The Illusionists — Volker Engel

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 - Volker Engel

CINEFEX — What films inspired you when you were young?

VOLKER ENGEL — I have to say the original Star Wars. I had just turned 14 when I saw it, and it really was the moment I first thought, “Oh, you can actually do this for a living.” I tried to figure out who these people were and how they did that, which was incredibly difficult in my hometown in Germany. I went to the library and asked if they had any books on films. This lady took me to the film section and recommended a book about Italian New Realism in the 1930s. I said, “That’s not exactly what I’m looking for. Do you have something like The Making of Star Wars?” She just shook her head! A couple of years later, I went on a three-day school trip to London. I vividly remember the stores I went to and the stuff I bought there — Cinefantastique and various books. By then I had really been bitten by the bug. I bought my first Super 8 camera, tried doing multiple exposures and all that.

CINEFEX — Ah, the thrill of winding the film back in the camera and praying you were getting everything lined up. Did that experience help you with the early films you worked on with Roland Emmerich?

VOLKER ENGEL — It did. We actually did multiple exposures on some of the wide shots in Moon 44. That film was 99 percent in-camera effects, sort of like Thunderbirds. In Universal Soldier, we had several purely miniature scenes.

CINEFEX —Then came Independence Day. Most of the effects work on that was done with miniatures, too.

VOLKER ENGEL — Yeah, we only dived into doing CG for things like all those jet fighters, where it just didn’t make sense to film them as separate elements. The air battles were a mixture of miniatures shot with motion control and CG jets, which we did with Pacific Ocean Post, using real backgrounds based on stitched-together photographs of skies. A company called VisionArt had this flocking software where you could tell a jet fighter to follow an alien fighter and not collide with it in mid-air. It was a very early version of what you would later see in The Lord of the Rings.

CINEFEX — In many ways, Independence Day felt like a celebration of all the effects techniques that had been developed up to that point.

VOLKER ENGEL — Absolutely. Roland Emmerich is totally open to technology, but he’s absolutely not a tech geek. He understands what’s possible and embraces that, but on Independence Day he was never saying, “Oh my god, there’s digital now — let’s do it all digital.” For Roland’s it’s always about what’s the best tool to do this job.

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