The Illusionists — John Nelson

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Nelson

CINEFEX — What’s your approach when you start a new visual effects project? Do you have an overall philosophy that you always tap into?

JOHN NELSON — I always ask the question: “What’s the big idea that visual effects is bringing to this movie?” When we did Gladiator, we wanted the audience to feel the overwhelming technological and sociological superiority of Rome. With Iron Man, the audience had to believe a 1,000-pound suit could fly. Then, what really excites me is making something visually beautiful, that looks real, and which supports the story.

CINEFEX — The opening sequence of Gladiator certainly does all that. Those epic shots of the Roman army pounding the barbarians.

JOHN NELSON — You know, we did that big panning shot with locked-off Vistavision plates stitched together. We took the lens distortion out, then added all the effects. Because it was locked off, it was a lot easier to sync everything. Then we did the camera move afterwards, and put the lens distortion back in.

CINEFEX — That’s the part that makes it look real. But it’s also beautiful, like you said.

JOHN NELSON — That’s Ridley Scott. He’s a master painter. I remember in our first meeting, he said, “I want it all to be a world of blue, and the only thing that’s warm is the fire they’re shooting out.” Denis Villeneuve, who I worked with on Blade Runner 2049, is another painter.

CINEFEX — What creative direction did you get from Denis on Blade Runner 2049?

JOHN NELSON — The ethos for that whole movie was restraining everything so the story could come forward. Denis did not want anything to look like a visual effects shot. He didn’t want anything to smell like a visual effects shot! Everything had to look like Roger Deakins had shot it. Then, whenever we found something that really worked, we would get incredibly excited. When we saw the two women’s eyes line up to form the third woman in the apartment scene, Denis and I were like, “Wow, that’s really something.” We’d created a picture that reverberates the storyline and looks really cool at the same time.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Eric Barba

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Eric Barba

CINEFEX — Lots of people in visual effects talk about the impact Star Wars had on them at a young age. Are you one of those people?

ERIC BARBA – Absolutely. As a ten year-old, I had my mind blown when I saw the first trailer for Star Wars on television. It literally blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was also memorable, but Star Wars reallyopened my eyes up to a whole new world.

CINEFEX — Has that sense of wonder stayed with you through your career?

ERIC BARBA — It’s what drives me. I love working with artists and sharing the excitement they have in pushing the envelope to create some cool thing that looks amazing.

CINEFEX — You’ve worked consistently with some directors who also like to push the envelope — like David Fincher.

ERIC BARBA — Certainly. I worked on many commercials and a music video with David prior to doing Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

CINEFEX — What’s he like to work with?

ERIC BARBA — David is a non-compromising filmmaker. He has a vision of how he wants to tell a story, and it’s going to be told his way or he’s not going to do it. For Benjamin Button, he had gotten a bid from this other company and they’d told him to pick a dozen or so shots to focus on and do the rest over the shoulder, or with stand-ins. His response was, “No, that’s not how I want to shoot my movie.” He wanted to shoot little Benjamin the way he shot every other actor.

CINEFEX — Which meant going all-in with a digital character.

ERIC BARBA — It became the only way. David pushed Digital Domain to develop the techniques he needed to shoot it the way he wanted, and tell the story he wanted to tell. He was supportive and gave me and my team everything we needed to succeed. By sheer will, he made sure it happened.

CINEFEX — You’ve worked with David on many films since. How important is it to have that kind of ongoing relationship, creatively speaking?

ERIC BARBA — I think it’s crucial. There’s nothing in the world like having the trust of your director, the belief that you and your team can get something done. I’ve worked a lot with David, and also Joe Kosinski, and they’re both visionaries in their own ways. They work very differently, but they’re alike in that they trust the people they hire and give them the room to run. David only has to give me a look and I’m like, “Yeah, I know, I’m on it!”

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Scott E. Anderson

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Scott E. Anderson

CINEFEX — Give us some memorable moments from your early career.

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — I remember being at Industrial Light & Magic when the script for Terminator 2 came in. I read it and thought, “I have no idea how we’re going to do this, but I believe it can be done.” What really impressed me was how Jim Cameron took what he had learned from what we’d done on The Abyss, and pushed it in the direction of both spectacle and story. He knew where we were, and put out a challenge that was a giant step beyond that line.

CINEFEX —Did each step you took feel like a new a milestone?

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — Oh, the milestones would fall regularly. I remember the first time at ILM when we got a hard drive big enough that we could fit a whole shot on. Later, I did Hollow Man, which was the first show that ran over a terabyte of storage at Sony Pictures Imageworks. That terabyte of storage was distributed along a whole city block, all the way along the building!

CINEFEX — Everything just gets bigger, year by year. Drive capacity, the number of shots in a show, the size of the team you need to get the work done.

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — Yeah, you flash back to just 12 of us in the ILM computer graphics group doing The Abyss, and now on a big show you’ve got 2,400 people scattered across the globe. What was magic when I started is now a commodity. People are shopping based on price and location and rebates. That’s worrying, but on the other hand you now have interesting independent films that have visual effects. That’s an interesting place to be as a filmmaker.

CINEFEX — So the small films can be as rewarding as the big ones, perhaps even more so?

SCOTT E. ANDERSON — Yes. In the current world of filmmaking, when almost everything is affected by visual effects, we have a much wider range of projects to work on and filmmakers to collaborate with. The early days of visual effects were more rarefied. You had only high end companies dealing with only spectacularly talented filmmakers. Of course, you won’t make the same money if you choose to work on low-budget films, but you will get to help the filmmakers you want to help. That is a great thing.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Andrew Whitehurst

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Andrew Whitehurst

CINEFEX — Where did your visual effects journey begin?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — There was a science documentary series on the BBC called Horizon. They had one episode which must have been broadcast just after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, because that was mostly what it covered — although it did have some Star Wars stuff in it. It was a 40-50 minute documentary about how all these visual effects were done.

CINEFEX — Was that the one titled How to Film the Impossible?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — That’s the one. I watched it again a couple of years ago on YouTube. I was still astonished at the work, and the magic of it, because it’s just beautiful. Watching it again, I still had that feeling of, “Wow, this is just amazing.”

CINEFEX — So that documentary sowed the seed?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — Yes. Until that point, it had never really crossed my mind that what I was seeing on a screen was a creation of anything. I don’t believe I’d ever even thought about movies being shot on sets, let alone something as specific as visual effects. But I’d always liked making models, so the idea of those people at ILM making models that looked like tiny versions of larger-scale things and shooting them with converted Nikon SLRs, or the idea that you could create an entire vista by having an incredibly skilled artist paint something on glass — all of that was just magical to me. From then on, I just started to get obsessed. When I was ten or eleven I started reading ‘making of’ books, particularly anything related to Star Wars. I was still doing that when I started going to art college.

CINEFEX — You said you used to like making models, but your visual effects career has played out mostly in the digital realm, most recently with films like Ex Machina and Annihilation.

ANDREW WHITEHURST — Professionally, I built one model and did one matte painting, both for a pilot for something that never happened. That was just as I was graduating. That’s the only hands-on practical work I’ve ever done personally, although I’ve worked on projects that have used miniatures.

CINEFEX — Do the practical skills inform your approach when working digitally?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — They do, but only in as much as I’m interested in trying to make beautiful imagery using non-standard techniques — in other words, not making a full-size set and shooting it. I like doing that as well, but I also like the magic of constructing something that, when you look at it, you think it’s something else.

CINEFEX — So you’re more interested in the final illusion, rather than the means of producing it?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — For me, it’s all about the final image. At college, whether I was doing a painting with a brush on a piece of board, or with a mouse on an Amiga, it didn’t really matter. I was more interested in how that image made me feel. What that image did to other people when they looked at it. The actual technology, in and of itself, has just never been that important to me.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Tim Webber

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Tim Webber

CINEFEX — What route did you take into the visual effects business?

TIM WEBBER — Well, I actually got into the digital side of the industry working on adverts and pop promos, before feature film visual effects were being done digitally. As the digital work moved into film, I moved with it. I started at Framestore when it was just 15 people, and we weren’t working on films at all. Framestore and I sort of grew into the industry as it developed.

CINEFEX — You picked up a Oscar for visual effects on Gravity, but what was your first job as visual effects supervisor on a feature-length project?

TIM WEBBER — That would be the mini-series Gulliver’s Travels with Ted Danson. We had hundreds of visual effects shots, back in a time when a movie would have been lucky to have 20 shots. I’d started out using an early Quantel Harry, one of the first one or two in the world. The storage on it was something like 90 seconds! By the time I did Gulliver’s Travels we were using a Quantel Henry. At the time, that was a massive step forwards.

CINEFEX — Did your experience on ads and music videos help you make the transition to features?

TIM WEBBER — Yes, it did. One advantage was that, on those short form promos, the whole visual effects department would be me! I would see everything through from beginning to end over a period of a few months, and be very involved in the whole process of filmmaking and everything to do with it. That flowed quite well into visual effects supervising on films, even though the technology was quite different. I was still about deciding what to shoot, what to do in post, what worked and what didn’t, how to distract the eye. There was a lot more sleight-of-hand in those days, because you couldn’t just do everything.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Paul Lambert

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Paul Lambert

CINEFEX — What films inspired you as a kid?

PAUL LAMBERT — I spent my youth watching and rewatching Star Wars. That and The Sound of Music were the only films I had on home video, and I watched them hundreds of times. They’re both very close to my heart. At that time, it didn’t register that these fantastic worlds were actually being created by people. Later on, I went to college and did aerospace — I was actually on my way to making rockets. But it wasn’t really for me and I got a bit lost. I went to art school because I had a deep urge to be creative, then got a job servicing Steinbecks and Moviolas. That’s how I found the film industry.

CINEFEX — No doubt your interest in aerospace paid off while you were working on First Man. How did you make the switch from servicing the equipment to using it?

PAUL LAMBERT — I started off as a runner at Cinesite, where I spent all my nights learning how to use the Flame and Inferno setups. It was a different time back then. The Flame suites would be unlocked and you could go in there and learn in your own time. Nowadays you go to school for all that stuff.

CINEFEX — Visual effects facilities are much more structured now, in so many ways.

PAUL LAMBERT — That’s true, and it’s partly because they have to protect themselves from client changes for this, that and the other. You know, I think the key to managing all that is having an independent team close to the director to do quickfire test and visuals. Then you can leave the photoreal part to the bigger facilities who have that kind of infrastructure.

CINEFEX — You’re talking about the in-house team, which has become increasingly important in recent years. As overall visual effects supervisor on a show, you’re working cheek-by-jowl with that team during post. Does that give you the chance to get hands-on yourself?

PAUL LAMBERT — Well, I’m working on Dune at the moment, and just the other day I got on my laptop and turned around a quick temp shot of an ornithopter taking off. I was actually quite proud of myself — it’s been a while!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Paul Franklin

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Paul Franklin

CINEFEX — What was the first time you realized there was such a thing as visual effects?

PAUL FRANKLIN — I didn’t know it was called visual effects at the time, but I remember watching an edition of the BBC children’s television show Blue Peter in the early ‘70s. They had a guy called Mat Irvine on the show — he did a lot of the effects for Doctor Who at the time. He was talking about a little-remembered show called Moonbase 3. There was a shot of a lunar shuttle taking off, and they were showing how they created the dust cloud from the rockets with a little air blower.

CINEFEX — Just the sort of thing to capture the imagination of an impressionable lad.

PAUL FRANKLIN — Yeah, I was fascinated by this idea of creating a world in miniature that you could photograph, and it would appear to be real. At least, it looked real to me at the age of seven or eight. By the time I graduated from art school in ‘89, I’d read a lot of behind-the-scenes articles and so I knew quite a lot about the process. I’d also met some filmmakers by that point. But, because it was quite a niche industry, it felt like a bit of a closed shop, particularly for someone who grew up in rural Cheshire.

CINEFEX — If it felt like a closed shop, how did you open the doors?

PAUL FRANKLIN — The computer democratized it. I already owned a computer by the time I graduated at the age of 23 — a Commodore Amiga, I think — and my friends and I were making short films in our spare time. They weren’t fantasy or visual effects things, but there was a need for computer animations to help tell the story, and that was my way into visual effects. I was in the right place at the right time. That side of filmmaking took off like a rocket, and I hung on and rode the rocket up into the sky.

CINEFEX — What was your first experience working on a feature film?

PAUL FRANKLIN — Well, through the ‘90s, I worked as an animator in videogames for a couple of years, then moved down to London to join MPC as a computer animator, doing a lot of television idents and commercials. It was a great training ground, because the turnaround times are so quick in that business that you learn stuff really quickly. At the time, MPC was beginning to do its first feature film work, and so a group of us all worked together on that early Angelina Jolie film, Hackers. I mostly did graphic displays for the monitors — like this galaxy of numbers representing the worm program that the hackers uncover in the course of the story. For me, Hackers was very much the crossover — the last of the old analogue ways of doing things. We had hand-drawn effects animation and physical miniatures representing graphic items, and we were using digital animation and compositing as well.

CINEFEX — What scenes were the miniatures used in?

PAUL FRANKLIN — We used them to represent the internal guts of the computer. We built this amazing city of Perspex cubes and shot it with motion control over at Magic Camera Company in Shepperton. It’s the only time my digital elements have ever been composited optically. Peter Chiang was visual effects supervisor on that film — actually, that was the first time the core team of what became DNEG all worked together.

CINEFEX — You’ve used miniatures quite a bit through your career, not least on the films you’ve done with Christopher Nolan.

PAUL FRANKLIN — Absolutely, but let’s be clear: the decision to use miniatures in the Dark Knight movies, Inception and Interstellar came from Chris himself. He wanted a very specific aesthetic that fitted with his real-world approach to filmmaking. Some people would say you can tell when something is a miniature, but you can also tell it’s real. The snow fortress in Inception collapses in a chaotic fashion that would be very difficult to create as a simulation. Reality behaves in this unpredictable way. That’s why Chris had this real desire to use miniatures on those films — in fact, he was pretty insistent about it!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — John Gaeta

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Gaeta

CINEFEX — How did you first get into visual effects?

JOHN GAETA — I went to film school at New York University. As soon as I got out of film school I found myself in Greenwich Village in the center of the arts and culture community. I decided to throw my lot in with the folks who were doing experimental animation — mostly short-form music videos and such. Everyone revered what was happening in California — the work of Doug Trumbull and Industrial Light & Magic. Those were the shining cities that someday, maybe, you might find your way to.

CINEFEX — And so you found your way there?

JOHN GAETA — No, I got lucky. They came to me, when Doug Trumbull moved to the east coast. I started working for him and that was my way into visual effects. Computer graphics were becoming introduced during that time and, for me, Doug was the pivotal transition figure. I can’t be more appreciative, or feel any more lucky, to have worked with masters in both physical and digital across the years.

CINEFEX — You started out with Doug photographing miniatures, didn’t you?

JOHN GAETA — Yeah, but Doug was always the limit-pusher, so the model work became rather sophisticated with the invention of new systems of photography and motion control. After that, we entered into the era of trying to figure out how to integrate digital things with these miniatures.

CINEFEX — You’ve made a habit of allying yourself with visionaries. Doug Trumbull in the early years, later the Wachowskis, notably with The Matrix.

JOHN GAETA — The Wachowskis came into filmmaking after participating in other platforms as young people. They appreciated the potential trajectory of things like videogames, and imagined at some point there might be flawless simulations. They allowed us to experiment in particular techniques that had not really been established yet, almost with a deliberate naiveté. That was a fairly high-risk approach, but it was the key to unlocking methods that were in fact an early emulation of the subject the story was about.

CINEFEX — You mean that, in order to make The Matrix, the Wachowskis encouraged you to develop Matrix-like techniques?

JOHN GAETA — Absolutely. We were looking at image-based rendering, new forms of capture, really trying to sketch some of the methods that virtual reality would eventually deploy. The breakthroughs we made formed the foundations that a lot of our careers built on for decades after.

CINEFEX — You’re now involved with developing futuristic immersive experiences. Does that interest spring directly from your career in visual effects?

JOHN GAETA — Well, look at it this way. Since the beginning, visions of the future have been written about, painted, acted through theatre, shown through cinema. By telling these stories in film, we’ve basically been sketching out the future. That’s the role cinema has in shaping the next era. Everything you see being produced today can be threaded back to some inspirational moment from some story that’s been told. Ask any founder of a major Silicon Valley company, and they will cite inspiration they’ve gained from folk working in cinema and visual effects.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Mike Fink

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Mike Fink

CINEFEX — What sparked your interest in visual effects?

MIKE FINK — Well, I’m older than your average bear — I was born in 1944, in the waning days of World War II. As a child, I used to go with my neighborhood friends to the Saturday matinees at our local movie theater. Buck Rogers was one of my favorites. There were these corny miniature spaceships on wires with little sparklers poked in the back. Also, I was always drawing, or building little models of tanks and planes. I would arrange my models in the backyard behind our house, create little battle tableaux and take photographs of them with a twin lens Rolleiflex my father had found on the El in Chicago. I taught myself the basics of things like focus and depth of field by doing that.

CINEFEX — When did you break into the film business?

MIKE FINK — Oh, that wasn’t until close to my 34th birthday. First I went to business school, then spent some time as an army officer, then went to work managing pension funds and trusts for wealthy people in San Francisco. One day, I said to my first wife, “I’m going to leave my job and go to art school.” She thought it was a great idea, so the two of us went off on this adventure that wound up with me getting a Masters degree from the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.

CINEFEX — What did you do with your degree?

MIKE FINK — I became a starving artist! I found all my starving artist friends were picking up money working on movies — mostly building miniatures and doing little techy things. One of them, Stuart Ziff, got a job working at Industrial Light & Magic on the first Star Wars. Some time after, Stuart called me up to say he had a job for me. Next morning, six o’clock, I went to work on The China Syndrome. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It tapped into my desire to do creative things, and I also had some technical skills. Also, it was collaborative. I would get to work at six in the morning and leave around midnight. Every day, seven days a week, right through Christmas and the holidays, from the first day I was hired.

CINEFEX — What did the work involve?

MIKE FINK — We built a computer to simulate a nuclear reactor control room. When the actors would flip a switch, a sequence of events would play out. Richard Hollander did the lion’s share of the programming and I mostly dealt with the hardware, installing interface boxes into the sets and making it look good. It wasn’t really a visual effects job. It wasn’t even a special effects job, because special effects guys didn’t do computer things back then.

CINEFEX — What did you do when that project came to an end?

MIKE FINK — I finished after five months with a pocketful of money, went back to my art studio and was horribly lonely. I missed that collaborative way of working, so I got a job at Universal’s Hartland visual effects facility, working on television shows, delivering 50-60 shots a week, which at that time was unheard of. That’s where I got into optical compositing. I knew very little about it, but I had used composites in my photographs, so I understood matte strategies, layers, rotoscoping, things like that. I helped develop new ways to shoot bluescreen for miniatures so they could be composited more efficiently.

CINEFEX — Was it after Hartland that you worked with Doug Trumbull on Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

MIKE FINK — Yeah. That was 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for seven months. The only saving grace was that I lived three blocks from the place I worked — close enough to walk home. Working with Trumbull was unbelievable, the experience of a lifetime. There was me, Hoyt Yeatman, Scott Squires, Scott Farrar, Mark Stetson, Bob Spurlock … we called ourselves the ‘gizmo crew.’ We just invented things. That was our job: inventing new ways to get shots done because really we had no time to do anything. What could we do that was faster and better and still looked good?

CINEFEX — After that, you went to work on Blade Runner?

MIKE FINK — That’s correct. Ridley Scott was a revelation. I’d never been around a director who was so visually creative. I didn’t do visual effects — I was an art director. But I wasn’t in the art director’s guild, so I couldn’t be called an art director. They conjured up this silly title for me: ‘action props supervisor.’ A great deal of the movie was shot at night, so I was on set working around the clock — again!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

The Illusionists — Volker Engel

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Volker Engel

CINEFEX — What films inspired you when you were young?

VOLKER ENGEL — I have to say the original Star Wars. I had just turned 14 when I saw it, and it really was the moment I first thought, “Oh, you can actually do this for a living.” I tried to figure out who these people were and how they did that, which was incredibly difficult in my hometown in Germany. I went to the library and asked if they had any books on films. This lady took me to the film section and recommended a book about Italian New Realism in the 1930s. I said, “That’s not exactly what I’m looking for. Do you have something like The Making of Star Wars?” She just shook her head! A couple of years later, I went on a three-day school trip to London. I vividly remember the stores I went to and the stuff I bought there — Cinefantastique and various books. By then I had really been bitten by the bug. I bought my first Super 8 camera, tried doing multiple exposures and all that.

CINEFEX — Ah, the thrill of winding the film back in the camera and praying you were getting everything lined up. Did that experience help you with the early films you worked on with Roland Emmerich?

VOLKER ENGEL — It did. We actually did multiple exposures on some of the wide shots in Moon 44. That film was 99 percent in-camera effects, sort of like Thunderbirds. In Universal Soldier, we had several purely miniature scenes.

CINEFEX —Then came Independence Day. Most of the effects work on that was done with miniatures, too.

VOLKER ENGEL — Yeah, we only dived into doing CG for things like all those jet fighters, where it just didn’t make sense to film them as separate elements. The air battles were a mixture of miniatures shot with motion control and CG jets, which we did with Pacific Ocean Post, using real backgrounds based on stitched-together photographs of skies. A company called VisionArt had this flocking software where you could tell a jet fighter to follow an alien fighter and not collide with it in mid-air. It was a very early version of what you would later see in The Lord of the Rings.

CINEFEX — In many ways, Independence Day felt like a celebration of all the effects techniques that had been developed up to that point.

VOLKER ENGEL — Absolutely. Roland Emmerich is totally open to technology, but he’s absolutely not a tech geek. He understands what’s possible and embraces that, but on Independence Day he was never saying, “Oh my god, there’s digital now — let’s do it all digital.” For Roland’s it’s always about what’s the best tool to do this job.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists