To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Eric J. Robertson of Mr. X Inc is a seasoned visual effects supervisor, visual effects producer and cinematographer. His long list of career highlights includes Mudbound, American Made, Mother, The Upside, Mr. Robot, Noah, The Dictator, Anchorman 2, The Big Year, The Brave One, Pompeii, Resident Evil Afterlife, Julie and Julia, The Limits of Control, Rachel Getting Married, Burn After Reading, Synecdoche New York, The DaVinci Code, Silent Hill, Dawn of the Dead and Blizzard, which Eric makes special note of as his first effects film featuring talking and flying reindeer!
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Eric?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: I started as a PA in commercials while in college, and was bitten by the bug instantly. I spent nine years in production as an assistant director, but always yearned for more creative work and to see a project through from start to finish. As a photographer and computer nerd from a young age, I saw the visual effects team on set and decided that was the goal. I learned and studied both on set and off to figure out what I needed to know to make a huge career change. A year later, Dennis Berardi at Mr. X recognized that I was well suited for visual effects work even though my resume didn’t support it. He took a leap and hired me for their first big feature Blizzard as visual effects producer. I never looked back.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: When I get to shoot for a project, because at heart I’m a photographer. Also when I get to direct second unit. And when we get to travel. I’ve had my most memorable times while on the road in exotic locations – Spain with Sacha Baron Cohen; Italy for Zoolander where I met my fiancée; Berlin; The Yukon, 90 miles from the Arctic Circle, creating CG birds with David Frankel; London and Wales, again with David.
But it’s really about the people. I’ve made lifelong friends, and have worked with the best in the business. It’s so exciting to work with creative geniuses like Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, Adam McKay, Sam Esmail, Doug Liman, Ang Lee, Neil Jordan, Ron Howard, Nick Cassavetes, Norah Ephron, Charlie Kaufman, Jonathan Demme, Sam Mendes, Dan Mindel, John Mathieson, Bob Elswit, and way too many others to mention.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: “Let me show this to my mother who doesn’t like going to the movies to see what she thinks.” Version 175 of a two-minute-long all-CG shot. Native stereoscopic 3D at 120fps – at 4K. Night exterior boat shoots. These are all things that have actually happened.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: Early in my effects career, and just after moving to New York City, I was tasked to create a title sequence. It was the first time I had been entrusted to conceptualize, shoot, edit and present a finished piece with very little creative input from the director. It was amazing. I had to produce a small unit shooting all over Manhattan so there was a learning curve with the city and permits and insurance – all while I was figuring out how to use my new (old) Fries Mitchell 35R3 camera and Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was also the first time as a cinematographer that I had resources to direct and lighting to create. With a lot of help, we did the work in two weeks, presented the edit, and everyone was thrilled. Version three was final. Huge sigh of relief, but an incredible educational experience.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: I once had a producer buy me a pair of extremely tight shorts and asked me to wear them for her. I’ll let you all wonder if I did or not.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: Our work is becoming commoditized. Talent is harder and harder to find – in fact hiring in general is tough due to the rampant rise in the volume of effects work in film and television. Sadly, we’re seeing a lot of sloppy filmmaking. We need to find a way to avoid simple on-set problems and never say ‘we’ll fix it in post.’ There’s way too much cosmetic work happening.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: I would love to feel like the studios and filmmakers embraced us more and saw us as partners in filmmaking. This isn’t a blanket statement – many of our teams both in production and at the studio level respect us and consider our work important. But we do have serious issues still – massive limitations on credits is a good example. If the production staff who are on set for a day or two automatically get credits then why can’t every effects artist who spends six months painting or fabricating creatures and environments that shape the very look of a film?
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: Be very sure it’s what you want. Be prepared to work harder than you can imagine, and get paid less than your technology counterparts in other – more profitable- businesses. Our technical knowledge is vast and our artistic challenges are staggering, but it’s not remunerated as such. If you love to program, stick to the Fortune 500 companies or interesting startups and make some real money. Fundamentally, if you are determined, then listen, learn, and don’t let your ego stand in the way of greatness.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: I have two different types of favorites. The first group is the classics that really inspired me at a young age:
Star Wars: A New Hope – my first movie outing with my dad. The first time I imagined another universe existing. The environments were so real I was transported.
The Matrix – this movie happened right when I was transitioning careers. ‘Bullet time’ and the other time and alternate reality scenarios felt so very possible.
Iron Man – Favreau was the first director who really made humor a part of visual effects. Amazing.
Then I have my more invisible favorites for different reasons:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – astounding skin. A CG face for 53 minutes. Wow.
What Dreams May Come – another innovative and inspirational use of effects that made me wonder about the inspiration for the concepts. Really made me stop and wonder and gape.
The ‘Harry Potter’ series – when I watched my children laugh and cry and grow up in this world and with these characters, I knew that we really create magic. It sometimes brings tears to my eyes.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
ERIC J. ROBERTSON: A bottle of wine.
CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Eric!