The Illusionists — Stephen Rosenbaum

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 - Stephen Rosenbaum

CINEFEX — What inspired you to get into the visual effects business?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — For me, it all started with Star Wars. I was teenager in Los Angeles and I waited in line probably a dozen times to see that movie — I just couldn’t get enough of it. By the time I was going into university, I knew I wanted to get into that field. I was really into computers, but in that era there were no universities doing visual effects with computers. I found a small school in Berkeley that offered some computer graphics, and somehow ended up developing my own curriculum combining computer science, design and film to create a degree.

CINEFEX — You reached Industrial Light & Magic just in time to start working on The Abyss. How did that come about?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — It was really just timing. As I came out of university, George Lucas had just sold off the original ILM computer graphics department. They moved to the next building and formed Pixar, and a new computer department was formed at ILM. I was one of the early members there, a technical assistant. I was very much that geek-artist combo, hooked on the idea of making imagery using computers. It was like a drug to me.

CINEFEX — Back then the buzzword was ‘digital.’ Now, there’s a lot of people throwing around the term ‘virtual production.’ Do you see visual effects and virtual production working hand in hand?

STEPHEN ROSENBAUM — I do. In fact, my role on Avatar was to straddle that fence. Up to that point, the director was always directing animated performances in postproduction, often with great frustration. You typically had characters being animated by an army of maybe 50 animators, which meant you often ended up with inconsistent or diluted performances. Here, we suddenly had a chance to flip it on its head and let the director direct the performances in camera. I spent two years on a mocap stage with Jim Cameron doing just that and it was huge, not only for Jim but for us, because we didn’t have to second-guess on what performances he wanted in postproduction, and we didn’t have the inefficiencies of the back-and-forth exchange during reviews. Avatar was the first time we’d been able to do that.

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