As the Catholic Church faces a pivotal moment
in its history, an unlikely friendship blossoms between Pope Benedict XVI
(Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Directed by Fernando
Meirelles, the Netflix film The Two Popes
is set largely within the walls of the Vatican City. Facing restricted access to
the real location, the production shot on sets at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios,
including a full-size – though roofless – replica of the Sistine Chapel.
Union VFX handled an eclectic mix of visual effects including environments and de-ageing, and performed the all-important task of adding the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling. Visual effects supervisor James Etherington-Sparks and visual effects producer Jan Guilfoyle led the Union team, with Dan Victoire as 2D lead.
CINEFEX – What was Union’s biggest challenge on
The Two Popes?
JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Building a fully CG
St. Peter’s Square for the inaugurations of the two popes at different stages
in the film. We had to facilitate very wide shots, as well as close-ups from
several different viewpoints. Our environments supervisor, Jamie Schumacher,
and his team needed to produce a really high level of detail in both geometry
CINEFEX – The square is packed with onlookers
during those scenes. How big were the crowds?
JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – The crowds were
200,000-strong. That was by far the most complex aspect of the shots. We
couldn’t shoot in the location, and the end result had to stand up at 4K in
very close proximity to the camera. The crowd was very custom as everything was
based on real events and had to intercut with archive footage.
CINEFEX – How did you go about generating such
a gigantic crowd of people?
JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Our effects team had to design a Houdini-based system from scratch in a very tight timeframe to cope with the unprecedented number of assets and their clothing, in a way that we could easily art-direct them as individuals. This allowed the director to choreograph the crowds and deliver a believable result.
Watch a video breakdown of Union VFX’s work on The Two Popes:
CINEFEX – What about the animation itself? Was
that a complex business?
JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Well, in terms of
animation, the crowd didn’t do much a lot of the time. But they couldn’t look
static. That’s very hard to achieve in a wide shot. We had agents shifting
weight from one foot to another, peering over people’s shoulders and slowly
walking through the crowd. We also had shots with more pronounced movement,
where a large crowd had to do the same thing at the same time – like breaking
into applause or bowing their heads in prayer. That kind of thing can very
easily look repetitive. We had our work cut out adding the nuances of timing
and movement to 200,000 individuals!
CINEFEX – Did you use motion capture to help drive the performances?
JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Yes, we purchased a Perception Neuron motion capture suit and did several shoots in-house to provide some specific animation cycles that married with the occasions we were re-creating. This provided even more flexibility to the team during postproduction, resulting in authentic-looking crowds. And, of course, flags and camera flashes will always be a crowd sims best friend!
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced this year’s nominations for achievement in visual effects. The nominations are:
Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Matt Aitken and Dan Sudick
Pablo Helman, Leandro Estebecorena, Nelson Sepulveda-Fauser and Stephane Grabli
The Lion King
Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Elliot Newman
Guillaume Rocheron, Greg Butler and Dominic Tuohy
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Roger Guyett, Neal Scanlan, Patrick Tubach and Dominic Tuohy
All five nominees have received – or will shortly be receiving – the full Cinefex treatment, with in-depth articles featuring interviews with all the Oscar-nominated teams. We covered Avengers: Endgame in Cinefex 165, and The Lion King in Cinefex 166. Our article on The Irishman is in our December 2019 issue, Cinefex 168 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is coming along in Cinefex 169, our 40th Anniversary issue which is out February and available to pre-order now. Look out for our coverage of 1917 early in 2020.
The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood. The ceremony will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
book, Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor:
The Genius of Ub Iwerks, is a fascinating account of the decades-long
collaboration between his father and Walt Disney, and the many technical and
artistic innovations that arose from that partnership. It is a must-read for
anyone with an interest in the ‘good old days’ of filmmaking and effects, when
ingenuity, hands and gears, rather than strokes on a keyboard, put spectacular
images on the big screen.
Don spoke with
Cinefex about his book and the legacy of his father, Ub Iwerks.
Your father was
both an artist and a self-taught mechanical engineer — disparate skillsets not
often found in a single person. Which was dominant? Was Ub Iwerks a mechanical
guy with some artistic ability, or an artistic guy with a bit of mechanical
It’s hard to
choose one over the other, but I think his technical skills were the most
important. He was very good at animation, drawing and painting, but there’s no
question about his excellent technical skills.
Where and how
did your father’s relationship with Walt Disney begin?
They met in
Kansas City, Missouri, when they were both working for the Pesmen-Rubin
Commercial Art Studio. They became friends and worked together on many projects
interesting story in the book about Universal cheating Walt Disney and your dad
out of a successful cartoon character, Oswald the Rabbit, and how that led to increased
secrecy surrounding their early work with Mickey Mouse. Was Ub also protective
and secretive abouthis technical innovations?
wasn’t going to tell the whole world, and Walt was the same way. They didn’t
patent anything early on, because they didn’t want to disclose what they were
doing. But for the most part, he wasn’t that worried about secrecy when it came
to technology. He’d find a better way to do something, and then just do it.
Mickey Mouse was
initially your father’s design and animation. Did he ever resent Walt’s getting
so much of the credit for that character?
ask him about that, and his answer was always: ‘It’s not the original creation
that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts. You can draw pictures all
day long, but Walt did something with it.’ So he gave Walt full credit for
You tell the
story about Walt coming in at night, after Ub had gone home, and changing his
animation for Steamboat Willie. There must have been some tension over that.
From what I
understand, my dad got upset that Walt was changing the timing of his
animation. He confronted Walt about it, and they had a little bit of head
knocking over it. Walt relented, but then it happened again. Around that time,
my dad got an offer to set up his own studio, and he decided to do that.
He returned to
the Disney organization ten years later, in 1940. Not long afterward, war broke
out, and they began making training films for the U.S. military. You mention in
the book that those films required a combining of live-action and animation.
Well, they had
to make them on the cheap, so they had to come up with what they called ‘gags’
– things that would allow them to convey what they were trying to say very
That led to Ub’s
development of the aerial image optical printer. Explain what that was.
In the early
days, they would combine mattes and images by bi-packing the film. But the difficulty
was that mattes could shrink, resulting in matte lines around characters, and
there would often be dirt and scratches – all because they were coming into
physical contact. My dad reasoned that he could build a printer that had two
heads, one for the primary image, and a second for the matte, which would be
projected onto the primary image. The lens projecting it had east/west.
north/south and in/out controls so he could adjust size and placement, which
eliminated matte lines, and since the matte was suspended in space, rather than
on a surface, it eliminated dust and scratch problems.
innovation Ub introduced to the studio was the sodium traveling matte process.
Explain what that was.
actually a J. Arthur Rank patent that my father became aware of. It involved photographing
principal characters against a screen that was yellow in color, but was
illuminated with sodium lamps. On the color spectrum, that was a very narrow
band that could be removed and allow you to make a matte. That allowed him to
photograph two films and create a matte at the same time, at 24 frames per
second. It was a big breakthrough.
Tell me about
how wet-gate printing contributed to the nature films Disney began making.
Walt bought a
lot of film shot by nature photographer Alfred Milotte and his wife, and he
made it into a film called Seal Island. That
ended up winning an Academy Award, and that encouraged him to make more of
those kinds of films. The problem, though, was that the nature footage was shot
on Kodak’s commercial Kodachrome, which shoots a low-contrast original and
created very grainy prints. There was also a consumer Kodachrome available,
which had virtually no grain at all and beautiful color and contrast, but it
was an end-use film, meaning what you shot in your camera is what you
So it wasn’t
designed to be duplicated.
the course of duplicating it, the contrast almost doubled and the blues and
greens went very dark. Details were lost in the shadows, and highlights all
washed out. So that was the bad news about this consumer Kodachrome, and my dad
set out to fix that. He devised a masking system that reduced the contrast so
significantly that by the time you duplicated it, you were back to normal
again. He found a way to fix the color shift as well. To fix scratches on 16mm
film that showed up when it was projected onto a big screen, he printed it
while it was submerged in a solution, which made the scratches disappear. That
allowed Walt to make his nature films.
In your book,
you talk about the animation department’s being in peril in the early 1950s.
Why was that?
brother, Roy, took care of the financial part of the business, and he mentioned
to my dad one day that he was going to recommend to Walt that they quit making
animated films because they were so costly. They didn’t make much money, either,
and what money they did make was tied up for a long time. So my dad began
thinking about a way to make animated films more efficiently, and he realized
that hand-inking cels was a part of the process that was very expensive and
time consuming. About that time, Xerox machines came on the market, so he
bought one and began experimenting with xerography as a way to mass-produce
One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first animated feature to use the process, wasn’t it?
correct. They’d used it on a fifteen-minute short called Goliath, and for a crowd scene in Sleeping Beauty, but One
Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first time they used it for a full-length
You worked for
Walt Disney Productions for 35 years, starting in 1950. What did you do there?
Mostly I was
in the machine shop, where most of the inventions my dad came up with were
fabricated. I was eventually promoted to foreman of that shop, and then
manager, and my task was to make sure that my dad’s work was getting done.
Ub Iwerks died
in 1971. What was he working on when he died?
He was working
on the Hall of Presidents for Walt Disney World. That was a show Walt had always
wanted to do, but couldn’t get a sponsor for because it was going to be so
expensive. It was going to involve a huge 250-foot-wide screen and my dad
devised a way to put five 70mm projectors side-by-side to project film onto
that screen. Then he had to figure out how to do the photography, and so he
designed a special animation type camera that would photograph an aperture that
is the same proportions as the screen.
It’s clear from
your book that Ub Iwerks was a really ingenious guy, but also humble about it.
That’s true. His character was such that he always looked ahead. If he figured out how to solve a problem, he didn’t boast about it and keeping thinking about what he’d done – he just moved on to the next problem. That’s the way he was.
Production companies can be a great deal of help to Cinefex or a terrible hindrance, depending on a number of factors – their confidence in a film, their confidence in Cinefex, their support of the visual effects team, overall. The worst, for us, is when we get this worn line: “We don’t want to spoil the magic” – as if it will come as news to Cinefex readers that a cyborg assassin didn’t really grow metallic weapons from the end of its arms!
Netflix won the Cooperation Blue Ribbon for
its assistance in our coverage of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. They arranged for an early private screening of the
film, no one in the theater other than Netflix’s Julie Miller, visual effects
supervisor Pablo Helman and me, and Julie continued to help us every step of
the way. Readers will be intrigued by the story of ILM’s four-year development
of a markerless performance capture system that enabled Robert De Niro, Al
Pacino and Joe Pesci to do that brilliant thing they do, sans helmet-cams and
tracking markers. It’s a fascinating story.
was only four years old when we covered James
Cameron’s breakout hit, The Terminator. Graham
Edwards’ reporting on the making of Terminator:
Dark Fate felt like returning to one’s alma mater for a Homecoming game and
engaging with the old gang. It became an especially poignant return with the
recent passing of Gene Warren, the mastermind behind so many of the original
film’s effects. Graham also gives us the story of Roland Emmerich’s masterful
re-creation of history in Midway.
Joe Fordham covers the best racing movie
since Rush in his in-depth story
about the effects – physical and digital – that made Ford v Ferrari such an exciting ride. It had special resonance for
me, as many of the real-life events, including the death of racecar driver Ken
Miles, played out just a few miles from where I live, at the famed Riverside
International Raceway – which is now, alas, a shopping mall.
And speaking of shopping malls – I wish you joyful shopping and the happiest of holidays!
Cinefex 168 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon terminate its journey to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.
Set in 1862 and
based on true events, The Aeronauts
follows daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and pioneering
meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) on a record-breaking ascent into
the upper atmosphere. Their journey — in a giant gas balloon called Mammoth — reveals not only the hidden
wonders of the natural world, but also its perils, and all too soon their
voyage of discovery becomes a fight for survival.
Tom Harper directed the period drama, with Louis Morin in the role of overall visual effects supervisor. Framestore created the majority of the film’s cinematic illusions, with Christian Kaestner as visual effects supervisor and Stuart Penn supervising preparatory work for the main shoot. Rodeo FX delivered a rousing finale, led by visual effects supervisor Ara Khanikian, and Alchemy 24 provided additional effects support. The Third Floor visualization supervisor Jason Wen oversaw previs and techvis for the film.
CINEFEX — The
production hired aeronautical engineer Per Lindstrand to build a full-scale gas
balloon for the production shoot. How much of that balloon footage made it into
the finished film?
LOUIS MORIN — The
real balloon was great reference, but there is only one live shot of it in the
movie, and one shot of the actors in the basket in a live flight. The rest is
visual effects. Roughly 70 percent of the movie was shot in front of
Bluescreen shoots can be sometimes be difficult for actors. Did you have any
way of previewing the background environments on set?
LOUIS MORIN — Well, my first idea was to shoot plates and create 360-degree environments that we would actually use on set. That was ultimately considered too time-consuming, so instead Framestore developed a custom augmented reality iPad application called fARsight. We had our sky backgrounds prepared, and every time we were ready to shoot, Tom Harper and George Steel, the director of photography, were able to see where we were. And so were the actors, of course. It was a great tool to make sure the lighting matched the background environment, which is the key in bluescreen shooting.
CINEFEX — These
backgrounds were 360-degree wraparound skies?
LOUIS MORIN — Yeah.
I shot with a multi-camera array in Louisiana for five days with six 8K RED
Helium cameras — the first time this had been done. All those plates were
stitched together and heavily matte-painted, and those became our environments.
CINEFEX — Did these
same environments make their way into the final shots?
LOUIS MORIN — No.
They were good enough to help on set, but there was no way we could finish them
to a high enough level. Everything was redone in post. I shot more plates with
the multi-array, this time in South Africa. At one point we went up so high
that we needed special oxygen tanks for the helicopter. We had all six 8K
cameras running every second. You lose a bit when you stitch them together but
we still ended up with final plates at something like 42K. Imagine the data —
it was insane! We used those plates either as a full live-action environment,
or we used just part of them. Then everything was enhanced by mid-ground CG
CINEFEX — For the
storm sequence, Framestore went the whole hog with fully volumetric digital
LOUIS MORIN —
Actually, there are two big volumetric cloud sequences. I have to say, trying
to do clouds in CG is a nightmare. From the way sunlight goes through and
scatters in infinite ways, to the infinite levels of gradation from light to
dark — the guys went nuts creating the amount of detail we needed.
CINEFEX — There’s a nail-biting sequence where Amelia climbs up the
outside of the balloon. What challenges did that bring?
LOUIS MORIN — The
actors did a good chunk of their own stunts. Felicity Jones was so good. I
couldn’t believe a main
actress would be as daring as her. She had bruises all over the place by the
end! The same for Eddie Redmayne. At some point they had to stop the shoot
because he had a sprained ankle. They even did some stunt work on the real
balloon — a stunt woman climbed up on top while it was actually flying. Out of
respect, we kept her stunt work in our shots, although the balloon and the
environment are totally digital.
CINEFEX — The drama
continues into the descent sequence.
LOUIS MORIN — Which
is funny, because that descent would be so boring to look at in reality — you
would probably be falling through just one layer of cloud. Our idea was to have
multiple layers everywhere, so we would never stop going in and out of cloud,
just to enhance the drama. It’s
almost like a Road Runner cartoon when Wile E. Coyote falls down and the clouds
go up past him!
CINEFEX — The
camerawork throughout is quite naturalistic. Was that a conscious creative decision?
LOUIS MORIN —
Absolutely. George Steel handheld the camera for almost all the movie, and if
we had a camera in the air it had to feel like a helicopter shot. There’s a shot where Amelia slides down the balloon, and
the camera follows and does a 360-degree flip. Tom wanted that to look like it
was being filmed by a guy with a parachute who just fell. That’s great for me,
because I hate when camera moves are too perfect and feel CG. We were really
careful to make sure every shot had that handheld movement. Sometimes it’s
those imperfect details that make it real.
CINEFEX — All this
helps The Aeronauts feel realistic,
but the film also has a magical quality. Was there a balance you were trying to
LOUIS MORIN — Tom
Harper wanted it to look real, but like those moments of reality that you see
maybe once in a lifetime. For my part, I always try to achieve seamless visual
effects, but on this film we were taking it beyond that. We were bending
reality to tell a story. An old lady came up to me after a screening in Los
Angeles, and said. “I had to close my
eyes because I got vertigo.” That’s exactly what we wanted to achieve. We
wanted to go beyond just making things look real. We wanted to create
The Third Floor
CINEFEX — What were
the major previs sequences you handled at The Third Floor?
JASON WEN — We
worked on the opening at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, various balloon establisher
shots, the storm sequence, the butterfly sequence, the balloon at its maximum
altitude and the crash. The director shared with us a completed script and
extensive boards. We tried to stay close to the spirit of the boards,
concentrating on camera, lighting and blocking balloon animation. The biggest challenge was keeping the
movement of the balloon and camera relatively realistic, and based on what
could be achieved with the accurate curvature of the earth. To achieve this, we
modeled the Earth to scale and built different versions of the sky and Earth to
represent the different altitudes outlined in the script.
CINEFEX — Tell us
how your techvis helped with the live-action shoot.
JASON WEN — Several
shots were engineered to a specific stage in West London. We constructed
techvis using the plans for the stage, also incorporating a 64-foot techvis
crane rig matching what the client planned to use on set. We also did techvis
for a number of helicopter shots, to inform the shooting parameters that would
be required from the air.
CINEFEX — Tell us
about the early days of the project.
STUART PENN — I
remember we had our first production meeting at Ealing Studios in February 2018.
It was a roundtable meeting with Tom Harper, the producers and the heads of
departments. Tom is a very collaborative director, and we worked our way
through the script discussing methodologies and how the different departments
could work together to achieve his vision. The team also included world
renowned balloonist Colin Prescot, who provided the team with valuable real
life knowledge and experience of an aeronaut.
— Our brief was clear from the beginning. The visual effects work needed to
support storytelling and remain invisible otherwise. In order to allow the
audience to fully immerse themselves into the story, our integration had to be
seamless. At no point could we afford to take the viewer out of the film.
CINEFEX — Did you
get a chance to go up in a balloon yourselves?
STUART PENN — Yes,
Tom was keen that heads of departments and key members of the crew got the
opportunity to experience balloon flights. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne did
several flights to gain the experience of real aeronauts. I was lucky enough to
have two flights in a hot air balloon. They were inspirational. They definitely
helped to bring authenticity to the project, and to relate to experiences of
the characters in the film.
CINEFEX — We’ve heard how you worked with The Third Floor during
the previs phase. It seems like preplanning was the key to this project.
STUART PENN — Oh,
the film was meticulously planned. I supervised the previs of key action and
balloon establisher shots, and also worked closely with the stunt and special
effects teams. We would check the action was achievable and identify any shots
that would need digital actors — although, for the most part, we tried to use
footage of the actors. Working from the previs, the stunt team would rehearse
shots and film stuntvis that could be fed back to the previs team to make
CINEFEX — You
handled the entire flight of the Mammoth
up to the final part of the descent. Can you summarize the scope of Framestore’s work?
— We start with the opening sequence at Vauxhall from where the Mammoth was launched. We extended the
partial build of the stadium and filled in a crowd of thousands. Right after
take-off, Amelia and James glide over a full CG build of 1862 London. The
balloon disappears into thick clouds and ends up in an unexpected storm inside
a cumulus cloud. After the storm, we break through the clouds to see the mesmerizing
beauty of an endless sea of clouds wonderfully lit by a late afternoon sun. As
we continue the ride we encounter a swarm of several thousand butterflies
elegantly dancing in the wind, before we reach the moment of breaking the
CINEFEX — At which
point the lack of oxygen starts affecting our heroes.
— That’s right. James
passes out, and Amelia attempts to climb the balloon and break open the top
valve, which has frozen shut. We used carefully art-directed sun positions and
camerawork to enhance the effect of vertigo, combined with stunning visuals of
cloudscapes and stars. After the valve is opened, Amelia also passes out and
the balloon begins descending with her lying on top, creating an almost
graphical top-down image. The last of Framestore’s sequences shows Amelia’s
struggle to re-enter the balloon and wake James in lower altitudes. A beautiful
and intimate moment occurs when it starts snowing and the descending balloon catches
up with falling snowflakes which appear to float suspended in mid-air.
CINEFEX — What was
the most challenging aspect of the show for you?
— Without a doubt, translating the striking concept art from Framestore’s art department into believable, photorealistic
volumetric renders. Tom had a very clear vision of what the establishing shots
needed to look like. That was fantastic because it gave us a wonderful guide,
but at the same time there was little room for shortcuts, technically or
visually. Even with today’s render power and physically accurate shaders,
mimicking the light scatter within the vast volumes of our cloudscapes was a
difficult exercise and required all hands on deck from the whole team, from
shader writing to compositing.
CINEFEX — The
aeronauts travel through many different atmospheric zones, each of which has
its own character. Was it hard to keep track of continuity?
STUART PENN — Well,
a key part of the story is the timeline of the balloon ascent. We had diagrams
and charts that plotted the height of the balloon through the film, and we
linked this to the temperatures they would experience and the types of clouds
they would see. Working with Tom, I created per-scene mood boards of clouds,
lighting and atmospherics. These were then used to create templates for the
backgrounds for each scene.
— Yes, and Tom had a very clear idea of what he wanted his sky cinematography
to look like. The shape of the clouds, the screen composition, even the color
palette, were all well-established. Tom worked closely with Martin Macrae in
our art department to bring his vision to life. It was a pleasure turning Tom’s vision into these remarkable images.
CINEFEX — Rodeo FX
handled the climactic balloon descent. What was your reaction when you found you’d be handling this wild ride down through the sky?
ARA KHANIKIAN — You
know, there’s something very
exciting, and somewhat terrifying, when someone tells you, “We need to design a
scene where a 19th century deflating balloon freefalls through layers and
layers of clouds and crash-lands in trees in a period-accurate English
countryside during a glorious sunset!”
CINEFEX — The
Framestore team identified the cloudscapes as being one of the most challenging
aspects of their visual effects work. Was the same true for Rodeo?
ARA KHANIKIAN —
Yes, our main challenge on The Aeronauts
was creating and lighting photorealistic cloudscapes in CG. It was clear to us
that we could not use a digital matte painting approach, based on how dynamic
the shots were in terms of lighting, camera, and overall complexity of action.
Using Terragen, we created a number of custom cloudscapes with diameters
ranging from three to six miles and scattered them into two separate cloud
covers, at different altitudes. We used anisotropic volumetric effects for
distant build-up of atmosphere, natural light spill, warm glow from sunset, and
low-lying humidity on the Earth’s surface.
CINEFEX — There
must be some interesting physics going on inside a deflating gas balloon. How
did you simulate all that rippling silk?
ARA KHANIKIAN — One
of the big challenges was developing the look and the interaction of the fabric
with its enveloping rope netting. The simulation of the Mammoth was done accurately by having a CG volume exerting pressure
at top of the balloon, simulating how hydrogen gas would react for additional
realism. Created the proper hierarchies and constraints allowed us to deflate
the balloon, while keeping control of the tension of ropes and their connection
with the hoop from the bluescreen photography. We created a master scene and
choreographed the Mammoth’s path and speed from start to end. This removed any
subjectivity in regard to height, horizon line and speed from shot to shot.
Designing the entire choreography in one master layout scene ended up being a
very smart decision on the show — nobody ever second-guessed layouts in shots.
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: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
CINEFEX – What part of your job do you enjoy
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
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
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.
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 – 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
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
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
CINEFEX – Which affects the movement of the
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.
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.
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.