Spotlight – Dan Bethell

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

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

Dan Bethell

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

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

CINEFEX: Dan, thanks for your time!

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!

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!

Spotlight – Philipp Wolf

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

Philipp Wolf is currently a visual effects producer at DNEG, having previously worked at MPC, Scanline VFX and Pixomondo, and in a freelance capacity. His personal filmography highlights include Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Ghost in the Shell, The Predator, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Game of Thrones.

Philipp Wolf - photograph by Myriam Ménard.
Photograph by Myriam Ménard.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: It all started with a project in school when I was 15 years old. We were tasked to found a made-up company and I decided to dive into the world of web design. The demand for this kind of work was high in the year 2000. A couple of months after I turned 16, I decided to found my first actual company. Designing and maintaining web-sites turned into software development, and planning and management of IT infrastructures.

2001 was a pivotal year for me – with the release of The Fast and the Furious, my love for cars was born. When the time came to graduate high school and go to university, I chose to study automotive engineering, specializing in process management and quality control. It took about two years for me to realize this path was not for me, so I moved to television where I worked as a journalist and a story producer amongst other things. When one of those projects came to an end, I remembered the feeling I had watching The Fast and the Furious for the first time and started looking around on how to be involved in the production of these movies – maybe visual effects?

I ended up applying to Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg for their newly introduced Animation Effects Producing course. After not even one year of studies, a tutor introduced me to Pixomondo where I ended up doing my first feature film project as a junior visual effects producer. My third project and my first big break was working on the second season of Game of Thrones as an associate visual effects producer – all while I was still studying.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: In short, enabling people to do what they love. Visual effects brings together talent from all over the world, to create content for people all over the world to enjoy. If you fuel these teams with empathy, you create an environment in which people not only understand one another’s perspective and care for each other, but also thrive and achieve more than they would have ever dreamed of. Fostering this environment and seeing the team excel is the most amazing feeling you can imagine.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

PHILIPP WOLF: One word: abstraction. Abstraction is the process of removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to its essential characteristics. Projects are broken down into numbers; numbers translate into a schedule; the schedule informs us about the resources required. We make our decisions based on those numbers – which is necessary to cope with the scale.

The numbers might tell us we need to increase this number or reduce that number. For example, 30 resources complete an average of 30 tasks per week. Next week they need to complete 45 tasks. The answer seems to be easy: increase the number of resources or decrease the quality. But neither one is an option. Conclusion: increase the working hours by factor 1.5. Not too bad, and an easy decision – if we base it purely on numbers.

Now, let us remove the abstraction. We are really asking 30 human beings with families each to spend 60 hours in the next week at work. Is the decision still as easy as before? No, and it should not be. We tend to forget the people affected by our decisions. Fostering an abstract environment creates a weak culture in which people only do what is right for them and not what is right for the team.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: My biggest challenge so far was creating an environment enabling a team at MPC to deliver about 660 highly complex shots for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. When I started on the show, production was already in progress, first look development shots were turned over and we had sophisticated previs scenes for most of the sequences in-house. Using those scenes, we broke down all elements needed to finish each individual shot. We had in hand over 400 creature animation shots, over 3,000 effects tasks and several environments – including a fully digital Boston – which needed to be completed to achieve the vision of Michael Dougherty, the director. Looking at the work, I knew the only way to get this done was to build a strong foundation of trust and empathy.

The first step was to empower my production team with tools and knowledge to take their own decisions, while mentoring them all the way throughout production. We ended up with amazing team who cared and stepped up to help each other.

The second step was to split up the work between the production and supervision team, to help MPC visual effects supervisor Robert Winter and myself to focus on the overall strategy of the production, while not slipping into a reactionary state.

Third step was figuring out the numbers to deliver the movie, while keeping the individual artist mind. The effects department alone had nearly 100 artists – the biggest effects team at MPC to that point.

The fourth step was creating a work environment in which everyone could do what they do best, as a team. With a team working around the globe, sometimes the little things help to make everyone feel part of something bigger. For example, early on we introduced a weekly newsletter with the latest show information, crowning our employee of the week, sharing fun facts, even having a little Godzilla statue traveling around the departments – who ended up meeting the director!

Empathy turned out to be the glue holding the production together. All the challenges we faced we pulled through together as a team – a team I could not be prouder of. Thank you!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

PHILIPP WOLF: Producing a pack shot for a foot fungus cream television commercial. As usual, you deal with the agency and the production company, who have prepared a vision for the pack shot. Early on, they told us we would need to produce a high-risk and a low-risk version of the pack shot so the commercial could be switched to the low-risk version if the pharmaceutical company got litigated – which they seem to plan for.

The idea of the pack shot was to show how to apply the foot fungus cream to the foot. How many different ways are there? Well, we created the pack shot, the commercial went on air, and the pharmaceutical company got litigated. This is where it became interesting. At that point, I only dealt with representatives of the pharmaceutical company and their lawyers to produce an even lower-risk version and to get the commercial back on air as soon as possible.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: The biggest change for me is the rising demand for visually appealing content. We are surrounded by visual stimuli wherever we go, in a world with an average attention span of eight seconds, according to a study by Microsoft Corp. We need to fill those eight seconds with content that makes people willing to continue to watch, be it in theatres, at home, or on their phone displays. The expectations of viewers are increasing as most of them grew up with the internet, videogames and the ever-evolving visual effects in movies and television.

To keep up with these demands, we see universities and schools implementing courses in visual effects, and companies like DNEG are implementing programs like Greenlight to support the development of the next generation of talent. Non-profit organizations like ACCESS:VFX have been founded to pursue inclusion, diversity, awareness and opportunity within the industry. We have created more awareness for the industry as a career. But we still have a long way to go.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

PHILIPP WOLF: We are at a pivotal point for our industry – I like to call it the “industrial revolution of visual effects” – moving from hand production to new manufacturing processes. We already see simple automation happening in things like one artist launching multiple shots on the render farm, or compositing templates creating a first pass for a shot.

To meet the rising demand, we need not only more people, but also to innovate our processes. Technology for example. Why does an animator need to match a real reference of a tiger jumping when a machine learning algorithm could do the first pass? Then, all the animator has to do is focus their work on bringing the story across. We should have algorithms take care of the first step, or the technical aspects like packaging a shot for the next artist to pick up. This would free up artists to actually do the artistic work.

We also need to implement international standards for visual effects. Doing that ensures our services are reliable and of high quality, while reducing costs due to increased productivity. These standards would help level the playing field for companies around the world. Additionally, it would be easier for schools and universities to create curricula to feed into those standards. Both of those points are incredibly important to me as they are part of creating a healthy work environment within our global growing industry.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: Be honest, be humble and be hungry – this will get you a long way.

Visual effects might be the most exciting industry to work in today. The demand is higher than ever before and there are jobs within pretty much every field imaginable. From artist to production to baristas, and so on. When you join a visual effects team, integrate yourself, get to know your peers, get to know what is going on around you, be empathic and open minded. Most of your days will include a lot of decisions, and you want to make sure to decide and communicate them efficiently. One tool I always give my production teams is called “Decision Tree”.

Imagine a tree. It is made out of leaves, branches, a trunk and roots. Now think about this in terms of your decisions. A leaf decision can be taken on your own and you don’t have to communicate it to anyone. If a tree loses a leaf, nothing bad is going to happen. If you damage a branch, still nothing too bad is going to happen, but you should inform your superior about it.

But the trunk – a crucial part of the tree – can only be harmed so much before it dies. These kinds of decisions should not be executed before approval from your superior. Damage to the roots might kill the tree. In this case, you should present all information about the issue, and your superior will take the decision.

The amazing thing about this metaphor is if you categorize your decisions based on it, you will notice how you and your tree will grow over time. Trunk decisions will become branch decisions, and ultimately leaf decisions.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: We all have a pretty good idea where we are right now, but where did we come from? My playbill brings us to the beginnings – Georges Méliès in France, Fritz Lang in Germany, all the way to James Cameron in the United States.

Le Voyage dans la Lune – every time I watch this pioneering movie, I have to remind myself it was 1902, over a century ago, when Georges Méliès created it. The spaceship flying to the moon was one of the first uses of a miniature – if not the first. It was uncharted territory. Méliès had to invent as he directed – stop-motion jump cuts, matte paintings, superimposed images, substitution shots, to name a few.

Metropolis – since I come from Germany, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece had to be part of the list. The movie employed ground-breaking special visual effects like the Schüfftan process – an early version of the bluescreen – used in the stadium scene. Utilizing a glass plate angled at 45 degrees between a miniature set and the camera, Lang was able to place the reflection of the actors into the set with the ability to adjust their size based on the distance to the glass plate. Another amazing effect was used to illustrate Maria’s transformation. A sophisticated multiple exposure shot introduces the robot with light rings falling and raising around it.

The Abyss – the first time I saw the watery snake-like creature was on television in the ‘90s. I was not even close to understand how it was done. Years later, when I started diving into visual effects and rediscovered the movie, I learned it was the first example of a digitally animated three-dimensional creature composited with 70mm footage. A creature which also mimics the actress’ performance who ultimately interacts with it – all back in 1989.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

PHILIPP WOLF: Popcorn. Funny enough, I do not like it outside of the movie theatre. It is part of the experience.

CINEFEX: Philipp, thanks for your time!

Cinefex 165 - Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Cinefex covered “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” in issue 165, June 2019.

Spotlight – Spencer Cook

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

Spencer Cook is animation director at DNEG, having worked previously at companies including MPC, Framestore, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Tippett Studio. Ask him for his filmography highlights and here’s what he’ll give you: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Alien: Covenant, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Gods of Egypt, Men in Black 3, all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Cursed, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Hollow Man, Blade and Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Spencer Cook

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

SPENCER COOK: Animation was a hobby when I was a kid. I grew up watching monster movies like King Kong, Godzilla, all the classic Universal monsters and basically anything fantasy, horror and sci-fi. I was particularly inspired by the works of Ray Harryhausen.

By age 11, I was experimenting with stop-motion animation and had decided I wanted to make my living as a stop-motion animator. I studied all aspects of film, video and fine arts at The School Of Visual Arts in New York City where I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, after which I began my career as a stop-motion animator. For the next decade, I animated and directed dozens of television commercials in New York, Los Angeles and Europe, animating classic characters like the Pillsbury Doughboy and segments of the Saturday morning series Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

I then moved to Los Angeles and began a new chapter in my career working on movies. By that time, the industry had changed from traditional animation to digital. Luckily, all my stop-motion experience applied to digital character animation, so it was just a matter of learning a new tool. This transition wasn’t easy for me at first – I wasn’t very familiar with computers – but eventually I got the hang of it and started to enjoy all the amazing possibilities.

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

SPENCER COOK: I like the collaborative nature of filmmaking, working with a team and mixing the best ideas together. The creative process isn’t like following a recipe; it takes experimentation and exploration. I like the process of figuring out performances and body language. Every project is different and requires a process of discovery.

I enjoy looking back at previous generations of animators and visual effects artists and appreciating that I’m continuing the cinematic legacy of creating fantastic settings and characters. I’m thrilled to be a part of the movie industry, contributing to images that might be inspiring the next generation of animators.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SPENCER COOK: I hate the terms ‘CG’ or ‘CGI.’ I wish we could remove these from our lexicon. Saying ‘computer graphics’ or ‘computer generated images’ makes it sound like a computer does the work.

These terms seemed odd to me when I first transitioned from stop-motion to digital animation, but it really hit me a few years ago when I was reading an article about Pirates of the Caribbean. The article said something like, “Johnny Depp stands in front of a greenscreen and the computer adds the background.” I was like, “No, this is wrong! This isn’t how things work in animation and visual effects!”

Computers don’t create images any more than a paintbrush creates a painting. A computer is a tool. Would you call The Mona Lisa a ‘paintbrush generated image?’ Talented artists and technicians create the images in movies. It’s the same as it was in the beginning of cinema, we just use a different tools now. Calling it ‘CGI’ minimizes our creativity and hard work.

I know the term is deeply embedded in the industry but I think a better option is ‘digital modelling,’ ‘digital compositing,’ and so on. This would be consistent with all other art forms that refer to the medium instead of the tool, such as ‘oil painting’ or ‘marble sculpture.’ In animation, we broadly specify traditional techniques as ‘stop-motion animation’ and ‘cel animation.’ Why not just add ‘digital animation’ to that? It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s right.

See Spencer Cook’s recent work as senior animation supervisor at MPC in the final trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters:

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

SPENCER COOK: Wow, it’s a challenge to pick just one! Every production has unique difficulties to overcome and problems to solve.

One of my most formative challenges was the wall-crawl shot in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. I was the lead animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles with Anthony LaMolinara as our animation supervisor and John Dykstra as visual effects designer. We were tasked with creating a photoreal Spider-Man for the first time. At that time I was still fairly new to digital animation, so while working on that movie I learned a lot about animating on a computer, as well as client interactions and the movie biz in general.

The wall-crawl was incredibly difficult. The shot was hundreds of frames long and the camera moved all around the character as he climbed. I spent many long hours working on Spidey’s physics and body language to make it as believable as possible and to see his thought process, while mixing in the iconic poses from the comics.

I learned a lot about how to use reference, how to mix reality and fantasy into a believable performance. I gathered footage of spiders, frogs and lizards, and even went to a local park with our coordinator to shoot video of me climbing a chainlink fence! That was one of the key components that helped me find the reality in that shot. To get a feel for the grip and the pull against gravity, what it felt like to climb a vertical surface, was incredibly important to my final animation.

Spencer Cook on the set of "Alien: Covenant."
Spencer Cook on the set of “Alien: Covenant.”

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SPENCER COOK: Superheroes and giant monsters aren’t weird to me. What I did find really weird was working on television commercials. As animators, we need to think about a character’s thought process, but many of the stop-motion commercials I animated involved anthropomorphized food like the Pillsbury Doughboy or various other happy, dancing snack foods. I admit that this is way over-thinking the concept, but I always thought it was weird that a living creature would be so happy about being eaten. Living snack food is at the bottom of the food chain. They only exist to be eaten and yet they’re thrilled about it. They’re either unaware of their situation or completely insane! This was the kind of stuff we talked about when I was animating television commercials. It was twisted fun!

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

SPENCER COOK: One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the mainstream acceptance of genre movies. It used to be that monster movies and superhero movies were for kids. I think this was because of the limitations of traditional techniques – the visuals weren’t always realistic enough for a mainstream audience.

I feel like today we’re in a new golden age of genre cinema. Digital tools allow us to create fantastic images and characters with more realism than ever before. I think that’s why these kinds of movies are now acceptable to mainstream audiences and not just confined to genre fans. Plus, filmmakers now take this material seriously. Along with advances in make-up, costumes and stunts, the sci-fi and fantasy genre is now much more accepted than in previous generations.

Another big change I’ve noticed is the number of people involved in animation and visual effects. When I started in stop-motion it was a smaller community, most of whom got into animation as fans of either Ray Harryhausen or Disney movies. Today there are animators from every part of the globe who got into animation in many different ways. It adds a great diversity to our animation teams. I frequently encounter great ideas for shots and poses from my team that I never would have thought of.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SPENCER COOK: As much as we’re all used to it, I don’t like the crude interfaces we use to work on computers. A mouse and keyboard is unintuitive and archaic. Wacom tablets are a little better but, as a former stop-motion animator, I just want to grab the puppet and pose it. I feel our current technology forces me to conform to the computer’s way of understanding input rather than the computer adapting to my human way of moving.

Maybe virtual reality or augmented reality will help us advance in this area. I recently visited the National Film Board of Canada here in Montreal. They’re researching and developing tech that could help artists interact with computers in a way that’s more comfortable and intuitive. However, most studios are reluctant to invest in new tech like this. It would be expensive at first and the learning curve for the team would add to the cost of production at a time when most studios are looking for ways to cut costs.

Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short "Mad God."
Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short “Mad God.”

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

SPENCER COOK: Learning to use a computer is easy. Learning to bring a character to life is hard.

Pay attention to life. Study how people move and interact. Those kinds of human qualities are the difference between a character that’s moving and a character that’s alive. As artists, we need to see things that most people take for granted.

Use reference as much as possible. YouTube is an amazing animation library but be smart about how you use it. Don’t just copy or roto one to one – unless that’s the direction. Mix in moments from the reference with your own poses. Make aesthetic choices consistent with the style or tone of the movie.

Act out the shot yourself. It’s important to get a feel for the action or performance. Even if it’s something so fantastic a person could never do it, there’s still value in acting it out. You may find a little human moment amid the spectacle that can bring your shot to life.

I think it’s also important to love movies and have an appreciation of cinematic history. Animators should have a good understanding of the visual language of cinema – camera angles, continuity and editing, lighting, and the basic structure of cinematic storytelling.

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

SPENCER COOK: It’s hard to only pick three – there are so many films that have inspired me. But these three are standouts for portraying monsters with personalities.

King Kong (1933) – The original King Kong is top of the list. I was spellbound when I first saw it as a kid – I think I was around eight years old. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I had no concept of stop-motion animation or visual effects but I knew this was something special.

The incredible pioneering achievements in animation, miniatures, matte painting and optical effects cannot be overstated. This movie laid the foundation for all cinematic visual effects and animation to come, and the work we do today stands on its shoulders. But it’s not just a milestone in animation and visual effects – it’s one of the most iconic movies in cinema history. Who doesn’t recognize Kong fighting the T-rex or Kong atop the Empire State building? Also, this isn’t a mindless monster smashing through a city. The story is mythic and dramatic. Motivated by beauty, Kong has a personality, a goal and great pathos.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – all of Ray Harryhausen’s work is immensely influential to me but 7th Voyage stands out. Ray’s incredible artistry was light years ahead of anything else being done at that time. His creature design and the way he added little quirks of body language gave each of his creatures a distinct personality.

The standout sequences are when Sinbad and his crew encounter the Cyclops on the beach, and then later when the Cyclops captures some of the crew and begins cooking them for his dinner. The Cyclops has a personality and a thought process that Ray conveys wonderfully through body language. Another standout is the sword fight between Sinbad and a skeleton. The technical achievement is impressive and Ray’s distinctive choices for posing really bring the fight to life.

War of The Gargantuas – one of the best non-Godzilla Toho monster movies is this story about brothers. It just so happens the two brothers are giant monsters. The brown Gargantua – the good one – is a gentle giant who lives in the forest. The green Gargantua – the evil one – lives in the ocean and eats people.

This was a traditional Toho production with the same crew as the Godzilla movies. The Gargantua designs were more ape-like than most Toho Kaiju, allowing for more expression. The two suit actors did an amazing job of portraying each brother with a distinct personality through body language. A standout sequence is the terrifying first appearance of the green Gargantua when he attacks a fishing trawler at night during a storm. Another is the final fight – a mythic brother versus brother scenario played out as an epic battle smashing through Tokyo. The tragic ending makes their war all the more poignant.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SPENCER COOK: I like Dibs – chocolate covered ice cream bites – but Montreal cinemas don’t have them!

CINEFEX: Spencer, thanks for your time!