star Wars?

RICHARD EDLUND — I thought it was a teenage movie. I was a little bit worried about lines like, “Trust in the force, Luke.” I couldn’t think of many actors in America who would have the gravitas to pull off those lines, except maybe Marlon Brando. About three or four months into the project, when we were getting ready to shoot in England, we heard that George had just cast Alec Guinness to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. I thought, “That’s it! He’s the guy!” It was the perfect casting. I realized at that point the film was going to transcend the teenage demographic and capture the adult audience as well.

CINEFEX — So Alec Guinness was the key?

RICHARD EDLUND — Oh, there were four keys to Star Wars. The first was Ralph McQuarrie. He did a series of maybe 12-15 paintings of various aspects of the script, and George used those paintings to sell the project. The second was choosing us to do the visual effects. It was just a great team that John put together. Nobody else at that time that could have done it— you have to remember there was no infrastructure at that time in visual effects. The third thing was the casting of Alec Guinness, and the fourth was John Williams’ music. Those were the four super-critical things.

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

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

Spotlight – Angela Barson

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

Angela Barson is creative director and co-founder of BlueBolt. Based in central London, BlueBolt’s credits include Game of Thrones Season 1, Skyfall, The Current War, Mary Queen of Scots and The Last Kingdom.

Angela Barson

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

ANGELA BARSON: My route into the industry was very haphazard. I sometimes feel guilty that it was never a dream of mine to work in film and yet I’ve been lucky enough to succeed. I think I’ve had lots of little breaks rather than one big break; it’s all about making the most of any opportunity that comes your way.

I studied architecture, during which time I developed an interest in photography and computing. On a visit to London to see friends, I visited Parallax – a software development firm – for a general look around, which ended up being an interview, which led to a job offer. I had no idea what they did or what I was getting myself into! They had developed a digital paint package, Matador, and were developing a digital compositing package, Advance. I spent several years showing this software off to post houses around the world, mainly in London and Los Angeles. This allowed me to visit some of the top facilities like ILM, Digital Domain, CFC and Cinesite.

After having children I wanted more flexibility. Starting out as a freelance compositor with two very young kids probably wasn’t the brightest idea! I managed to get a job at the BBC as a Flame operator – having never used Flame – and spent a really fun year there working with some great people. I wanted to move into film after that, so I got a job at MPC, where I stayed for eight years working my way up the ranks. That’s where I met Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor which ultimately brought about the creation of BlueBolt.

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

ANGELA BARSON: Creating invisible effects. When a client thinks they are looking at something they shot, not realizing it’s CG – that’s the ultimate compliment.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANGELA BARSON: When shot turnover is delayed, the shot count is doubled, but the delivery date is still the same.

Watch BlueBolt’s 2019 visual effects showreel:

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

ANGELA BARSON: I was working with the ‘Oompa Loompa’ unit on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We were shooting multiple motion control passes of one Oompa Loompa singing and dancing. I had to capture each take as it was filmed, sync them together with the music, composite them, and cut the result into the edit, ready to show the second unit director for sign-off as soon as they’d completed the last take. We couldn’t move onto the next setup until I’d finished and shown everything was okay. This went on for about five months. Probably one of the most stressful, yet enjoyable, jobs I’ve done.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANGELA BARSON: Also on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My desk was on a platform in the middle of the chocolate river for several weeks. It’s amazing how fast that can become normal!

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

ANGELA BARSON: Visual effects used to be seen as an expensive luxury. Now, it’s often seen as the default fix to almost any problem. Just because something can be done in visual effects doesn’t mean it should be! “Fix it in post” is sadly heard way too often.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANGELA BARSON: I’d like visual effects to be embraced as just another tool of the filmmaking process. I believe films should be all about the story and vision, with visual effects used to aid and support that where needed, and not be the main focus of the film. It would also be great if the other departments understood visual effects more – although it’s getting much better – and gave it the time and respect needed both on set and in post. Having to battle when on set to get your clean plate or HDRI data is just ridiculous.

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

ANGELA BARSON: Get a range of experience in other, but related, fields. It’s great when we get people who have had a previous life in photography, or architecture, or set design. You can bring so much more to the craft when you have other areas to draw on rather than just doing a visual course then coming straight into the industry. If you do go down the direct route into your first job, try and supplement that with other interests.

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

ANGELA BARSON: I don’t particularly enjoy watching effects movies. I spend too much time analyzing the visual effects work instead of just watching the film. The worse the film, the more I watch the visual effects; the better the film, the more the visual effects are irrelevant. I won’t know my favorite visual effects shots, as I wouldn’t know they were visual effects!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANGELA BARSON: None. If I’m enjoying a film, I don’t want to be distracted by eating … or by anyone else eating!

CINEFEX: Angela, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Simon Carr

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

Simon Carr is a visual effects supervisor at Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Face/Off, Star Trek Into Darkness, Bohemian Rhapsody and Mindhunter.

Simon Carr

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

SIMON CARR: After writing a lot of letters to a lot of companies, I was offered a job as a runner in a motion control studio for cel animation. I essentially made tea for two years whilst learning everything I could about the business. When the Quantel Henry came along, I used my evenings to teach myself that, which led to an opportunity with Animal Logic in Sydney. I would say that was my biggest break as it led to working on film compositing and gave my career a real boost.

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

SIMON CARR: The job is most fun when you see the work that’s been discussed and planned coming together in support of the story. The effect can be a very simple one, but if it bridges a gap and sells a scene or action, that’s really exciting. But the one thing that has given me most pleasure over my career has been discovering talent. There’s nothing quite like having your expectations exceeded by a brilliant artist.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SIMON CARR: Nothing would be quite that bad – we’re not saving lives! But it is frustrating to work on projects with no clear direction and constant undecided feedback. The best projects are the ones in which a clear idea is followed through from script to screen.

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

SIMON CARR: Many years ago, I worked as a compositor on a beer commercial. The material came to us from a chaotic shoot as a paper edit, which I had to reassemble. I was working from 24/25 pull-down, juggling cuts on Henry and Domino, running a video and film cut simultaneously. After 14 days working 16 hours a day, I was incoherent with exhaustion. The boss sent me home and banned the client from the building! After that, almost everything seems reasonably benign.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SIMON CARR: I was once asked by a client to put a penguin in a shot. Let’s just say it was not a shot that would naturally feature a penguin.

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

SIMON CARR: The biggest change is in the speed and power of the technology, leading to a huge growth in the use of visual effects in all genres. Alongside the recent explosion in content creation, this has led to a much greater demand for visual effects and the technology to produce them. When I started, producing a 30-second commercial on one machine was almost inconceivable. Now, my phone has more computing power and storage than the workstations being used back then. The downside, to my mind, has been the tendency to push decision-making to later and later in the process, and this can lead to some projects being uneven and rushed.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SIMON CARR: Although the industry has become more diverse than when I started, it would be great to encourage more people from all backgrounds to join, and also to break the idea of art and science being mutually exclusive. If there was ever an industry that illustrated the blend of math and art, it is visual effects.

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

SIMON CARR: There are so many good courses now – that seems an obvious place to start. However, I would also say the visual effects industry – like the film industry in general – has such a wide range of jobs needing such a diverse set of skills that plenty of people move across into it from other areas. The most important thing is to find something you’re passionate about and aim to do it as well as you can.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

SIMON CARR: I expect AI will have an impact, potentially helping with tasks like rotoscoping and clean-up as image detection and recognition improves. It will also help with tracking for both cameras and objects. I imagine there may be an increase in the use of digital actors or digital make-up. Hopefully, the current level of content creation will continue and lead to a more stable relationship between studios and facilities. That stability will enable longer-term R&D and investment.

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

SIMON CARR: This is a difficult one, because I don’t really think of films in terms of their effects, more in terms of their storytelling or the effect they had on me. My stand-out films tend to come from my early years. The original Star Wars – now called A New Hope – had a massive impact on me. If I had to choose one sequence, it would be the opening space battle. The entrance of the Star Destroyer is still one of the most breathtaking moments in movie history.

My second choice would be Blade Runner, for its visual invention and the completeness of the design. I loved that movie from the first time I saw it and have loved it ever since. The spinner journey across the city of Los Angeles, which was made from etched copper flats, is an object lesson in achieving a huge amount with very little.

The third choice is hard. It’s between E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I think CE3K wins for the arrival of the spaceship. The fact it never touched down but was just this gigantic hovering object had a visceral impact in the cinema.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SIMON CARR: I’m a terrible curmudgeon who thinks no food of any kind should be allowed in a cinema. I go to watch movies, not to eat!

CINEFEX: Simon, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Andrew Popplestone

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

Andrew Popplestone is creative director at Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Far from Home, No Time To Die, Ghost in the Shell and Dune.

Andrew Popplestone

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I trained as a fine artist then studied graphic design at university. I had no idea I would get into this industry – all I knew was I loved design, films and telling stories. My first big break came when I was offered a design role in Los Angeles at Prologue Films, which specialized in film title sequences. It was there I started to understand how design can be translated across into visual effects. I’ve always loved the idea of combining practical hand-crafted processes and a graphic designer’s eye with innovative CG and visual effects techniques. It’s this ‘designed-VFX’ approach that we specialize in at Territory Studio.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I love those seemingly magical days where the creative just flows effortlessly and you really crack it. You go home floating on air. Also, when you show the client, visual effects supervisor or director something they love but which surprises them – in a good way – or goes beyond their expectation. Ultimately, our job is to help the storyteller tell their story; if we can do that in a way that is new, innovative or unexpected, that’s the really fun part. Outside of that, the real joy of what we do is provoking some sort of emotional reaction from an audience that draws them into the story.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Well, thankfully it’s never got quite that bad! Although, it can be quite disheartening when schedules and budgets in no way align to expectations, ultimately leading to comprising the work. As designers and artists, our desire is to create something to the very best of our ability.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: A lot of what we do at Territory has some sort of narrative or storytelling objective, helping to explain a plot point and push the story along. These are often the most challenging tasks, but also the most satisfying. We have to work very closely with the director or visual effects supervisor to visually communicate a complicated part of the script.

We had some really interesting challenges on Ready Player One. In one case, we were asked to create a volumetric database archive that a character had to physically interact with. This being Ready Player One, it needed a distinctly ‘80s vibe. We based the design concept off an old reel-to-reel system. Another task was to design the entire OASIS galaxy as a 3D interactive map in the form of a Rubik’s Cube.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: So many! We’ve been asked to create all sorts of bizarre things ranging from the inside of Ryan Gosling’s brain, worm protein vending machines, holographic ‘Love Motel’ signs, and even an alien porn channel!

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The incredible advancement of technology would be the first obvious answer. This is an industry that pioneers innovation in technology, which has made everything wonderfully more accessible and allowed individual artists to explore new ways of doing things. Along with that, the expectations of clients and audiences has massively increased.

However, utilizing more developing technology needs to be done in a considered way. The downside has been a perception of speed, ease and scale which can cheapen the art, to a degree. This has led to situations where, instead of thinking or designing a way to a solution, it’s all too easy to simply throw people and technology at it. This can lead to less consideration in the early stages of the script/production process.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I would love to see a little more crossover and collaboration between the production art department and postproduction visual effects.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Firstly, grow some thick skin and make sure you truly love what you do. If you can’t do that, this is most definitely not the business for you. Always keep asking questions, stay curious and never stop learning. Be flexible and generous with your time, but always try to maintain a personal life.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The quality and complexity of visual effects is going to continue to grow. Volumetric capture, augmented reality and AI tools will all become more commonplace. With the increase in original content from the likes of Netflix, Apple and Amazon, there is a huge amount of work in both features and episodic television. Hopefully, this will allow the industry to consolidate and facilities to become more robust in structure.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The first is Jurassic Park. As a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Seeing them brought to life before my eyes is what made me fall in love with the magic of movies.

The second is The Matrix. I was a little late seeing this after it came out. Everyone was raving about it, and I couldn’t imagine what all the fuss was about. When I finally saw the film, it absolutely blew my mind. It was like nothing I’d seen before, and possibly the first time I realized how visual effects can bend the rules of reality in storytelling.

The last is a toss up between Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings. I think The Lord of The Rings would take it. As a massive fan of the books, I was just gobsmacked at how it was re-created on screen at such an epic scale. It’s an incredible example of beautiful cinematography, practical effects and visual effects working seamlessly together, all wrapped up in a compelling story.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Sweet and salted popcorn all the way.

CINEFEX: Andrew, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Marti Romances

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

Marti Romances is co-founder and creative director of the San Francisco office of Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Avengers: Endgame, Infinity War and Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, Ex Machina, Ad Astra, The Fate of the Furious, The OA, Jupiter Ascending, Mile 22 and Rampage.

Marti  Romances

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?

MARTI ROMANCES: I started as an Autodesk Combustion artist creating animated DVD menus, back in the day. This gave me close proximity to senior Flame artists and visual effects talent, so I quickly became exposed to matte painting, rotoscoping, compositing, color – all that great stuff. I began creating visual effects on film and commercial projects that required the re-creation of realistic surroundings — for example, placing a tree here, a road there, or whatever else the scenes required.

What really fueled my desire and propelled me into visual effects was discovering its overlap with design. That’s when I hit my stride. I began designing holographic interfaces and other 3D elements on some incredible sci-fi films. Joining Territory Studio and helping it grow into a global company with over 120 people is another feather in my cap, and a crucial element in the trajectory of my career to date.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Working on films that I grew up watching and admiring, including the experience of designing on several Marvel films. All these different franchises have defined my taste over the years, and now I’ve actually been able to participate in them as a designer. Thinking about it makes me grin like the Cheshire cat!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MARTI ROMANCES: Seeing effects used just for the sake of adding them. Unfortunately, some people force stuff when it’s not required. Conversely, I am always looking for something that needs to be designed, especially if it has never existed before. This is what drives me as an artist.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Starting Territory Studio in San Francisco has been an incredible challenge, creating a facility out of nowhere and, within a few years, being lauded for our visual effects and design work. Challenging, but very satisfying!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MARTI ROMANCES: For Guardians of the Galaxy, we had to add a cassette tape from the ‘80s into a holographic screen from another galaxy, all so that Star-Lord could play his mix tape.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: One of the most impressive changes we’ve seen has been the accessibility young artists have to the software we use, and how easy the internet has made it for them to learn how to master such tools. Without this, we wouldn’t have as much talent working in the industry today.

I’d also highlight the many advances we’ve seen in raytracing, and almost real-time photorealistic rendering. It helps the creative process so much when you can actually iterate while lighting a CG scene, or when moving cameras around. Something we needed to wait for hours to achieve in the not-so-distant past can now be updated in a fraction of a second.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MARTI ROMANCES: I experience a lot of visual inconsistencies between departments on big jobs. Each department has its budgetary concerns and they don’t always play well with others. Because some studios are so big and complicated to navigate, this can lead to people trying to re-create your work under a different budget, generating the same assets for use in production, then postproduction, then for marketing purposes. I see this working well on smaller productions, but it’s something bigger studios could learn from.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Never take shortcuts. I think the industry puts you where you need to be. If you want to gain seniority and respect, the only way to do so is to build up your career step by step. Experience becomes everything: one day you will have people below you who rely on your knowledge and wisdom, because you’ve been there before. Self-entitlement is definitely something that doesn’t work very well. Also, there is no final goal. Our industry won’t ever stop, so you should never slow down.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

MARTI ROMANCES: Real-time render engines are already beginning to pick up the pace. Computational power is growing exponentially, and our perception of what’s possible should also follow suit. I envision more integrated experiences with the audience, with immersive storytelling and experiential narratives leading the way.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – take a look at those gorgeous hand-made effects and environments! Even the propmaking department on this film would be a gold mine of information for anyone who wants to work in the art department nowadays.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – I think there is a before-and-after watershed moment here regarding elements of the film like matte painting or crowd duplication. While we rely on CG techniques to create these things today, back then there was a lot of stitching and compositing work happening.

The Matrix – this is an obvious one, but the techniques they used back then were definitely ahead of their time, especially being so innovative visually with just camera effects.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MARTI ROMANCES: Always salted popcorn. None of that melted buttery business I’ve found brazenly added to popcorn here in the US!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Marti!

Spotlight – David Sheldon-Hicks

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

David Sheldon-Hicks is co-founder and executive creative director of Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, Ex Machina, Guardians of the Galaxy, Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One and Dune.

David Sheldon-Hicks

CINEFEX: David, how did you get started in the business?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: From the age of four or five I was watching Star Wars, Labyrinth, Ghostbusters and other visual effects-heavy shows. I was fascinated by how they were made. Then, at the age of ten, I discovered a series of documentaries on UK television that explored the making of films, showing what animatronics entailed, optical printing, stop-frame animation, matte painting … I was completely hooked.

I remember forcing my parents to take me to London so I could buy my first large book about Industrial Light & Magic, which I devoured from cover to cover multiple times. At an early age, I hunted out friends with video cameras and we’d sculpt clay heads and then try to create animatronic creatures of our own. Discovering suppliers of liquid latex at the age of 12 in the UK was not easy, especially prior to the internet!

From there, I studied design at university, always knowing I wanted to combine animation and visual effects with design; all my submitted projects at university had these elements in them. My first break came on music videos. I was able to experiment and play with lots of styles before winning my first film project: working with the art department on Casino Royale, creating on-set screen graphics.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Seeing our teams exceed my own ambitions. Allowing people to innovate and devise original solutions is so satisfying. We’re so lucky to have some very ambitious clients who not only expect the highest levels of artistic craft but also want to see something new and original each time. Time and time again the teams step up to this challenge and it always amazes me. I’m never bored of seeing how everything grows.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Its a creative industry, so everything swirls around a degree of chaos and unknown factors. I think that’s okay, though. We’re comfortable with the chaos and finding clever solutions. If there weren’t problems to solve, we’d be very bored!

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Running a company and having a family – as well as finding my own balance. It’s a challenge because I’m so passionate about both aspects in my life. I used to blame external factors, but really it comes down to me being honest with myself and properly managing my time. Because I’m essentially paid to do my hobby, it sometimes is hard to switch off.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: The collaboration between various departments on films is getting closer and closer. Territory Studio has always worked across both art departments and visual effects, but this is happening more and more. With virtual production and real-time technologies coming through, I can see this expanding even further; it’s very exciting. The physical design of places and objects is an incredible craft and discipline that I’ve learned so much from over the years. Also the camera department. All this feeds into the visual effects work that we do, and its massively inspiring and rewarding to be a part of.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Just go ahead and do it! Don’t think too hard about the specific role at first, because you might want to try a few things out to find what works for you. There’s so much opportunity out there and as your career grows you’ll become very familiar with learning new tools and techniques, so don’t become too rigid in your expectations. It all keeps changing and evolving and that’s what makes it interesting.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: At some point, machine learning is going to have a massive impact, not only reducing the need for simple tasks to be done manually, but also becoming an integral tool in the entire pipeline. Volumetric capture and display is a technology I’ve been waiting to see come into maturity my entire lifetime. I hope that happens in the next 10 years; I want to be watching films fully three-dimensionally in holographic form. That can only happen if we start shooting films with 3D scanners as well as lenses.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Labyrinth – any shots with animatronics. That film just enchanted me with its world-building and made me passionate about filmmaking. There was also great matte painting and optical printing that adds to the charm.

Contact – it made me realize that visual effects can have great design and be an integral part of the filmmaking process. I’m thinking of the mirror flip shot, or some of the shots of Jodie in the capsule as she’s traveling through space.

The Matrix – seeing the time slice effects and all the incredible CG robot work in the cinema felt like a leap in our industry. I came out of that film thinking I’d just witnessed a completely new art form.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Nachos with far too many jalapenos.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, David!

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.


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.