Spotlight – Philipp Wolf

by Graham Edwards

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

Philipp Wolf is currently a visual effects producer at DNEG, having previously worked at MPC, Scanline VFX and Pixomondo, and in a freelance capacity. His personal filmography highlights include Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Ghost in the Shell, The Predator, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Game of Thrones.

Philipp Wolf - photograph by Myriam Ménard.
Photograph by Myriam Ménard.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: It all started with a project in school when I was 15 years old. We were tasked to found a made-up company and I decided to dive into the world of web design. The demand for this kind of work was high in the year 2000. A couple of months after I turned 16, I decided to found my first actual company. Designing and maintaining web-sites turned into software development, and planning and management of IT infrastructures.

2001 was a pivotal year for me – with the release of The Fast and the Furious, my love for cars was born. When the time came to graduate high school and go to university, I chose to study automotive engineering, specializing in process management and quality control. It took about two years for me to realize this path was not for me, so I moved to television where I worked as a journalist and a story producer amongst other things. When one of those projects came to an end, I remembered the feeling I had watching The Fast and the Furious for the first time and started looking around on how to be involved in the production of these movies – maybe visual effects?

I ended up applying to Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg for their newly introduced Animation Effects Producing course. After not even one year of studies, a tutor introduced me to Pixomondo where I ended up doing my first feature film project as a junior visual effects producer. My third project and my first big break was working on the second season of Game of Thrones as an associate visual effects producer – all while I was still studying.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: In short, enabling people to do what they love. Visual effects brings together talent from all over the world, to create content for people all over the world to enjoy. If you fuel these teams with empathy, you create an environment in which people not only understand one another’s perspective and care for each other, but also thrive and achieve more than they would have ever dreamed of. Fostering this environment and seeing the team excel is the most amazing feeling you can imagine.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

PHILIPP WOLF: One word: abstraction. Abstraction is the process of removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to its essential characteristics. Projects are broken down into numbers; numbers translate into a schedule; the schedule informs us about the resources required. We make our decisions based on those numbers – which is necessary to cope with the scale.

The numbers might tell us we need to increase this number or reduce that number. For example, 30 resources complete an average of 30 tasks per week. Next week they need to complete 45 tasks. The answer seems to be easy: increase the number of resources or decrease the quality. But neither one is an option. Conclusion: increase the working hours by factor 1.5. Not too bad, and an easy decision – if we base it purely on numbers.

Now, let us remove the abstraction. We are really asking 30 human beings with families each to spend 60 hours in the next week at work. Is the decision still as easy as before? No, and it should not be. We tend to forget the people affected by our decisions. Fostering an abstract environment creates a weak culture in which people only do what is right for them and not what is right for the team.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: My biggest challenge so far was creating an environment enabling a team at MPC to deliver about 660 highly complex shots for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. When I started on the show, production was already in progress, first look development shots were turned over and we had sophisticated previs scenes for most of the sequences in-house. Using those scenes, we broke down all elements needed to finish each individual shot. We had in hand over 400 creature animation shots, over 3,000 effects tasks and several environments – including a fully digital Boston – which needed to be completed to achieve the vision of Michael Dougherty, the director. Looking at the work, I knew the only way to get this done was to build a strong foundation of trust and empathy.

The first step was to empower my production team with tools and knowledge to take their own decisions, while mentoring them all the way throughout production. We ended up with amazing team who cared and stepped up to help each other.

The second step was to split up the work between the production and supervision team, to help MPC visual effects supervisor Robert Winter and myself to focus on the overall strategy of the production, while not slipping into a reactionary state.

Third step was figuring out the numbers to deliver the movie, while keeping the individual artist mind. The effects department alone had nearly 100 artists – the biggest effects team at MPC to that point.

The fourth step was creating a work environment in which everyone could do what they do best, as a team. With a team working around the globe, sometimes the little things help to make everyone feel part of something bigger. For example, early on we introduced a weekly newsletter with the latest show information, crowning our employee of the week, sharing fun facts, even having a little Godzilla statue traveling around the departments – who ended up meeting the director!

Empathy turned out to be the glue holding the production together. All the challenges we faced we pulled through together as a team – a team I could not be prouder of. Thank you!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

PHILIPP WOLF: Producing a pack shot for a foot fungus cream television commercial. As usual, you deal with the agency and the production company, who have prepared a vision for the pack shot. Early on, they told us we would need to produce a high-risk and a low-risk version of the pack shot so the commercial could be switched to the low-risk version if the pharmaceutical company got litigated – which they seem to plan for.

The idea of the pack shot was to show how to apply the foot fungus cream to the foot. How many different ways are there? Well, we created the pack shot, the commercial went on air, and the pharmaceutical company got litigated. This is where it became interesting. At that point, I only dealt with representatives of the pharmaceutical company and their lawyers to produce an even lower-risk version and to get the commercial back on air as soon as possible.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: The biggest change for me is the rising demand for visually appealing content. We are surrounded by visual stimuli wherever we go, in a world with an average attention span of eight seconds, according to a study by Microsoft Corp. We need to fill those eight seconds with content that makes people willing to continue to watch, be it in theatres, at home, or on their phone displays. The expectations of viewers are increasing as most of them grew up with the internet, videogames and the ever-evolving visual effects in movies and television.

To keep up with these demands, we see universities and schools implementing courses in visual effects, and companies like DNEG are implementing programs like Greenlight to support the development of the next generation of talent. Non-profit organizations like ACCESS:VFX have been founded to pursue inclusion, diversity, awareness and opportunity within the industry. We have created more awareness for the industry as a career. But we still have a long way to go.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

PHILIPP WOLF: We are at a pivotal point for our industry – I like to call it the “industrial revolution of visual effects” – moving from hand production to new manufacturing processes. We already see simple automation happening in things like one artist launching multiple shots on the render farm, or compositing templates creating a first pass for a shot.

To meet the rising demand, we need not only more people, but also to innovate our processes. Technology for example. Why does an animator need to match a real reference of a tiger jumping when a machine learning algorithm could do the first pass? Then, all the animator has to do is focus their work on bringing the story across. We should have algorithms take care of the first step, or the technical aspects like packaging a shot for the next artist to pick up. This would free up artists to actually do the artistic work.

We also need to implement international standards for visual effects. Doing that ensures our services are reliable and of high quality, while reducing costs due to increased productivity. These standards would help level the playing field for companies around the world. Additionally, it would be easier for schools and universities to create curricula to feed into those standards. Both of those points are incredibly important to me as they are part of creating a healthy work environment within our global growing industry.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: Be honest, be humble and be hungry – this will get you a long way.

Visual effects might be the most exciting industry to work in today. The demand is higher than ever before and there are jobs within pretty much every field imaginable. From artist to production to baristas, and so on. When you join a visual effects team, integrate yourself, get to know your peers, get to know what is going on around you, be empathic and open minded. Most of your days will include a lot of decisions, and you want to make sure to decide and communicate them efficiently. One tool I always give my production teams is called “Decision Tree”.

Imagine a tree. It is made out of leaves, branches, a trunk and roots. Now think about this in terms of your decisions. A leaf decision can be taken on your own and you don’t have to communicate it to anyone. If a tree loses a leaf, nothing bad is going to happen. If you damage a branch, still nothing too bad is going to happen, but you should inform your superior about it.

But the trunk – a crucial part of the tree – can only be harmed so much before it dies. These kinds of decisions should not be executed before approval from your superior. Damage to the roots might kill the tree. In this case, you should present all information about the issue, and your superior will take the decision.

The amazing thing about this metaphor is if you categorize your decisions based on it, you will notice how you and your tree will grow over time. Trunk decisions will become branch decisions, and ultimately leaf decisions.

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

PHILIPP WOLF: We all have a pretty good idea where we are right now, but where did we come from? My playbill brings us to the beginnings – Georges Méliès in France, Fritz Lang in Germany, all the way to James Cameron in the United States.

Le Voyage dans la Lune – every time I watch this pioneering movie, I have to remind myself it was 1902, over a century ago, when Georges Méliès created it. The spaceship flying to the moon was one of the first uses of a miniature – if not the first. It was uncharted territory. Méliès had to invent as he directed – stop-motion jump cuts, matte paintings, superimposed images, substitution shots, to name a few.

Metropolis – since I come from Germany, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece had to be part of the list. The movie employed ground-breaking special visual effects like the Schüfftan process – an early version of the bluescreen – used in the stadium scene. Utilizing a glass plate angled at 45 degrees between a miniature set and the camera, Lang was able to place the reflection of the actors into the set with the ability to adjust their size based on the distance to the glass plate. Another amazing effect was used to illustrate Maria’s transformation. A sophisticated multiple exposure shot introduces the robot with light rings falling and raising around it.

The Abyss – the first time I saw the watery snake-like creature was on television in the ‘90s. I was not even close to understand how it was done. Years later, when I started diving into visual effects and rediscovered the movie, I learned it was the first example of a digitally animated three-dimensional creature composited with 70mm footage. A creature which also mimics the actress’ performance who ultimately interacts with it – all back in 1989.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

PHILIPP WOLF: Popcorn. Funny enough, I do not like it outside of the movie theatre. It is part of the experience.

CINEFEX: Philipp, thanks for your time!

Cinefex 165 - Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Cinefex covered “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” in issue 165, June 2019.