Cinefex Vault #15 – Harry Potter 3

Cinefex Vault - "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

Here’s an episode that we could not quite fit into our Cinefex 99 story on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga, directed with great panache by Alfonso Cuarón. This amusing sequence – where Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Bill George shared duties with Potter series visual effects supervisor Tim Burke, and Nick Dudman’s creature effects team – deals with a mythological creature that allows students to confront their darkest fears. Now unleashed again, for your online reading pleasure, from the Cinefex Vault.


Building a Better Boggart – article by Joe Fordham

Director Alfonso Cuarón on the set of ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,’ with actors Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe.

Chocolate frogs, flying broomsticks, haunted castles and a bestiary of strange creatures fill the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels chronicling the education of fledgling wizard Harry Potter. Director Alfonso Cuarón stirred the cauldron of ingredients for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in the movie franchise, bringing new flair to magical goings-on in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, producing a darker tale where teenage Harry Potter meets mysterious characters and spectral apparitions seemingly intent on his demise.

During one such sequence, Hogwarts’ Professor of the Dark Arts Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) invites Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and other students to confront their fears embodied inside an ornate wooden wardrobe containing a ‘Boggart.’ Like many of Rowling’s creations, the Boggart was drawn from mythological reference – in this case, an obscure and mischievous spirit from Northern English folklore – and required thoughtful interpretation to define its appearance on-screen.

ILM visual effects supervisor Bill George, production visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, and ILM animation supervisor David Andrews.

“The Boggart was a constantly changing chameleon,” commented visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who divided duties on the production with visual effects supervisor Tim Burke. “The idea was that it did not exist in any other form other than the creature it turned into, and it took the form of whatever its victim feared most. We decided it should be like scanning channels on a radio. If you scan radio channels in England, between BBC Radio Four and Radio One you might pass through other channels, passing Radio One then coming back and missing it a couple of times. The Boggart was like that – constantly trying to figure out what it was supposed to be.”

In the classroom scene, Lupin encourages pupils to take turns opening the haunted wardrobe, revealing and then suppressing their personal Boggart demons. Industrial Light & Magic – one of five main visual effects vendors on the film — generated the Boggart as a swirling, airborne apparition. “Alfonso didn’t want to simply see one creature morphing into another,” stated ILM supervisor Bill George. “He wanted a shapeless creature, like a vortex. Tim and Roger found reference of a very high-tech CG simulation of a nasty, industrial, geometric shape that was buzzing, vibrating and spinning. They sent that to us and said, ‘It should be something like this, but organic.'”

The Boggart takes the form of a giant serpent.

To create the nexus of the effect, ILM lead CG modeler Michael Koperwas designed a series of glasslike digital shapes – spheres, ovoids, rods and interlocking orange-segments – which lead animator Paul Kavanagh articulated to describe motion like shifting tumblers in a combination lock. “It was an abstract art style of animation,” said ILM animation supervisor David Andrews. “We made the pieces pop and flip and spin, and applied them to this completely bizzare creature. Alfonso wanted it to behave like a visual representation of a radio tuner sound, picking up these different nightmares. We tried to give it a very frenetic quality to match that weird sound, and used the animation principle of a bouncing ball – it anticipated the action by a couple of frames and then popped and changed shape, like a frog squishing down and then hopping.”

The Boggart serpent is transformed into a huge jack-in-the-box.

The giant jack-in-the-box was built as a full-size animatronic by Nick Dudman’s team.

The Boggart shifts from one child’s nightmare to another.

The spinning, shifting pieces drove transformations between Boggart forms, culled from a library of live-action images representing elements on the Boggart nightmare scale. “Alfonso asked us to come up with 100 different scary things that we thought would make interesting images,” related Guyett. “He was very good at tapping into the kinds of things kids are afraid of – things within their own set of experiences, like the classic fear of going to the dentist. But we also tried to put an angle on it because these were Hogwarts kids, not in the normal world.” The production allocated a Boggart shooting unit to film a wild variety of childhood fears – including a dentist, a crocodile, a shark’s mouth, lunging knives and a flamethrower. Censorship concerns of placing children in peril whittled imagery to a handful of horror archetypes – a gecko, raven, witch and snake – which ILM mapped and revealed subliminally in the shifting CG object.

The first Boggart apparition involved the appearance of Hogwarts Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who terrifies Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) before acquiring women’s apparel. “We used a small motion control rig where we hand-operated and recorded the move,” related Guyett. “We filmed Alan Rickman stepping out of the wardrobe in his professor robes and recorded the move. We then dressed Alan as a woman and played back the selected take. Alan is such an incredibly skilled actor, he matched his movements exactly; then, ILM did a fantastic job of matching Snape in his robes to Snape in the dress, through what looked like a handheld camera move.”

The Boggart as Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

Snape’s garments undergo a drastic transformation.

ILM next modeled and animated a giant spider, reminiscent of the monstrous Aragog from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to terrify Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) before the young wizard succeeds in conjuring rollerskates onto the spider’s feet, causing the giant arachnid to skitter and skate. The third candidate (Sitara Shah) transforms a giant lunging snake — another ILM animated character — into a giant jack-in-the-box, constructed as a full-scale animatronic by creature effects designer Nick Dudman.

The sequence then concludes with Harry Potter facing his own demon — a towering spectral form representing one of the robed prison guards from Azkaban wizard prison. One of the most nightmarish creatures in the film, the form was generated digitally by ILM. “The Boggart started out as a longer sequence than it appears in the movie,” stated Guyett. “But it was a cute idea, and short and sharp is probably the way it should be.”

Harry Potter repels a faux dementor.

For more on the effects from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, visit Cinefex 99.

Photos copyright © 2004 Warner Bros.

Cinefex Vault #14 – Troy

Cinefex Vault - "Troy"

This little story, originally published as a Cinefex Weekly Update newsletter feature in May 2004, was one of a few little satellite pieces that came adrift from our larger magazine stories. In this case, our story Bronze Age Ballistics in Cinefex 98 – which covered the making of Wolfgang Petersen’s Hellenic epic Troy – was simply too chockablock with rampaging armies, crashing weaponry and collapsing cities to accommodate a fascinating aspect of the film. While on my interview trail, I had been astonished to hear about the creation of the full-scale Ancient Grecian battleships, built by marine coordinator Mike Turk and his nearly-300-year-old family business in London. So, rather than paraphrase Mike’s remarkable stories into a passing paragraph, I saved his story for this fascinating capsule, which we are pleased to undock here from the Cinefex Vault.


Cruel Sea – article by Joe Fordham

One of two full-scale warships built for Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2004 historical drama, Troy. Shipbuilders R.J. Turk and Sons, led by marine coordinator Mike Turk, built the seaworthy vessels from designs based on historical reference.

3,197 years ago, a beautiful woman absconded with a youthful prince from a neighboring city and inspired her jealous husband to mount a mission to retrieve her, gathering a fleet that – legend has it – numbered 1,000 ships. Now the subject of Warner Bros.’ Troy – adapted from classical texts by screenwriter David Benioff and directed by Wolfgang Petersen – the story exploded onto theater screens with a stellar cast, vast scenes of war and some of the largest sets ever constructed on a feature film location.

Assisted by physical effects, makeup effects and visual effects from four London effects studios, production designer Nigel Phelps resurrected the ancient city of Troy and launched the Greek attack almost entirely on location in Malta and Mexico. “Wolfgang wanted to make the film look as real as possible,” stated visual effects supervisor Nick Davis. “He wanted to show the sheer scale of battles and the massive Greek armada, but he wanted the camera right in there with his stars, really on the ocean.”

Art director Cliff Robertson initiated warship design by drafting conceptual renderings for two full-scale seaworthy vessels, extrapolated from historical reference. “Both ships were ‘monoreme’ designs,” related marine coordinator Mike Turk. “Unlike a bireme or a trireme, which had two and three decks of oars, monoremes had a single bank. It was the oldest and simplest style of vessel, which helped keep labor costs down for rowing; but they had to look enormous, very high-sided and menacing.”

Turk’s family business, R.J. Turk and Sons – based in Kingston upon Thames, near London – has been building ships since 1710, during the reign of Queen Anne, and has supplied boats and ships for film and television dating back to MGM’s A Yank At Oxford in 1938. Turk drew upon his maritime lineage for Troy, referencing the 1987 reconstruction of Olympias – an Athenian Trireme of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. – led by John Morrison, former President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. “I knew Professor Morrison,” said Turk, “but we only used his research on the oars. In fact, because we were working from Cliff’s drawings, we worked backwards, figuring out what lengths our oars needed to be to reach the water – doing everything arse-about-face!”

Turk’s naval architect, John Heath, devised working drawings from the designs. An oar specialist then built 19-foot-long oars out of spruce, and Turk’s team built masts and spars at his boatyard in Kingston. The main structural build took place at Cassar Dockyard, close to the main filming location in Malta, where steel fabricator Norrie Henderson lead construction of the hulls – one measuring 120 feet, the other 140 feet. “We didn’t try to build the hulls traditionally in timber,” Turk said, “because we only had four months to build them.” Steel hulls helped the ships comply with maritime safety standards. “We built them to the same standards as passenger ships that cross the English Channel. They had no cabins or sleeping accommodations and, in fact, no toilets; but otherwise they complied to day-sailing regulations for 100 people.”

The art department devised six liveries for the ships depicting different ornamentations for tribes of the allied Greek forces. Turk’s team created sails using flax, an authentic material to the period, and designed custom rigging. “We had no historical detail whatsoever about rigging,” Turk explained, “so we used our best means of guessing. But they sailed all right, so we guessed correctly!” Sailing was accomplished with combinations of oars and wind power, assisted by a pair of diesel engines mounted aft, beneath the waterline, in line with twin rudders. Helmsmen used engines to position warships in shots and bring the 70-ton vessels up to speed.

Bringing manpower up to speed proved a bigger hurdle. “We only had six days of training,” related Turk. “I brought out six Watermen from England, who were expert rowers – tug skippers and passenger boat masters from the London River, and winners of Doggetts, the oldest rowing race in the world – and they trained our local oarsmen, who were made up of waiters, out-of-work cooks, chefs and other colorful characters.” Despite the ragtag crew, warships performed impressive feats of seamanship. “For one shot, they wanted the camera to hang out over the water, shooting under the bow, then rising up and descending over the stern. We did that on the Mall, outside Valletta harbor, running the ship by the camera within five feet of the sea wall, with ocean liners and ships sailing by as we came out. We got up to about 14 knots – that was bloody fast.”

Warships roamed up and down the Maltese coast, shooting ten days of first unit with principal performers, and three weeks with second unit, accompanied by an armada of 25 ancillary ships coordinated by Turk. Support ships doubled as camera craft, two passenger ferries served as lunch and toilet facilities, while a flotilla of safety boats, police and security trafficked the area. Turk’s team also constructed a half-boat launch to represent Spartan King Agamemnon’s barge and smaller period vessels similar to Arab fishing boats.

At the end of the Malta shoot, warships were dry-docked, then the art department recycled sails, masts and rigging in Mexico, constructing beached versions of the ships using molds taken from the hulls. With digital enhancement by Framestore, and building on years of maritime history, the ships provided dramatic underpinning to an epic adventure. “A Turk built a warship in defense of the realm to the south of the Tower of London in 1295,” Turk remarked, “so we have been building warships for some time! It was quite dramatic stuff. I hope it comes across on film.”

For the complete story on the effects of Troy – featuring interviews with Nick Davis, The MPC, Framestore, physical effects supervisor Joss Williams, makeup effects supervisor Daniel Parker and more – look for Cinefex 98.

Photos copyright © 2004 by Warner Bros., behind the scenes reference shots courtesy Framestore.

Spotlight – Catherine Mullan

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

Catherine Mullan is an animation supervisor at MPC. Her career highlights include her work on four Harry Potter films, Happy Feet, The Chronicles of Narnia, Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

Catherine Mullan

CINEFEX: Catherine, how did you get started in the business?

CATHERINE MULLAN: Whilst I loved movies growing up, it never occurred to me that working in the industry was a possibility. I was only ever presented with more traditional career paths and, of course, this was back in the days before the internet. I always loved to draw but also liked math and problem solving, so I was looking for something that could combine both the creative and the technical.

When faced with the decision of what to do next, I stumbled across a book in my school’s careers library that ultimately set me upon this career path. The book allowed you to cross-reference different subjects, then listed courses suited to those subjects. This is how I discovered the computer animation course at Bournemouth University in the UK. Although I had little knowledge of the subject, I applied and was accepted. It was there that I discovered a love of animating. The university had ties with the London studios and upon graduation I was invited to interview with Framestore. Luckily for me, I was offered a job as a junior animator, and that’s were I really started to learn about animation.

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: A beautifully animated performance, one that evokes feeling, that makes me sad or brings me joy. I love to review the work of the animation team, and often I’m presented with an idea or an execution that surprises me, that really brings character and believability, and I know the audience will buy it. This is the best part of my job.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I do find it hard when teams disperse, when the end of an era is reached. It’s a changeable industry – teams come together and move apart often. When I look back on projects, I’m proud of the work, but I also think so fondly about the crew. The bonds that are created during a production are a huge part of what makes this industry special. I’m also a sucker for a sad story and I’m known to blubber watching movies!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: I can’t quite find an answer to this. Every project I’ve worked on has presented its own challenges – from animating a simple shot as a junior animator to supervising a large team on huge project, and the hundreds of tasks in between. If you’re growing and pushing yourself to the next level, the work will always be a challenge.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I remember a near miss from several years ago – a beatboxing camel toe! It was a cringeworthy shot I was scheduled to animate. I was dreading it! Much to my relief, the show I was working on pushed longer and it was reassigned to another artist. Phew!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: The size and scope of the projects have grown massively since I joined the industry. A project 15 years ago would consist of a couple of hundred shots, whereas now 1,000 is normal. Each year the boundaries are pushed and the seemingly unachievable is achieved.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I would love to see more women working in creative roles in film, visual effects and animation, especially as leads, supervisors and directors. Whilst it seems more women are joining, the shift isn’t nearly enough.

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Do plenty of research. There is so much information available online – podcasts, blogs, articles like this. There are lots of tutorials and free software available for students, so try it out at home before spending a lot of money on a course. You have to love your chosen field and education is expensive so, if you go down that route, choose the school wisely.

For many disciplines, it’s key to use real-life reference. Don’t start a piece of work without it. Don’t be scared to show your work – in fact you must seek feedback from those who work in your field. Constructive criticism will only help you learn and grow. Do persevere – it will not come easy, but the rewards can be great!

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

CATHERINE MULLAN: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – I loved this movie growing up. A powerful story, filled with in-camera effects and marvelous puppets. I learned only recently that the owl in the opening credits is considered the first realistic CG animal to appear in a movie.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – one of my favorite movies of the time. The visual effects were groundbreaking and allowed the T-1000 to become one of the most terrifying characters in movie history.

The Jungle Book (2016) – I loved the remake of the Disney classic and was blown away by the visual effects. Across every discipline, the work was pushed to a new level, from the creation of the characters and environments to the animation and effects. The team at MPC did a spectacular job creating such imagery.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

CATHERINE MULLAN: I don’t like to eat when watching movies – it’s too much of a distraction. However, my favorite cinema in London does serve delicious wine to your own comfy sofa.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Catherine!

Spotlight – Todd Vaziri

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

Todd Vaziri is a lead artist and compositing supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. His list of career highlights includes American Pie, Avatar, six Star Wars and two Star Trek films, three Transformers movies and an episode of The Colbert Report, and you might enjoy rummaging through his entertaining effects-centric blog FX Rant.

Todd Vaziri

CINEFEX: Todd, how did you get started in the business?

TODD VAZIRI: I saw Return of the Jedi on my tenth birthday, and afterward devoured anything I could find about how the film was made. I vividly remember reading an official Lucasfilm magazine about the film – there was an entire section on the miniatures and stop-motion animation in the Endor battle, created by a company called Industrial Light & Magic. That made an enormous impact on me. Seeing how the magic was created didn’t ruin the movie experience for me at all. Quite the contrary – I was intrigued and inspired to see pictures of modern-day magicians creating these amazing illusions, like Paul Huston setting up the AT-ST on the miniature Endor set. Years later, I discovered Cinefex, which satisfied my cravings for more detailed stories on how these intricate visual effects were created, and the challenges faced by artists in bringing these otherworldly effects to life. Strange to think that Paul Huston is a colleague and friend now – we worked together on a shot for The Force Awakens.

After film school, and a few years spent writing about visual effects for my website, Visual Effects Headquarters, I packed up my car and drove from Chicago to Los Angeles with the dream of working in visual effects. I was fortunate enough to have been given a chance by Van Ling at Banned From the Ranch Entertainment. Aware of my visual effects writing and understanding my passion for the craft, he gave me a chance to help test out a new piece of software called Commotion, which was, at the time, a brand new and revolutionary tool for rotoscoping and digital painting. Van was a tremendous mentor and I owe him so much for giving me a chance.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

In 1998, Todd packed up his car and drove to L.A. to pursue his dream of a visual effects career.

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

TODD VAZIRI: At the start of every production, I am overwhelmed with anticipation. The prospect of doing something new and exciting in a movie is daunting, intimidating and exhilarating.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TODD VAZIRI: When the harsh realities of the project schedule kick in, along with the inevitable design changes – that’s when I reach for the Kleenex.

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

TODD VAZIRI: I’m a bit of a heat ripple snob. Most digital effects trying to replicate heat shimmer from jet engines don’t appeal to me. They frequently end up, from a design perspective, too sci-fi and fantastic, calling attention to the effect rather than allowing it to exist as a part of a realistic scene. For Avatar, we tackled several shots with intense jet engine heat ripple, and I privately tasked myself with creating the best-looking heat ripple system we’d ever produced. The effects team and I worked together on a system that included the right kind of particles, the right animation, the right kind of displacement and blur, and other design elements that are usually ignored – like refraction, shadowing, and tiny bits of soot. I was really proud of how it all turned out. Later, hearing that Jim Cameron loved the look of our heat ripple made me very happy.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TODD VAZIRI: I had to create dog urine for an Adam Sandler film. I used Particle World in After Effects to create the pee stream, and the splashing and splatter on the ground. I drew roto mattes and color-corrected the photography to simulate the growing puddle of pee. If I remember correctly, I think I also had to paint out the dog’s testicles.

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

TODD VAZIRI: Between the time I started doing feature film work and today, the biggest change has been the ubiquity and democratization of high-quality, highly complicated visual effects. Complex fantasy environments, creatures and invisible effects are no longer solely available to the five or six biggest-budgeted movies per year. Filmmakers like Scorsese, Cuarón, Iñárritu, DuVernay and del Toro now have access to effects that were previously unavailable to their types of films. As a movie fan, I’m thrilled that a movie like Ex Machina can be made today, with the same kind of complicated, high-quality visual effects that previously were relegated to only the biggest superhero films or sci-fi blockbusters.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TODD VAZIRI: Where to begin? I’d like to see a more level playing field on many dimensions. Right now, movie studios are understandably taking advantage of massive global incentives to make films in certain localities, but this severely tilts the scales and has serious repercussions on all sides.

In addition, just like the rest of Hollywood, we need to make visual effects production a more diverse, inclusive environment. There are too many people making movies who look like me, and who have similar histories, tastes and skill sets. We will be able to tell more dynamic, interesting stories by including more women and people of color in our industry.

We have a work-life balance problem in our industry, too. The hours and stress take their toll on visual effects workers around the world. Finally and more broadly, it is inexplicable how little power the visual effects industry has in Hollywood, while our work remains critical to the success of modern films.

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

TODD VAZIRI: The advice I’d give is similar to the advice I’d have for anyone who is interested in Hollywood filmmaking. Firstly, understand that this is not a glamorous job. The people who make films, both in front of and behind the camera – and behind the computer – are passionate and committed to their craft. If you’re not all-in on this as an idea, you might want to consider something else.

More practically, young visual effects artists sometimes get hung up on questions like: “Which piece of software should I learn?” My personal view is that the most successful visual effects professionals in my sphere are not obsessed with software or the technology itself, but are more interested in using those tools to create the imagery or tell the story that’s in their heads. I’m not technically minded at all, and yet I get by because the tools have become so accessible and approachable that even a dummy like me can operate the controls. Also, it’s incredibly important for young visual effects artists to watch and analyze non-visual effects films, and study as much photography as possible.

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

TODD VAZIRI: Citizen Kane – don’t roll your eyes at me, millennials! You’ll watch this black-and-white movie and like it! Orson Welles and his team were using the camera to tell a story like no-one did before – you can see many now-standard cinematic techniques used for the first time in this film. They pushed every department to its limits and beyond; the film includes special effects and optical work, several ingenious matte paintings, animation and miniatures. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography gave the film a striking look, as did all of the hidden optical tricks made possible by Linwood Dunn’s optical printer breakthroughs – like the massive set extensions at the political rally, or the building of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu.

Star Wars (1977 theatrical edition) – come on, do I really need to say why I chose this?

The Abyss – Jim Cameron’s epic underwater adventure used pretty much every single visual effects trick in the book, including the debut of a creature of a kind never seen before on film – the computer-generated pseudopod. The movie is an encyclopedia of photographic effects from the dawn of cinema to that moment, and simultaneously presents a prelude to cinema’s digital era.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TODD VAZIRI: Popcorn, no butter, a tiny bit of salt.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Todd!

Announcing VIEW Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018, the premiere international event in Italy on computer graphics, interactive techniques, digital cinema, animation, virtual and augmented reality, gaming and visual effects, has just released its five-day program of events, which delivers a dream line-up for visual effects professionals and fans alike.

ILM's Dennis Muren is one of the keynote speakers at VIEW Conference 2018

ILM’s Dennis Muren is one of the keynote speakers at VIEW Conference 2018

One of the stars of the show is undoubtedly Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor and creative director at Industrial Light & Magic, who will be closing the conference with an hour-long keynote presentation entitled Visual Effects: Defining that Critical, Elusive and Final 5%. During his career, Muren has collected nine Academy Awards honoring his contribution to films including Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. A key member of the ILM leadership team, he now collaborates with ILM’s supervisors on every film handled by the company.

Also at VIEW will be Rob Bredow, senior vice president, executive creative director and head of ILM, whose presentation Creatively Driven – The VFX for Solo: A Star Wars Story draws back the curtain on his role as visual effects supervisor on the latest space adventure to be set in a galaxy far, far away. In fact, the conference features a host of supervisors talking about their latest work, including David Vickery on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Dan Glass on Deadpool 2, Geoffrey Baumann on Black Panther, and many more. Meanwhile, John Gaeta, senior vice president of creative strategy at Magic Leap and visual effects supervisor of the groundbreaking The Matrix trilogy, explores virtual worlds with his presentation What is the Magicverse?

Also speaking at VIEW Conference 2018 is veteran film composer Hans Zimmer

Also speaking at VIEW Conference 2018 is veteran film composer Hans Zimmer

For many, the highlight of the conference will be Step Into My Music, a keynote speech delivered by the acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer, who has scored and co-scored over 150 projects including the films Blade Runner 2049, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, The Dark Knight trilogy, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator. Others will be attracted by VIEW’s unique offering of masterclasses with some of the industry’s top practitioners.

This year, for the first time, Cinefex will be at VIEW Conference, interviewing the speakers and bringing you exclusive reports from the event. Make sure you subscribe to our blog and social media channels for regular updates.

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place 22-26 October, 2018, at OGR (Officine Grandi Riparazioni), Turin, Italy. Visit the official VIEW Conference website to book your place now.

Spotlight – Kyle McCulloch

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

Kyle McCulloch is a visual effects supervisor at Framestore. Ask him what his career highlights are so far and he’ll tell you, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Beauty and the Beast, Thor: Ragnarok and Pan.”

Kyle McCulloch

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: I was a nerdy kid in film school who loved stop-motion and animation work. I was obsessed with the great fantasy films of the 80’s – Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story – and just wanted to be a part of making that kind of magic. I was actually a pretty terrible student, and couldn’t get an internship doing anything animation-related, so I took what I could get and started as an intern in the marketing department for Curious Pictures, an animation studio in New York City. Over a couple of years there, I weaseled my way into reception, then the tape room, then production, and finally into the role of junior compositor.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: As much as I love the digital wizardry that we create in post, I still get goosebumps watching the combined might and skill of a film production put something remarkable on film. Standing in the Great Hall from Harry Potter, or watching the Milano from Guardians of the Galaxy fly on a stage at Shepperton, I often think how completely geeked out my 15 year-old self would be.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

KYLE McCULLOCH: A lazy reliance on CG and postproduction. The best results happen when the various creatives and departments work together to make a plan, and everyone works hard to do their bit to the best of their ability. It’s always a bit crushing to be presented with an avoidable, uphill battle in post, where the bulk of your energy will be spent fixing rather than polishing.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: I think I faced some of my biggest challenges as a visual effects artist working at The Orphanage. It was a remarkable group of people who were constantly hitting above their weight in terms of the quality of the work they did. We were a relatively tiny shop with limited resources, but we still managed to create and finish some stellar stuff. I’m still really proud of the Iron Man HUD. There were many, many late nights – and a fair few moments where I was absolutely sure we weren’t going to be able to deliver – but in the end we made something iconic. I get a major rush seeing each new iteration of the HUD in the progressive Marvel Studios films, seeing how different artists interpret and continue to grow what we started.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

KYLE McCULLOCH: I didn’t actually get to work on it myself, but The Orphanage did a rather remarkable melting penis sequence in Planet Terror. It still gives me nightmares.

Kyle McCulloch

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: The thing that constantly surprises me is the scale at which visual effects is operating today. Working on a Marvel Studios show, you can’t help but be impressed at the scale and scope that they deploy visual effects in their films. I couldn’t have imagined projects like that 10 years ago. The other – welcome – change is that visual effects is seen as more of a partner on film sets, helping the other creatives and departments to achieve their goals. We’re no longer the strange folks in the corner painting things green!

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: Don’t start at one of the big shops! I was so fortunate to spend my first few years working in a smaller facility. We may not have been doing the most glamorous work, but being a part of a small team meant I got to sit next to, and learn from, a much wider variety of artists and technicians. I was given lots of opportunities to grow and challenge myself, and learned to think on my feet and solve problems. Those were all things that served me well once I made the switch to the big facilities.

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

KYLE McCULLOCH: The NeverEnding Story – as a wee boy, this movie captured my imagination completely. It’s all practical work, and much of it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of what audiences expect today, but I still love everything about this film.

The Matrix – talk about a game-changer! This film still holds up, and was such an amazing example of how visual effects would come to be integral in the visual storytelling media. I mean, how many news stories did they do about bullet time?!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – this film was really personal for me. I was still doing commercial work in New York, and I’ll never forget sitting in the theater watching this film, thinking, “I HAVE to go work on features!” It was magic, taking audiences to a complete other world, and represents what I love most about visual effects.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

KYLE McCULLOCH: Two tubs of popcorn – one sweet and one salty.

CINEFEX: Kyle, thanks for your time!

Now Showing – Cinefex 160

Cinefex 160 - From the Editor's Desk

For the fourth time in our history, the cover of Cinefex is graced by the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Yes, pick up a copy of Cinefex 160, our new August issue, and you’ll be nose to nose with the Millennium Falcon herself. Our editor, Jody Duncan, shares her own thoughts on the history of Cinefex covers below, but before she brings you up to speed on Star Wars, spaceships, and the arcane rituals of Percentages Day, here’s a quick rundown of our latest edition.

As the front cover suggests, we’re leading with comprehensive coverage of Solo: A Star Wars Story, in which the Industrial Light & Magic team discusses galaxy-spanning visual effects, creature designer Neal Scanlan talks about Rio Durant, sabacc table aliens and everyone’s favorite Wookiee, and Ron Howard shares his experiences as a film director journeying through a galaxy far, far away.

In fact, while our primary mission remains, as always, to cover in detail all the effects disciplines from digital to practical and beyond, in Cinefex 160 you’ll find a movie director at every turn. J.A. Bayona talks dinosaurs in our groundshaking story on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, while Peyton Reed contributes to our larger-than-life coverage of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Add David Leitch’s reflections on Deadpool 2 into the (dubstep) mix, and we think you’ll agree that Cinefex 160 has most definitely got it where it counts.

"Star Wars" in Cinefex

Here’s Jody with her latest school report:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

Cinefex 160 features the tenth Star Wars cover in the magazine’s history – which means that over six percent of our covers have been devoted to George Lucas’ space fantasy. (Full disclosure: I came to that percentage only with the help of a friend. I somehow missed Percentages Day in elementary school, and have never learned how to calculate them.)

Frankly, the six percent solution was not as impressive a number as I’d hoped for. It doesn’t sound like much – until you consider the 500-plus visual effects movies we’ve covered in our nearly 40 years. It means that, on average through our history, we’ve had a Star Wars cover every four years or so. No other film franchise comes close.

So, pick up issue 160 for its cover feature, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and stay for our coverage of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Deadpool 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. (The Jurassic Park franchise has had only three covers, by the way, which calculates out to less than two percent. What a slacker.)

It’s back to school time – don’t miss Percentages Day!

Cinefex 160 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already heading at lightspeed towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, which features tons more photographs and exclusive video content, including visual effects breakdown reels for Ant-Man and the Wasp and Solo: A Star Wars Story prepared especially for Cinefex by Marvel Studios and ILM respectively.

Cinefex Vault #13 – 50 First Dates

Cinefex Vault - "50 First Dates"

While it is a popular maxim that ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard,’ visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal has had her share of films containing both. Death and destruction have included Marvel’s Agent Carter television series, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and The Hunger Games; comedies have included the first Sex and the City feature, Christmas with the Kranks, and the Adam Sandler vehicles Big Daddy and 50 First Dates. Unlocked here from the Cinefex Vault is a story on the latter 2004 Sandler film, with Sheena’s hair-raising tales of Hawaiian icebergs, jiggling pectorals and an amorous walrus.


Invisible Woman – article by Estelle Shay

On location in Hawaii for the Adam Sandler comedy, 50 First Dates, Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal confers with visual effects director of photography Chris Nibley during setup for a 260-degree panoramic shot captured with four overlapping Vistavision cameras.

Specializing in ‘invisible effects,’ Sheena Duggal relishes creating movie magic that most moviegoers never notice. One of the first four Inferno artists in the world, Duggal was hired by Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1995 to set up and oversee the company’s Inferno department, then later transitioned into visual effects supervision. After working with director Peter Segal on Anger Management, Duggal signed onto Segal’s next film, 50 First Dates, a romantic comedy set in Hawaii about a young couple whose budding romance is put to the test by the woman’s short-term memory loss.

Duggal oversaw some 100 shots on the film, including a number of tricky transitions, with wipes and clever morph-dissolve gags. In an early scene, for example, the camera tracks a dolphin in a marine park tank as it swims past a window adjoining the office of veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler). “We shot the ‘A’ side of the plate underwater in a tank with a dolphin at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, California; and we shot the ‘B’ side on a stage on the Sony lot. Then, using a lot of 2D effects, motion tracking, matte paintings, rebuilding the motions within the shot and adding little nuances of particles floating in the water, we put the whole thing together to create the feeling that you were in the tank with the dolphin, and that you actually pass through the window into the room where Henry is stitching up his injured friend.”

The office of marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) overlooks a dolphin aquarium. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Marine World element, filmed in California. For an unbroken shot in which the camera passes through an aquarium window and into Roth’s office, Duggal and her team used motion tracking, 2D effects and matte paintings to link underwater plate photography of a dolphin shot in a tank with stage photography of actors in the office set.

Some effects were added to sell the humor in shots, in particular those involving characters interacting with the film’s aquatic stars – a penguin and an enormous male walrus. “A full-grown male walrus weighs a couple of tons,” remarked Duggal, “and if he gets spooked, he’s going to make a run for the water. So any time the actors were in proximity to the walrus where they had to be between him and the water, we did it as a visual effect.” A shot of the walrus projectile-vomiting onto Henry’s assistant provided Duggal with one of her more memorable assignments. “In an ideal world, we would have gathered all kinds of reference data on the set. But on the day we were shooting, the walrus was horny; and they wouldn’t let me near him because he was reacting to women. So we just shot a plate of the walrus with his mouth open. Later, we set up a bluescreen shoot with the actress in the scene, and shot this really gross mixture of dog food and water at her so we could get the interaction of the vomit hitting her. Then we composited it all together in 2D – which wasn’t as easy as it appears, because there were logistical issues in lining up the movement of the walrus’ mouth.”

A walrus projectile-vomits onto Roth’s assistant. The trained walrus was photographed alone at a marine park. Then the actress playing the assistant was filmed against bluescreen being blasted with a mixture of dog food and water. Alignment of the vomitous spew with the walrus’ shifting mouth was a challenge for the SPI compositing team.

Effects intervention also provided the humor for a scene in which Lucy’s brother (Sean Astin) performs a ‘pec dance,’ moving his pectoral muscles in sync to music. “When we got on set,” recalled Duggal, “we discovered that Sean couldn’t actually do that. So we found a guy who was able to do this dance, and we filmed him on a bluescreen stage, trying to time it to the music as best we could. We scanned that into the computer, composited it onto Sean, and did a bunch of morphing and warping to make it look realistic.”

At the end of the film, Duggal and her crew had to transform Hawaii into Alaska for a scene in which Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) gazes out a boat window as the camera pulls back through the glass to reveal the vessel floating in waters surrounded by icebergs and snowcapped mountains. “The production said: ‘We’ll build a dry dock in Hawaii, and we’ll cover it with bluescreen, and we’ll get a boat on this dry dock and shoot it that way. Then you guys can put it in Alaska,'” recalled Duggal. “But in the interest of realism, we decided that was probably not the best approach – especially since it might get us into CG water. Instead, we found a bay in Hawaii, took the actors out there and filmed them in a boat, then added whatever we needed to give it the feeling of being in Alaska.”

The amnesiac Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) journeys to Alaska. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Hawaiian production plate.

Though all the live-action was shot in Hawaii, Duggal and a crew went off to Blackstone Bay in Alaska to capture the mountain vistas needed for two big rotating helicopter shots that reveal the entire landscape. “We took a Vistavision camera with us and shot maybe a 250-degree pan-and-tile of the environment,” said Duggal. “Fortunately, we also chased icebergs around because I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure they’re going to ask me to put icebergs into these shots at some point.'” In postproduction, when the director saw how little snow there was, he asked for more production value. “We ended up taking the pan-and-tile, which I was hoping we could just composite in, and turning that into a matte painting so we could add more snow and detail. Surprisingly, I was able to take a lot of the 2D icebergs that we shot, roto them out of the Vistavision footage and track them into the water. We also added CG breath to a number of shots of the actors.” Adding to the seamless effect was careful attention to lighting detail. “We got hold of a copy of a sun chart for Hawaii on the day that we shot the Hawaii plates, and did the same in Alaska. That way, we could look at what time of day it was in Hawaii, and what angle the sun was in the sky, and wait for the same time of day and same lighting conditions when we shot in Alaska.”

“It was all great fun,” Duggal concluded. “I love what I do, and I love doing invisible effects. When I get a show like this, I’m fortunate, because a lot of the types of shots I’m doing can be done in a 2D way. And since I was involved in building this department, I know all the skills of the artists. That’s a great advantage to me as a visual effects supervisor.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Columbia Pictures Industries. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Spotlight – Sheena Duggal

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

Having learned her craft during the very earliest days of digital compositing, and with a career as visual effects supervisor stretching back 20 years, Sheena Duggal has many stories to tell of her experiences in the industry – not to mention her work promoting diversity and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She lists her career highlights as including Mission Impossible, Contact, Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio, Matchstick Men, Spider-Man 3, Body of Lies, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Agent Carter, Doctor Strange and Venom.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "VFX Convergence" event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Sheena Duggal at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “VFX Convergence” event in 2013. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: I grew up in England and attended art school for five years specializing in animation. When I left art college in 1985, I passed on a traditional animation job to work in London on high-resolution computer design work for musicians and photographers. It was there that I was first contacted to work on the feature film Super Mario Brothers.

I do have some great memories from my life before features. I worked on Elton John’s singles, albums and tour brochures – Prince’s too – but my all-time favorite client session was the time I spent one-on-one with George Harrison designing the first Traveling Wilburys album cover. George had a demo cassette of the album, which I listened to on my Walkman while I worked. I didn’t realize at the time the gravitas with which I should have held this experience! I was in my early ‘20s and the music scene I was into was very different, so it sounded dated to me. I didn’t realize the band was actually Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn – that was still a secret. I listened politely, racking my brain about how to authentically say something positive – I know, that sounds crazy now! George asked my opinion of the album, and I recall saying I liked the song Tweeter and the Monkey Man. He’d written that one, so he was happy! I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a Beatle!” But it was really hard to sustain that awe, because he was just a nice, down to earth, generous, likeable guy with amazing stories of his trips to India, who took me out for dinner and gave me money for my cab fare home when we worked late.

CINEFEX: How did Super Mario Brothers come into the picture?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Sorry, I digress! A friend of mine, Phillipe Panzini – who went on to win an Academy Sci-tech Award for his work on Flame software – had shown the film’s producers a VIP brochure where we’d composited athletes onto NASA images of the Earth for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and they hired me as a matte painter. I was living in London at the time, didn’t know a soul in Los Angeles, and I had never used Flame. Then again, nor had anyone else. How hard could it be?

CINEFEX: So how hard was it?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, it was all very bleeding edge. There was a group of us working on about 20 SGI workstations with VGX graphics, and no such thing as batch or background processing. You’d set up a comp with as many as 26 layers, document all your setups by hand so you could reproduce them, then wait for it to render. It did that in the foreground, so there was a lot of downtime. Gary Tregaskis, the architect of Flame, was there with us constantly writing new code to allow us to create the effects we needed, and the late Peter Webb – who was the only person who had actually used Flame before – graciously shared his knowledge with us.

After that, I moved to San Francisco to work for the amazing animation company Colossal Pictures, under Brad De Graf who was exploring motion capture characters with his real-time CG character Moxy – considered to be the first real-time cartoon broadcast live. Using Flame, I composited a Robocop theme park ride for Iwerks, and using an alpha version of Flint – which Discreet Logic wrote for me to run on an Indy – I worked on the award winning Coke Sun commercial with director Tony Stacchi. I briefly moved back to Los Angeles to be a compositor on Terminal Velocity, before heading to ILM in the mid ‘90s to work on a Tales from the Crypt episode directed by Bob Zemeckis. After working on films such as Village of the Damned, The Indian in the Cupboard, Congo, Jumanji, Mission Impossible and the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope, I left ILM with a team of amazing artists and technologists lead by Ken Ralston to help found Sony Pictures Imageworks as creative director of the high speed compositing department.

I became a visual effects supervisor in 1998 on Patch Adams, continuing to run the HSC department and comp shots until it became impossible for me to do it all. I left Imageworks after 14 amazing years to work as an independent production-side visual effects supervisor on The Hunger Games, then spent four years working with Marvel. I’m currently visual effects supervisor on Venom with Paul Franklin.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Meeting people who have been touched by the work we do in the film industry. It’s easy to forget how much the dazzling visuals that we create impact people we’ve never met. In creating fantastical stories, we allow our audience a moment of escapism from their real lives, or we hit an emotional tone that resonates within them.

I remember meeting someone who asked me for an example of a film I’d worked on. I mentioned Contact, because I was very proud of the work I’d done designing the beautiful, ethereal look of the beach sequence on Vega where Jodie Foster speaks with her dead father. She immediately teared up, and told me that for her it was an amazing moment in the film. She explained that her father had passed away, and that the scene had felt to her like a depiction of heaven, and had touched her deeply. I was surprised, but I’ve heard many people over the years express similar sentiments.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

At the climax of “Contact,” astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself on a surreal beach under a canopy of stars. Sony Pictures Imageworks combined bluescreen photography of Foster with multi-layered CG effects and an off-kilter background assembled by seaming together tiled segments of location plate photography, to create a full and versatile digital background. Image copyright © 1997 by Warner Brothers.

Along the same lines, when I was at Marvel, we did a one-shot short directed by Louis D’Esposito called Agent Carter. I was the visual effects supervisor and I also created the main on-end title design – which was so much fun! Bob Iger liked the short so much it spun off into a television show on ABC. We did two seasons and when the shows aired, together with the actors and show runners, we live tweeted with the fans. It was so incredibly rewarding to tweet with these young girls who found in Peggy Carter an empowered female character that they could look up to.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Being the only woman in the room in a craft role. The lack of ethnic diversity is also disheartening. Diversity issues have been brought to the forefront of our industry recently, and it really is a very big problem. As a woman, you just don’t get the same opportunities as men. Often you can’t even finish your sentence, because some people still find it difficult to listen to a woman in a technical role. I’ve discussed these issues with women and people of color in other disciplines of the film industry and it’s the same story across the board. Some sectors of the industry, like cinematography and composers and visual effects, are very far behind in terms of gender equality and diversity.

I don’t often speak about these issues publicly. I’d much rather work towards a better solution for the future and be an agent of change, which I aim to do as chair of the Academy visual effects branch Diversity and Inclusion Sub-Committee and as a member of the A2020 Committee, whose initiative is to have a substantial and lasting impact on the diversity and inclusion issues in all aspects of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. I’m excited by the initiatives we’re working towards to create real and positive change within all branches of our industry.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: One of the most challenging and rewarding tasks – because those often go hand in hand – was sitting with Pietro Scala and Sir Ridley Scott cutting the car chase and helicopter sequence on Body of Lies. We’d shot the sequence in the Sahara Desert but ran out of time at the end of the schedule. No one really wanted to go into the Mojave Desert to shoot additional photography, so we solved it by using visual effects to Frankenstitch together plates we’d shot, adding a few CG shots to help with storytelling. It came out brilliantly.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Well, I’ve supervised a few Adam Sandler films, so lots of weird tasks there! One in particular, on Fifty First Dates, was to make a walrus puke. On the day of the shoot, I was banned from set for safety because the walrus became amorous. I don’t think it gets weirder than that!

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Oh, things have changed so much since I began working in visual effects. Back in the early 1990s, we didn’t think about it as a business. Everything we did was a challenge and every day we were pushing the forefront of technological development. Creating an effect we had never seen or done required everyone in the filmmaking process to take a huge leap of faith. It was really challenging, we worked long hours because we were devoted to our tasks, and it was always a thrill to see what we were able to pull off. We were fortunate to be working with filmmakers like Bob Zemeckis who pushed us to innovate and create their vision despite the magnitude of the task ahead of us. We formed bonds and shared our innovations and techniques. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

I don’t know the exact point at which visual effects became big business. We didn’t anticipate how rapidly the technology and hardware would advance, become cost-effective and precipitate a mature toolset. Tasks that would have taken complex setups to complete 25 years ago can now be done with the push of a button and rendered in no time at all. But still, for those of us who have been in this industry for any amount of time, the objective remains the same – to create, innovate and push the envelope.

Aside from the tools and technology, the way we make films has also changed a lot, with many films driven by schedule and release dates. Today, there’s an increased level of difficulty in managing the complexity and number of shots. You could say that the challenge of feature film visual effects has become resource management – can we do the work given the schedule and budget available?

This is why I believe visual effects producers are so integral to the visual effects process. In fact, I’m encouraging our industry to further include and recognize their contribution. We couldn’t succeed in our craft without their contribution, which is often creative actually. The success of a project relies on a successful partnership between visual effects supervisor and producer. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great visual effects producers, and I was delighted to see a number of them admitted to the Academy visual effects branch in 2017. We didn’t admit any this year, but this is a great start and goes a long way towards acknowledging and recognizing their contribution.

Of course, another big change is that we have dispersed our industry around the world in pursuit of tax credits, displacing thriving visual effects communities and forcing so many visual effects companies out of business.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SHEENA DUGGAL: More diversity and inclusion, period.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: If you’ve found what you love and it’s visual effects, there are four broad categories you can choose from – creative, technical, production management and facility management. Look on the big visual effects studio sites like ILM, DNEG, MPC, Framestore and the rest. Check out the job postings and careers pages. Understand what’s required and what you need to learn technically and artistically. Know what the positions are, what the titles mean, and how each contributes to a movie. Some software vendors offer students free non-commercial access to their products. Look in particular at Autodesk Maya, The Foundry Nuke and Side Effects Houdini.

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

SHEENA DUGGAL: Blade Runner – because every frame is a work of art. It’s emotionally moving on a number of levels, the beauty of it speaking to you as much as the story and characters do. For me, it’s visual storytelling using lighting and atmospherics in tandem with a spectacularly emotional color palette. It’s about the visual effects supporting the story so you can get lost in the world that Ridley created. It really stands the test of time – even today in VFX films you can see futuristic city builds riffing off that original Blade Runner production design.

I want to say Terminator 2: Judgment Day – because visually it blew my mind. It was the first time I thought, “Wow, it’s possible to photorealistically visualize anything you can imagine!” I also grew up watching the Ray Harryhausen films – the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts was my previous gold standard because who doesn’t love a brilliant piece of stop-frame animation? But I’m going to have to say my second pick is The Abyss.

The alien creature in The Abyss is not only a beautiful design, it’s also haunting, melodramatic, and integral to the success of the storytelling. It looks great, and I love the scene with the sea water snake that mimics the faces of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, whose superb acting really sells the believability of the visual effects. At the time, we’d really never seen anything quite like these effects before.

Contact – because it has a woman at the center of the story, I know it so intimately, and I’m proud that the work we did in 1996 still holds up today. It was a magical time with an incredible team of talented people. The standout for me is the beach sequence, which I put my heart and soul into designing, and the mirror shot that became something magical once we’d composited it. People still ask me how we did that today. The way we move the camera and employ visual effects to change the perspective of the viewer is brilliantly executed. It was a challenging show – the beach sequence was first time in film history that anyone had a shot a full 360-degree bluescreen and replaced it with a digital environment. And Jay Redd’s beautiful opening sequence, combined with the audio design, is still one of the best openings to any film – it sets the tone perfectly.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SHEENA DUGGAL: Dark chocolate with sea salt.

CINEFEX: Sheena, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Nicholas Hurst

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

A visual effects supervisor at Outpost VFX, Nicholas Hurst lists his filmography highlights as Three Seconds, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, The Martian, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Dark Knight Rises and John Carter.

Nicholas Hurst

CINEFEX: Nicholas, how did you get started in the business?

NICHOLAS HURST: At an early age, I was never really motivated in school. Growing up in a tiny village in Wales – 15 houses max – I followed suit with what most other teenagers did in the late ‘90s, particularly in Wales, and left school at 16. I worked numerous jobs including shelf stacker, builder, car salesman, restaurant manager, painter and decorator – you name it, I did it.

Having those few years in various industries has actually been one of the main contributing factors to where I am today. Laying bricks in the cold months of winter or working 90-hour weeks to keep a restaurant afloat really does push you to make a choice – stick or twist, and at that age I decided to twist. I handed in my notice, gave myself a couple of months to search for my next step and went for it. Now, at this point I was starting from nothing. I had two GCSEs, grade A-C, so I knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get into a whole new career, but I knew I needed to kickstart my misfiring education.

I attended over 30 open days all over the country and 100 percent of them turned me away because I didn’t have the grades to get onto the courses I wanted to go on – until one college accepted me on a multimedia course. The college was geared towards ex-prison and ex-rehab, so at first I was completely put off, but after another couple of weeks of rejections it was time to buckle up and go for it. It turned out to be the best decision of my life.

The college definitely had its major quirks but I kept my head down and enjoyed every last minute of the course. Modelling, animation, film-making – I absorbed the lot, and when it came to making a decision on what to do next I jumped at the chance to do a visual effects course at university.

I’m sure most people would say their first break was on such-and-such a film, or being hired at a top studio, but I consider my first break to be acceptance onto that college course in Wales. It took me from a small village with barely any education to a 1st Class Honors degree and a career that I couldn’t be any more passionate about.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: The majority of the projects I get involved with start from script breakdown for bidding, concept art, look development and lead through to tech recces to the shoot itself. Then, after the shoot and the edit is locked, we bring the work in and I supervise the post work all the way through to the final delivery. Taking a project from a script to the big screen makes me grin from ear to ear, for sure.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

NICHOLAS HURST: Unrealistic timeframes!

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

NICHOLAS HURST: Early in my career, I was involved with a film called Afterdeath. 320 shots over a four-month period is fine when you have 20 artists, but when the budget doesn’t allow and there is only enough for one artist – myself – you have a big challenge on your hands. Tasks ranged all the way through tracking, CG, animation, effects and comp. I rented a desk in north London and got to work. Let’s just say there were a lot of late nights, but when it was over I was pleased with what I had accomplished.

I think having these challenges dotted through your career does help – tricky deadlines with a fast turnaround and a huge range of shots. It has a positive knock-on effect because it helps to build confidence for future projects, leading teams and working with a range of producers and directors.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

NICHOLAS HURST: Let’s just say there is a huge contrast between what your friends think your job consists of – meeting the stars, walking the red carpet – and the reality of sitting in a dark room painting six packs onto middle-aged men.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: One of the main changes that I have seen over the last few years has been the volume of work that is outsourced increasing year on year. With budgets becoming tighter all the time, outsourcing work has gone from a time saver to an absolute necessity in bringing a project in on budget. However, the knock-on effect of this is that paint work, roto and cleanup are all being completed elsewhere, and I can see junior roles becoming harder and harder to come by. We are in an interesting transitional stage in visual effects at the moment and I am just happy I jumped on board when I did.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

NICHOLAS HURST: Budgets increasing for visual effects. It’s very sad to see the amount of post houses that have had to shut down due to substantial losses over the last few years.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: Firstly, if you want to clamber onto that first rung of the ladder and stay there, expect to be the first one clocking in and the last one clocking out. Hard work gets noticed and if you push yourself to be proactive it will pay off in spades. Secondly ‘don’t be a dick’ is a quote from one of my university lectures and amen to that. If you are not a collaborator and not willing to work with others, I can assure you that you will easily be missed off the contract extension list.

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

NICHOLAS HURST: I’ve chosen three that I’ve worked on because I’m so proud of them! Over my career, three films have definitely poked their heads above the rest.

Beauty and the Beast – solely because I was a key part in breathing new life into some of the marquee characters for the 2017 release.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – it was a blast helping to bring the now much-loved character Baby Groot to the big screen.

Three Seconds – directed by Andrea Di Stefano, shot across the UK and America, due to be released this year. That’s all I can say for now, but I’m excited for it to be put in front of audiences soon.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

NICHOLAS HURST: Well, I am vegetarian, so if theatres started to stock Tofurky hot dogs that would be at the top of my list. Until that time, popcorn salted and sweet is up there, for sure.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Nicholas!