Spotlight – Stephen Clee

by Graham Edwards

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

Stephen Clee

Stephen Clee is an animation supervisor and animator at Method Studios, and lists his career highlights as Okja, Thor: Ragnarok, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

CINEFEX: Stephen, how did you get started in the business?

STEPHEN CLEE: Way back in high school I wanted to be an architect – until I did some work experience at an engineering firm and nearly died of boredom. I loved the design aspect but hated how mundane most of the tasks were. My drafting and design teacher, who also taught the digital animation course at my school, saw that I had a passion for the creative part of the work and told me about Capilano University. I applied to their well-respected 2D animation program but was promptly rejected due to my – in hindsight – utterly terrible portfolio. I decided that I really wanted to pursue animation as a career, so I spent a year working in a restaurant while taking as many drawing courses as I could in my spare time to build a better portfolio. I was accepted the following year.

My first job was on Reader Rabbit, a Flash-animated children’s show for Studio B, now DHX. I worked in television for a few years at local studios Atomic and Bardel to get some experience under my belt and improve as an animator. In 2007, I went back to Capilano University to learn 3D and got a job working in videogames upon graduation. Visual effects had always interested me and offered the higher level of quality that I was striving for, so, two and a half years later, I quit my job at Capcom and took a three-month contract at Method Studios, then CIS. I’ve been there ever since. Working at Method has helped me grow as an animator and work on a myriad of different projects ranging from Avengers to Okja. Getting to work here has been my big break and taught me more than all my other jobs combined. I’ve been fortunate enough to find mentorship here and grow in my career as an animator, lead and supervisor.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: So many things make me happy at work: taking a really challenging shot to completion; finding creative solutions with the animators for their shots; working with my colleagues to come up with better acting choices; figuring out better workflows with the team; being surprised in dailies by a fun performance choice an animator makes. And finishing the last shot on a show!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEPHEN CLEE: Probably the most frustrating part of the job is when we get drastic edits to a sequence while under the gun to deliver. It can be tough for morale when things change that are out of our control, or shots are omitted when we’ve put a lot of work into them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Puppeteering Okja the superpig on set for five months … then getting back into the studio and realizing we had to animate to everything we shot. Our goal was to build a relationship between Mija and Okja, and getting that right took lots of interaction between our CG, our on-set ‘stuffie’ puppets, and the actors. Director Bong Joon-Ho was amazing in that he would give us nearly minute-long shots with a barely-moving camera in which to let our creature breathe. That offers you a lot of opportunity but also a ton of room to fail. He was open to our ideas and we were often able to make the creative choice over the easy one. We didn’t shy away from letting the actors push, hold, ride, or sleep on Okja and because of that I hope you believe their bond to be real. It was by far the most rewarding show of my career, and the most difficult.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEPHEN CLEE: Being on set at two in the morning puppeteering the head of a six-ton superpig with my arm in a foam-filled sock representing a tongue sticking out of its mouth ‘licking’ the face of a 12-year-old actress – Ahn Seo-Hyun – who was playing a crying emotional scene in front of a crew of middle-aged men operating a Technocrane with incredulous looks on their faces. Yeah, that’s probably the weirdest.

Watch Stephen Clee puppeteering superpig stuffies in this Netflix featurette on the visual effects of Okja:

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

STEPHEN CLEE: The quality of the work overall has gotten to be so high. It’s amazing to watch television shows like Game of Thrones and see sequences like the convoy attack that Image Engine did last year, and be utterly convinced that dragons exist and are out there burning up the countryside. I also love that recent movies like Blade Runner: 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Dunkirk are emphasizing blending special and visual effects together to make things feel even more real. I think utilizing more practical effects and achieving things in-camera really helps push the quality bar and lets visual effects focus on what we’re good at.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEPHEN CLEE: I’d like to see an increase in the speed of our rigs and rendering to the point that we could get real-time feedback consistently at a high level of detail. My dream is to get myself and my animators focusing on the creative, not burdened by the limits of our technology. I’ve seen a lot of these types of workflows being developed and would love to be a part of working with them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Start small and don’t be discouraged if you fail. I think working in television for a few years helps imbue a sense of confidence in your skills because of the quick turnaround. It teaches speed, accountability, great posing and fundamentals in a short amount of time. Visual effects can be a tough nut to crack for some animators jumping in right out of school as the level of detail and quality can be intimidating and the timelines quite demanding for someone lacking experience. Becoming a good animator takes a long time. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and still learn from my colleagues on a near-daily basis.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Jurassic Park – for a kid born in the early ‘80s, this landed at the perfect time in my life to inspire and awe. The introduction to seeing the T-rex for the first time in the movie theatre was terrifying and opened up a whole new idea of what I could do with my life.

The Incredibles – Pixar … Brad Bird … superheroes … I mean, what else do you want? The animation in this film is still some of my favorite work out of Pixar. The acting choices and the simple, graphic style of the film really hold up.

Mad Max: Fury Road – talk about spectacle and the marrying of special and visual effects in a beautiful way. The way the story was told defied all normal convention and was so refreshing. I love how insane some of the design choices were – any film that thinks a man strapped to a truck playing guitar is a good idea is all right in my books.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEPHEN CLEE: The theater down the street from me serves booze. So, beer and Sour Patch Kids.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Stephen!