Spotlight – Angela Barson

by Graham Edwards

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

Angela Barson is creative director and co-founder of BlueBolt. Based in central London, BlueBolt’s credits include Game of Thrones Season 1, Skyfall, The Current War, Mary Queen of Scots and The Last Kingdom.

Angela Barson

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

ANGELA BARSON: My route into the industry was very haphazard. I sometimes feel guilty that it was never a dream of mine to work in film and yet I’ve been lucky enough to succeed. I think I’ve had lots of little breaks rather than one big break; it’s all about making the most of any opportunity that comes your way.

I studied architecture, during which time I developed an interest in photography and computing. On a visit to London to see friends, I visited Parallax – a software development firm – for a general look around, which ended up being an interview, which led to a job offer. I had no idea what they did or what I was getting myself into! They had developed a digital paint package, Matador, and were developing a digital compositing package, Advance. I spent several years showing this software off to post houses around the world, mainly in London and Los Angeles. This allowed me to visit some of the top facilities like ILM, Digital Domain, CFC and Cinesite.

After having children I wanted more flexibility. Starting out as a freelance compositor with two very young kids probably wasn’t the brightest idea! I managed to get a job at the BBC as a Flame operator – having never used Flame – and spent a really fun year there working with some great people. I wanted to move into film after that, so I got a job at MPC, where I stayed for eight years working my way up the ranks. That’s where I met Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor which ultimately brought about the creation of BlueBolt.

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

ANGELA BARSON: Creating invisible effects. When a client thinks they are looking at something they shot, not realizing it’s CG – that’s the ultimate compliment.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANGELA BARSON: When shot turnover is delayed, the shot count is doubled, but the delivery date is still the same.

Watch BlueBolt’s 2019 visual effects showreel:

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

ANGELA BARSON: I was working with the ‘Oompa Loompa’ unit on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We were shooting multiple motion control passes of one Oompa Loompa singing and dancing. I had to capture each take as it was filmed, sync them together with the music, composite them, and cut the result into the edit, ready to show the second unit director for sign-off as soon as they’d completed the last take. We couldn’t move onto the next setup until I’d finished and shown everything was okay. This went on for about five months. Probably one of the most stressful, yet enjoyable, jobs I’ve done.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANGELA BARSON: Also on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My desk was on a platform in the middle of the chocolate river for several weeks. It’s amazing how fast that can become normal!

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

ANGELA BARSON: Visual effects used to be seen as an expensive luxury. Now, it’s often seen as the default fix to almost any problem. Just because something can be done in visual effects doesn’t mean it should be! “Fix it in post” is sadly heard way too often.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANGELA BARSON: I’d like visual effects to be embraced as just another tool of the filmmaking process. I believe films should be all about the story and vision, with visual effects used to aid and support that where needed, and not be the main focus of the film. It would also be great if the other departments understood visual effects more – although it’s getting much better – and gave it the time and respect needed both on set and in post. Having to battle when on set to get your clean plate or HDRI data is just ridiculous.

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

ANGELA BARSON: Get a range of experience in other, but related, fields. It’s great when we get people who have had a previous life in photography, or architecture, or set design. You can bring so much more to the craft when you have other areas to draw on rather than just doing a visual course then coming straight into the industry. If you do go down the direct route into your first job, try and supplement that with other interests.

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

ANGELA BARSON: I don’t particularly enjoy watching effects movies. I spend too much time analyzing the visual effects work instead of just watching the film. The worse the film, the more I watch the visual effects; the better the film, the more the visual effects are irrelevant. I won’t know my favorite visual effects shots, as I wouldn’t know they were visual effects!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANGELA BARSON: None. If I’m enjoying a film, I don’t want to be distracted by eating … or by anyone else eating!

CINEFEX: Angela, thanks for your time!