Spotlight – Michael Illingworth

by Graham Edwards

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

Michael Illingworth is a visual effects supervisor and owner of Vine FX. His feature career highlights include all the Harry Potter films, Black Hawk Down and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while on television he’s a veteran of the Canal+/Fox adaptation of War of the Worlds, Merlin, Atlantis, Black Mirror and Patrick Melrose.

Michael Illingworth

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Michael?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: As a kid I saw a promo by MPC called Monkey Business which featured a Quantel Paintbox. I thought it was really cool that they could paint on to a monitor, and this led to me study Moving Image Design at Ravensbourne College, which was one of the few places in the UK that had Quantel equipment. My first big break was at The Mill. After a long day running I offered to de-spot a Reebok commercial, digitally removing the film dirt, which I did through the night. Thankfully my efforts were rewarded and I was offered a position as a junior artist using Quantel Harriet.

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Seeing seamless visual effects. There’s a moment in shot or asset evolution where it sings.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Nothing much really. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: I comped what I believe was the most expensive shot that Mill Film had worked on at the time. In A Knight’s Tale there’s a fly by over an arena that combines motion control, modelmaking, digital matte painting and lots of other stuff. The story goes that all the various elements were so expensive to produce that they were hoping it would be too costly to consider. The day after the bid was submitted they received a purchase order. I think I spent over a month simply trying to lock all the various plates together.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Removing the testicles from a bulldog for a UK Labour Party political broadcast. The story even featured on the television show Have I Got News for You, much to everyone’s amusement.

Watch a breakdown video showcasing Vine FX’s work on the Canal+/Fox adaptation of War of the Worlds:

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: We still use the same techniques we used back in the ‘90s. It’s all about having an eye for detail, but the computers get quicker each year and I’m continuously amazed by what is achievable.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Fewer pandemics.

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: If you love creating films or effects and playing with computers then you’ll love working in visual effects. It’s a cliché, but if you do a job you love you never have to work a day in your life. Just don’t let anyone take advantage!

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

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of big visual effects movies. If I had to choose, I’d pick films I have worked on and then bore everyone about which shots I did!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MICHAEL ILLINGWORTH: Popcorn

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Michael!