To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Karl Herbst is a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. His roles have also included modeler, look development artist, lighting supervisor, CG supervisor and digital effects supervisor, and he lists his career highlights as Surf’s Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Hotel Transylvania 1 & 2 and Edge of Tomorrow. He is currently in production on Smallfoot.
CINEFEX: Karl, how did you get started in the business?
KARL HERBST: It was all by chance. I was an architecture major at Clemson University when a virtual reality project was getting started in the computer science department. They needed some modelers and I started helping them out. Next thing I knew, I was spending more time there than in the architecture building. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Jurassic Park both got me interested in film – Nightmare from the idea that I could design and build sets, and Jurassic for showing me what was possible in the computer.
My big break came when I bought a T-shirt from Rhythm & Hues. The woman who filled the order saw the URL of the work I was doing at Clemson and gave it to the modeling manager. Keith Hunter, who headed up modeling at Rhythm & Hues at that time, contacted me and asked me to model a motorcycle that he took a picture of in the parking lot. The rest is history.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
KARL HERBST: Finishing! Along the way to that point, there are all those great moments of being confronted with problems to solve and working with great teams to solve them. Especially on the full CG features, there is just so much to design, so many tools to be built, so many methodologies to come up with – every day is an adventure. The moments in rounds and client reviews where we come up with ideas on how to make each shot just that much better, from the smallest thing to the largest, makes my job the best.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
KARL HERBST: Constant changes. There is nothing like spending months coming up with how to solve something, getting all of the wheels in motion, pushing on all of the people involved to meet a deadline or improve the look of something, to just have it all end up on the cutting room floor.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
KARL HERBST: Each show comes with its challenges, but I think the hardest was doing a face replacement for a skating film many years ago. Everything we tried in that era of technology just did not work. The visual effects supervisor on that show pulled me on late and I was trying to remodel the face, work on the shading and the tracking all at once and we just did not have the tools to do it. In the end, we mixed parts of renders, parts of 2D elements and crossed our fingers the client would be happy. They weren’t, but it was the best we could do at the time. All of the tests we tried during that film proved to me that humans are the best facial recognition systems and it’s really hard to fool us.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
KARL HERBST: I can’t say I have had what I would call a weird one, but I can say that there have been times where I could feel myself losing more hair! On Men in Black II, we came on late to add the final shot in the film. It was Grand Central Station for aliens, and we created all the creatures and the environment at a record pace. On the final night, with the visual effects supervisor sitting over my shoulder making composite tweaks, the new RAID system at the studio failed – in the middle of a tweak, the comp update just stopped mid-frame. After many phone calls, we waited for hours to have a new disk brought in. Luckily, the system worked as advertised and once the disk was installed all of the data was recovered and the frame stuck on my monitor, finished. I looked at the supe and said, “What next?” “Send it to filmout,” was the immediate response.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
KARL HERBST: The remoteness of everything. It used to be that all of us involved with a film could sit in a room and do a whiteboard session to solve an issue. Or, while reviewing work, everyone felt free to bring up ideas and address issues on the fly. Now, the client is in one location, the artists are in another and I sit in a room almost by myself just giving notes. It takes a lot more effort to get everyone to contribute their ideas since it’s like a CB radio and everyone needs to feel okay with interrupting someone else to get their idea on the table.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
KARL HERBST: I would really like to see films at a point where we are not trying to “find it” in the middle or at the end. With all of the time spent in pre-production these days, it still feels like we are trying to squeeze all of the work into the smallest amount of time – which kills creativity. On the technology front, there are some interesting things happening with real-time rendering that could really improve workflows in all departments along the production pipeline.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
KARL HERBST: Do this because you love it. Don’t go into it thinking you’re going to make a ton of money or that you’re going to be making ‘your art.’ Do this because you love the challenges and being part of a team that creates great movie moments. While in school and in your first years in the business, learn as much as you can about the whole pipeline, not just a specialty area.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
KARL HERBST: Man, this one is hard! I’m all over the place here since I work more on animated features versus visual effects films. Star Wars – since it’s the first visual effects film I remember as a kid. The ‘Indiana Jones’ movies for the great mix of practical sets and matte paintings. The Lion King – for being the rebirth of great Disney animated films. Jurassic Park – for just breaking so much ground in digital effects. The Nightmare Before Christmas – for all of the amazing sets and characters. A power hour of ‘Looney Tunes’ shorts for just all of the great shapes and performances. I could keep going!
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
KARL HERBST: Peanut M&Ms.
CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Karl!