To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Andrew Popplestone is creative director at Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Far from Home, No Time To Die, Ghost in the Shell and Dune.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Andrew?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I trained as a fine artist then studied graphic design at university. I had no idea I would get into this industry – all I knew was I loved design, films and telling stories. My first big break came when I was offered a design role in Los Angeles at Prologue Films, which specialized in film title sequences. It was there I started to understand how design can be translated across into visual effects. I’ve always loved the idea of combining practical hand-crafted processes and a graphic designer’s eye with innovative CG and visual effects techniques. It’s this ‘designed-VFX’ approach that we specialize in at Territory Studio.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I love those seemingly magical days where the creative just flows effortlessly and you really crack it. You go home floating on air. Also, when you show the client, visual effects supervisor or director something they love but which surprises them – in a good way – or goes beyond their expectation. Ultimately, our job is to help the storyteller tell their story; if we can do that in a way that is new, innovative or unexpected, that’s the really fun part. Outside of that, the real joy of what we do is provoking some sort of emotional reaction from an audience that draws them into the story.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Well, thankfully it’s never got quite that bad! Although, it can be quite disheartening when schedules and budgets in no way align to expectations, ultimately leading to comprising the work. As designers and artists, our desire is to create something to the very best of our ability.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: A lot of what we do at Territory has some sort of narrative or storytelling objective, helping to explain a plot point and push the story along. These are often the most challenging tasks, but also the most satisfying. We have to work very closely with the director or visual effects supervisor to visually communicate a complicated part of the script.
We had some really interesting challenges on Ready Player One. In one case, we were asked to create a volumetric database archive that a character had to physically interact with. This being Ready Player One, it needed a distinctly ‘80s vibe. We based the design concept off an old reel-to-reel system. Another task was to design the entire OASIS galaxy as a 3D interactive map in the form of a Rubik’s Cube.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: So many! We’ve been asked to create all sorts of bizarre things ranging from the inside of Ryan Gosling’s brain, worm protein vending machines, holographic ‘Love Motel’ signs, and even an alien porn channel!
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The incredible advancement of technology would be the first obvious answer. This is an industry that pioneers innovation in technology, which has made everything wonderfully more accessible and allowed individual artists to explore new ways of doing things. Along with that, the expectations of clients and audiences has massively increased.
However, utilizing more developing technology needs to be done in a considered way. The downside has been a perception of speed, ease and scale which can cheapen the art, to a degree. This has led to situations where, instead of thinking or designing a way to a solution, it’s all too easy to simply throw people and technology at it. This can lead to less consideration in the early stages of the script/production process.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I would love to see a little more crossover and collaboration between the production art department and postproduction visual effects.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Firstly, grow some thick skin and make sure you truly love what you do. If you can’t do that, this is most definitely not the business for you. Always keep asking questions, stay curious and never stop learning. Be flexible and generous with your time, but always try to maintain a personal life.
CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The quality and complexity of visual effects is going to continue to grow. Volumetric capture, augmented reality and AI tools will all become more commonplace. With the increase in original content from the likes of Netflix, Apple and Amazon, there is a huge amount of work in both features and episodic television. Hopefully, this will allow the industry to consolidate and facilities to become more robust in structure.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The first is Jurassic Park. As a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Seeing them brought to life before my eyes is what made me fall in love with the magic of movies.
The second is The Matrix. I was a little late seeing this after it came out. Everyone was raving about it, and I couldn’t imagine what all the fuss was about. When I finally saw the film, it absolutely blew my mind. It was like nothing I’d seen before, and possibly the first time I realized how visual effects can bend the rules of reality in storytelling.
The last is a toss up between Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings. I think The Lord of The Rings would take it. As a massive fan of the books, I was just gobsmacked at how it was re-created on screen at such an epic scale. It’s an incredible example of beautiful cinematography, practical effects and visual effects working seamlessly together, all wrapped up in a compelling story.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Sweet and salted popcorn all the way.
CINEFEX: Andrew, thanks for your time!