To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
David Sheldon-Hicks is co-founder and executive creative director of Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, Ex Machina, Guardians of the Galaxy, Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One and Dune.
CINEFEX: David, how did you get started in the business?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: From the age of four or five I was watching Star Wars, Labyrinth, Ghostbusters and other visual effects-heavy shows. I was fascinated by how they were made. Then, at the age of ten, I discovered a series of documentaries on UK television that explored the making of films, showing what animatronics entailed, optical printing, stop-frame animation, matte painting … I was completely hooked.
I remember forcing my parents to take me to London so I could buy my first large book about Industrial Light & Magic, which I devoured from cover to cover multiple times. At an early age, I hunted out friends with video cameras and we’d sculpt clay heads and then try to create animatronic creatures of our own. Discovering suppliers of liquid latex at the age of 12 in the UK was not easy, especially prior to the internet!
From there, I studied design at university, always knowing I wanted to combine animation and visual effects with design; all my submitted projects at university had these elements in them. My first break came on music videos. I was able to experiment and play with lots of styles before winning my first film project: working with the art department on Casino Royale, creating on-set screen graphics.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Seeing our teams exceed my own ambitions. Allowing people to innovate and devise original solutions is so satisfying. We’re so lucky to have some very ambitious clients who not only expect the highest levels of artistic craft but also want to see something new and original each time. Time and time again the teams step up to this challenge and it always amazes me. I’m never bored of seeing how everything grows.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Its a creative industry, so everything swirls around a degree of chaos and unknown factors. I think that’s okay, though. We’re comfortable with the chaos and finding clever solutions. If there weren’t problems to solve, we’d be very bored!
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Running a company and having a family – as well as finding my own balance. It’s a challenge because I’m so passionate about both aspects in my life. I used to blame external factors, but really it comes down to me being honest with myself and properly managing my time. Because I’m essentially paid to do my hobby, it sometimes is hard to switch off.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: The collaboration between various departments on films is getting closer and closer. Territory Studio has always worked across both art departments and visual effects, but this is happening more and more. With virtual production and real-time technologies coming through, I can see this expanding even further; it’s very exciting. The physical design of places and objects is an incredible craft and discipline that I’ve learned so much from over the years. Also the camera department. All this feeds into the visual effects work that we do, and its massively inspiring and rewarding to be a part of.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Just go ahead and do it! Don’t think too hard about the specific role at first, because you might want to try a few things out to find what works for you. There’s so much opportunity out there and as your career grows you’ll become very familiar with learning new tools and techniques, so don’t become too rigid in your expectations. It all keeps changing and evolving and that’s what makes it interesting.
CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: At some point, machine learning is going to have a massive impact, not only reducing the need for simple tasks to be done manually, but also becoming an integral tool in the entire pipeline. Volumetric capture and display is a technology I’ve been waiting to see come into maturity my entire lifetime. I hope that happens in the next 10 years; I want to be watching films fully three-dimensionally in holographic form. That can only happen if we start shooting films with 3D scanners as well as lenses.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Labyrinth – any shots with animatronics. That film just enchanted me with its world-building and made me passionate about filmmaking. There was also great matte painting and optical printing that adds to the charm.
Contact – it made me realize that visual effects can have great design and be an integral part of the filmmaking process. I’m thinking of the mirror flip shot, or some of the shots of Jodie in the capsule as she’s traveling through space.
The Matrix – seeing the time slice effects and all the incredible CG robot work in the cinema felt like a leap in our industry. I came out of that film thinking I’d just witnessed a completely new art form.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Nachos with far too many jalapenos.
CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, David!