To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
As production visual effects supervisor on HBO’s epic television show Game of Thrones, Joe Bauer leads teams of artists around the world to bring the fantasy realm of Westeros to life – including its ever-maturing contingent of fire-breathing dragons.
JOE BAUER: Mentally and emotionally, I started out in the industry while still living in Springfield, Missouri, at the age of 11, ogling a few minutes of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the Joplin channel on a snowy black and white television screen. Next was The Golden Voyage – Sinbad again – in full color in a movie theater. Then, before I knew it, I had a masters in film and was lighting miniatures on a motion control stage in Van Nuys. David Stipes made me part of his team on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then I was figuring out in- camera forced perspective shots for Elf. Now I’m the stepfather of digital dragons. Pretty normal progression really.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
JOE BAUER: Watching audience reactions of things I’ve worked on on YouTube.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
JOE BAUER: The ‘mad elephant’ scene in Dumbo.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
JOE BAUER: My first feature visual effects supervising job involved Jean-Claude van Damme, an untrained Bengal tiger, a Hong Kong wire team and the need to nuke the Roman Colosseum and, with it, a deranged character played by Mickey Rourke. My wallet had been stolen by a gypsy and I had to save per diem in order to buy a coat. The next hardest was shooting twenty stuntmen in a bullring in Spain with a 50-foot flamethrower attached to a motion control crane, in order to have actual fire for a dragon attack. I was so nervous my top lip swelled up like Donald Duck. Fortunately, the Colosseum blew up and the stunt men didn’t.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
JOE BAUER: Aah – should have saved my Van Damme story! Second to that might be tracking a butt-crack onto a too-shy body double, and then covering that with a bluescreen tree branch when the nudity was deemed inappropriate.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
JOE BAUER: How good everyone has gotten at what they do. On a show like Game of Thrones, where a tremendous volume of work must be completed in a very short time, multiple vendors of all sizes must be utilized, and across the board the technical and artistic accomplishment is shockingly consistent and staggeringly good. In the early days, only the fattest wallets and most prestigious pictures got the A-game from the relatively slim list of top talent. Now the baseline is excellence, so planning and design – and time and money, still – are what separate the great from the greater. When’s the last time you saw a matte line or a color mismatch?
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
JOE BAUER: I’d like to see the community of artists better taken care of. The skill level is that of medical professionals and yet as a specialized workforce they are still expected to live like carnival workers, except for the lucky ones under large company umbrellas. I think the community deserves organized protections, pensions and benefits. These are life choices, not summer jobs.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
JOE BAUER: I would say study art and photography in addition to software. If you don’t know what the real world looks like and how a camera photographs it, you’ll have no sense of how to re-create it in a visual effects shot. Even more to the point, unless you’ve seen sunlight on objects through the eyes of the greatest artists of civilization, you might miss how grand and great and emotionally affecting a particular shot can be constructed. There’s no harm in making each and every visual effects shot a masterwork.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
JOE BAUER: Star Wars, Jurassic Park and the 1933 King Kong. Runners-up would be George Pal’s The War of the Worlds and MGM’s Forbidden Planet. I think those would display fine art, wild imagination, industriousness and determination in the face of obstacles. Nothing is handed to you in the business of telling stories with memorable visuals, and yet the end result needs to seem as if it has always been. Those movies, among many others before and since, display those qualities, whether using rubber and steel or pixels.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
JOE BAUER: Salted popcorn
CINEFEX: Joe, thanks for your time!
Watch the trailer for Games of Thrones Season 7: