Inspiring MPC

by Graham Edwards

What drives people to work in the visual effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of VFX professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into visual effects?”

Here are the responses from the staff at MPC.

Starting with Stop-Motion

Many of today’s visual effects professionals are suckers for a little old-fashioned stop-motion animation. Richard Stammers, production VFX supervisor at MPC, is no exception. “Growing up, I had a real love of Ray Harryhausen’s work like Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger,” he enthused. “But seeing Phil Tippett working behind the scenes on the AT-AT Walkers for the Hoth battle from The Empire Strikes Back was a turning point for me.”

For “The Empire Strikes Back”, Phil Tippett and Jon Berg employed the Lyon-Lamb animation system (right) to provide instant replay capability as they animated the AT-AT Walkers for the principal VistaVision cameras. Image copyright © by Industrial Light & Magic. All rights reserved.

For “The Empire Strikes Back”, Phil Tippett and Jon Berg employed the Lyon-Lamb animation system (right) to provide instant replay capability as they animated the AT-AT Walkers for the principal VistaVision cameras. Image copyright © by Industrial Light & Magic. All rights reserved.

Paul Chung, animation supervisor, is a fan of the old school too. “I came from that generation when VFX meant back-projection, stop-motion and optical,” he noted. “My inspiration was Ray Harryhausen and Disney films. That was all I knew.”

Harryhausen also inspired Dan Zelcs, lead rigger, who included the stop-motion legend in his round-up of early influences: “As a kid, my inspirations and interests ranged from Bugs Bunny, Star Wars and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion skeletons, to my own activities of re-creating film characters and spaceships in Lego, and playing computer games.”

Ray Harryhausen applies glycerine to skin of the Kraken puppet used in “Clash of the Titans” to make it appear wet.

Ray Harryhausen applies glycerine to skin of the Kraken puppet used in “Clash of the Titans” to make it appear wet.

Digital Delights

Ask any group of VFX professionals which film inspired them to get into the business, and a good percentage of them will come up with a movie from the 1990s – that fast-moving decade during which the digital revolution was beginning to sweep through the entire visual effects industry.

Jurassic Park just blew my mind!” stated Joan Panis, head of FX. “The Tyrannosaurus Rex chase scene was incredible. I re-watched the movie recently, and although it wouldn’t get a PG-13 nowadays, the CG still holds up pretty well. Kudos to ILM for that. When I discovered that most of the dinosaurs in the movie were computer-generated, my interest in CG grew exponentially and I started becoming obsessed with VFX.”

Dinosaurs were also responsible for chasing Rob Pieke, software lead, into career in VFX. “I was 14 years old when Jurassic Park came out. I didn’t even know how to appreciate what I was seeing, but it triggered inside me a strong sense of ‘I know what I want to do when I grow up’ – especially since I was crazy about dinosaurs as a kid.”

A turning point for Ferran Domenech, animation supervisor, was the moment when, as a teenager, he left the cinema after seeing Jurassic Park. “I clearly remember telling my father that they had almost made you believe the dinosaurs were real,” he recalled. “I researched Jurassic Park in specialist magazines, and learned that they’d changed from a computer-controlled miniature system called go-motion to fully-rendered CG for the wide shots of the dinosaurs. I was blown away by what could be achieved with computers. This truly sparked my passion for 3D and VFX.”

Sophie Marfleet, lead envirocam artist and compositor, found the 1990s just as inspiring as her colleagues. “I’ve been obsessed with movies since I watched Star Wars and Indiana Jones as a kid,” she commented, “but I was inspired to work in film by watching movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park and Fight Club. The visuals blew me away, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”

The developing potential of computer graphics continued to inspire wannabe VFX professionals right up to the end of the decade. Reminiscing about a certain mind-bending classic from 1999, Damien Fagnou, global head of VFX operations, said, “Since I was ten years old, I’ve been fascinated with computers and their ability to produce graphics of all kinds. My path was set in that direction when The Matrix came out. That film was really the trigger that made me think, ‘This is what I want to do in life: contribute to making amazing movie experiences like the one I’ve just experienced.’”

But on the subject of the digital revolution, it was Marco Carboni, crowd supervisor, who picked out what many experts regard as the watershed moment when computer-generated characters truly came of age. “I had a blast when, as a kid, I saw the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes,” he commented.

Stained glass knight - "Young Sherlock Holmes". Image copyright © by Industrial Light & Magic. All rights reserved.

ILM modelshop crew member Jeff Mann was photographed in costume against a grid to provide reference footage for the computer animation. Standing on the right are Pixar artistic supervisor John Lasseter and visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren. A clay and glass maquette of the knight was digitised using Pixar’s Polhemus three-space digitiser, with the resulting geometry rendered in vector form on an Evans and Sutherland monitor. Image copyright © by Industrial Light & Magic. All rights reserved.

Believing Anything Can Fly

Of course, there are plenty of people at MPC whose memories stretch back further than the 1990s. Take Tony Micilotta, R&D lead, who remembers a time when superheroes had to save the world without the help of digital doubles. “Superman (1978) really made me believe that a man could fly!” Micilotta remarked. “As I grew older, it was pioneering technologies such as the Zoptic front-projection system used in Superman that inspired me to join the VFX industry, where I could develop new techniques to create imagery that had never been seen before.”

Meanwhile, Scott Eade, head of layout, has fond memories of the 1980s: “As a kid I grew up watching such imagination-building films like Blade Runner, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Tron, Ghostbusters and Star Wars. So I’ve always been drawn towards the magic in visual effects.”

But for Matt Packham, 2D supervisor, one movie stands head and shoulders above the rest: “Which film inspired me to get into VFX? Simple – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Seeing this for the first time in the late 1980s was a sublime experience. And when I learned what it took to make a movie like this in 1968, it continued to amaze me!”

Starchild - "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Inspired by a series of intra-uterine photographs, the Starchild seen in “2001: A Space Odyssey was sculpted by Liz Moore and mechanised so its eyes could move. The Starchild was filmed through multiple layers of gauze, with immense levels of backlight. As a finishing touch, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull airbrushed an enveloping cocoon on to a piece of glossy black paper, which was aligned to the model and filmed on an animation stand.

Realising the Dream

Inspiration is all very well, but how did the staff at MPC develop their youthful enthusiasm into actual careers? For Richard Stammers, the practical exploration of VFX techniques started early. “My school art teacher saw my enthusiasm and lent me his Bolex camera to film my first stop-motion project,” he revealed. “I used the articulated joints of my camera flash to push my camera, caterpillar-style, on to my prone tripod, which then stood up, walked and bowed to camera. I was hooked! This enthusiasm fuelled education decisions and career aspirations.”

For Paul Chung, it was a passion for art that ultimately drew him into the VFX business. “I grew up drawing a lot,” he remembered, “but I was also into filmmaking, so I ended up at film school in London. After that, I got into hand-drawn animation, combining my two interests together. Some 20 years later, I went to Dreamworks, and that was the beginning of my life in digital.”

PCjr photograph by Rik Myslewski, via Wikimedia Commons (own work – CC0)

PCjr photograph by Rik Myslewski, via Wikimedia Commons

Visual effects relies as much on science as it does on art, as demonstrated by Rob Pieke. “My entry into the industry was really fostered by two influences,” Pieke reflected. “The first was my parents, who both worked for IBM and taught me how to write computer graphics programs in BASIC on the PCjr in the 1980s. I originally aspired to be an animator, but programming and problem-solving is clearly in my genes, so an R&D role was the natural fit for me.”

Dan Zelcs also got his start during the early days of home computers. “I think my journey into visual effects really started at age ten,” he commented, “with me programming my Sinclair ZX Spectrum, using BASIC to animate a pixelated version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – complete with the cartoon’s theme tune, executed in 8-bit beeps! This formative experience, entering lines of code to produce a living piece of animation, was the ‘2001 monolith’ moment of my career. It made me realise I could use mathematics to make art, and turn my imagination into reality.”

Zelcs went on to recall the dizzying leap from his ZX Spectrum to a computing machine with far more number-crunching power. “Later, I’d play with software like Deluxe Paint III on my Amiga 500,” he explained. “I would animate simple cut-out characters, and render zooming camera moves through Mandelbrot fractal sets. Then I found Sculpt-Animate 4D – free modelling software that came on the cover of a magazine – which enabled me to model and ray-trace simple objects. This experience influenced my choices of classes at school – mixing mathematics and art – and then the degree that I chose.”

While Catherine Mullan, head of  animation, acknowledges the art/science debate, she prefers not to take sides. “I was always drawing as a kid,” she remarked. “I loved art and drama but also maths and science. I wanted to pursue a job that was a mix of all these things, but the usual options didn’t fit the bill.  When applying for university, I stumbled across a computer animation course and was immediately excited. I spent the next few years discovering the delights of computer graphics, and was especially drawn to animation.”

On even the best-planned career path, however, there’s always room for a little blind chance to play its part, as in the case of Sophie Marfleet: “It was actually a conversation with an old compositor friend called Tim, who I bumped into on a year abroad in New Zealand, that convinced me to take the visual effects route.”

End Results

So, regardless of what brought them into the field of visual effects, are these members of the MPC team happy with the path they’ve chosen? It’s clear that Marco Carboni wouldn’t want to be anywhere else: “I’ve always loved VFX – after seeing the “crossing the sea” scene from Prince of Egypt, I knew that I wanted to be part of that magic world.” And Scott Eade seems happy with the company he’s keeping: “I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and for, people who share the grand vision of making the unreal real. My first experience directly working as a visual effects artist was on James Cameron’s Avatar, and I’ve been lucky enough to continue to work on great films since.”

Catherine Mullan summed up this collective enthusiasm by concluding, “To this day I get a huge kick out of my job and my inspiration is continuously renewed by the amazing work happening around the world.”

Watch MPC’s 2015 film reel:

MPC is currently working on movies including Disney’s The Jungle Book, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Terminator: Genisys, Spectre, Goosebumps and The Martian. Thanks to all the staff from MPC who contributed to this article.

Special thanks to Jonny Vale.