To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Marti Romances is co-founder and creative director of the San Francisco office of Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Avengers: Endgame, Infinity War and Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, Ex Machina, Ad Astra, The Fate of the Furious, The OA, Jupiter Ascending, Mile 22 and Rampage.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?
MARTI ROMANCES: I started as an Autodesk Combustion artist creating animated DVD menus, back in the day. This gave me close proximity to senior Flame artists and visual effects talent, so I quickly became exposed to matte painting, rotoscoping, compositing, color – all that great stuff. I began creating visual effects on film and commercial projects that required the re-creation of realistic surroundings — for example, placing a tree here, a road there, or whatever else the scenes required.
What really fueled my desire and propelled me into visual effects was discovering its overlap with design. That’s when I hit my stride. I began designing holographic interfaces and other 3D elements on some incredible sci-fi films. Joining Territory Studio and helping it grow into a global company with over 120 people is another feather in my cap, and a crucial element in the trajectory of my career to date.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
MARTI ROMANCES: Working on films that I grew up watching and admiring, including the experience of designing on several Marvel films. All these different franchises have defined my taste over the years, and now I’ve actually been able to participate in them as a designer. Thinking about it makes me grin like the Cheshire cat!
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
MARTI ROMANCES: Seeing effects used just for the sake of adding them. Unfortunately, some people force stuff when it’s not required. Conversely, I am always looking for something that needs to be designed, especially if it has never existed before. This is what drives me as an artist.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
MARTI ROMANCES: Starting Territory Studio in San Francisco has been an incredible challenge, creating a facility out of nowhere and, within a few years, being lauded for our visual effects and design work. Challenging, but very satisfying!
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
MARTI ROMANCES: For Guardians of the Galaxy, we had to add a cassette tape from the ‘80s into a holographic screen from another galaxy, all so that Star-Lord could play his mix tape.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
MARTI ROMANCES: One of the most impressive changes we’ve seen has been the accessibility young artists have to the software we use, and how easy the internet has made it for them to learn how to master such tools. Without this, we wouldn’t have as much talent working in the industry today.
I’d also highlight the many advances we’ve seen in raytracing, and almost real-time photorealistic rendering. It helps the creative process so much when you can actually iterate while lighting a CG scene, or when moving cameras around. Something we needed to wait for hours to achieve in the not-so-distant past can now be updated in a fraction of a second.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
MARTI ROMANCES: I experience a lot of visual inconsistencies between departments on big jobs. Each department has its budgetary concerns and they don’t always play well with others. Because some studios are so big and complicated to navigate, this can lead to people trying to re-create your work under a different budget, generating the same assets for use in production, then postproduction, then for marketing purposes. I see this working well on smaller productions, but it’s something bigger studios could learn from.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
MARTI ROMANCES: Never take shortcuts. I think the industry puts you where you need to be. If you want to gain seniority and respect, the only way to do so is to build up your career step by step. Experience becomes everything: one day you will have people below you who rely on your knowledge and wisdom, because you’ve been there before. Self-entitlement is definitely something that doesn’t work very well. Also, there is no final goal. Our industry won’t ever stop, so you should never slow down.
CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?
MARTI ROMANCES: Real-time render engines are already beginning to pick up the pace. Computational power is growing exponentially, and our perception of what’s possible should also follow suit. I envision more integrated experiences with the audience, with immersive storytelling and experiential narratives leading the way.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
MARTI ROMANCES: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – take a look at those gorgeous hand-made effects and environments! Even the propmaking department on this film would be a gold mine of information for anyone who wants to work in the art department nowadays.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – I think there is a before-and-after watershed moment here regarding elements of the film like matte painting or crowd duplication. While we rely on CG techniques to create these things today, back then there was a lot of stitching and compositing work happening.
The Matrix – this is an obvious one, but the techniques they used back then were definitely ahead of their time, especially being so innovative visually with just camera effects.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
MARTI ROMANCES: Always salted popcorn. None of that melted buttery business I’ve found brazenly added to popcorn here in the US!
CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Marti!