Spotlight – Steve Murgatroyd

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Our latest Spotlight interviewee is Steve Murgatroyd, a visual effects supervisor and Flame artist at Freefolk. Read on to learn about Steve’s experiences in the business, and his advice for people seeking a career in visual effects.

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Steve?

Steve Murgatroyd

STEVE MURGATROYD: I studied fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, and started using a bit of video for installations in the final year of my BA. They had a relatively new post graduate course called Electronic Imaging that specialised in video and computer based art, and after graduating I stuck around and did that. Again, a fine art course – they were rather scathing of anyone who enrolled thinking they’d be trained up for jobs in the TV or film industry.

The facilities were incredible for the time, with a well-equipped studio, good cameras and high-end linear edit suites. They had a few Apple Macintosh computers – at that time, a ‘Mac’ was still something you wore when it rained – called Symbolics and two Quantel machines, a Paintbox and a Harriet. I spent a lot of time on these. I was absolutely in awe of this technology that allowed you cut things out, move them around and even paint pixels. All this and a capacity of 323 frames of full 720×576 PAL! This felt very much like an artist’s tool and at this stage I never envisaged using the technology for anything other than my own work.

After graduating, I moved to London and soon realised it’s not a great city to be an unemployed artist in. I only had one skill worth touting and even then I’d never done anything with it commercially. But my knowledge of Quantel was all I had. I managed to get a couple of weeks work experience at The Mill, at the end of which the head of production sat me down and said, “If I offered you a job as a junior compositor, do you think you’d be up to it?” The job involved making mattes and producing graphics for three non-linear edit suites, as well as assisting with several Henry and a couple of new fangled Flame suites. I answered that I’d be rubbish at it but if I wasn’t up to it in three months time I’d leave of my own accord. I’d got my first visual effects job

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

STEVE MURGATROYD: The collaboration. People successfully working together toward a common goal must be rewarding in any occupation that requires more than one person. I think it’s particularly true of visual effects. Much of my job is problem-solving, so being able to call upon people from different disciplines and skillsets to find the best solution is such a privilege. I’m constantly surprised by people’s ingenuity. I’m working on a show at the moment where I thought a particular effect was obviously in need of CG, but one of our Nuke guys did some tests and found a cheaper, but equally effective, approach that has saved days of work. At Freefolk, the artists, production and pipeline all sit on one floor and I think this really helps the sense of camaraderie.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEVE MURGATROYD: Only one word – email.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

STEVE MURGATROYD: There have been so many head-scratching moments and frustrations, so many late nights and weekends, that it’s impossible to single one out. There is, however, one constant challenge – a struggle that never seems to go away – and that is time, or lack of it. I’m acutely aware that, given the opportunity, artists would tinker and finesse ad infinitum, but schedules – on longform and commercials, at least – are always too tight.

This is especially true as resolutions and shot counts continually rise, not to mention expectations and the productions’ reliance on visual effects. I’m thrilled it’s such a boom time for the industry, but creativity needs time and throwing more people at a task never achieves the same results because it totally disregards the natural gestation of the work. I can’t imagine this issue will ever go away. It’s an aspect of the job you just have to deal with. But more time would make the job infinitely more satisfying.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEVE MURGATROYD: By far the weirdest request I’ve ever had came from Chris Cunningham. It wasn’t bizarre in a way you’d expect from the director of Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy music video. We were finishing up Portishead’s Only You, and it was about two in the morning when Chris thought it’d be amusing to put film dust on the clock – the slate at the head of the video. We’d added some over the picture when crackling can be heard in the track. That was inspired, but this was never going to be seen by anyone, other than by me, him and the handful of VT operators who have noticed it over the years. I guess that’s part of his genius.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

STEVE MURGATROYD: Thinking about this question is making me feel old! After nearly 25 years in the industry, absolutely everything has changed. The clever tools available to compositors today were literally unimaginable in 1995. When I first started, you would create the best matte you could with a key, garbage with masks that didn’t have splines, and spend the majority of your time in the painting tool, painstakingly tidying up your comp.

There are a few advances in the technology that really stick in my mind, though. The advent of camera tracking and projections was truly game changing. Suddenly you could contemplate comp shots with elaborate camera moves without always resorting to motion control. I can remember moving from 8bit to 10bit and having to learn how to pull a key all over again – worked on Gladiator, which was finished in 8bit 2K. More recently, deep compositing and the emergence of Arnold’s Cryptomattes has not only given compositors greater control, but also brought 3D and 2D much closer together.

Not everything has been an improvement. Supervising shoots used to be far easier in the days of film, when directors would rehearse everything before turning over, giving you plenty of opportunity to interject where necessary. Nowadays, even the rehearals are recorded. You need to cover all bases and generally overcompensate for the lack of preparation.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEVE MURGATROYD: I’d like to see an end to all the really dull bits of comp work like rotoscoping and tracking. I’ve seen some encouraging developments in image learning software, but I feel the answer has to be optical. I remember getting really excited by a demo of Lytro’s movie camera and thinking, “This is it.” That is, until they revealed the image specs, the size of the camera and the hardware needed to drive it. I hope light-field technology will continue to be developed though, because I believe it will eventually sound death knell of what I call ‘digital labouring.’ That can only be a good thing for everyone.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

STEVE MURGATROYD: There’s an Anthony Burrill print in Freefolk’s reception which simply states: “Work Hard & Be Nice To People.” Perfect advice, to which I’d like to add: “Be inquisitive, do the job you’re being paid to do to the best of your ability – however lowly – but take an interest in the work of those around you.” If you’re struggling with something, don’t waste too much time trying to figure it out on your own as there’s likely to be a number of people who can help. Don’t be too precious, because you’ll be expected to make changes you don’t agree with. Finally, I’d recommend a visual effects career only to those who are truly passionate about the work because, although it is hugely rewarding, it is also extremely demanding.

There are so many fantastic visual effects courses nowadays, with good industry connections, that if I were starting out today, I’d be doing one of these. Failing that, I’d get a job as a runner in one of the smaller post houses, make the best tea and coffee imaginable and spend my spare time learning. Best of luck!

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

STEVE MURGATROYD: This is a tricky question. There’s so much to choose from, and good visual effects and good films don’t necessarily go hand in hand. I have two boys aged 10 and 12, who love going to the movies and are huge Marvel fans, so I’d need to include something from that universe. We are Guardians of the Galaxy fans but for sheer scale it would have to be Avengers: Infinity War. For my boys, the battle of Wakanda is the standout scene in the film because it is so relentless. What impressed me most was the evaporating dust. The weight and dissipation is so incredibly believable and it looked so serene for something so destructive.

I’d also throw in Star Wars (the original), not because it revolutionised visual effects – which it obviously did – but because as a seven year-old kid going to the movies for the very first time it transported me to another world. It really was the most mind-blowing cinematic experience I’ve ever had. Luckily, my boys really enjoy Star Wars so we’ve continued to watch the saga together. The final assault on the Death Star is such a thrilling climax but I remember my favourite scenes at the time were those on Tatooine and, in particular, Luke’s landspeeder. I was utterly convinced by this hovering car and dreamed of owning one.

As we’ve mostly been in space we might as well keep it as the theme. I’d choose Gravity for my final film. It’s not difficult to see why this film swept the boards at the Oscars. The debris scene at the beginning is truly one of the most intense pieces of film I have ever watched. Gripping my chair so much, I think I fully realised the term ‘white knuckle ride’ for the first time. I love how the scene builds from the gentle nonchalantly drifting camera work, with the Earth coming into view as the sense of jeopardy is introduced with news of the satellites, to the all-out disorientating chaos as the shuttle and crew are ripped part. I know it was a long time in post but it was thoroughly worth it.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEVE MURGATROYD: I’m not a huge fan of sugary things but, when it comes to the cinema, pick and mix is the only choice.

CINEFEX: Steve, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Andy Morley

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Andy Morley is head of visual effects at Outpost VFX. His list of filmography highlights includes such movies as Sunshine, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Avatar and Avengers: Infinity War.

Andy Morley

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Andy?

ANDY MORLEY: Hah – this question makes me feel old! After upgrading from a Commodore 64 to the much more graphically powerful Amiga in 1990, I started dabbling with animation and Boolean modelling on programs such as Imagine and Real3D. It was amazing what you could do with just 1Mb of RAM those days!

When university beckoned, I had the choice to use my traditional A-levels to do boring mathematics- or physics-based stuff, but then stumbled on an exciting computer animation degree in the UK seaside resort of Bournemouth. I thought, “Why not? Computers and art – let’s give it a go.” My first big break consisted of working for Dave Throssell at The Mill in high-end television commercials in 1998. In 2000, I moved to Industrial Light & Magic in the US to work on Star Wars and dinosaur films. Amazing fun to have done all that so early on!

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

ANDY MORLEY: I love computers, and I love making pictures – the blend still immerses me. These days, the market is much more driven by schedule and production, due to the quantity of visual effects work needed. But there are still times when I just sit back, look at a shot and think, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDY MORLEY: These days, I do not let the job get to me emotionally as much as it might have done in the past. However, the bit I dislike the most is those times when your work gets pushed back or criticized. Often this is because there are other factors at play beyond the actual imagery – which is what I tell myself, anyway!

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

ANDY MORLEY: I have had many challenging tasks. Ultimately, they have all had a question related to them such as: “Can we deliver the show?” It all comes down to time, staff, money, or a mix of the above. What I will say is that a super-challenging task is smashed apart by calm and methodical thinking. Often you can fix everything by starting with a ‘what can we do?’ foundation and building on top of this. Mind you, these challenges often end up with sleeping bags under desks and going home just to pick up fresh clothes!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDY MORLEY: Going for a casual London job interview, and 36 hours later finding myself in Mumbai. Weird, but very, very fun.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

ANDY MORLEY: So many changes – due to far too many years! From a tech standpoint for a standalone user, when I started in 1996, an SGI computer with a full suite of 3D software would cost anywhere between £50-80K, depending on what color the case was. Now, most of the software is cheap enough for a hobbyist to buy, and a PC from a local shop can do a high level of visual effects work.

The sheer scale of visual effects – in what seems like every film and television show out there – means render allotments have become render farms in local server rooms or floating in the cloud. The throughput of data, caches, images, QuickTime movies – all at resolutions the human eye almost cannot differentiate – has simply exploded. With streaming services all creating their own competing content, this mountain of data only continues to grow. In some ways, the visual effects industry feels like it has matured a lot, but there is still plenty of room for further refinement across the board.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDY MORLEY: I would love to see more collaboration between visual effects companies, more getting along and sharing work and people. When I started in Soho at the end of the ‘90s, films were split up so much – because they had to be – but there were just not enough artists or computers. These days, I feel the business side of things has overtaken the artistry at all levels.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

ANDY MORLEY: The industry continues to change, and so my main advice would be to remain flexible to all aspects of it. The tendency over the last five or ten years has been for work to move wherever the tax breaks go. It is easier to keep busy if you are happy to jump on a plane occasionally. This worked for me in my earlier years, and has given me what I call ‘extensive paid-for working holidays’ – it has been great fun to experience different cultures in the US, Singapore, India, Turkey and so on. I cannot see the way work is placed into specific countries changing too much in the short to medium term but, with the onset of superfast internet, working more remotely continues to improve and gather pace. I am keen to see how this will evolve, especially with the restrictions of the various security rules that govern the industry.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

ANDY MORLEY: I watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day again last weekend. I had forgotten just how good a film it is, and never mind the visual work, which was simply groundbreaking at the time. This is my first choice and it was pretty much the reason I did the animation degree a year or so after I first saw it. There are so many great shots – the reforming of the T-1000 is particularly impressive.

Second choice is Avatar, due to the sheer scale of what was achieved. The production design is gorgeous, particularly where the hoverships and dragon creatures are flying around the floating islands.

My final choice would change for every mini-festival, depending on my mood! At the moment I’d say Elysium. The visual effects look stunning. It also shows the evil of the large-scale corporation versus the lowly people – and the people win!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDY MORLEY: Chocolate Minstrels – always perfect. To avoid crunching the packet and making too much noise, I open at the start of the trailers, and they are gone by the start of the film.

CINEFEX: Andy, thanks for your time!

VIEW Conference Q&A with Hal Hickel

Hal Hickel joined Industrial Light & Magic in 1996 as an animator on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, before progressing to animation supervisor on such shows as Pacific Rim, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the upcoming The Mandalorian. At VIEW Conference 2019, Hal talked about his role in a talk entitled Anatomy of an Animation Supervisor. Afterwards, Cinefex sat down with Hal to discuss some of the topics he covered in his presentation.

Hal Hickel

CINEFEX – What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

HAL HICKEL – Probably the relationship with the director, especially if it’s a director I haven’t worked with before. It’s a lot of fun to figure out what makes them tick, and what their goals are for the film. What makes them laugh? What do they like? What don’t they like?

CINEFEX – Do you get to spend time on set?

HAL HICKEL – Often I do. ILM has been very supportive in budgeting travel for me to be on set for some key scenes, or longer if the film requires it. I find that invaluable. Listening to the director on set, how they speak to their crew and the actors, is one of the most valuable things in terms of getting to know them. Then there are the basics of what I’m there for. I might see something I know is going to be a problem, and now’s my moment to jump in and say, “It won’t hurt the scene any, but if you just do this a little differently it’ll make our lives easier later on.”

CINEFEX – It must be helpful being able to watch the actors rehearse, maybe improvise, see how the chemistry of a scene develops. You can bring your memory of all of that back to ILM.

HAL HICKEL – That’s exactly right. You understand the scene from the inside out. Often the shape of the scene will change once it goes through editorial. If there’s a problem to solve partway through the animation process, the solution might come from understanding what the intention was at the beginning. You’d never know that if you hadn’t been there on the day.

CINEFEX – You’ve explained how you work on set. Where do you fit in with the rest of the team within ILM?

HAL HICKEL – Animation supervisors have always been given a fair amount of autonomy at ILM. Maybe that’s for historical reasons that have to do with some strong characters in our history like Phil Tippett, Steve Williams and Rob Coleman. On shows that have a significant amount of creature work, we’re seen as the creative partners of the visual effects supervisor, if not quite their equal in terms of the overall hierarchy. Then, of course, you’ve got your animation team that you’re supervising.

CINEFEX – So it’s still all about relationships.

HAL HICKEL – Yeah, it’s all about forming alliances, and that includes the other departments in the facility. If you can make allies of people rather than having a turf war over whose job it is to do this or that, your life’s going to be a lot easier. Film is perhaps the most collaborative of all art forms. It’s no surprise that being a good team player and learning to get along with folks is a big part of the job.

CINEFEX – Do you ever get the chance to go hands-on and do a little animation yourself?

HAL HICKEL – At the very beginning of a project I don’t really have a team, for practical reasons. So, if we need to do a test or a proof of concept, quite often I do that myself, or I have maybe one other animator working with me. It keeps my hand in. But, to animate properly, you have to get in the zone. That’s a different job to focusing on all the animation on a show. Shifting from the macro to the micro is really tough to do when you’re getting interrupted with calls or getting pulled away to meetings and video conferences every half an hour. For that reason alone, it’s hard to do much animation during the show. I’ll sometimes try to steal a shot or two for myself later in the show, if I think I can get them done in a timely way. I don’t want to hold things up just for my own vanity.

CINEFEX – As a supervisor, how do you balance the animator’s need to express themselves as an artist with steering them along the right path, according to the needs of the show?

HAL HICKEL – That’s one of the challenges working in a creative capacity, but where you’re not the master of your own destiny. I want people to be passionate and invested, but not so much that when they have to scrap something, they can’t. Sometimes I might have to ask for a big change, but it’s a lot of work and heartbreak for the animator so instead they make little incremental changes to what they’ve already done. It can be a challenge to get them to scrape back down to the canvas.

CINEFEX – When there’s a lot of work spread across a big team, how do you keep everyone invested?

HAL HICKEL – I try to give animators a group of shots rather than one-offs, as much as possible. I feel the animators have more authorship that way. I also encourage them to do things that aren’t in the brief. I try to give them the intent of what the director is after and just let them go. There’s nothing I like better than to get a shot back that doesn’t look exactly how I pictured it, but it’s actually better because they did something unexpected and awesome.

CINEFEX – Even if it goes against the intent?

HAL HICKEL – Even if I think it might not be quite the right tone, I’ll try to give it a shot with the director. I’ll at least get the animator to do it again the way I think it should be, but still show both ideas. I’ll try to always credit an animator with a great idea. Likewise, if I’m wrong about something, I’ll own up to it. And there’s plenty of times I’ve been proven wrong!

CINEFEX – Do you get your animators to sit in on director reviews?

HAL HICKEL – I do that as much as possible. There are some directors who don’t like a big crowd when they’re giving reviews, but most of the directors I’ve worked with really like knowing their animation team and talking to them directly. It’s great for the animators when that happens.

CINEFEX – Do you assign certain shots to certain animators, based on their strengths?

HAL HICKEL – Absolutely. Casting shots is crucial. But you don’t want to pigeonhole them. You want to give people a chance to stretch. Also, I’ll tell my animators to look at the sequences we haven’t started working on yet. If they see something they really want to do, they can tell me and I’ll try to make it happen, within the boundaries of resources and scheduling.

CINEFEX – You came to ILM from Pixar. Was that because you saw visual effects animation as something you really wanted to do?

HAL HICKEL – I like animation of all kinds, but I always gravitated to what Ray Harryhausen did – this whole idea of putting a creature into the real world and trying to make it look as real as possible. I was fascinated by his Dynamation process.

CINEFEX – You’ve stuck with visual effects ever since, although you did step briefly back into feature animation with Rango.

HAL HICKEL – It’s funny, because if Rango had come through the door five years earlier, I would have been like, “Meh, I came here to do visual effects.” Instead it came along at just the perfect point and I thought, “Yeah, let’s do this, it’ll be great.” It was fun to do it at ILM because we didn’t have a history of making animated features. We didn’t know enough to know what we didn’t know, so we just barreled ahead and did it our way, and had a blast doing it.

CINEFEX – Rango’s an example of cross-pollination between the different animation arenas. Or Bumblebee, where ILM adopted some of LAIKA’s stop-motion techniques like stretching parts of the digital puppet to cheat extreme angles.

HAL HICKEL – Yeah, I’d love to do a live-action film that afforded not just cheats for visual impact, but cheats to make things weird and bizarre. I’d love to work on a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry film – something odd or unconventional. Or maybe something with a central animated character who isn’t in the middle of a massive visual effects film, where I can just put everything into that character. Right now, at the stage I’m at, that’s my dream project.

VIEW Conference 2019

VIEW Conference Q&A with Guy Williams

Guy Williams, visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, was at VIEW Conference 2019 presenting the company’s groundbreaking work on Gemini Man, for which artists created an uncannily realistic digital version of Will Smith as the 23 year-old ‘Junior.’ Cinefex spoke with Guy before his presentation to discuss some of the extraordinary changes he’s seen since starting his career in the early 1990s.

CINEFEX – What was the first project you worked on as a visual effects artist?

Guy Williams

GUY WILLIAMS – My first job was at Boss Film, when I was fresh out of college. We were doing the Budweiser Superbowl commercial. They had made the decision to go all-CG with the bottles for the first time, and Boss was hired to do 40-50 shots of bottles playing football. I was at Boss for just over a year, then I went to Warner Digital for two years, then bounced around a few other places in Los Angeles. Back then, I knew just enough about computer graphics to get in trouble!

CINEFEX – Boss Film was set up by Richard Edlund after he left ILM. Was this around the time they were transitioning from photochemical work into the digital realm?

GUY WILLIAMS – Right. ILM got into computer graphics first, but in the early ‘90s a lot of companies moved rapidly in that realm. You had two different kinds of companies crop up – the ILM spin-offs like Boss, and new teams like Digital Productions, The Secret Lab, Rhythm & Hues. Boss started in photochemical and then made the transition to go CG – they had one of the biggest CG departments at the time. Boss doubled down really hard on digital, but couldn’t figure out how to make a business model out of it and ended up collapsing under the expenditure. But they did a lot of really big projects.

CINEFEX – What was it like at Boss back then?

GUY WILLIAMS – On my first day, I was expecting to walk into this beautifully polished operation, with 35 talented people and five new hires. I got there and there were two people with experience and 38 new hires!

CINEFEX – Why was that?

GUY WILLIAMS – Because there weren’t even 100 people in the industry worldwide at that point. Staffing your company with 40 people would have drained every other company and even closed a bunch of them down. So they had to draw people into the industry. That was the first big swelling of computer graphics in visual effects.

CINEFEX – What was your specific role?

GUY WILLIAMS – You didn’t have 10-15 different departments in a company back then. You just had CG artists. Everybody got on the same team and solved all the problems. As time went on, Boss made the decision to split that into two – you had people doing the 3D side of things – modeling, animating, lighting – and then you handed off to the second team which did the paint and compositing.

CINEFEX – Things are certainly different today. The tools you were using must have been very different, too.

GUY WILLIAMS – There were no real compositing packages back then. We did all our compositing with command line tools. If you wanted to put image ‘A’ over image ‘B’ and output image ‘C,’ you would do all that just by writing a line of code. If you wanted to blur it, colour correct it, add a drop shadow, you ended up with these big, complex scripts that ran each composite individually, one line of code at a time.

CINEFEX – It sounds painfully slow.

GUY WILLIAMS – Oh, it was hugely inefficient. The early systems would read in the images one pixel at a time, do the math on the pixel, render the pixel back out. Blurs were really hard to do, because your program had to read enough pixels in to do the blur. The larger the blur, the more pixels you had to read in. That really slowed things down.

CINEFEX – So you were artists and coders, both at the same time.

GUY WILLIAMS – If you wanted to do something but there was no tool to do it, you’d write it yourself. That’s how the industry worked in the beginning. We were a bunch of special forces kids who would solve problems as they cropped up.

CINEFEX – Can you give us a specific example from your own experience?

GUY WILLIAMS – We were doing a Kelloggs cereal commercial. The milk pitcher was shaped like a little cow and got accidentally stuck into the cereal. It was a full CG milk pitcher, but the animation tools didn’t allow for overlapping lattices in the deformation, which meant we couldn’t have facial animation and bend the neck. I wrote a tool that merged the models together so we could do the facial animation in one file, do the neck animation in another file, merge the result together and get a final render.

CINEFEX – Could you have foreseen the speed of change since those early days?

GUY WILLIAMS – I was too young to think that smart! It’s not because the future was clouded to me – I just didn’t think to look in that direction. I don’t think I would have predicted that we would have gotten departmentalised so much, because back then it wasn’t necessary. People actually saw departments as a restriction, because the financial impetus wasn’t there and there was a morale hit. In hindsight, we should have known it was coming, because the projects were always going to get bigger.

CINEFEX – That’s something that hasn’t changed – projects getting bigger year by year.

GUY WILLIAMS – You know, we used to have this joke that every frame would take an hour to render. That first Budweiser commercial I did, by the time you added up all the passes – one hour. The cereal commercial – one hour. By the time I was working on the first Lord of the Rings movie – maybe two hours. After that it really ramped up. For King Kong you’re talking six hours. Now, on Gemini Man, you’re looking at 400 hours, and we had some renders that took well over 1,000 hours per frame. That’s parallelised across a lot of processors, of course.

CINEFEX – So, even though computers are way faster than they were in the ‘90s, the stuff you’re asking them to calculate is way more complicated.

GUY WILLIAMS – Here’s an example of that from Gemini Man – one of my favourite things about what we did. In the past, we would have painted a texture map for the face, then taken out some of the red so by the time we added the subsurface back in, with the bloodflow, it would end up at the right colour. On this show, we painted separate maps for the two layers of melanin in the skin – eumelanin and pheomelanin. The maps work together so when you look at his face from the front, you see yellow in a certain place, and when you look from the side you see yellow in a different place. That’s because you’re seeing past the darker melanin layers into the paler skin colours that lie beneath. That’s one reason each frame takes so long to render, but it’s that attention to realism that really makes the difference. If you want to believe this thing is 100 percent living and breathing, you have to treat it as if it really is living and breathing.

CINEFEX – So you’re simulating more accurately the way light passes through the various skin layers.

GUY WILLIAMS – And I’ve only scratched the surface on that. On the subject of light transmission, we don’t do RGB math on our rendering any more. We don’t talk in terms of red, green and blue and how they make any colour possible. Our math is all done in waveforms, frequencies of light. That’s important, because it means we can feed in the correct absorption terms for pheomelanin and eumelanin. So, when you shine a certain colour of light on the skin, it gives you the correct result.

This all dates back to Avatar, by the way, where we had saturated blue creatures carrying around orange torches. If you do the RGB math, orange times blue equals zero, so you see hardly anything – well, if the orange light is bright enough, you might get a little bit of brown. But that’s not right. If you take a blue ball and put an orange light next to it, you’ll still see blue. That’s because it’s about absorptions of frequencies of light. We do all that stuff now on our renderer.

CINEFEX – Each new step takes the craft closer to scientific accuracy. But some things are still approximations. With a typical creature rig, for example, the animator moves the bones, and the bones drive the muscle simulation. But that’s backwards – in the real world it’s the muscles that drive the bones.

GUY WILLIAMS – Exactly. When I raise my arm, I do it by firing my bicep. When I reach out with my finger to touch something, a dozen or more different muscles fire to get it to land right where I want it to. That’s because of years and years of hand-eye coordination training. But imagine animating like that – it would be incredibly hard to do. I don’t know if we’re ever going to go there, but we’ll go much closer to it. We’ll still animate the bone, but then we’ll pass it through a filter that goes back, turns the bones off, and fires what it thinks the muscles would be doing. That’s definitely one for the future.

CINEFEX – What about other kinds of simulations, like water and cloth?

GUY WILLIAMS – I think we’re going to see more coupled sims in the future. Right now, we cheat coupling by doing one sim and using it to affect another sim. But the truth is they should affect each other equally, constantly.

CINEFEX – Can you elaborate on that?

GUY WILLIAMS – Here’s an example. When I started in the industry, one of the first things you learned to simulate was a flag fluttering in the wind. The depressing thing is that the technology we use today to do that exact same thing is very similar to what it was back then. All you’re doing is putting forces on the flag and using the inertia of the flag to make it look like the flag is billowing. There’s no accounting for the density of air.

CINEFEX – Which affects the movement of the flag?

GUY WILLIAMS – You ever see a sheet hanging on a line? The breeze picks up and the sheet swells like a parachute, then collapses as the wind passes through it. You cannot do that with a single cloth simulation – you have to couple it. You need to do a fluid sim for the air that responds to the sheet at the same time as the cloth sim responds to the air movement. All that’s part of the next round of cool tricks we’re coming up with. In a way it’s nothing glamorous – except it is, because finally cloth will really start to look amazing.

That’s what’s beautiful about our industry today – all this stuff is ongoing. Ten years from now, there’ll be a whole bunch of new things that we’re figuring out. We are still growing.

Read in-depth coverage on the visual effects of "Gemini Man" in Cinefex 167.
Read in-depth coverage on the visual effects of “Gemini Man” in Cinefex 167.
VIEW Conference 2019

VIEW Conference Q&A with Trent Claus

As a visual effects supervisor at Lola VFX, Trent Claus oversees the artists responsible for reshaping some of Marvel Studios’ most iconic characters. Trent’s hour-long presentation at VIEW Conference 2019 covered Lola’s work from ‘Skinny Steve’ (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger to a youthful Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Captain Marvel. After the presentation, Cinefex caught up with Trent to discuss the challenges of de-aging some of the world’s most famous actors.

Trent Claus

CINEFEX – How did you first get into the visual effects business?

TRENT CLAUS – I’m originally from Nebraska. I’m a fine art major – drawing, painting, sculpture – and I was determined to not be one of the many art graduates who don’t do anything with their degree. I wanted to work in film but they don’t make movies in Nebraska, so I had to apply to anywhere I could. I was lucky that I had an ‘in’ at a company in Los Angeles – Lola VFX. They were looking for a matte painter, which was a pretty good transition from fine art. I went on to do compositing, then supervising.

CINEFEX – Specifically, you now supervise all the Marvel shows that Lola works on, right?

TRENT CLAUS – Yeah, I’ve become the Marvel guy. That’s because I’ve had a good relationship with Marvel through the years, but also because I’m a comic book nerd. My first job ever, at the age of 13, was working in a comic book store. It’s a dream come true to be contributing to those characters I grew up with.

CINEFEX – It’s not hard to see the correlation between a fine art background and the kind of work you’re known for now.

TRENT CLAUS – Almost everything we do is done by compositors, which directly relates to my 2D approach to things, and my reluctance to go full CG. I really appreciate the qualities and textures you get with the footage that was shot on set, and I try to maintain that as much as humanly possible.

CINEFEX – In your presentation, you talked about the importance of studying facial anatomy. In a way, you’re using modern techniques to do what Leonardo da Vinci was doing. He would study cadavers to inform his art.

TRENT CLAUS – It’s funny you bring him up, because one of my favourite art history classes was on the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. You know, people often talk about there being some qualities of Leonardo da Vinci’s face in the Mona Lisa. It’s this idea that when you’re doing self-portraiture, in some way you’re painting your own features, although you’re doing it subconsciously.

CINEFEX – Is that a view you subscribe to?

TRENT CLAUS – I think it’s partially true, because when I see the de-aging comps from the 50-60 artists on our team, most times I can tell which artist did which comp. Sometimes they adjust proportions to match their own face more closely.

CINEFEX – If it’s subconscious, what’s driving it, do you think?

TRENT CLAUS – I have a personal theory. We’re ingrained from birth to recognise human faces. Not just actual faces – we see faces everywhere, in trees and forests, in a brick wall. We’re wired to find human faces whether they’re there or not, and when we find them we’re able to judge emotion really quickly.

Now, I think most of our learned responses to that data are based on seeing our parents’ faces when we’re babies. So, our subconscious ability to analyse human faces is in fact based on the structure of our parents’ faces, and that is what artists  are subconsciously matching when they produce something that resembles a self-portrait.

CINEFEX – It’s a convincing theory.

TRENT CLAUS –  It could be totally wrong!

CINEFEX – It’s clear the work you do at Lola is meticulous, hand-crafted stuff. That’s all very well when there’s just one artist involved. As a supervisor, how do you maintain consistency across an entire film?

TRENT CLAUS – It’s really hard. When we first get turnover from the client, I’ll go through and pick a hero shot from each sequence. I pick a single frame from that to do our initial look on, and that gives us one frame of the best shot looking exactly like we want it to. We expand that to the remainder of the moving footage of that one shot, then we expand that to every other shot in the sequence. Then we repeat that for every sequence in the film.

CINEFEX – That can’t be as simple as it sounds.

TRENT CLAUS – It’s great in theory, but of course it doesn’t always work out to just be an easy match. There’s all sorts of other considerations like lighting, angle, movement, motion blur. I have to take into account the different skill levels of the artists, their own idiosyncrasies. We have a rigorous internal review system where they get daily notes, and it isn’t until we’ve got the look nearly there, or really there, that I send it off to Marvel. The production supervisor repeats the same process and sends back more notes on things that their eye sees. Oftentimes, just looking at it from a fresh perspective, they see things that I miss.

CINEFEX – Does it help that you tend to work with the same production supervisors over and over?

TRENT CLAUS – Definitely. We’ve been lucky with Marvel in that respect. Chris Townsend was the overall supervisor on the first Captain America, the second Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel. Because we’ve worked together several times, we have a trust and a shorthand. We can speak to each other honestly and not get offended by anything the other one says.

CINEFEX – It’s vital not to take criticism personally. It’s all in service of the film.

TRENT CLAUS – That’s another skill that comes to me from fine art school, where there was pretty rigorous peer review. You would put your work up on the wall, and people would critique you and give you notes. You had to learn very quickly not to take offense because they’re not telling you you’re a bad artist, they’re just telling you how to improve. That’s a skill that all artists in visual effects need to have, although it’s something people from more technical backgrounds can sometimes struggle with.

CINEFEX – In order to keep a character on model, do you establish a broad set of starting points. Things like: “We’re aging this character 30 years so the nose is going to be three percent bigger.”

TRENT CLAUS – Nothing that analytical. No numbers, no math. It’s all done by eye and reference is king. When we’re de-aging, we bring up reference of what the actor actually looked like at that point in the past, and I insist artists keep that reference up on screen as they’re working.

CINEFEX – Your presentation included clips of a de-aged Kurt Russell as Ego at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. You explained how important it was to find reference of him not just at the right age, but playing the right kind of character, which is why you went for how he looked in Used Cars.

TRENT CLAUS – Yeah. You might find a fantastic dramatic press shot of Kurt at that age, but if you need a big smiley Kurt that’s not going to be all that helpful. It takes some effort to go through the old movies frame by frame and find the right expressions, and also the right angles. With big actors like Kurt Russell and Michael Douglas there’s plenty of reference out there. But that’s not always the case. When we de-aged Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he wasn’t a big actor at the age we were de-aging him to. His appearance in Thelma and Louise was the closest we could get, but even that wasn’t precise to what we wanted.

CINEFEX – What do the actors themselves think about the work you do?

TRENT CLAUS – I don’t know to what extent they get approval – that all happens on the studio side – but they do get shown our work. It’s always nerve-racking because you definitely want to impress them. Sam Jackson was very complimentary and really excited about the work we did on Captain Marvel. Michael Douglas joked that he wanted to buy the company! It’s exciting to make them happy because they’re the stars, and we’re doing a very intimate thing to their appearance.

CINEFEX – Actors care a lot about how they look. Many have a preferred makeup artist that they use consistently from film to film.

TRENT CLAUS – Yeah, and we do have actors who have a preference for Lola. They’ll insist that they use us, which we love of course.

CINEFEX – This year we’ve seen two distinctly difference approaches to de-aging. There’s Lola’s 2D approach, and the fully CG work done by Weta Digital on Gemini Man. How do you see things developing in the future?

TRENT CLAUS – They’re definitely two very different methodologies, and I think there’s a need for both. I think there’s a lot of room to do it full CG, but then reintroduce some organic elements from a plate back onto it using our process. That’s something that I would like to experiment with.

CINEFEX – In Avengers: Endgame, you aged Chris Evans to portray Captain America at the age of 120, and took Michael Douglas as Hank Pym back to the year 1970. How far can you push your approach? Is there a point at which it breaks down?

TRENT CLAUS – It’s really hard when you cross the line of adolescence. The changes that happen at puberty are immense, so trying to believably take an actor past that threshold is really hard. Thankfully it hasn’t really come up, because it would be nearly impossible to do. I would definitely try to convince the production not to do it!

CINEFEX – So there’s a threshold of youth. What about old age?

TRENT CLAUS – Going the other way there’s much more free rein, because there’s no reference. I don’t think there’s any limit going that way. If we can do 120 years old for Captain America, I think we can do anything.

VIEW Conference 2019

VIEW Conference Q&A with Thomas Schelesny

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.

Thomas Schelesny

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.

VIEW  Conference 2019

“2001: An Epilogue” – Q&A with Steve Begg

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is the beginning of the end for astronauts on the spaceship Discovery when co-pilot Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) ventures out into space on a maintenance mission and he is suddenly cast adrift, his oxygen line severed. Discovery commander Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) mounts a frantic rescue attempt, using an EVA pod to retrieve Poole, until Bowman is forced to abandon his crew-mate, releasing the lifeless body in its bright yellow spacesuit into the vastness of space.

Visual effects supervisor Steve Begg sets up a homemade living room bluescreen shoot, inspired by a visual effects test, using a prosumer DSLR camera and a small model spaceman.

For visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, and many of his generation weaned on Kubrick’s classic, the images still resonated more than 50 years after 2001 appeared, and the ripple effects unexpectedly resurfaced during a visual effects test. “I was shooting a test with a model spaceman for a potential job that I had coming up. I hung a little figure on a green thread against a greenscreen, and gently rotated him in front of my Canon 5D. Then, in After Effects, I composited that over a star field with a drift. I animated a 3D camera move on that image, so I could scale up and past the camera. I was so taken by it, I thought I could do something more elaborate.”

Begg applied the techniques to a short film, revisiting the fate of astronaut Frank Poole. The resulting 3:30 Vimeo upload went viral, clocking up more than 24,000 views in its first week. Cinefex caught up with its creator – three-times Bond alumnus, veteran of Aliens and Derek Meddings productions – to probe the mysteries of his enigmatic short.

CINEFEX: What inspired you to turn your experiment into a short film?

STEVE BEGG: While I was shooting my test, I spotted a little model of Frank Poole, from 2001, made by a Japanese toy company, Mafex, and I started to wonder if I got my hands on one of those, and repeated the trick, how would that look? In many ways, my test had digitally replicated the original technique that they had used in 2001. In Kubrick’s film, whenever you see astronauts moving in z-depth, they are actually projections where a 65mm animation camera is moving towards a projected image, and because it’s scaling up in three dimensions, it has a real feeling of depth. I was mirroring that technique in digital form. And I was stunned by how close I got to the look of the original movie.

CINEFEX: What you are describing sounds similar in theory to how visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers created composite shots for 2001 using what he called the Sausage Machine. 

STEVE BEGG: Correct.

CINEFEX: How did you detail your astronaut?

STEVE BEGG: It was a small, jointed model, about six and a half inches tall. There is another that is 1/6-scale, which has a fabric costume. This one was solid plastic. I took that and filled in the joints as much as I could and bashed him up a little bit. I was very careful to match continuity with the movie and I disconnected his oxygen supply tube from the backpack. I’ve tried to make it as authentic-feeling as possible.

CINEFEX: Did you build miniatures for the EVA pod and Discovery?

STEVE BEGG: No, they are retouched stills from 2001, flopped. In the movie, the Discovery is always traveling left to right. I flopped that because my camera was on the port side of the Discovery when Frank Poole is released, and so I made sure that his position was correct for continuity. I animated stills, again, very similar to the original film’s technique.

A new perspective of the ‘Discovery’ spacecraft and Dave Bowman’s EVA pod, seen from the ship’s port side as Poole spins away from the ship, derived from “2001: A Space Odyssey” imagery.

CINEFEX: How did you replicate the feel of the 2001 star fields?

STEVE BEGG: Well, what’s interesting about the stars in 2001 is, although there are plenty of them, they’re very low key. There’s no color whatsoever in the stars. So, I made sure there was no blues or other colors in my star field and, on a shot-by-shot basis, I varied their look slightly. They are not completely accurate. I started with an original star field and I Photoshopped a big HD master so I could pan across it. I also consciously avoided having Poole pass in front of, or behind large objects during his space journey, mimicking Kubrick’s concerns about the limits of the hand rotoscoping and matting techniques on the original film’s space shots.

CINEFEX: What went into that stark feeling of lighting on the astronaut?

STEVE BEGG: I lit that with three LED light packs, including one for the bluescreen that I had behind the yellow Frank Poole. I found that I got a better key by using a blue. There’s more separation between that and the yellow. It was all done in my living room and the ‘screen’ behind him was an A3-size piece of blue art card. I hung him on a blue thread, in front of that, slowly rotating. I used my Canon 5D Mark 2 and I shot him at 24 frames a second. I finished the whole thing at 1920×1080 resolution. Much to my surprise, when I’ve seen it on a big screen, I’m stunned how well it holds up.

Canon 5D lighting set-up on a customized Mafex action figure, suspended against A3-size blue card.

CINEFEX: The micro-meteor impacts on the astronaut are a nice touch – what was your reference for that, or were you just making it look cool?

STEVE BEGG: It was a little bit both. I felt that he’d been drifting in space for a couple of centuries in my story, and I felt that he’d encounter some sort of wear and tear on his long voyage to Jupiter’s moon. At one point, I tried dusting him up as if he was covered by some space dust, but all that did was to flatten his detail. So, I went for the micro-meteorite damage, including one almost head-on on his visor to make sure everyone knew he was dead.

CINEFEX: Frank’s face is eerily visible in the space helmet. Is that a young Gary Lockwood in there?

STEVE BEGG: It is indeed Gary Lockwood. I trawled the Internet looking for a still of Gary with the appropriate angle and weirdness that would fit in the helmet. I was lucky to find a still from Where No Man Has Gone Before, the 1966 Star Trek episode where Gary played a Starfleet officer who is given super powers. I found a still of his face with the correct posture and expression, and after bit of Photoshop I percentaged that into the helmet. You only see it briefly, but it’s just enough to give you the creeps.

CINEFEX: On which of Jupiter’s moons does he land?

STEVE BEGG: I left that open. A lot of that came down to the material and textures that I had lying around. I tried to imply that it had a very thin atmosphere and low gravity. The biggest of Jupiter’s moons has 1/6 the gravity of Earth, which is the same as our Moon. I had a few comments online that his impact would create a massive crater and flatten him, but I’m not sure about that if he landed on a massive mound of dust.

Poole’s lifeless body makes planetfall on the surface of one of the gas giant Jupiter’s 79 known satellites. Miniature and photographic elements composited in After Effects.

CINEFEX: How did you create the dust explosion?

STEVE BEGG: I got a mound of Fuller’s Earth, and had a friend of mine whack it with a stick. I shot it at 240 frames a second on an iPhone 6, which gave me a lovely little slow-motion element that I scaled-down and I put it in the distance in one shot. I’ve done quite a bit of high-speed experimenting with the iPhone 6. If the elements aren’t massive, it does the job.

CINEFEX: Your moon dust had a very convincing texture. How did you create that?

STEVE BEGG: I did a basic sculpt of the landscape, again in Fuller’s Earth, about four feet square. I then dropped some additional Fuller’s Earth from three or four feet above the little set piece, and that created this super textured, almost micro-cratered landscape. I came across that technique by accident and I was stunned at the feel that we managed to get.

The impact site was a tabletop miniature created using Fuller’s Earth modeled into contours and then sprinkled to create cratering effects. Begg layered miniature elements with photographic textures to create a deep focus look, with a subtle glimpse of the astronaut’s face.

CINEFEX: Where on Earth did you find an authentic Harry Lange 2001 spacesuit for your resurrection scene?

STEVE BEGG: A friend of mine, Chrissie Overs, is an extremely knowledgeable and experienced prop and costume maker. We first met on Aliens creating a foreground miniature at Acton Power Station for the Skotak brothers. I asked Chrissie if she would fabricate an arm and part of the side of the space suit, the chest to waist area. She found some yellow ski gloves and then added a black patch to mimic the look of the 2001 gloves. I think if you scrutinize the glove, it’s not that accurate, but it certainly had the feel.

Poole’s fingers twitch, signaling the astronaut’s revival. Prop and costume maker Chrissie Overs built full-scale portions of the astronaut’s suit, emulating costume designer Harry Lange’s distinctive streamlined “2001” space suit.

CINEFEX: How did you create the helmet?

STEVE BEGG: The helmet was all miniature from that tiny little, six and a half inch man. I photographed that as stills with him with on the terrain with fairly long exposures and a good f-stop. I cut that up and put it onto 3D planes to give it a bit of a dimensional move, when the camera is drifting over it. The great thing about that approach is this infinite depth of field. I even had to blur the depth in some shots because it looked too sharp.

CINEFEX: When you mentioned that you shot that end scene in your home, I imagined you had a full-scale astronaut in a huge pile of dust your living room! 

STEVE BEGG: No, I was lucky that another friend of mine, Andy Rolfe, has a little workshop in an old paint store not far from where I live. He set up an 8×4-foot workbench. Chrissie laid on top of the little set piece and she was the actor for the hand within the glove.

Wide shots of Poole’s resurrection were achieved using the Mafex figure in the tabletop miniature terrain, filmed against a black card backing, staged in a former paint store in south London.

CINEFEX: Kubrick famously went to extraordinary lengths to build a full-scale, pristine solid monolith to represent the alien presence in his film – did you?

STEVE BEGG: No! It’s basically a matte painting with a little bit of camera shift to imply that it’s three dimensional. I think, courtesy of the fact we have tools like Photoshop and what have you, it’s possible to mimic that look easily. I did consider building a prop for that, but if you study the Kubrick monolith, even that has textures and a little bit of a profile, which I’m sure Stanley didn’t really want. I wanted to stay as close to that pristine look as possible.

CINEFEX: On the original film, was it Stanley’s lighting cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth who photographed the astronaut-in-space scenes?

STEVE BEGG: I got this from Brian Johnson, who worked on the film. He said that, certainly with the miniatures, it was Stanley Kubrick really lighting everything, working with Wally Veevers and Brian. Brian was taking stills and Wally did the 65mm motion picture footage. On the main production set, it was Geoffrey Unsworth – and for a few sequences John Alcott – but very heavily under the control of Stanley Kubrick because Stanley was an accomplished photographer.

A shadow-casting black card mask, positioned above the tabletop terrain, simulates the effect of the rising sun casting an oblong shadow over Poole.

CINEFEX: Based on your experience of having stepped into that world, what is it that makes the 2001 space scenes so eerie and elegant, and still so evocative today?

STEVE BEGG: I think what gives all the 2001 space shots immense scale and scope and majesty, is that all the moves are linear. There are very few shots where objects change trajectory or speed. To me, that creates the feeling of a massive object moving in space. It is also quite often people’s memory that the photography of the 2001 space scenes is very high contrast, with no fill light at all. However, if you really study the shots, the space scenes always have a minimum of two light sources: a key light, and usually a blue fill. Otherwise, the spacecraft would be jet black on their shadow sides – that’s how they looked in the sequel 2010, which I thought had an interesting look, but for me, it wasn’t 2001.

Poole views an occultation of the sun behind a towering black monolith, recalling similar encounters with the enigmatic object, and symmetrical image compositions, in Kubrick’s 1968 film.

CINEFEX: Your short takes a deliberate departure from Arthur Clarke’s vision of Frank Poole, because, in his book 3001: The Final Odyssey, Frank came back from the dead, didn’t he?

STEVE BEGG: Yes, in Arthur Clarke’s sequel, Poole was discovered floating in the asteroid belt. To be absolutely honest, I remembered that when I was halfway through my short. A lightbulb went off in my head – wait a minute, doesn’t he come back? I Googled it and, sure enough, in 3001 Frank is discovered floating, frozen in Kuiper Belt. I decided to ignore that. I have been very pleasantly surprised by the number of people who prefer my ending!

For more reading:

Images courtesy Steve Begg.

Cinefex at VIEW Conference 2019

If you’re a regular reader of Cinefex, you’ll know we’re committed to long-form journalism. We publish our journal of cinematic illusions six times a year, typically covering four films or television shows per issue. No soundbites. No clickbait. Just in-depth research journalism, delivered in print and through our iPad app.

Every once in a while, however, Cinefex likes to strike out. We did so last year, when we attended VIEW Conference in Italy. We’ll be there again this year at VIEW Conference 2019, catching up with our friends in the visual effects industry, and taking a few of them aside for a series of exclusive interviews, to be presented on this blog.

Just like last year, we’re aiming to bring you these interviews in as close to real time as we can. That means we’ll be transcribing, editing, formatting and publishing a wide range of illuminating conversations the industry’s top professionals within 24 hours.

Here’s a selection from the interviews we conducted last year at VIEW Conference 2018:

So who will we be talking to in 2019? Well, among the many guest speakers at VIEW Conference 2019 are Rob Legato, Rob Bredow, Hal Hickel, Guy Williams, Sven Martin, Theo Bialek, Trent Claus and Thomas Schelesny. That’s just a small selection from the wealth of talent attending the event. Also on the roster are directors Brad Bird, Peter Ramsey and Dean DeBlois, and composer Michael Giacchino, plus countless other names from the world of computer graphics, interactive and immersive storytelling, animation, games and virtual/augmented/mixed reality. Not forgetting visual effects, of course.

Will we catch everyone? Probably not – there are only so many hours in the day! Stay tuned to this blog, and to our social media feeds, and each time we get an interview in the bag you’ll be the first to hear about it.

Speaking about the upcoming 2019 event, VIEW Conference director Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez commented:

“We’re so excited that Directors Brad Bird, Peter Ramsey, Conrad Vernon, Dean DeBlois, Eric Darnell, and Sergio Pablos, will be at VIEW 2019 for our 20th anniversary celebration. It’s a further honor that Brad and Peter will give our attendees a chance to learn from them in masterclasses.  Our attendees can also sign up in advance for workshops by Danny Dimian who was visual effects supervisor on Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse, Pixar’s Ralph Eggleston, the innovative tech pioneer Tom Wujec, screenwriter David Misch, and others.  And they are just a few of the amazing speakers on our program this year.”

The 20th VIEW Conference takes place October 20-25 in Turin’s new OGR conference center. For more information and to book your place visit the official VIEW Conference website.

Now Showing – Cinefex 166

Cinefex 166 covers "The Lion King," "Spider-Man: Far From Home," "Game of Thrones" and "MIB: International."

I’ve never been a ‘fan.’ Even as a teenager, I was alone among my friends in never hanging a poster of Bobby Sherman (yes, when I was 13, that was the poster) on my bedroom walls. No John, no Paul, no George, no Ringo.

If I’ve been a fan of anyone in the years since, it has been Jon Favreau – and it started long before he began making the kinds of movies we cover in Cinefex. I watched nearly every episode of his conversational television show, Dinner for Five. I thought Elf was hilarious, and Couples Retreat remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Favreau’s Iron Man was when I took notice of him professionally, covering that film – to my mind, the most entertaining origin-story superhero movie ever – in Cinefex 114.

So, it was with a great deal of personal pleasure that I wrote about Favreau’s remake of The Lion King. Not only is he a great talker – he jokes that his idea of directing is talking – I quickly saw that what they were doing to create that film, both on the virtual production stage and at MPC, was truly remarkable. The story’s all here in Cinefex 166.

I’m also a fan of Game of Thrones; but since I was up to my eyeballs in lion fur grooms, I entrusted our coverage of the final season to Graham Edwards’ capable hands. In his story, Graham balances the physical on-the-ground effort with the equally extraordinary postproduction work. Graham also gives us the behind-the-scenes scoop on Spider-Man: Far From Home, which includes commentary by director Jon Watts.

Cinefex covered the first Men in Black 22 years ago, when writer Joe Fordham was but a callow youth. The much matured Mr. Fordham digs deep into the making of MIB: International in a comprehensive story that covers everything from alien design to makeup to on-set special effects to witty MIB-style visual effects.

We were there for Men in Black in Cinefex 70; we’re still here for Men in Black in Cinefex 166. The Circle of Life, indeed.

Cinefex 166 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already roaring its way towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Spotlight – Philipp Wolf

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Philipp Wolf is currently a visual effects producer at DNEG, having previously worked at MPC, Scanline VFX and Pixomondo, and in a freelance capacity. His personal filmography highlights include Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Ghost in the Shell, The Predator, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Game of Thrones.

Philipp Wolf - photograph by Myriam Ménard.
Photograph by Myriam Ménard.

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Philipp?

PHILIPP WOLF: It all started with a project in school when I was 15 years old. We were tasked to found a made-up company and I decided to dive into the world of web design. The demand for this kind of work was high in the year 2000. A couple of months after I turned 16, I decided to found my first actual company. Designing and maintaining web-sites turned into software development, and planning and management of IT infrastructures.

2001 was a pivotal year for me – with the release of The Fast and the Furious, my love for cars was born. When the time came to graduate high school and go to university, I chose to study automotive engineering, specializing in process management and quality control. It took about two years for me to realize this path was not for me, so I moved to television where I worked as a journalist and a story producer amongst other things. When one of those projects came to an end, I remembered the feeling I had watching The Fast and the Furious for the first time and started looking around on how to be involved in the production of these movies – maybe visual effects?

I ended up applying to Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg for their newly introduced Animation Effects Producing course. After not even one year of studies, a tutor introduced me to Pixomondo where I ended up doing my first feature film project as a junior visual effects producer. My third project and my first big break was working on the second season of Game of Thrones as an associate visual effects producer – all while I was still studying.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

PHILIPP WOLF: In short, enabling people to do what they love. Visual effects brings together talent from all over the world, to create content for people all over the world to enjoy. If you fuel these teams with empathy, you create an environment in which people not only understand one another’s perspective and care for each other, but also thrive and achieve more than they would have ever dreamed of. Fostering this environment and seeing the team excel is the most amazing feeling you can imagine.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

PHILIPP WOLF: One word: abstraction. Abstraction is the process of removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to its essential characteristics. Projects are broken down into numbers; numbers translate into a schedule; the schedule informs us about the resources required. We make our decisions based on those numbers – which is necessary to cope with the scale.

The numbers might tell us we need to increase this number or reduce that number. For example, 30 resources complete an average of 30 tasks per week. Next week they need to complete 45 tasks. The answer seems to be easy: increase the number of resources or decrease the quality. But neither one is an option. Conclusion: increase the working hours by factor 1.5. Not too bad, and an easy decision – if we base it purely on numbers.

Now, let us remove the abstraction. We are really asking 30 human beings with families each to spend 60 hours in the next week at work. Is the decision still as easy as before? No, and it should not be. We tend to forget the people affected by our decisions. Fostering an abstract environment creates a weak culture in which people only do what is right for them and not what is right for the team.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

PHILIPP WOLF: My biggest challenge so far was creating an environment enabling a team at MPC to deliver about 660 highly complex shots for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. When I started on the show, production was already in progress, first look development shots were turned over and we had sophisticated previs scenes for most of the sequences in-house. Using those scenes, we broke down all elements needed to finish each individual shot. We had in hand over 400 creature animation shots, over 3,000 effects tasks and several environments – including a fully digital Boston – which needed to be completed to achieve the vision of Michael Dougherty, the director. Looking at the work, I knew the only way to get this done was to build a strong foundation of trust and empathy.

The first step was to empower my production team with tools and knowledge to take their own decisions, while mentoring them all the way throughout production. We ended up with amazing team who cared and stepped up to help each other.

The second step was to split up the work between the production and supervision team, to help MPC visual effects supervisor Robert Winter and myself to focus on the overall strategy of the production, while not slipping into a reactionary state.

Third step was figuring out the numbers to deliver the movie, while keeping the individual artist mind. The effects department alone had nearly 100 artists – the biggest effects team at MPC to that point.

The fourth step was creating a work environment in which everyone could do what they do best, as a team. With a team working around the globe, sometimes the little things help to make everyone feel part of something bigger. For example, early on we introduced a weekly newsletter with the latest show information, crowning our employee of the week, sharing fun facts, even having a little Godzilla statue traveling around the departments – who ended up meeting the director!

Empathy turned out to be the glue holding the production together. All the challenges we faced we pulled through together as a team – a team I could not be prouder of. Thank you!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

PHILIPP WOLF: Producing a pack shot for a foot fungus cream television commercial. As usual, you deal with the agency and the production company, who have prepared a vision for the pack shot. Early on, they told us we would need to produce a high-risk and a low-risk version of the pack shot so the commercial could be switched to the low-risk version if the pharmaceutical company got litigated – which they seem to plan for.

The idea of the pack shot was to show how to apply the foot fungus cream to the foot. How many different ways are there? Well, we created the pack shot, the commercial went on air, and the pharmaceutical company got litigated. This is where it became interesting. At that point, I only dealt with representatives of the pharmaceutical company and their lawyers to produce an even lower-risk version and to get the commercial back on air as soon as possible.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

PHILIPP WOLF: The biggest change for me is the rising demand for visually appealing content. We are surrounded by visual stimuli wherever we go, in a world with an average attention span of eight seconds, according to a study by Microsoft Corp. We need to fill those eight seconds with content that makes people willing to continue to watch, be it in theatres, at home, or on their phone displays. The expectations of viewers are increasing as most of them grew up with the internet, videogames and the ever-evolving visual effects in movies and television.

To keep up with these demands, we see universities and schools implementing courses in visual effects, and companies like DNEG are implementing programs like Greenlight to support the development of the next generation of talent. Non-profit organizations like ACCESS:VFX have been founded to pursue inclusion, diversity, awareness and opportunity within the industry. We have created more awareness for the industry as a career. But we still have a long way to go.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

PHILIPP WOLF: We are at a pivotal point for our industry – I like to call it the “industrial revolution of visual effects” – moving from hand production to new manufacturing processes. We already see simple automation happening in things like one artist launching multiple shots on the render farm, or compositing templates creating a first pass for a shot.

To meet the rising demand, we need not only more people, but also to innovate our processes. Technology for example. Why does an animator need to match a real reference of a tiger jumping when a machine learning algorithm could do the first pass? Then, all the animator has to do is focus their work on bringing the story across. We should have algorithms take care of the first step, or the technical aspects like packaging a shot for the next artist to pick up. This would free up artists to actually do the artistic work.

We also need to implement international standards for visual effects. Doing that ensures our services are reliable and of high quality, while reducing costs due to increased productivity. These standards would help level the playing field for companies around the world. Additionally, it would be easier for schools and universities to create curricula to feed into those standards. Both of those points are incredibly important to me as they are part of creating a healthy work environment within our global growing industry.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

PHILIPP WOLF: Be honest, be humble and be hungry – this will get you a long way.

Visual effects might be the most exciting industry to work in today. The demand is higher than ever before and there are jobs within pretty much every field imaginable. From artist to production to baristas, and so on. When you join a visual effects team, integrate yourself, get to know your peers, get to know what is going on around you, be empathic and open minded. Most of your days will include a lot of decisions, and you want to make sure to decide and communicate them efficiently. One tool I always give my production teams is called “Decision Tree”.

Imagine a tree. It is made out of leaves, branches, a trunk and roots. Now think about this in terms of your decisions. A leaf decision can be taken on your own and you don’t have to communicate it to anyone. If a tree loses a leaf, nothing bad is going to happen. If you damage a branch, still nothing too bad is going to happen, but you should inform your superior about it.

But the trunk – a crucial part of the tree – can only be harmed so much before it dies. These kinds of decisions should not be executed before approval from your superior. Damage to the roots might kill the tree. In this case, you should present all information about the issue, and your superior will take the decision.

The amazing thing about this metaphor is if you categorize your decisions based on it, you will notice how you and your tree will grow over time. Trunk decisions will become branch decisions, and ultimately leaf decisions.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

PHILIPP WOLF: We all have a pretty good idea where we are right now, but where did we come from? My playbill brings us to the beginnings – Georges Méliès in France, Fritz Lang in Germany, all the way to James Cameron in the United States.

Le Voyage dans la Lune – every time I watch this pioneering movie, I have to remind myself it was 1902, over a century ago, when Georges Méliès created it. The spaceship flying to the moon was one of the first uses of a miniature – if not the first. It was uncharted territory. Méliès had to invent as he directed – stop-motion jump cuts, matte paintings, superimposed images, substitution shots, to name a few.

Metropolis – since I come from Germany, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece had to be part of the list. The movie employed ground-breaking special visual effects like the Schüfftan process – an early version of the bluescreen – used in the stadium scene. Utilizing a glass plate angled at 45 degrees between a miniature set and the camera, Lang was able to place the reflection of the actors into the set with the ability to adjust their size based on the distance to the glass plate. Another amazing effect was used to illustrate Maria’s transformation. A sophisticated multiple exposure shot introduces the robot with light rings falling and raising around it.

The Abyss – the first time I saw the watery snake-like creature was on television in the ‘90s. I was not even close to understand how it was done. Years later, when I started diving into visual effects and rediscovered the movie, I learned it was the first example of a digitally animated three-dimensional creature composited with 70mm footage. A creature which also mimics the actress’ performance who ultimately interacts with it – all back in 1989.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

PHILIPP WOLF: Popcorn. Funny enough, I do not like it outside of the movie theatre. It is part of the experience.

CINEFEX: Philipp, thanks for your time!

Cinefex 165 - Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Cinefex covered “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” in issue 165, June 2019.