Spotlight – Dan Bethell

by Graham Edwards

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

Dan Bethell works as a visual effects supervisor at Rising Sun Pictures. His personal filmography highlights include Batman Begins, Mad Max: Fury Road, Thor: Ragnarok and Outlaw King.

Dan Bethell

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

DAN BETHELL: I was lucky enough to find a University course for Computer Animation and Visualisation when I left secondary school. As a student I really wanted to be a graphic designer, but I’d spent (nearly) my whole life programming computers, so this seemed like a perfect way to combine what I loved with a craft I understood.

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

DAN BETHELL: Happy accidents! Having spent a few years doing effects simulations, I love nothing more than opening up a render to something unexpected and random but beautiful. If the client likes it too, then that’s even better!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

DAN BETHELL: I rarely sob any more but when I have in the past it’s been over having to let a shot go. It happens all the time; sometimes for editorial reasons and sometimes for aesthetic reasons. Regardless, seeing a shot that you’ve become attached to cut from a project is hard. But you get used to it over time and it’s a good reminder that we’re part of something much larger than visual effects; we’re a small, but significant, part in the story-telling process.

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

DAN BETHELL: Fury Road was the most challenging but also most rewarding project of my career. I ended up spending eight months in the Namibian desert supervising the visual effects for the ‘Action Unit’ – which is like a normal second unit but on steroids. Every day saw multiple stunts, bigger than anything I’d seen before, captured with upwards of six cameras. It was logistically challenging to say the least! It was a great lesson in how important visual effects can be as a supporting craft. Some of the visual effects work was done so that stunts could be performed safely; some was to enhance special effects; and some was simply to make the environments look more awesome than they already did. The whole project was really something special, and an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

DAN BETHELL: There are plenty, but shooting elements is always fun and often an “am-I-really-doing-this?” moment! I have witnessed a lot of crazy – from crew sat on stepladders shooting flamethrowers into the African sky, to poking tin cans with small blue hands attached to long blue sticks, all in the name of visual effects.

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

DAN BETHELL: The convergence of rendering towards raytracing and physically based approaches has been a game changer for me, especially in a supervision role. Whereas we used to rely on cheats and hacks, we can now spend our time moving and shaping lights in a way that is intuitive to us as humans. It’s moved the whole aspect of lighting a scene away from a laborious technical exercise to a more interactive, creative process. As a supervisor, it means lighting a scene has finally become cinematic. I can ask an artist to increase exposure or flag a light, and everyone understands what to do. Hopefully we never have to use shadow maps again!

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

DAN BETHELL: Not so much a change as a continuation – I’d love to see visual effects continue to collaborate with other film departments early in the process. When visual effects is considered a last resort, or simply a post-process, then the whole project suffers. Often if we’re involved in a project earlier, not only can we bring the visual effects shot-count down, but the shots that do have to be visual effects can be planned and executed more efficiently, which means better results in a more cost-effective manner. Everyone appreciates that.

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

DAN BETHELL: Focus on some things that might not be immediately related to the day-to-day work we do. Mental and physical well-being is so important, especially when working long hours in a stressful environment. Also, I find a good work ethic, a disciplined approach to your day, and a pragmatic, stoic attitude to what we do is really valuable. There will always be problems to solve and hard challenges that come up; rather than worrying about them, or trying to avoid them, your time will be much better spent preparing for them.

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

DAN BETHELL: It’d be a 80’s family affair featuring Labyrinth, Ghostbusters and The Goonies. These are three great movies that show that visual effects can be a spectacle whilst still serving a story. All the visual effects work here is well-considered and beautifully executed. On a personal level, these are movies that inspired so much awe and imagination in me as a child, and I love to see that same emotion evoked in other young people. I’ve no doubt that it’s that magic and inspiration that got me where I am today!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

DAN BETHELL: Popcorn of course. No butter though – that’s weird.

CINEFEX: Dan, thanks for your time!