The Illusionists — Andrew Whitehurst

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Andrew Whitehurst

CINEFEX — Where did your visual effects journey begin?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — There was a science documentary series on the BBC called Horizon. They had one episode which must have been broadcast just after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, because that was mostly what it covered — although it did have some Star Wars stuff in it. It was a 40-50 minute documentary about how all these visual effects were done.

CINEFEX — Was that the one titled How to Film the Impossible?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — That’s the one. I watched it again a couple of years ago on YouTube. I was still astonished at the work, and the magic of it, because it’s just beautiful. Watching it again, I still had that feeling of, “Wow, this is just amazing.”

CINEFEX — So that documentary sowed the seed?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — Yes. Until that point, it had never really crossed my mind that what I was seeing on a screen was a creation of anything. I don’t believe I’d ever even thought about movies being shot on sets, let alone something as specific as visual effects. But I’d always liked making models, so the idea of those people at ILM making models that looked like tiny versions of larger-scale things and shooting them with converted Nikon SLRs, or the idea that you could create an entire vista by having an incredibly skilled artist paint something on glass — all of that was just magical to me. From then on, I just started to get obsessed. When I was ten or eleven I started reading ‘making of’ books, particularly anything related to Star Wars. I was still doing that when I started going to art college.

CINEFEX — You said you used to like making models, but your visual effects career has played out mostly in the digital realm, most recently with films like Ex Machina and Annihilation.

ANDREW WHITEHURST — Professionally, I built one model and did one matte painting, both for a pilot for something that never happened. That was just as I was graduating. That’s the only hands-on practical work I’ve ever done personally, although I’ve worked on projects that have used miniatures.

CINEFEX — Do the practical skills inform your approach when working digitally?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — They do, but only in as much as I’m interested in trying to make beautiful imagery using non-standard techniques — in other words, not making a full-size set and shooting it. I like doing that as well, but I also like the magic of constructing something that, when you look at it, you think it’s something else.

CINEFEX — So you’re more interested in the final illusion, rather than the means of producing it?

ANDREW WHITEHURST — For me, it’s all about the final image. At college, whether I was doing a painting with a brush on a piece of board, or with a mouse on an Amiga, it didn’t really matter. I was more interested in how that image made me feel. What that image did to other people when they looked at it. The actual technology, in and of itself, has just never been that important to me.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists