Spotlight – Markus Degen

by Graham Edwards

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

Markus DegenAs managing partner and CCO at RISE, Markus Degen lists his career highlights as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.

CINEFEX: Markus, how did you get started in the business?

MARKUS DEGEN: As a teen, I saw Pixar short films such as Luxo Jr. and Red’s Dream and just knew then that I would like to do the same. The Commodore Amiga became my partner in crime – I utilized 3D software at night and slept in school in the day.

When I was searching for a university that offered at least some CGI courses – it was 1991 in Austria – there was only a single one: Master Studies of Visual Media Art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. I was going to a music school, had not any contact with visual arts while growing up, and had no idea what to expect there. We are talking about a Nam June Paik kind of art study where they also just started to experiment with computer graphics. And I was the naive small-town boy without a clue about art, applying to get in a study where they take eight students out of 2,000 per year. Where, when you ask for application forms, the snotty secretary tells you that no one gets accepted at the first attempt, on principle. Anyway, with my CG skills on the Amiga I created some dark and extraordinary images like nothing anyone there had ever seen before. I got in immediately. My technical CG skills surpassed any teacher’s knowledge there, but still, studying there was one of the best times in my life and I discovered my art side.

After graduation, I travelled to Berlin, stumbled on a visual effects house and they took me as an intern for some roto work. Two years later, they sent me supervising for a movie called Tropical Malady in the depths of a sweat-drenched, mosquito-ridden jungle in Thailand. We were far from the nearest city, the overall experience was a ride, and the film ended up winning the 2004 Prix Du Jury award at Cannes. They called my firefly tree the icon of the festival and authentic cinema – they didn’t know it was CG. There I got the taste of it. The three co-workers of the company at that time became friends and, in a crazy moment after lunch, we had the idea of founding our own company.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: Creating things that don’t exist.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MARKUS DEGEN: More and more, visual effects are now only recognized by non-industry people and audiences alike when they are bad. Of course, this is a testament to how far the visual effects industry has developed by becoming indistinguishable from practical sets and so on.

RISE created visual effects for "Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver."

RISE created visual effects for “Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.”

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

MARKUS DEGEN: The moment when you are standing on set and witnessing the client’s approach fail catastrophically. The immediate sensation that follows – of 200-plus pairs of eyes all turning towards you to hastily solve the issue – makes for a pretty fun experience.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MARKUS DEGEN: Those truly weird experiences you cannot always share. One memory I have, however, is when a production team told us that they did not have the time to shoot a sweeping panoramic opener flying through the peaks of a high altitude mountain range. That’s when you find yourself strapped on the side of helicopter capturing as much detail of the ranges with your DSLR as you can so your team can build them from scratch.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: Visual effects artists are doing the creative work that previously other departments and roles would be responsible for. A lot of the creativity involved with compositions and lighting, for example, are become more mainstream visual effects tasks. This trend has not slowed down, either.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MARKUS DEGEN: As far as visual effects have come, they are not always recognizable. I would like to see both the industry and the artists who do this incredible work begin to get wider recognition and being credited properly. Their work alone allows for a much broader spectrum of stories to be told on screen than in previous filmmaking eras.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: Train your eyes. Constantly.

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

MARKUS DEGEN: I think the first movie that created a visual effects impact on me was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The effects were so much a part of the story told, and aided the emotional impacts felt. I wanted to get involved in this form of storytelling where we imagine the previously unimaginable. Blade Runner 2049, because of how visual effects added this tangible sensation to the environment aesthetics. The blend of digital and practical came out very well. Avengers: Age of Ultron would be my third, naturally, because I worked on it!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MARKUS DEGEN: Gin and tonic.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Markus!