Spotlight – Sandra Balej

by Graham Edwards

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

Sandra BalejSandra Balej is a digital effects supervisor at Method Studios, and lists her filmography highlights as Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: It was not the love of effects that got me into this industry but my love for movies in general. As long as I remember, I have loved to go to the theater to watch a movie up big! We had this amazing old-fashioned theater where I grew up and my parents took me there to watch movies like Babe and Cinderella. I still remember how I loved the whole experience, when the lights went out and the curtains opened – yes, they had curtains back then – and I was taken to this other world for few hours. I guess I just kind of got addicted.

If I had to pinpoint one moment when I decided I wanted to work in the movie industry, it was when I watched my first action film in theater: James Bond in The World is Not Enough. Granted, looking back, I question the quality of it, but I just loved the action and explosions. While I was still a teenager my aspirations were all a bit naïve: “I want to be a director.” But over years of doing research, I realized that I wanted to have a sustainable career where I actually might have a chance to break into this industry that seemed so out of reach. Visual effects seemed to be the right choice. That’s when I decided to go to Vancouver Film School.

Luckily, it turned out I love doing effects. I got a job in Germany right after I graduated, at a small visual effects company, Exozet, mostly doing effects for television. The CEO Olaf Skrzipczyk took his chance with me, hiring me as a generalist but mostly focused on compositing. He and his team taught me so much and groomed me into a proper artist. I will forever be grateful they took me under their wings. We used Fusion back then to composite and that’s what helped me to get my first big break in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. Still to this date, it’s one of my favorite projects I have ever worked on. Fusion compositors were hard to come by in Germany at the time, so the compositing supervisor Rony Soussan took his chance and hired this greenhorn of a compositor.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Seeing the fans’ reaction to a movie you have been working on for a very long time. Working on high pressure effects movies with tight deadlines, you sometimes lose sight why you were doing in it in the first place, and whenever I start working on a new project I go into this kind of hibernation mode where I put my real life on standby and give everything to the project. Probably not the healthiest approach, but I just can’t help but pour all my energy into something once I start. The year I was working on Doctor Strange, we just had finished delivering the Comic-Con trailer so I was able to escape for a few days. I was a bit in zombie mode after working such long hours but then I saw the fans’ reactions to the trailer. It was goosebump-inducing. That for me makes it all worth it.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SANDRA BALEJ: Omits. I know they are part of the process of moviemaking and need to happen, but it still hurts when a shot gets cut – especially when you’ve in a lot of work.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Designing a particular new environment for Ant-Man and the Wasp. I can’t say much since the movie is not released yet, but coming up with this very important look for the movie with the creative team has been the most challenging thing of my career so far.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SANDRA BALEJ: It was part of that Comic-Con trailer I mentioned earlier. It was a Sunday morning when I got this frantic call from our producer that Marvel needed 10 more frames for a trailer shot – not a weird request in itself. I was the comp supervisor back then, so I just rendered the frames and sent it to them. What was weird was that I received a phone call from Victoria Alonso herself to thank me for doing it on such a short notice. She’s probably already forgotten about it, but I really appreciated the gesture.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: In these times of social media and the internet where the fans have lots of opinions, moviemakers have become a bit more flexible in postproduction. Social media platforms and test screenings give them the chance to have their finger on the pulse of the fanbase’s wants and needs. As a consequence, the effects industry has to plan accordingly to keep up with any last-minute changes that need to happen.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SANDRA BALEJ: I wouldn’t shed a tear if we saw fewer stereo-converted movies. I like a good 3D movie like any other guy, but that mostly goes for native stereo movies. The conversion companies nowadays don’t get to spend a lot of time on the process and the experience suffers from that.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Try to find a life-work balance. The effects industry is tough on body and mind, especially when you start out. After 10 years in the business, I am still struggling to find it, but sometimes it helps to remember that this is a marathon not a sprint.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: The Man from Nowhere – I am a big fan of South Korean cinema, and this film is very much a case of incredible invisible effects. Some of the stunt work and the subtle use of effects is just incredible. I worked in Asia for some time as well and it was a great experience. I enjoy seeing the amazing progress the effects quality has made over the last few years over there.

Gravity: I have always been a fan of Alfonso Cuarón’s famous long shots. The 17-minute-long opening shot in Gravity was absolutely stunning.

Independence Day – this classic inspired me a lot when I was a kid. The effects still hold up so well even today. My favorite shot is the spaceship’s first appearance when it’s coming out of that big cloud. Perfect example of how cloud tank footage can sometimes beat heavy effects sims.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SANDRA BALEJ: I’ll go with the classic – popcorn. But not that weird salty stuff you guys have in North America. I thought I was poisoned the first time I tried it.

CINEFEX: Sandra, thanks for your time!