To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Andy Morley is head of visual effects at Outpost VFX. His list of filmography highlights includes such movies as Sunshine, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Avatar and Avengers: Infinity War.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Andy?
ANDY MORLEY: Hah – this question makes me feel old! After upgrading from a Commodore 64 to the much more graphically powerful Amiga in 1990, I started dabbling with animation and Boolean modelling on programs such as Imagine and Real3D. It was amazing what you could do with just 1Mb of RAM those days!
When university beckoned, I had the choice to use my traditional A-levels to do boring mathematics- or physics-based stuff, but then stumbled on an exciting computer animation degree in the UK seaside resort of Bournemouth. I thought, “Why not? Computers and art – let’s give it a go.” My first big break consisted of working for Dave Throssell at The Mill in high-end television commercials in 1998. In 2000, I moved to Industrial Light & Magic in the US to work on Star Wars and dinosaur films. Amazing fun to have done all that so early on!
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
ANDY MORLEY: I love computers, and I love making pictures – the blend still immerses me. These days, the market is much more driven by schedule and production, due to the quantity of visual effects work needed. But there are still times when I just sit back, look at a shot and think, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
ANDY MORLEY: These days, I do not let the job get to me emotionally as much as it might have done in the past. However, the bit I dislike the most is those times when your work gets pushed back or criticized. Often this is because there are other factors at play beyond the actual imagery – which is what I tell myself, anyway!
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
ANDY MORLEY: I have had many challenging tasks. Ultimately, they have all had a question related to them such as: “Can we deliver the show?” It all comes down to time, staff, money, or a mix of the above. What I will say is that a super-challenging task is smashed apart by calm and methodical thinking. Often you can fix everything by starting with a ‘what can we do?’ foundation and building on top of this. Mind you, these challenges often end up with sleeping bags under desks and going home just to pick up fresh clothes!
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
ANDY MORLEY: Going for a casual London job interview, and 36 hours later finding myself in Mumbai. Weird, but very, very fun.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
ANDY MORLEY: So many changes – due to far too many years! From a tech standpoint for a standalone user, when I started in 1996, an SGI computer with a full suite of 3D software would cost anywhere between £50-80K, depending on what color the case was. Now, most of the software is cheap enough for a hobbyist to buy, and a PC from a local shop can do a high level of visual effects work.
The sheer scale of visual effects – in what seems like every film and television show out there – means render allotments have become render farms in local server rooms or floating in the cloud. The throughput of data, caches, images, QuickTime movies – all at resolutions the human eye almost cannot differentiate – has simply exploded. With streaming services all creating their own competing content, this mountain of data only continues to grow. In some ways, the visual effects industry feels like it has matured a lot, but there is still plenty of room for further refinement across the board.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
ANDY MORLEY: I would love to see more collaboration between visual effects companies, more getting along and sharing work and people. When I started in Soho at the end of the ‘90s, films were split up so much – because they had to be – but there were just not enough artists or computers. These days, I feel the business side of things has overtaken the artistry at all levels.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
ANDY MORLEY: The industry continues to change, and so my main advice would be to remain flexible to all aspects of it. The tendency over the last five or ten years has been for work to move wherever the tax breaks go. It is easier to keep busy if you are happy to jump on a plane occasionally. This worked for me in my earlier years, and has given me what I call ‘extensive paid-for working holidays’ – it has been great fun to experience different cultures in the US, Singapore, India, Turkey and so on. I cannot see the way work is placed into specific countries changing too much in the short to medium term but, with the onset of superfast internet, working more remotely continues to improve and gather pace. I am keen to see how this will evolve, especially with the restrictions of the various security rules that govern the industry.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
ANDY MORLEY: I watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day again last weekend. I had forgotten just how good a film it is, and never mind the visual work, which was simply groundbreaking at the time. This is my first choice and it was pretty much the reason I did the animation degree a year or so after I first saw it. There are so many great shots – the reforming of the T-1000 is particularly impressive.
Second choice is Avatar, due to the sheer scale of what was achieved. The production design is gorgeous, particularly where the hoverships and dragon creatures are flying around the floating islands.
My final choice would change for every mini-festival, depending on my mood! At the moment I’d say Elysium. The visual effects look stunning. It also shows the evil of the large-scale corporation versus the lowly people – and the people win!
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
ANDY MORLEY: Chocolate Minstrels – always perfect. To avoid crunching the packet and making too much noise, I open at the start of the trailers, and they are gone by the start of the film.
CINEFEX: Andy, thanks for your time!