The Illusionists — Bill Westenhofer

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 - Bill Westenhofer

CINEFEX — Can you pinpoint the moment when you first become interested in visual effects?

BILL WESTENHOFER — I know the exact moment. I was nine years old, watching the Star Destroyer fly overhead at the start of Star Wars: A New Hope. That was it, 100 percent. I went out and bought every Hasbro action figure — only they kept coming out with new ones and eventually I couldn’t keep up any more. I would make little videos with those figures. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of my moviemaking.

CINEFEX — What was the next step along the way for you?

BILL WESTENHOFER — The next major moment was when Jurassic Park came out. Having grown up as a huge dinosaur fan, to actually see them moving around and breathing was mind-boggling. I’d been studying computer graphics in college and I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to get there!” It became the kick in the butt I needed to raise my game, get resumés out and make it happen.

CINEFEX — So both Star Wars and Jurassic Park blew your mind at critical moments in your life.

BILL WESTENHOFER — Right. But, you know, it’s really hard today to blow your mind to the degree we all felt when Star Wars first appeared. Keeping up with audience expectations, coming up with new and creative things — it gets harder and harder.

CINEFEX — You’re no stranger to aiming high. Richard Parker was a real milestone, the tiger in Life of Pi. Then, with Gemini Man, you took on the challenge of creating a digital human, which has long been considered the Holy Grail of visual effects.

BILL WESTENHOFER — Yes, ever since I started 25 years ago, it’s something people always talked about. But, even after doing Gemini Man, people are already asking, “What’s next?”

CINEFEX — So what is next?

BILL WESTENHOFER — Well, as much as we love touting the next new tools, it’s more what you do with those tools that’s exciting. If you think back to some of the advances in computer graphics techniques, a lot of things happened fairly quickly, like getting texture mapping really working. I don’t want to say it’s slowing down now, but I don’t feel the technology changes themselves are as important as they used to be.

CINEFEX — It’s more about the creativity?

BILL WESTENHOFER — Of course. I do worry that some people still feel that visual effects is technology, and don’t appreciate the amount of creative input we bring to the table. We’re not just technicians coming to fix problems in the background. We’re really adding story. A visual effects supervisor will suggest script ideas to help tell something better, maybe even suggest shots. If you look at a write-up in Variety, by default they always call out who the cinematographer was, but it’s rarely they mention who the visual effects supervisor was — even in an effects-heavy movie. That does get frustrating sometimes.

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