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!

Spotlight – Catherine Mullan

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

Catherine Mullan is an animation supervisor at MPC. Her career highlights include her work on four Harry Potter films, Happy Feet, The Chronicles of Narnia, Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

Catherine Mullan

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Whilst I loved movies growing up, it never occurred to me that working in the industry was a possibility. I was only ever presented with more traditional career paths and, of course, this was back in the days before the internet. I always loved to draw but also liked math and problem solving, so I was looking for something that could combine both the creative and the technical.

When faced with the decision of what to do next, I stumbled across a book in my school’s careers library that ultimately set me upon this career path. The book allowed you to cross-reference different subjects, then listed courses suited to those subjects. This is how I discovered the computer animation course at Bournemouth University in the UK. Although I had little knowledge of the subject, I applied and was accepted. It was there that I discovered a love of animating. The university had ties with the London studios and upon graduation I was invited to interview with Framestore. Luckily for me, I was offered a job as a junior animator, and that’s were I really started to learn about animation.

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: A beautifully animated performance, one that evokes feeling, that makes me sad or brings me joy. I love to review the work of the animation team, and often I’m presented with an idea or an execution that surprises me, that really brings character and believability, and I know the audience will buy it. This is the best part of my job.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I do find it hard when teams disperse, when the end of an era is reached. It’s a changeable industry – teams come together and move apart often. When I look back on projects, I’m proud of the work, but I also think so fondly about the crew. The bonds that are created during a production are a huge part of what makes this industry special. I’m also a sucker for a sad story and I’m known to blubber watching movies!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: I can’t quite find an answer to this. Every project I’ve worked on has presented its own challenges – from animating a simple shot as a junior animator to supervising a large team on huge project, and the hundreds of tasks in between. If you’re growing and pushing yourself to the next level, the work will always be a challenge.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I remember a near miss from several years ago – a beatboxing camel toe! It was a cringeworthy shot I was scheduled to animate. I was dreading it! Much to my relief, the show I was working on pushed longer and it was reassigned to another artist. Phew!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: The size and scope of the projects have grown massively since I joined the industry. A project 15 years ago would consist of a couple of hundred shots, whereas now 1,000 is normal. Each year the boundaries are pushed and the seemingly unachievable is achieved.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I would love to see more women working in creative roles in film, visual effects and animation, especially as leads, supervisors and directors. Whilst it seems more women are joining, the shift isn’t nearly enough.

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Do plenty of research. There is so much information available online – podcasts, blogs, articles like this. There are lots of tutorials and free software available for students, so try it out at home before spending a lot of money on a course. You have to love your chosen field and education is expensive so, if you go down that route, choose the school wisely.

For many disciplines, it’s key to use real-life reference. Don’t start a piece of work without it. Don’t be scared to show your work – in fact you must seek feedback from those who work in your field. Constructive criticism will only help you learn and grow. Do persevere – it will not come easy, but the rewards can be great!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – I loved this movie growing up. A powerful story, filled with in-camera effects and marvelous puppets. I learned only recently that the owl in the opening credits is considered the first realistic CG animal to appear in a movie.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – one of my favorite movies of the time. The visual effects were groundbreaking and allowed the T-1000 to become one of the most terrifying characters in movie history.

The Jungle Book (2016) – I loved the remake of the Disney classic and was blown away by the visual effects. Across every discipline, the work was pushed to a new level, from the creation of the characters and environments to the animation and effects. The team at MPC did a spectacular job creating such imagery.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I don’t like to eat when watching movies – it’s too much of a distraction. However, my favorite cinema in London does serve delicious wine to your own comfy sofa.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Catherine!

Spotlight – Todd Vaziri

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

Todd Vaziri is a lead artist and compositing supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. His list of career highlights includes American Pie, Avatar, six Star Wars and two Star Trek films, three Transformers movies and an episode of The Colbert Report, and you might enjoy rummaging through his entertaining effects-centric blog FX Rant.

Todd Vaziri

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

TODD VAZIRI: I saw Return of the Jedi on my tenth birthday, and afterward devoured anything I could find about how the film was made. I vividly remember reading an official Lucasfilm magazine about the film – there was an entire section on the miniatures and stop-motion animation in the Endor battle, created by a company called Industrial Light & Magic. That made an enormous impact on me. Seeing how the magic was created didn’t ruin the movie experience for me at all. Quite the contrary – I was intrigued and inspired to see pictures of modern-day magicians creating these amazing illusions, like Paul Huston setting up the AT-ST on the miniature Endor set. Years later, I discovered Cinefex, which satisfied my cravings for more detailed stories on how these intricate visual effects were created, and the challenges faced by artists in bringing these otherworldly effects to life. Strange to think that Paul Huston is a colleague and friend now – we worked together on a shot for The Force Awakens.

After film school, and a few years spent writing about visual effects for my website, Visual Effects Headquarters, I packed up my car and drove from Chicago to Los Angeles with the dream of working in visual effects. I was fortunate enough to have been given a chance by Van Ling at Banned From the Ranch Entertainment. Aware of my visual effects writing and understanding my passion for the craft, he gave me a chance to help test out a new piece of software called Commotion, which was, at the time, a brand new and revolutionary tool for rotoscoping and digital painting. Van was a tremendous mentor and I owe him so much for giving me a chance.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

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

TODD VAZIRI: At the start of every production, I am overwhelmed with anticipation. The prospect of doing something new and exciting in a movie is daunting, intimidating and exhilarating.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TODD VAZIRI: When the harsh realities of the project schedule kick in, along with the inevitable design changes – that’s when I reach for the Kleenex.

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

TODD VAZIRI: I’m a bit of a heat ripple snob. Most digital effects trying to replicate heat shimmer from jet engines don’t appeal to me. They frequently end up, from a design perspective, too sci-fi and fantastic, calling attention to the effect rather than allowing it to exist as a part of a realistic scene. For Avatar, we tackled several shots with intense jet engine heat ripple, and I privately tasked myself with creating the best-looking heat ripple system we’d ever produced. The effects team and I worked together on a system that included the right kind of particles, the right animation, the right kind of displacement and blur, and other design elements that are usually ignored – like refraction, shadowing, and tiny bits of soot. I was really proud of how it all turned out. Later, hearing that Jim Cameron loved the look of our heat ripple made me very happy.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TODD VAZIRI: I had to create dog urine for an Adam Sandler film. I used Particle World in After Effects to create the pee stream, and the splashing and splatter on the ground. I drew roto mattes and color-corrected the photography to simulate the growing puddle of pee. If I remember correctly, I think I also had to paint out the dog’s testicles.

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

TODD VAZIRI: Between the time I started doing feature film work and today, the biggest change has been the ubiquity and democratization of high-quality, highly complicated visual effects. Complex fantasy environments, creatures and invisible effects are no longer solely available to the five or six biggest-budgeted movies per year. Filmmakers like Scorsese, Cuarón, Iñárritu, DuVernay and del Toro now have access to effects that were previously unavailable to their types of films. As a movie fan, I’m thrilled that a movie like Ex Machina can be made today, with the same kind of complicated, high-quality visual effects that previously were relegated to only the biggest superhero films or sci-fi blockbusters.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TODD VAZIRI: Where to begin? I’d like to see a more level playing field on many dimensions. Right now, movie studios are understandably taking advantage of massive global incentives to make films in certain localities, but this severely tilts the scales and has serious repercussions on all sides.

In addition, just like the rest of Hollywood, we need to make visual effects production a more diverse, inclusive environment. There are too many people making movies who look like me, and who have similar histories, tastes and skill sets. We will be able to tell more dynamic, interesting stories by including more women and people of color in our industry.

We have a work-life balance problem in our industry, too. The hours and stress take their toll on visual effects workers around the world. Finally and more broadly, it is inexplicable how little power the visual effects industry has in Hollywood, while our work remains critical to the success of modern films.

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

TODD VAZIRI: The advice I’d give is similar to the advice I’d have for anyone who is interested in Hollywood filmmaking. Firstly, understand that this is not a glamorous job. The people who make films, both in front of and behind the camera – and behind the computer – are passionate and committed to their craft. If you’re not all-in on this as an idea, you might want to consider something else.

More practically, young visual effects artists sometimes get hung up on questions like: “Which piece of software should I learn?” My personal view is that the most successful visual effects professionals in my sphere are not obsessed with software or the technology itself, but are more interested in using those tools to create the imagery or tell the story that’s in their heads. I’m not technically minded at all, and yet I get by because the tools have become so accessible and approachable that even a dummy like me can operate the controls. Also, it’s incredibly important for young visual effects artists to watch and analyze non-visual effects films, and study as much photography as possible.

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

TODD VAZIRI: Citizen Kane – don’t roll your eyes at me, millennials! You’ll watch this black-and-white movie and like it! Orson Welles and his team were using the camera to tell a story like no-one did before – you can see many now-standard cinematic techniques used for the first time in this film. They pushed every department to its limits and beyond; the film includes special effects and optical work, several ingenious matte paintings, animation and miniatures. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography gave the film a striking look, as did all of the hidden optical tricks made possible by Linwood Dunn’s optical printer breakthroughs – like the massive set extensions at the political rally, or the building of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu.

Star Wars (1977 theatrical edition) – come on, do I really need to say why I chose this?

The Abyss – Jim Cameron’s epic underwater adventure used pretty much every single visual effects trick in the book, including the debut of a creature of a kind never seen before on film – the computer-generated pseudopod. The movie is an encyclopedia of photographic effects from the dawn of cinema to that moment, and simultaneously presents a prelude to cinema’s digital era.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TODD VAZIRI: Popcorn, no butter, a tiny bit of salt.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Todd!

Spotlight – Kyle McCulloch

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

Kyle McCulloch is a visual effects supervisor at Framestore. Ask him what his career highlights are so far and he’ll tell you, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Beauty and the Beast, Thor: Ragnarok and Pan.”

Kyle McCulloch

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: I was a nerdy kid in film school who loved stop-motion and animation work. I was obsessed with the great fantasy films of the 80’s – Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story – and just wanted to be a part of making that kind of magic. I was actually a pretty terrible student, and couldn’t get an internship doing anything animation-related, so I took what I could get and started as an intern in the marketing department for Curious Pictures, an animation studio in New York City. Over a couple of years there, I weaseled my way into reception, then the tape room, then production, and finally into the role of junior compositor.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: As much as I love the digital wizardry that we create in post, I still get goosebumps watching the combined might and skill of a film production put something remarkable on film. Standing in the Great Hall from Harry Potter, or watching the Milano from Guardians of the Galaxy fly on a stage at Shepperton, I often think how completely geeked out my 15 year-old self would be.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KYLE McCULLOCH: A lazy reliance on CG and postproduction. The best results happen when the various creatives and departments work together to make a plan, and everyone works hard to do their bit to the best of their ability. It’s always a bit crushing to be presented with an avoidable, uphill battle in post, where the bulk of your energy will be spent fixing rather than polishing.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: I think I faced some of my biggest challenges as a visual effects artist working at The Orphanage. It was a remarkable group of people who were constantly hitting above their weight in terms of the quality of the work they did. We were a relatively tiny shop with limited resources, but we still managed to create and finish some stellar stuff. I’m still really proud of the Iron Man HUD. There were many, many late nights – and a fair few moments where I was absolutely sure we weren’t going to be able to deliver – but in the end we made something iconic. I get a major rush seeing each new iteration of the HUD in the progressive Marvel Studios films, seeing how different artists interpret and continue to grow what we started.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KYLE McCULLOCH: I didn’t actually get to work on it myself, but The Orphanage did a rather remarkable melting penis sequence in Planet Terror. It still gives me nightmares.

Kyle McCulloch

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: The thing that constantly surprises me is the scale at which visual effects is operating today. Working on a Marvel Studios show, you can’t help but be impressed at the scale and scope that they deploy visual effects in their films. I couldn’t have imagined projects like that 10 years ago. The other – welcome – change is that visual effects is seen as more of a partner on film sets, helping the other creatives and departments to achieve their goals. We’re no longer the strange folks in the corner painting things green!

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: Don’t start at one of the big shops! I was so fortunate to spend my first few years working in a smaller facility. We may not have been doing the most glamorous work, but being a part of a small team meant I got to sit next to, and learn from, a much wider variety of artists and technicians. I was given lots of opportunities to grow and challenge myself, and learned to think on my feet and solve problems. Those were all things that served me well once I made the switch to the big facilities.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: The NeverEnding Story – as a wee boy, this movie captured my imagination completely. It’s all practical work, and much of it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of what audiences expect today, but I still love everything about this film.

The Matrix – talk about a game-changer! This film still holds up, and was such an amazing example of how visual effects would come to be integral in the visual storytelling media. I mean, how many news stories did they do about bullet time?!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – this film was really personal for me. I was still doing commercial work in New York, and I’ll never forget sitting in the theater watching this film, thinking, “I HAVE to go work on features!” It was magic, taking audiences to a complete other world, and represents what I love most about visual effects.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KYLE McCULLOCH: Two tubs of popcorn – one sweet and one salty.

CINEFEX: Kyle, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Sheena Duggal

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

Having learned her craft during the very earliest days of digital compositing, and with a career as visual effects supervisor stretching back 20 years, Sheena Duggal has many stories to tell of her experiences in the industry – not to mention her work promoting diversity and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She lists her career highlights as including Mission Impossible, Contact, Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio, Matchstick Men, Spider-Man 3, Body of Lies, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Agent Carter, Doctor Strange and Venom.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "VFX Convergence" event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “VFX Convergence” event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: I grew up in England and attended art school for five years specializing in animation. When I left art college in 1985, I passed on a traditional animation job to work in London on high-resolution computer design work for musicians and photographers. It was there that I was first contacted to work on the feature film Super Mario Brothers.

I do have some great memories from my life before features. I worked on Elton John’s singles, albums and tour brochures – Prince’s too – but my all-time favorite client session was the time I spent one-on-one with George Harrison designing the first Traveling Wilburys album cover. George had a demo cassette of the album, which I listened to on my Walkman while I worked. I didn’t realize at the time the gravitas with which I should have held this experience! I was in my early ‘20s and the music scene I was into was very different, so it sounded dated to me. I didn’t realize the band was actually Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn – that was still a secret. I listened politely, racking my brain about how to authentically say something positive – I know, that sounds crazy now! George asked my opinion of the album, and I recall saying I liked the song Tweeter and the Monkey Man. He’d written that one, so he was happy! I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a Beatle!” But it was really hard to sustain that awe, because he was just a nice, down to earth, generous, likeable guy with amazing stories of his trips to India, who took me out for dinner and gave me money for my cab fare home when we worked late.

CINEFEX: How did Super Mario Brothers come into the picture?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Sorry, I digress! A friend of mine, Phillipe Panzini – who went on to win an Academy Sci-tech Award for his work on Flame software – had shown the film’s producers a VIP brochure where we’d composited athletes onto NASA images of the Earth for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and they hired me as a matte painter. I was living in London at the time, didn’t know a soul in Los Angeles, and I had never used Flame. Then again, nor had anyone else. How hard could it be?

CINEFEX: So how hard was it?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, it was all very bleeding edge. There was a group of us working on about 20 SGI workstations with VGX graphics, and no such thing as batch or background processing. You’d set up a comp with as many as 26 layers, document all your setups by hand so you could reproduce them, then wait for it to render. It did that in the foreground, so there was a lot of downtime. Gary Tregaskis, the architect of Flame, was there with us constantly writing new code to allow us to create the effects we needed, and the late Peter Webb – who was the only person who had actually used Flame before – graciously shared his knowledge with us.

After that, I moved to San Francisco to work for the amazing animation company Colossal Pictures, under Brad De Graf who was exploring motion capture characters with his real-time CG character Moxy – considered to be the first real-time cartoon broadcast live. Using Flame, I composited a Robocop theme park ride for Iwerks, and using an alpha version of Flint – which Discreet Logic wrote for me to run on an Indy – I worked on the award winning Coke Sun commercial with director Tony Stacchi. I briefly moved back to Los Angeles to be a compositor on Terminal Velocity, before heading to ILM in the mid ‘90s to work on a Tales from the Crypt episode directed by Bob Zemeckis. After working on films such as Village of the Damned, The Indian in the Cupboard, Congo, Jumanji, Mission Impossible and the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope, I left ILM with a team of amazing artists and technologists lead by Ken Ralston to help found Sony Pictures Imageworks as creative director of the high speed compositing department.

I became a visual effects supervisor in 1998 on Patch Adams, continuing to run the HSC department and comp shots until it became impossible for me to do it all. I left Imageworks after 14 amazing years to work as an independent production-side visual effects supervisor on The Hunger Games, then spent four years working with Marvel. I’m currently visual effects supervisor on Venom with Paul Franklin.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Meeting people who have been touched by the work we do in the film industry. It’s easy to forget how much the dazzling visuals that we create impact people we’ve never met. In creating fantastical stories, we allow our audience a moment of escapism from their real lives, or we hit an emotional tone that resonates within them.

I remember meeting someone who asked me for an example of a film I’d worked on. I mentioned Contact, because I was very proud of the work I’d done designing the beautiful, ethereal look of the beach sequence on Vega where Jodie Foster speaks with her dead father. She immediately teared up, and told me that for her it was an amazing moment in the film. She explained that her father had passed away, and that the scene had felt to her like a depiction of heaven, and had touched her deeply. I was surprised, but I’ve heard many people over the years express similar sentiments.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

Along the same lines, when I was at Marvel, we did a one-shot short directed by Louis D’Esposito called Agent Carter. I was the visual effects supervisor and I also created the main on-end title design – which was so much fun! Bob Iger liked the short so much it spun off into a television show on ABC. We did two seasons and when the shows aired, together with the actors and show runners, we live tweeted with the fans. It was so incredibly rewarding to tweet with these young girls who found in Peggy Carter an empowered female character that they could look up to.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Being the only woman in the room in a craft role. The lack of ethnic diversity is also disheartening. Diversity issues have been brought to the forefront of our industry recently, and it really is a very big problem. As a woman, you just don’t get the same opportunities as men. Often you can’t even finish your sentence, because some people still find it difficult to listen to a woman in a technical role. I’ve discussed these issues with women and people of color in other disciplines of the film industry and it’s the same story across the board. Some sectors of the industry, like cinematography and composers and visual effects, are very far behind in terms of gender equality and diversity.

I don’t often speak about these issues publicly. I’d much rather work towards a better solution for the future and be an agent of change, which I aim to do as chair of the Academy visual effects branch Diversity and Inclusion Sub-Committee and as a member of the A2020 Committee, whose initiative is to have a substantial and lasting impact on the diversity and inclusion issues in all aspects of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. I’m excited by the initiatives we’re working towards to create real and positive change within all branches of our industry.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: One of the most challenging and rewarding tasks – because those often go hand in hand – was sitting with Pietro Scala and Sir Ridley Scott cutting the car chase and helicopter sequence on Body of Lies. We’d shot the sequence in the Sahara Desert but ran out of time at the end of the schedule. No one really wanted to go into the Mojave Desert to shoot additional photography, so we solved it by using visual effects to Frankenstitch together plates we’d shot, adding a few CG shots to help with storytelling. It came out brilliantly.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, I’ve supervised a few Adam Sandler films, so lots of weird tasks there! One in particular, on Fifty First Dates, was to make a walrus puke. On the day of the shoot, I was banned from set for safety because the walrus became amorous. I don’t think it gets weirder than that!

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Oh, things have changed so much since I began working in visual effects. Back in the early 1990s, we didn’t think about it as a business. Everything we did was a challenge and every day we were pushing the forefront of technological development. Creating an effect we had never seen or done required everyone in the filmmaking process to take a huge leap of faith. It was really challenging, we worked long hours because we were devoted to our tasks, and it was always a thrill to see what we were able to pull off. We were fortunate to be working with filmmakers like Bob Zemeckis who pushed us to innovate and create their vision despite the magnitude of the task ahead of us. We formed bonds and shared our innovations and techniques. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

I don’t know the exact point at which visual effects became big business. We didn’t anticipate how rapidly the technology and hardware would advance, become cost-effective and precipitate a mature toolset. Tasks that would have taken complex setups to complete 25 years ago can now be done with the push of a button and rendered in no time at all. But still, for those of us who have been in this industry for any amount of time, the objective remains the same – to create, innovate and push the envelope.

Aside from the tools and technology, the way we make films has also changed a lot, with many films driven by schedule and release dates. Today, there’s an increased level of difficulty in managing the complexity and number of shots. You could say that the challenge of feature film visual effects has become resource management – can we do the work given the schedule and budget available?

This is why I believe visual effects producers are so integral to the visual effects process. In fact, I’m encouraging our industry to further include and recognize their contribution. We couldn’t succeed in our craft without their contribution, which is often creative actually. The success of a project relies on a successful partnership between visual effects supervisor and producer. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great visual effects producers, and I was delighted to see a number of them admitted to the Academy visual effects branch in 2017. We didn’t admit any this year, but this is a great start and goes a long way towards acknowledging and recognizing their contribution.

Of course, another big change is that we have dispersed our industry around the world in pursuit of tax credits, displacing thriving visual effects communities and forcing so many visual effects companies out of business.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SHEENA DUGGAL: More diversity and inclusion, period.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: If you’ve found what you love and it’s visual effects, there are four broad categories you can choose from – creative, technical, production management and facility management. Look on the big visual effects studio sites like ILM, DNEG, MPC, Framestore and the rest. Check out the job postings and careers pages. Understand what’s required and what you need to learn technically and artistically. Know what the positions are, what the titles mean, and how each contributes to a movie. Some software vendors offer students free non-commercial access to their products. Look in particular at Autodesk Maya, The Foundry Nuke and Side Effects Houdini.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Blade Runner – because every frame is a work of art. It’s emotionally moving on a number of levels, the beauty of it speaking to you as much as the story and characters do. For me, it’s visual storytelling using lighting and atmospherics in tandem with a spectacularly emotional color palette. It’s about the visual effects supporting the story so you can get lost in the world that Ridley created. It really stands the test of time – even today in VFX films you can see futuristic city builds riffing off that original Blade Runner production design.

I want to say Terminator 2: Judgment Day – because visually it blew my mind. It was the first time I thought, “Wow, it’s possible to photorealistically visualize anything you can imagine!” I also grew up watching the Ray Harryhausen films – the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts was my previous gold standard because who doesn’t love a brilliant piece of stop-frame animation? But I’m going to have to say my second pick is The Abyss.

The alien creature in The Abyss is not only a beautiful design, it’s also haunting, melodramatic, and integral to the success of the storytelling. It looks great, and I love the scene with the sea water snake that mimics the faces of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, whose superb acting really sells the believability of the visual effects. At the time, we’d really never seen anything quite like these effects before.

Contact – because it has a woman at the center of the story, I know it so intimately, and I’m proud that the work we did in 1996 still holds up today. It was a magical time with an incredible team of talented people. The standout for me is the beach sequence, which I put my heart and soul into designing, and the mirror shot that became something magical once we’d composited it. People still ask me how we did that today. The way we move the camera and employ visual effects to change the perspective of the viewer is brilliantly executed. It was a challenging show – the beach sequence was first time in film history that anyone had a shot a full 360-degree bluescreen and replaced it with a digital environment. And Jay Redd’s beautiful opening sequence, combined with the audio design, is still one of the best openings to any film – it sets the tone perfectly.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Dark chocolate with sea salt.

CINEFEX: Sheena, thanks for your time!