Spotlight – Gurel Mehmet

by Graham Edwards

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

Gurel Mehmet is an art director at Cinesite. His career highlights include The Revenant, Inception, The Dark Knight, Atonement and The Tree of Life.

Gurel MehmetCINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Gurel?

GUREL MEHMET: After finishing art school, I decided I wanted to work as an illustrator. But I soon came to realize how much harder this was going to be in reality, since I didn’t have an agent and it coincided with the rise of stock photography and computer graphics.

I knew nothing about computers, and while I was struggling to make ends meet I had a meeting with a producer who took a chance on me as she needed a storyboard artist. I knew how to board – I had specialized in filmmaking at school – so it seemed at the time like a perfect reprieve from the struggle of making a living in the creative field.

That led to a brief stint working in commercials as a storyboard artist for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London, which then led to another producer asking me if I’d like to work in film, specifically visual effects. He had seen my portfolio – mostly figurative paintings and drawings – and had somehow decided that I was meant to be working in visual effects. I remember sitting with him in an interview for what seemed like the longest time, trying to convince him throughout why I wasn’t the right candidate!

In truth, I was a student of film. My main references for visual effects were the films I had grown up watching – Ray Harryhausen, Stanley Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, and most of what ILM had created with Star Wars and so forth. I obviously knew about digital effects because of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, but I had never really entertained the idea of working in this field. It seemed otherworldly to me, and I still had ideas of being a traditional illustrator.

So, I felt nervous about the offer and, despite being ambitious, I was afraid of saying ‘yes’ to a job where I was seemingly out of my depth. In the end, I accepted because being unemployed with no contacts wasn’t really an option! That experience led to work on Harry Potter as a matte painter, where a dear colleague of mine decided to course-correct my lack of knowledge. In short, he employed me because I could paint, but decided to train me up on the job. From that point on it just snowballed, and I’ve been lucky enough to be working continually since.

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

GUREL MEHMET: I love the early process of a blank slate in preproduction or at script stage. At that point anything can happen, and I love seeing the disparate parts of all the departments coalesce into something that becomes a moving train. In that exploratory stage, the parameters are fast falling into place – location, certain choices that the director might make and so on. It’s an exciting time.

I enjoy creating something from nothing, but I also like working within the constraints of what is either implied in the stage direction or just the practicality of the budgetary limitations. The camaraderie of all the smart and passionate people I work with day in, day out, is infectious and a big reward. I felt like a misfit growing up because I was obsessed with illustration and movies. My colleagues are just as passionate, so falling into this field has always felt natural.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

GUREL MEHMET: Sometimes, due to time or budgetary constraints, there’s a tendency to quote or reference directly what has been made before, particularly in film. While this can be a useful shortcut, I find it quite odd to be asked to specifically emulate what has been made before rather than casting the net wider to include the history of art – or just about anything else out there. Limiting the well of design to other films can often end up producing derivative work.

Watch Gurel Mehmet’s 2018 sizzle reel:

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

GUREL MEHMET: Trying to figure out Tony Stark’s briefcase suit unpacking for Iron Man 2 was tricky. It was hard to arrive at that point because it was a multi-disciplined and experimental approach between concept design, rigging and the animation department.

Another challenge was the Limbo coastline – and Limbo in general – for Inception. It was a very specific idea that Christopher Nolan and Paul Franklin had envisioned, namely that it was obviously architectural but had this strange geological look to it. It was a challenge to find that sweet spot in design, layer upon layer, where the environment looked like it had been abandoned – in a dream, no less – and was decaying over time, as opposed to an area ravaged by war. Early on, I kept painting concepts that looked like a war-torn Beirut, and Paul kept graciously reigning me back in. I then rewatched Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi – the Pruit Igoe scene in particular – and at last the penny dropped. Obviously, I’m contradicting what I said about limiting the well of design, but in that instance it made perfect sense!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

GUREL MEHMET: I suppose most of the stuff I’ve been tasked with is potentially weird! If you’re working as a designer in the film industry, you usually get roped in at the point where what’s required is a representation of the strange and inexplicable.

I had a really interesting time on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was on set for three months working with the visual effects supervisors and the previs team on the Obscurus sequence. I didn’t look at the entire script, but was getting daily notes from Tim Burke and Christian Manz because we were trying to figure out what the look of this dark magic was and how it would manifest.

One day, Ezra Miller, who plays Credence Barebone in the film, came on set. Tim Burke had organized an impromptu shoot for us on one of the sound stages, because we had discussed that maybe the Obscurus could be performance based. Ezra let rip and his brilliant improvised performance then became the basis for all of my concepts. He really did go for it in the moment and his guttural screams and howling changed my assumptions, right there and then, of what this thing could be. It was at that point that I realized the Obscurus was going to be a visual manifestation of depression, abuse and rage, albeit in abstract form. Suddenly the whole thing made sense. Rather than defaulting to a process of elimination, the idea had a potent impetus driving it – at least for me. The realization that such a dark subject matter was going to be played out front and center in a mainstream film was both surprising to me, and gratifying. As a contributor, it’s moments like that that make me pause and smile.

Visual effects for the Obcurus sequence, realized by Double Negative, appear in this breakdown at the 1m20s mark:

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

GUREL MEHMET: If you mean the field of design, I would say there’s been an obvious shift to have concept design be more representational and less illustrative due to the widespread use of 3D applications like ZBrush and Maya. That’s just a given now, even in the early stages of design.

Generally, visual effects has exponentially got to a point where you can do almost anything you can imagine and have it be indistinguishable from photoreality – if that is in fact the aim. Once Hollywood has finished with destroying every major city and changing the sky or lighting in any given shot because they can, it might be nice to re-emphasize visual effects as a storytelling device once again. This does happen from time to time due to the particular relationship between a filmmaker and visual effects supervisor.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

GUREL MEHMET: I’d like to see more recognition for the visual effects community in general. It’s ludicrous that some artists will toil away for hours in the dark only to be omitted from the credit roll due to some arbitrary rule about space.

Although things have started to change, I’d also like to see more effort by all vendors to re-address the equality debate and promote women at all levels, particularly in supervisor roles. I’ve been working in this industry for the better part of two decades and I’ve only worked with one studio-side supervisor who was a woman. That seems odd to me. There is a good shift at visual effects houses with women occupying lead and head of department roles, but there are still very few supervisors out there.

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

GUREL MEHMET: Be nice to everyone and don’t be a dick. And don’t do it just because your self-preservation instincts are finely tuned. Focus on what you enjoy and what you’re good at, and if those are in near alignment you’re more than halfway there. Do things for intrinsic values and don’t focus too much on the eventuality of outcome – that way, in terms of position, pay or status, you’re more likely to excel at what you do and have a better time doing it. Lastly, make friends with failure. That may seem like a counterintuitive idea, but it’s during these moments when you can learn the most. None of this is particular to the effects business, but it’s served me well to keep this in mind.

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

GUREL MEHMET: 2001: A Space Odyssey – I came to this film as a late bloomer as it was made before my time, so I watched it on television for the first time in my mid-teens while studying for my school exams. I didn’t understand it – does anyone? – but I had never seen anything like it and I still think it’s one of the most beautiful and hypnotic films I’ve ever seen. There are so many great shots and sequences, but I remember being disturbed by the HAL deactivation scene. The blood-red palette of the interior, the sound design of the ventilation and the astronauts breathing apparatus, and then HAL having what could be best described as a mental breakdown, after having begged for his life. It’s still upsetting.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – this is one of my favorite films, and not particularly because it’s an effects film. I had a lonely childhood, so the film resonated with me instantly. I desperately wanted to have a friend like E.T. and even at a young age I could relate to the emotional fallout of what the film alluded to about separation and dysfunctional families. As with 2001, there are a lot of beautiful iconic moments in the film. I love the final shot – the boldness of holding on Henry Thomas’ face as he watches E.T.’s departure.

My favorite scene is Elliot introducing himself to E.T. in his bedroom. The way Elliot is trying to explain his world to E.T. through his toy and trinket collection, as only a child could do, is really funny and touching. The whole scene is photographed beautifully by Allen Daviau, perfectly diffusing the sunlight through the window. The choice of that lighting setup is both technically judicious so as to hide any limitations the animatronics may have had, but there’s also a warmth and mystery to it, which perfectly matches the tone of the scene.

John Carpenter’s The Thing – Rob Bottin’s work on this is still something to marvel at, particularly the chest defibrillation scene. The film is a perfect claustrophobic meditation on paranoia. The slow build-up, Morricone’s minimalist score teasing what might be around the corner, the men bickering with the onset of cabin fever and then, when all hell breaks loose, you find yourself transfixed with pure terror. And yet, you can never quite look away. Beneath the fear, you’re trying to make sense of what you’re actually looking at. It’s part Lovecraft, part Hieronymus Bosch, part whatever the hell was troubling Bottin’s mind at the time!

*Honorable mentions would go to Alien and Blade Runner, for obvious reasons.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

GUREL MEHMET: I would ban all grazing!

CINEFEX: Gurel, thanks for your time!