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!

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!

Spotlight – Gong Myung Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

GONG MYUNG LEE: Dark chocolate and pretzels.

CINEFEX: Myung, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Sara Bennett

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

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

Sara Bennett - co-founder of Milk

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SARA BENNETT: Salt and sweet mixed popcorn.

CINEFEX: Sara, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Shauna Bryan

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

Shauna Bryan is vice president of new business and production executive at Sony Pictures Imageworks. She includes in her personal filmography highlights The DaVinci Code, Blades of Glory and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Shauna BryanCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Shauna?

SHAUNA BRYAN: I specifically attempted to break into the Vancouver film industry, which was the closest I could get to Los Angeles, at a time when there was only a handful of television series being shot up here. Funnily enough, film people were known to work only in the summer, and ski in the winter. That was a scary prospect for me in terms of job security, but I wanted to work in film because I’m a storyteller at heart and movies have always been my main catharsis. I was determined, to say the least!

My first big break was getting a producer internship for the feature film Whale Music, directed by Richard J. Lewis, who’s now one of the main directors and a co-executive producer on Westworld. On Whale Music, I got to work closely with Richard and Raymond Massey, the producer, and be a part of the film from development right through to the end of post and the film festival launch. That was an invaluable experience, and the movie still holds up as a bit of a cult classic today.

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

SHAUNA BRYAN: I love doing creative tests or pitches designed around a filmmaker’s vision, to prove the strength of our company and artists. I love turning perceptions on their ear and showing that a company that does animation can also do photoreal visual effects. It’s fun.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SHAUNA BRYAN: I don’t sob. When I was 23, I could stay up all night stressing out, but now I’m at a point in my career where I understand that things tend to change overnight and that there’s definitely always a solution.

Shauna Bryan On SetCINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

SHAUNA BRYAN: I was working for Rainmaker and we were awarded the entire show of Blades of Glory. We had to work out how to do full CG environments and massive crowds – on top of that, we were tasked by Dreamworks to do full CG face replacements of Jon Heder and Will Farrell that were good enough so that no one would know the actors hadn’t skated the performances themselves. If that weren’t tough enough, Jon Heder broke his leg during rehearsals, so all of the skating face replacement work was shot in August and audience previews started in October, with the same studio mandate that everyone had to believe it was really Jon and Will on the screen. Bear in mind that this was 2006, well before The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and just as complicated. It was a huge ask, but somehow we got it done and the movie is still one of my favorites today.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SHAUNA BRYAN: I had to deliver green script revision pages to an executive producer who was already on a plane set to fly out of Vancouver. I literally had to run to the gate, talk my way past and get escorted to the plane to hand-deliver the revisions to the executive at his seat. I don’t think he ever even read them, but my job as an uber-executive assistant was secured!

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

SHAUNA BRYAN: I’ve seen an odd full circle forming. When I first started in visual effects, it was really only the big companies that could be trusted to do serious work. It took a long time and was expensive. Then, over the years, smaller companies came in like little fighter pilots, turning the tide and doing equally complex work, for cheaper costs. Now, with so many huge visual effects shows out there, containing complex work on fairly short schedules, quality and delivery are of utmost importance. There’s not enough render capacity, artists or production management to feed the worldwide demand, and smaller companies have had a harder time executing as expected. I’m now seeing studios checking more deeply into a company’s capacity, their robust pipeline for delivery, current artistic talent and son on, and being less focused on the lowest bid when it comes to awarding work. Not to say that costs don’t need to be competitive – because they absolutely do – but there seems to be a more holistic thoughtfulness when it comes to placing work at a facility.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SHAUNA BRYAN: I’d like to see more of the above, and to have stronger partnerships between a facility and a studio. There’s more than enough work to go around, so I’d love to see facilities taking on less work, but doing so with more purpose. I’d love to see studios engaging facilities earlier on, and awarding earlier so that facilities can plan and not feel like they have to take on everything that comes their way. More planning, less grabbing. I’m not sure if that’s possible, but I’d love to see it.

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

SHAUNA BRYAN: Absolutely go for it. The film and visual effects industry is awesome and, in an odd way, more recession-proof. People want content – there’s more and more of a demand for it. There are a lot of opportunities for growth, travel and learning. It’s a constantly evolving landscape technically, which is exciting. That said, this industry is hard work with long hours, so you need to be mindful of your career path and how that can form around a family or a desire to settle in one place.

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

SHAUNA BRYAN: The original Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Forrest Gump. When I saw each of these films, I wondered, “How did they do that?”and was completely transported into the story. These films wouldn’t have been possible without visual effects and they changed my thinking as to the possibilities of storytelling. Standout sequences: the landspeeder and final battle from Star Wars; the Battle of Hoth and the duel from The Empire Strikes Back; the ping-pong tournament and Forrest in iconic history moments from Forrest Gump.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SHAUNA BRYAN: Popcorn and Snickers mini-bites, mixed together.

CINEFEX: Shauna, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Armen Kevorkian

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

Armen Kevorkian is executive creative director and visual effects supervisor at Encore VFX, and includes in his career highlights Love, Simon, Titans, The Flash, Supergirl and Black Lightning.

Armen Kevorkian

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

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: I’ve always been interested in filmmaking and directing, but more or less fell into visual effects. I went to film school and got an internship working on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Then, an entry level position opened up in the visual effects/post department and I jumped at the opportunity. I spent several years learning the ins and outs of visual effects, and I’m constantly expanding that knowledge with each new project.

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

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: It’s rewarding when you’re able to visualize something in your head and bring that image to life for everyone to see.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: I hate when shots don’t turn out the way I imagined. That, and running out of time, which is always an issue in visual effects.

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

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: One of my first visual effects supervisor jobs was for a series that had fairly significant visual effects needs – including CG creatures and set extensions – and a limited budget. Also, visual effects tools weren’t as advanced then, so creating the work was more challenging. It was nerve-racking, and a make-or-break moment for me, but I worked around the clock to make sure everyone got what they wanted. At the end of the day, we pulled it off.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: I encounter a lot of strange situations and requests as a visual effects supervisor. One moment that stands out is when a very low budget sci-fi television movie that I worked on was nominated for an Emmy. The film was about a zombie mammoth that came to life in a museum – not your typical awards fare! We cut together a great reel and were nominated alongside some incredible projects, including one produced by Steven Spielberg.

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

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: Almost every film and television series has visual effects now, in part thanks to advanced software and hardware that allow us to create better work faster. Productions are relying on visual effects more, since it’s sometimes easier – and more economical – to achieve certain shots in the back-end. A lot of time it ends up looking better, too. Also, the distinction between content formats is falling away. Audiences expect a certain level of quality, regardless of whether they’re viewing in a theater, on television, or on a mobile device. With social media, you get immediate feedback via online comments and reaction videos, so you learn pretty quickly how your work is received by the audience. This was unheard of 20 years ago.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: This is already underway, but I think that when visual effects is fully integrated within production, it enables more successful results. When artists and storytellers are on the same page, projects run more smoothly and with better collaboration.

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

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: Be passionate. It’s advice that applies to any job,  but the visual effects industry can be stressful and frustrating, and enjoying what you do makes it easier to get through the tough spots.

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

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: District 9 is so well done, especially the way the CG alien is perfectly integrated throughout the film. You really feel the emotion.

Star Wars: A New Hope remains one of the greats. It was ground-breaking at the time and really holds up.

My final spot is a tie between Transformers and Iron Man. Growing up with those cartoons and toys, I found it entertaining and fascinating to see these characters come to life. The visual effects don’t take you out of the story, but rather bring it to life. The films mark a shift for the superhero/action genre, and the people behind them deserve credit for trying things that had never been done before. That takes guts.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ARMEN KEVORKIAN: Popcorn! I can’t watch a movie without popcorn, even if I only have a few pieces. And a cherry ICEE.

CINEFEX: Armen, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Matthias Wittmann

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

Matthias Wittmann is a real-time supervisor at Method EXP, the immersive arm of Method Studios. His visual effects animation credits include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I, Robot, Tron: Legacy, Maleficent and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. He’s also worked on augmented and virtual reality projects such as Robin Hood VR, Alien: Covenant – In Utero and Passengers – Awakening.

Matthias WittmannCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Matthias?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I went to Filmakademie in the ‘90s, and my plan was always to make visual effects for movies. Actually, that’s not true! I thought at first that I wanted to be a director, but I found visual effects – animation in particular – more interesting. At that time, there were no big visual effects companies in Germany, especially not for feature film. A company in Berlin called Spans & Partners was doing really great commercial work, and I joined them as an animator. I stayed there for two years, but I knew that to do film I’d have to go somewhere else. I went to a shop called HDO-Oberhausen and another one, Elektrofilm, that had opened a few rooms to work on movies like House of the Dead, The Shaft, aka Down (not to be confused with Shaft – this movie was about a killer elevator!). I met some people from Digital Domain on Little Vampire, and a few years later in 2003 they asked me to come and work with them. That was my big break. I jumped at the chance to work on Hollywood movies, and moved to Los Angeles.

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

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: Creating life! As a character animator, you do so much to bring your characters to life. You really understand them, and they have real personalities – they’re not just moving through the frame.

Switching to real-time takes that to the next level. When you can make a character that actually recognizes you and interacts with you, it’s uncannily cool. I’m working on a project now where I’ve programmed a virtual human to have emotions so, if you disturb him with your VR hands, you can make him happy or nervous or mad. The other day, for the first time, I poked him on his head and he became angry. It was so cool! I try to write everything with enough fuzzy logic that it’s not absolutely predictable, putting in a lot of “if-then” situations so that I don’t always understand why a character did something, but it’s still within the realm of his behavior.

Everyone’s talking about AI, machine learning, neural networks. Those things are super important for technology and development, but they’re not what brings a character to life. The basic idea is: “What would my character do? How do I hook up the behavior tree so that he feels like a self-consistent intelligence?” The newest neural network doesn’t solve those problems – common sense and experience does. Computer vision will help a character to see and understand what’s around him – feed him with optical input and this segment of his brain will determine what it saw – but what does he do with that information? When he sees a chair, does he sit down? Destroy it? Run away because he’s scared of chairs? To give a character personality and emotion, you need those tools as a piece of the puzzle, but you have to structure the puzzle yourself. That’s my part, and that’s what I enjoy the most.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I know everyone says the same thing and I will too – there’s never enough time. There are so many possibilities that you could try out, and sometimes the tools you’re using are not made for the things you want to do; that’s especially true in interactive work now. Putting together functions in a way you want them to work isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time.

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

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: I’ve had some big challenges in my career, but the most scared I’ve been was for something I worked on in film school, where we sometimes did projects for outside vendors. In 1996, there was a movie being made in Germany called Die Raettin, which means The She-Rat. They wanted us to create a talking rat. Now, rats have hair, and we had not done any hair yet in Germany – or in the school. I think Jumanji had just come out in theaters but at that time, outside of Hollywood you couldn’t just write a shader.

I had heard there was a procedure in PowerAnimator that would let you create hair with traveling particles, and I thought maybe that could work. I asked if the school would build an animatronic rat as a backup plan in case the CG didn’t work. They did – it cost $30K. I modelled this rat in PowerAnimator – all nurbs, no polygons – and gave it dynamic fur with the particle system, and moving whiskers, which took six months. We filmed two sequences, one with the CG rat and one with the animatronic rat. The client chose the CG rat. It was a very rewarding experience because I was still a student, and that success catapulted me to a different level. It was really cool in the end, but really scary getting there!

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

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: In the early days, it felt like visual effects was more useful – you had to create something to make a movie possible. The effects are still fantastic-looking, but a lot of the breakthroughs seem more about making things easier and improving, rather than inventing. That’s one of the things that attracted me to real-time. It feels like it did when I first studied computer animation. Pioneering.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: The field I’m working in now is really new, so it will probably change a lot over the next few years. We need to come up with solutions to new challenges. That’s the fun part. This will keep me interested for the next few decades.

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

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: You have to make up your mind who you are and what you want to work on, and pursue that relentlessly. That’s not to say you have to sell your soul or work 24/7 for nothing. But you have to make consistent choices to advance. When you’re just starting out, it’s survival, but with the right mindset, the visual effects industry can be a great place.

I’d also say that, whatever you do and whatever you create, make sure your own product is the best it possibly can be. Don’t aim for “good enough.” Do the best you can in the time you have – knowing it will never be enough – and look at your product. Would you accept it?

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

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: John Carpenter’s The Thing – the effects were absolutely needed to show people something totally unimaginable. The defibrillation sequence where the Thing bites off the medic’s hands, takes over the corpse and ends up turning into a spider-like being and running off – people didn’t understand what they just saw. It was totally unimaginable at the time, until the effects made it something they were able to see.

Starship Troopers – it’s the pinnacle of interaction between live-action and CG. It’s so completely believable and intense, a masterpiece in terms of bringing those two things together. It’s much easier now to integrate things believably, but it’s still hard.

War for the Planet of the Apes – it was fantastically done all round. The choices in character development, the animation, the acting. You forget all of the technology around it. When you see the apes fighting with real people, the CG snow on their fur – you never have to think about it. They’re believable characters, and you accept the whole thing.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MATTHIAS WITTMANN: Chocolate croissants. When my wife and I go to movies, it’s usually on a Saturday or Sunday morning when the theaters are pretty empty. We stop first for coffees and croissants and sneak them in!

CINEFEX: Matthias, thanks for your time!