Spotlight – Steve Murgatroyd

by Graham Edwards

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

Our latest Spotlight interviewee is Steve Murgatroyd, a visual effects supervisor and Flame artist at Freefolk. Read on to learn about Steve’s experiences in the business, and his advice for people seeking a career in visual effects.

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

Steve Murgatroyd

STEVE MURGATROYD: I studied fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, and started using a bit of video for installations in the final year of my BA. They had a relatively new post graduate course called Electronic Imaging that specialised in video and computer based art, and after graduating I stuck around and did that. Again, a fine art course – they were rather scathing of anyone who enrolled thinking they’d be trained up for jobs in the TV or film industry.

The facilities were incredible for the time, with a well-equipped studio, good cameras and high-end linear edit suites. They had a few Apple Macintosh computers – at that time, a ‘Mac’ was still something you wore when it rained – called Symbolics and two Quantel machines, a Paintbox and a Harriet. I spent a lot of time on these. I was absolutely in awe of this technology that allowed you cut things out, move them around and even paint pixels. All this and a capacity of 323 frames of full 720×576 PAL! This felt very much like an artist’s tool and at this stage I never envisaged using the technology for anything other than my own work.

After graduating, I moved to London and soon realised it’s not a great city to be an unemployed artist in. I only had one skill worth touting and even then I’d never done anything with it commercially. But my knowledge of Quantel was all I had. I managed to get a couple of weeks work experience at The Mill, at the end of which the head of production sat me down and said, “If I offered you a job as a junior compositor, do you think you’d be up to it?” The job involved making mattes and producing graphics for three non-linear edit suites, as well as assisting with several Henry and a couple of new fangled Flame suites. I answered that I’d be rubbish at it but if I wasn’t up to it in three months time I’d leave of my own accord. I’d got my first visual effects job

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: The collaboration. People successfully working together toward a common goal must be rewarding in any occupation that requires more than one person. I think it’s particularly true of visual effects. Much of my job is problem-solving, so being able to call upon people from different disciplines and skillsets to find the best solution is such a privilege. I’m constantly surprised by people’s ingenuity. I’m working on a show at the moment where I thought a particular effect was obviously in need of CG, but one of our Nuke guys did some tests and found a cheaper, but equally effective, approach that has saved days of work. At Freefolk, the artists, production and pipeline all sit on one floor and I think this really helps the sense of camaraderie.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEVE MURGATROYD: Only one word – email.

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: There have been so many head-scratching moments and frustrations, so many late nights and weekends, that it’s impossible to single one out. There is, however, one constant challenge – a struggle that never seems to go away – and that is time, or lack of it. I’m acutely aware that, given the opportunity, artists would tinker and finesse ad infinitum, but schedules – on longform and commercials, at least – are always too tight.

This is especially true as resolutions and shot counts continually rise, not to mention expectations and the productions’ reliance on visual effects. I’m thrilled it’s such a boom time for the industry, but creativity needs time and throwing more people at a task never achieves the same results because it totally disregards the natural gestation of the work. I can’t imagine this issue will ever go away. It’s an aspect of the job you just have to deal with. But more time would make the job infinitely more satisfying.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEVE MURGATROYD: By far the weirdest request I’ve ever had came from Chris Cunningham. It wasn’t bizarre in a way you’d expect from the director of Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy music video. We were finishing up Portishead’s Only You, and it was about two in the morning when Chris thought it’d be amusing to put film dust on the clock – the slate at the head of the video. We’d added some over the picture when crackling can be heard in the track. That was inspired, but this was never going to be seen by anyone, other than by me, him and the handful of VT operators who have noticed it over the years. I guess that’s part of his genius.

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: Thinking about this question is making me feel old! After nearly 25 years in the industry, absolutely everything has changed. The clever tools available to compositors today were literally unimaginable in 1995. When I first started, you would create the best matte you could with a key, garbage with masks that didn’t have splines, and spend the majority of your time in the painting tool, painstakingly tidying up your comp.

There are a few advances in the technology that really stick in my mind, though. The advent of camera tracking and projections was truly game changing. Suddenly you could contemplate comp shots with elaborate camera moves without always resorting to motion control. I can remember moving from 8bit to 10bit and having to learn how to pull a key all over again – worked on Gladiator, which was finished in 8bit 2K. More recently, deep compositing and the emergence of Arnold’s Cryptomattes has not only given compositors greater control, but also brought 3D and 2D much closer together.

Not everything has been an improvement. Supervising shoots used to be far easier in the days of film, when directors would rehearse everything before turning over, giving you plenty of opportunity to interject where necessary. Nowadays, even the rehearals are recorded. You need to cover all bases and generally overcompensate for the lack of preparation.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEVE MURGATROYD: I’d like to see an end to all the really dull bits of comp work like rotoscoping and tracking. I’ve seen some encouraging developments in image learning software, but I feel the answer has to be optical. I remember getting really excited by a demo of Lytro’s movie camera and thinking, “This is it.” That is, until they revealed the image specs, the size of the camera and the hardware needed to drive it. I hope light-field technology will continue to be developed though, because I believe it will eventually sound death knell of what I call ‘digital labouring.’ That can only be a good thing for everyone.

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: There’s an Anthony Burrill print in Freefolk’s reception which simply states: “Work Hard & Be Nice To People.” Perfect advice, to which I’d like to add: “Be inquisitive, do the job you’re being paid to do to the best of your ability – however lowly – but take an interest in the work of those around you.” If you’re struggling with something, don’t waste too much time trying to figure it out on your own as there’s likely to be a number of people who can help. Don’t be too precious, because you’ll be expected to make changes you don’t agree with. Finally, I’d recommend a visual effects career only to those who are truly passionate about the work because, although it is hugely rewarding, it is also extremely demanding.

There are so many fantastic visual effects courses nowadays, with good industry connections, that if I were starting out today, I’d be doing one of these. Failing that, I’d get a job as a runner in one of the smaller post houses, make the best tea and coffee imaginable and spend my spare time learning. Best of luck!

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

STEVE MURGATROYD: This is a tricky question. There’s so much to choose from, and good visual effects and good films don’t necessarily go hand in hand. I have two boys aged 10 and 12, who love going to the movies and are huge Marvel fans, so I’d need to include something from that universe. We are Guardians of the Galaxy fans but for sheer scale it would have to be Avengers: Infinity War. For my boys, the battle of Wakanda is the standout scene in the film because it is so relentless. What impressed me most was the evaporating dust. The weight and dissipation is so incredibly believable and it looked so serene for something so destructive.

I’d also throw in Star Wars (the original), not because it revolutionised visual effects – which it obviously did – but because as a seven year-old kid going to the movies for the very first time it transported me to another world. It really was the most mind-blowing cinematic experience I’ve ever had. Luckily, my boys really enjoy Star Wars so we’ve continued to watch the saga together. The final assault on the Death Star is such a thrilling climax but I remember my favourite scenes at the time were those on Tatooine and, in particular, Luke’s landspeeder. I was utterly convinced by this hovering car and dreamed of owning one.

As we’ve mostly been in space we might as well keep it as the theme. I’d choose Gravity for my final film. It’s not difficult to see why this film swept the boards at the Oscars. The debris scene at the beginning is truly one of the most intense pieces of film I have ever watched. Gripping my chair so much, I think I fully realised the term ‘white knuckle ride’ for the first time. I love how the scene builds from the gentle nonchalantly drifting camera work, with the Earth coming into view as the sense of jeopardy is introduced with news of the satellites, to the all-out disorientating chaos as the shuttle and crew are ripped part. I know it was a long time in post but it was thoroughly worth it.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEVE MURGATROYD: I’m not a huge fan of sugary things but, when it comes to the cinema, pick and mix is the only choice.

CINEFEX: Steve, thanks for your time!