A visual effects supervisor at Image Engine, Thomas Schelesny was part of of the Emmy Award winning visual effects team on the final season of HBO’s fantasy epic Game of Thrones. Cinefex caught up with Thomas at VIEW Conference 2019, for a sit-down chat about some of the challenges faced by the visual effects artists and supervisors tasked with transporting audiences to the mythical world of Westeros.
CINEFEX – You started your career at Tippett Studio back in the 1990s. Do you still find yourself drawing on lessons you learned back then?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – Absolutely. What I’m doing now is a result of everything Phil Tippett taught me, and everything Phil taught me came through Ray Harryhausen, who was his mentor when he was young. If you don’t understand your place in the lineage, then you’re almost disrespecting the fact that so much has come before. There is a torch to be carried.
CINEFEX – And now you’ve carried it all the way through to Game of Thrones.
THOMAS SCHELESNY – Game of Thrones actually takes a special significance. If I think about Ray Harryhausen, the first thing that comes to mind is the fighting skeletons. Well, in Season 4 of Game of Thrones, we did fighting Walkers as an homage to Ray Harryhausen. Then I got to work on dragons. What’s Phil Tippett famous for? His work on Dragonslayer.
CINEFEX – The first film you worked on at Tippett Studio was Starship Troopers. How have things changed in the industry since then?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – When I went to Tippett Studio at the beginning of 1996, it was relatively easy for them to create a super-team of people because there were so few companies around. Now, there are so many facilities working on so many projects that it’s hard to find that talent. Also, since artists’ careers are so much more transient, it’s harder to foster that talent.
CINEFEX – People move on too quickly?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – I nearly did myself! When I went to Tippett Studio, I planned to be with Phil for Starship Troopers and then go back to Canada having learned everything about visual effects – well, I was young and dumb! It took me roughly ten seconds to realise I didn’t know a thing about animation or visual effects. I ended up staying with Phil for 14 years.
CINEFEX – That certainly doesn’t count as ‘transient.’
THOMAS SCHELESNY – It took me the first seven or eight years to learn the broad strokes, but I’d been there ten years before I knew enough to recognise the small lessons. I don’t think it’s as easy now for young artists to spend enough time in any particular facility to learn those lessons. Maybe the next Phil Tippett is in a giant company, unrecognised, and not able to realise their super-talent because they’re lost in the shuffle.
CINEFEX – You talk about lessons. Is that part of your role as a visual effects supervisor, to teach?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – To help, maybe. For me, every dream I could possibly have wished to come true in my career has happened. I would love for just one another person to have that same kind of arc in their career and so I’m looking for those people, just to try to steer them along, put a little bit of wind in their sails.
CINEFEX – What specifically are you looking for in a person?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – With a show like Game of Thrones, the one thing I desperately need as a supervisor is highly motivated artists. It’s not about experience. It’s about motivation. And nothing motivates a person more than when they see their dream becoming a reality. If an artist becomes a superstar on the show, then I’m happy. If I have a team that’s motivated, the project will succeed.
CINEFEX – On Game of Thrones you had a relatively small team at Image Engine, big workload, tight deadlines, the whole nine yards. How do you keep artists motivated under those conditions?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – I spend a lot of time asking artists, “What do you think?” Actually, I have two questions when I go by an artist’s desk: “What have you done? What were you about to do next?” My favourite note is this: “Sounds great, let’s do it your way.” As I’m walking away, I may add, “Make it a little bit redder,” or something to throw in a little pepper. If the artist knows what they’re doing, the greatest hindrance could actually be me. If I hammer everybody with notes and seven-day weeks, I will lose my crew. Oh, and I’d better quit my job, because nobody is going to want to work with me again.
It’s also important to know how things are going in their personal lives, so I can tell which way the wind is blowing with that person. Are they having a good day or a bad day? Do they have a young family? I have to tailor my words to suit every single artist’s place in the industry, in their career, and in their personal life, because it really is about the people.
CINEFEX – So is it more about facilitating talent than directing it?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – Well, in my opinion, the artist is right two-thirds of the time. Here’s how that works. First, if their idea is better than my idea, they’re right. Second, if their idea is worse than my idea, I’m right. Third, if our ideas are of similar value, they’re right by default. You see, if I always made it about me on that final third, then I would end up telling them what to do two-thirds of the time – I wouldn’t wish that on myself as an artist. But, it’s my responsibility to own it if it all goes pear-shaped. That’s my responsibility as the visual effects supervisor.
CINEFEX – Where does your own motivation come from? What drove you to work in visual effects in the first place?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – You want to hear my journey? I was a failed athlete, into bike racing. I went to the Olympic trials, didn’t make the team, then went off and taught scuba diving for a year while I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Then I decided I was going to do the same thing I did as a child which got me in trouble, which was draw pictures, build models and blow them up in my parents’ back yard. So I went to film school. That’s my career journey, but it’s of little use to anyone else. There are an infinite number of paths. You can’t replicate my goofy way of going through it.
CINEFEX – So is there any advice you can offer to aspiring artists?
THOMAS SCHELESNY – The things which are absolutes are persistence and honesty. I have never been a quitter – I learned that as an athlete. Honesty is about your relationships with people. It doesn’t mean just bluntly telling people an opinion. I’m not saying be impolite. It’s about protecting the honest relationships you have with all the people you deal with. Artists know that if I tell them something, it’s for real. Clients know that I’m not going to give them a snow job on why we’re doing something. Persistence and honesty. I’m sure these truths go way beyond the visual effects industry. But pursuing them is a good way to have a great career.
Read the full behind-the-scenes story on Game of Thrones Season 8 in Cinefex 166.