Spotlight – Sara Mustafa

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

Sara Mustafa is head of global operations and resources at Pixomondo. Her job entails examining and building global capacity, and overseeing resources both creative and technical. In November 2016, Sara launched the company’s new Vancouver office.

Sara Mustafa

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?

SARA MUSTAFA: I’ve always worked in the creative and digital space. I was fascinated by moviemaking and effects, so I actively looked for a career in one of the biggest companies in Toronto – Pixomondo I started working in the Toronto office as a human resources manager, and held different positions, then after a year I moved to the head office in Los Angeles to take on a more global role. Little by little I became a visual effects addict! Now I direct global operations and I cannot ask for a better space to be.

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

SARA MUSTAFA: Watching artists so intensely figuring out shots and getting excited about it. Also, delivering shots and watching ‘making ofs.’ The adrenalin rush makes me very happy.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SARA MUSTAFA: Clients – no, I’m kidding! I don’t think I ever sob, at least not at work. I might get sad occasionally about losing a show, but it’s all a fair game. Also when I see good talent being wasted or misused in some way. As you have figured by now, I’m very pro- artists, and if they are sad I get a little sad too.

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

SARA MUSTAFA: Opening a new facility in one of the most competitive cities for visual effects – Vancouver. That was exciting and a little terrifying. It was challenging because we 100 percent needed to open a new office, and it made the most sense to open it in Vancouver, but we were gambling on a very strong market. But guess what – we now have a full-on office in Vancouver and are expanding.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SARA MUSTAFA: We needed to do a same-day delivery from Los Angeles to Toronto. I was the only person who had their passport in the office, so I flew from Toronto to L.A. and back in the same day. I also bartended in one of our parties once, but I’ll tell you about that some other time …

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

SARA MUSTAFA: The migration of artists from region to region every three to five years, based on production and postproduction tax incentives, and on where the work lands. As for changes in the technical arena – shifting to remote working, also GPU- and cloud-based applications.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SARA MUSTAFA: I would like to see more artist appreciation. People easily forget that behind the machines and software are great artist who make the impossible shots happen. I want to see it recognised that people matter and artists are very valuable.

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

SARA MUSTAFA: Get an internship and be current with all the new trends. Also, train yourself on work-life balance from the very beginning, so that you work hard and enjoy life too. Most importantly, you are responsible for your own career, so don’t hesitate in exploring new avenues, shorter contracts on cool projects and, if the situation allows, new cities and adventures! It will all be worth 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?

SARA MUSTAFA: That’s a tough one! I’m a fan of the ‘Fast and Furious’ movies because I love fire and car crashes. Hugo, with its CG effects in the opening shot, is fascinating because of all the optimization that went into it. The Jungle Book, because the amount of work and tenacity that goes into creature effects is fascinating to me.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SARA MUSTAFA: Popcorn and Maltesers!

CINEFEX: Sara, thanks for your time!


Spotlight – Omar Morsy

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

Omar Morsy is head of animation at MPC. His feature credits include Blade Runner 2049, and he lists Wonder Woman and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as being among his recent personal career highlights.

Omar Morsy

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

OMAR MORSY: I’ve always wanted to be an animator. I would watch the old Disney films on VHS and hit play-pause-play-pause to study every frame of any shot I loved. I was animation director at a big videogame company when a friend of mine asked me to join the team at Mokko Studio to animate an alien Doberman on Riddick. After a decade working on AAA games, I wanted a change, so I jumped at the opportunity.

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

OMAR MORSY: Creating animations that I know will live forever. It’s great to think that 100 years from now, people will still have access to my work.

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

OMAR MORSY: Animating 83 spaceships flying around and attacking each other in outer space. What a mess!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

OMAR MORSY: Animating a rabbit peeing on a folding chair.

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

OMAR MORSY: When I first started animating back in 1997, it really was a male-dominated field. Things have changed so much now. The animation team has never been closer to 50/50. MPC is one of the studios that is really trying to address diversity imbalances.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

OMAR MORSY: Being able to animate complex, heavy rigs at 24 frames a second without a hiccup.

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

OMAR MORSY: Understand realism! Always do your research, look at references, and make sure your work is as credible and as realistic 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?

OMAR MORSY: Terminator 2: Judgment Day – I remember watching that movie with my dad and hearing him ask, “How did they do that?” specifically when the T-1000 walks through the prison bars. Inception – I was not only blown away by the story, but I had never seen visual effects of buildings curling upwards and above. I thought it was brilliant. Riddick – because we used my dog, Tyson, as reference for the alien dog. My boy is now immortal!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

OMAR MORSY: Beef jerky. But I have to sneak that in – shhh!

CINEFEX: Omar, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Trey Harrell

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

Trey Harrell is a visual effects supervisor, CG and lighting supervisor, and 3D generalist at Mr. X. His film credits include Tron: Legacy, Crimson Peak, The Hundred Foot Journey and, most recently, The Shape of Water.

Trey Harrell

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

TREY HARRELL: I’d had nearly 20 years in the advertising world before there was a big decline between 2006 and 2009. The shake-up steeled me to send my reels out again, and I ended up as lead lighting TD on Tron: Legacy for Mr. X in Toronto.

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

TREY HARRELL: Literally every skill I’ve learned over my career, from my eye, to programming pipeline and database management, to simming and lookdeving viscera. I never have the same job two days in a row. There are still days I wake up and I can’t believe I’ve made a career out of playing with monsters!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TREY HARRELL: My first feature began about 10 years ago with a 12-month post schedule. Some recent projects I’ve seen have five-month schedules with three in post – the demand for this type of work has increased exponentially since prestige television got added to the mix. It’s a serious quest worldwide finding talent who are up for the challenges of such compressed post schedules. Also, committee creative has always made me weep uncontrollably, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future.

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

TREY HARRELL: I think if you’ll talk with anyone at the various shops involved, you’ll find that Tron: Legacy was incredibly difficult for all of the studios from a sheer brute force perspective. It was simply a lot of intensely grueling hours. That’s different than, for example, The Shape of Water where we had to get to know the creature as well as the director and sculptors knew him, after spending years designing him in preproduction. We had to be able to look Guillermo del Toro in the eye and say with no doubt whatsoever that his eyes and face were 100% on-model in a shot. I’m not sure your body recognizes the stress any differently between the two scenarios when you’re in the moment, but with the benefit of hindsight it becomes clearer. That’s no different than any creative endeavor, though. Every single one plays out differently.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TREY HARRELL: Well, I’ve worked with Guillermo a fair bit to date, so several of my strangest stories naturally revolve around his shows. I’ve had Robocop (Peter Weller) direct an episode of The Strain, pulling out his trumpet to riff jazz between takes – all that after I grew up on a steady diet of Cronenburg and Naked Lunch. More recently, I’ve had days-long text message chains with close friends detailing how Beauty and the Beast is okay because the beast has fur, but the idea of scales crosses an imaginary line somehow in a fantasy where the heroine has agency …

Watch a breakdown reel of Mr. X’s work on The Shape of Water:

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

TREY HARRELL: I see conversely the need to specialize more due to the sheer workload at hand versus the need – now more than ever – for generalists who can speak the language of all of the disciplines at play. The demand for quality work at the television level and the shrinking post schedule everywhere are probably the biggest changes visible day-to-day.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TREY HARRELL: Where to begin? I would like to see the largest software vendors throw R&D at their products like they did in the oughts. This is still not a mature industry and there’s immense room for growth. Incorporating third-party plugins annually does not justify support fees. I’d like to see post schedules level out to a manageable pace. And I’d like to see more filmmakers commit to getting as much as they can in-camera instead of shooting a scene on green with a dozen softboxes overhead and a tennis ball for eyelines – if you’re lucky – and then figuring out what the shot is later.

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

TREY HARRELL: This is a production business – product and deadlines, and brute force hours will only get you so far. You’ll get one show in ten that’s special – you might dig it, critically it might be a success, or it’s just a great time working with the crew. You can’t show up for work differently on one show versus another. Also, work a job you hate for a few years before settling into a career doing something you love – perspective is important.

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

TREY HARRELL: Assuming I’ve got decent gear at said festival, I’d pick a 70mm print of Blade Runner: The Final Cut to start, for sure. Popcorn cinema would come second – I’ve got a soft spot for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I’d have to cap it with something from my guilty pleasure bucket – today let’s call it Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TREY HARRELL: It’s a toss-up between Raisinets and Sno-Caps, but I make absolutely certain to dispose of the plastic wrap before entering the theater. I die inside a little bit when every package in the cinema opens up simultaneously on the first line of dialog.

CINEFEX: Trey, thanks for your time!


Spotlight – Joe Bauer

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

As production visual effects supervisor on HBO’s epic television show Game of Thrones, Joe Bauer leads teams of artists around the world to bring the fantasy realm of Westeros to life – including its ever-maturing contingent of fire-breathing dragons.

Joe Bauer

JOE BAUER: Mentally and emotionally, I started out in the industry while still living in Springfield, Missouri, at the age of 11, ogling a few minutes of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the Joplin channel on a snowy black and white television screen. Next was The Golden Voyage – Sinbad again – in full color in a movie theater. Then, before I knew it, I had a masters in film and was lighting miniatures on a motion control stage in Van Nuys. David Stipes made me part of his team on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then I was figuring out in- camera forced perspective shots for Elf. Now I’m the stepfather of digital dragons. Pretty normal progression really.

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

JOE BAUER: Watching audience reactions of things I’ve worked on on YouTube.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JOE BAUER: The ‘mad elephant’ scene in Dumbo.

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

JOE BAUER: My first feature visual effects supervising job involved Jean-Claude van Damme, an untrained Bengal tiger, a Hong Kong wire team and the need to nuke the Roman Colosseum and, with it, a deranged character played by Mickey Rourke. My wallet had been stolen by a gypsy and I had to save per diem in order to buy a coat. The next hardest was shooting twenty stuntmen in a bullring in Spain with a 50-foot flamethrower attached to a motion control crane, in order to have actual fire for a dragon attack. I was so nervous my top lip swelled up like Donald Duck. Fortunately, the Colosseum blew up and the stunt men didn’t.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JOE BAUER: Aah – should have saved my Van Damme story! Second to that might be tracking a butt-crack onto a too-shy body double, and then covering that with a bluescreen tree branch when the nudity was deemed inappropriate.

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

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) rides her dragon Drogon into battle in HBO's "Game of Thrones."

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) rides her dragon Drogon into battle in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” in this visual effects shot created by Image Engine.

JOE BAUER: How good everyone has gotten at what they do. On a show like Game of Thrones, where a tremendous volume of work must be completed in a very short time, multiple vendors of all sizes must be utilized, and across the board the technical and artistic accomplishment is shockingly consistent and staggeringly good. In the early days, only the fattest wallets and most prestigious pictures got the A-game from the relatively slim list of top talent. Now the baseline is excellence, so planning and design – and time and money, still – are what separate the great from the greater. When’s the last time you saw a matte line or a color mismatch?

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JOE BAUER: I’d like to see the community of artists better taken care of. The skill level is that of medical professionals and yet as a specialized workforce they are still expected to live like carnival workers, except for the lucky ones under large company umbrellas. I think the community deserves organized protections, pensions and benefits. These are life choices, not summer jobs.

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

JOE BAUER: I would say study art and photography in addition to software. If you don’t know what the real world looks like and how a camera photographs it, you’ll have no sense of how to re-create it in a visual effects shot. Even more to the point, unless you’ve seen sunlight on objects through the eyes of the greatest artists of civilization, you might miss how grand and great and emotionally affecting a particular shot can be constructed. There’s no harm in making each and every visual effects shot a masterwork.

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

JOE BAUER: Star Wars, Jurassic Park and the 1933 King Kong. Runners-up would be George Pal’s The War of the Worlds and MGM’s Forbidden Planet. I think those would display fine art, wild imagination, industriousness and determination in the face of obstacles. Nothing is handed to you in the business of telling stories with memorable visuals, and yet the end result needs to seem as if it has always been. Those movies, among many others before and since, display those qualities, whether using rubber and steel or pixels.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JOE BAUER: Salted popcorn

CINEFEX: Joe, thanks for your time!

Watch the trailer for Games of Thrones Season 7:

Spotlight – Howard Berger

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

Howard Berger is co-owner of makeup effects company KNB EFX Group, which specializes in character prosthetics, animatronics and creatures. Howard’s film credits number in the hundreds and include The Chronicles of Narnia, Kill Bill, Lone Survivor, Hitchcock, Oz the Great and Powerful and Army of Darkness.

Howard Berger applies Krill makeup to actor Scott Grimes for an episode of the Fox television series "The Orville."

Howard Berger applies Krill makeup to actor Scott Grimes for an episode of the Fox television series “The Orville.”

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

HOWARD BERGER: I grew up in LA and loved monsters and movies, and knowing that someone made them, I wanted to be one of them too. I stalked my idols – Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Dick Smith – at 12 years old. My break came when Stan hired me fresh out of high school at 18 years old.

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

HOWARD BERGER: When I see the audience reaction.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

HOWARD BERGER: Watching The Thing and An American Werewolf in London.

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

HOWARD BERGER: The first “Narnia” film was unbelievably difficult. Eight months of prep in LA at KNB EFX. Then eight months of filming in New Zealand. The hours were monstrous, and the turnaround would sometimes be as little as three hours. It kicked my ass – but it was the greatest experience professionally for me.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

HOWARD BERGER: The film The Cell, which I hate and had a terrible time on. They were filming a scene where Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the killer, hooks himself up over his naked, bleached-skin female victim and masturbates. I looked at my set mate, Garrett Immel, and asked “What the f*** are we doing here?!”

Howard Berger applies Freddy Krueger makeup to Robert Englund in 1987 for "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master."

Howard Berger turns Robert Englund into Freddy Krueger in 1987 for “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.”

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

HOWARD BERGER: The partnership of practical special makeup and visual effects working together. I love when we do it. I love the visual effects teams as there are things we can’t do and things they can’t do, and together we accomplish amazing magic.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

HOWARD BERGER: Better training in my union. And a different criteria as to how to become a union member. The qualifications now are passé and no art is required to become a member. It’s about days, and that is not enough. There are great people out there that should be members and are kept out due to rules that don’t apply anymore.

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

HOWARD BERGER: Do your best always. Listen more and talk less. Crawl before you walk. Learn from everyone as no one knows everything. I don’t know it all and I learn every day. Use good judgement in the way you present yourself and be ready, because not everyone gets a trophy for participating in the game.

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

HOWARD BERGER: The Thing – it still amazes me. I think it’s so inventive and brilliant. The Howling – my favorite werewolf, very Bernie Wrightson. So badass! Creature from the Black Lagoon – my favorite monster of all time, and the most perfect creature suit ever.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

HOWARD BERGER: Vodka.

CINEFEX: Howard, thanks for your time!


Adam Savage’s Tested crew visited Howard Berger at KNB EFX – watch the video: