Spotlight – Simon Carr

by Graham Edwards

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

Simon Carr is a visual effects supervisor at Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Face/Off, Star Trek Into Darkness, Bohemian Rhapsody and Mindhunter.

Simon Carr

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

SIMON CARR: After writing a lot of letters to a lot of companies, I was offered a job as a runner in a motion control studio for cel animation. I essentially made tea for two years whilst learning everything I could about the business. When the Quantel Henry came along, I used my evenings to teach myself that, which led to an opportunity with Animal Logic in Sydney. I would say that was my biggest break as it led to working on film compositing and gave my career a real boost.

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

SIMON CARR: The job is most fun when you see the work that’s been discussed and planned coming together in support of the story. The effect can be a very simple one, but if it bridges a gap and sells a scene or action, that’s really exciting. But the one thing that has given me most pleasure over my career has been discovering talent. There’s nothing quite like having your expectations exceeded by a brilliant artist.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SIMON CARR: Nothing would be quite that bad – we’re not saving lives! But it is frustrating to work on projects with no clear direction and constant undecided feedback. The best projects are the ones in which a clear idea is followed through from script to screen.

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

SIMON CARR: Many years ago, I worked as a compositor on a beer commercial. The material came to us from a chaotic shoot as a paper edit, which I had to reassemble. I was working from 24/25 pull-down, juggling cuts on Henry and Domino, running a video and film cut simultaneously. After 14 days working 16 hours a day, I was incoherent with exhaustion. The boss sent me home and banned the client from the building! After that, almost everything seems reasonably benign.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SIMON CARR: I was once asked by a client to put a penguin in a shot. Let’s just say it was not a shot that would naturally feature a penguin.

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

SIMON CARR: The biggest change is in the speed and power of the technology, leading to a huge growth in the use of visual effects in all genres. Alongside the recent explosion in content creation, this has led to a much greater demand for visual effects and the technology to produce them. When I started, producing a 30-second commercial on one machine was almost inconceivable. Now, my phone has more computing power and storage than the workstations being used back then. The downside, to my mind, has been the tendency to push decision-making to later and later in the process, and this can lead to some projects being uneven and rushed.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SIMON CARR: Although the industry has become more diverse than when I started, it would be great to encourage more people from all backgrounds to join, and also to break the idea of art and science being mutually exclusive. If there was ever an industry that illustrated the blend of math and art, it is visual effects.

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

SIMON CARR: There are so many good courses now – that seems an obvious place to start. However, I would also say the visual effects industry – like the film industry in general – has such a wide range of jobs needing such a diverse set of skills that plenty of people move across into it from other areas. The most important thing is to find something you’re passionate about and aim to do it as well as you can.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

SIMON CARR: I expect AI will have an impact, potentially helping with tasks like rotoscoping and clean-up as image detection and recognition improves. It will also help with tracking for both cameras and objects. I imagine there may be an increase in the use of digital actors or digital make-up. Hopefully, the current level of content creation will continue and lead to a more stable relationship between studios and facilities. That stability will enable longer-term R&D and investment.

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

SIMON CARR: This is a difficult one, because I don’t really think of films in terms of their effects, more in terms of their storytelling or the effect they had on me. My stand-out films tend to come from my early years. The original Star Wars – now called A New Hope – had a massive impact on me. If I had to choose one sequence, it would be the opening space battle. The entrance of the Star Destroyer is still one of the most breathtaking moments in movie history.

My second choice would be Blade Runner, for its visual invention and the completeness of the design. I loved that movie from the first time I saw it and have loved it ever since. The spinner journey across the city of Los Angeles, which was made from etched copper flats, is an object lesson in achieving a huge amount with very little.

The third choice is hard. It’s between E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I think CE3K wins for the arrival of the spaceship. The fact it never touched down but was just this gigantic hovering object had a visceral impact in the cinema.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SIMON CARR: I’m a terrible curmudgeon who thinks no food of any kind should be allowed in a cinema. I go to watch movies, not to eat!

CINEFEX: Simon, thanks for your time!