To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Mark Breakspear is a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Over and above his feature credits on films like Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Suicide Squad and American Sniper, Mark describes his main career highlight as “getting home before midnight once.”
CINEFEX: Mark, how did you get started in the business?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: My first big break came at age 16, when I sent my 50th-or-so letter begging for a job to a company called Oxford Scientific Films, which was conveniently situated in the village where I grew up in England. I would travel past it every day on the school bus, and for about five seconds I would see over the tall hedge and get a glimpse of what they were working on: huge sets for underwater shots; tanks full of fish; scaled versions of everyday objects; and lights – many, many lights. I once even saw a Doctor Who Dalek in the parking lot!
Anyway, I decided this letter was going to be my last. They had politely rejected the previous 49 letters saying everything from “Thank you, but …” or “Due to your lack of experience …” and I’d finally reached the point where a career in archaeology seemed to be my new direction. But I decided I was going to go out with a bit of a bang, so I stapled a teabag to the letter and said simply: “Dear OSF – me again, don’t rush to say no. Have a cup of tea on me and let’s talk!” I sent the letter and waited. About two weeks later I received a large parcel from OSF and in it was a bag of sugar. The letter that was strapped to it with an elastic band read: “Dear Mark, NO! Hope that isn’t too bitter a pill, here’s a sweetener.” I laughed back the tears of disappointment but it felt good that I’d destroyed my dreams on my own terms.
The next day I received a phone call from the head of the studio at OSF. I could tell they’d put me on speakerphone, and they were asking if I got their package. I said yes, and heard them all laughing. Then the main cameraman said: “Why don’t you come in next week and we’ll give you a chance.” Boom! I was in! I worked insane hours for the next six months – basically for free – watching tree frogs jump off branches and flowers being tricked to open using 15-kilowatt HMI lights. I’d never been happier. Thanks, teabag. I owe you one!
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: There is nothing better than when you get to step back from thousands of decisions over hundreds of shots and see it all starting to work. It’s even better when the client also thinks so. That moment of creation that comes from hugely complex systems all working together is rewarding in a way that most people never get to see. I’m always humbled by the power of creative problem-solving – all voices get a seat at that table. But laugh or grin? That would be the day-to-day ways in which we all cope with the stress. We often spend more time at work than we do with our families, so having a team that works well together is essential – critical, even. Sometimes, all it takes for me to be genuinely happy is to see that people are enjoying what they are doing and working well together. From that comes the magic. The occasional dad-joke never goes amiss either.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: When I’m on set and the craft service table doesn’t have a tent or electrical power – normally a bad sign for the way the movie is going to go. I was on a movie where craft was a table on its own in a field, with a kettle but no power – that was a nightmare movie that flopped at the box office. On a different movie, where craft had two dedicated chefs, the film made close to a billion. I’m just saying there is probably a scientific relationship between craft service table size and box office takings.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: I was once working as a compositor on The X-Files in Los Angeles, at a company that was making great strides in television visual effects. We’d been asked to make changes by the director so late in the game that the front part of the show was already airing on the East coast while I was still making tiny changes to shots in the last act! A satellite truck in the alleyway outside sent it to wherever it needed to go to before the air-time for the last section. That was a stressful nightmare, for sure.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: While at OSF, I was asked to go to Brussels to pick up some special products for a Tampax commercial we were going to work on. Of course, I was very excited to be offered a business trip so early in my career – I was a young lad with no money and the company was going to send me through the Channel Tunnel to Europe. Sounds great, right?
I got to Brussels, went to the address given and let the receptionist know I was here to pick up the tampons for the commercial shoot – it had been explained to me that these were special ‘film ready’ tampons. The receptionist gave me a bag that contained several boxes, but as I turned to leave she indicated for me to wait. From a door to the side of the reception desk came two people carrying a six-foot model tampon for me to take back. It was so huge that the mean people at Eurostar made me buy it an extra seat on the train for the return journey. When I got back to OSF, everyone was laughing because they could have had it shipped but thought it would be funnier to send the new guy.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: I used to love having clients over my shoulder when I was a compositor on Flame and Henry – and Domino, if you remember that! Now, our teams are huge, remote and unknown half the time. I try to connect with everyone on a show because, for me, the best learning moments used to come when a client leaned over and pointed something out and I went: “Oh, of course!” I want people working on a show to feel like they learned something, rather than just turning out the same old sausages again and again.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: The AI world is going to be interesting. I think it will find the steep cliffs of creativity hard to climb, but climb them it eventually will. We’re going to see a massive reduction in the need for vendors to do roto, matchmove and so on, which will have a big impact on jobs overseas. Jobs in animation are probably the safest for now, but who knows? I’m basically the farmer from the 1720s saying that the steam engine might alter the way I plant potatoes but other than that, it won’t change much else. I think much of our industry – and most others – has its head in the sand regarding AI.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: Be creative first. Be careful of the courses that focus on teaching you how to press buttons – that’s important but if you don’t have an eye, button-pushing will only get you so far. Also, if you want to earn your stripes, be prepared to travel long distances for next to nothing and pick up large-scale feminine hygiene products.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: Nightmare question! I have no idea. There are the obvious ‘greats’, like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, War for the Planet of the Apes – the snow on the fur, wow! But then you go back and you think of all the little moments that come and go in visual effects movies all the time that somehow push the boundaries of what can be done, making the dream just a little bit bigger and making some small kid think that life is going to be better.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
MARK BREAKSPEAR: My fingernails. If it’s something I worked on, I’m more interested in the audience reaction than being able to eat anything.
CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Mark!