The Illusionists — Richard Edlund

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Richard Edlund

CINEFEX — What do you remember about watching films as a youngster?

RICHARD EDLUND — I remember being in the seventh grade, going down to one of the movie palaces in Minneapolis and seeing The Robe, the first Cinemascope movie. I remember seeing Victor Mature standing on top of a mountain with this green halo vibrating around him. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d spotted a matte line!

CINEFEX — You spent many hours later on trying to keep matte lines out of the picture on Star Wars. How did you get that gig?

RICHARD EDLUND — After I had gotten out of college, I was a rock‘n’roll photographer for three or four years, and then I worked in commercials with Bob Abel, which was where I got involved with visual effects. One day I got this call from John Dykstra, who wanted to talk about a sci-fi movie he was going to do for George Lucas. I jumped in my car, drove out to what was then Industrial Light & Magic, and wound up talking to John and Gary Kurtz. After about half an hour I was given the job as director of photography for the miniatures.

CINEFEX — What did you think when you first read the script for Star Wars?

RICHARD EDLUND — I thought it was a teenage movie. I was a little bit worried about lines like, “Trust in the force, Luke.” I couldn’t think of many actors in America who would have the gravitas to pull off those lines, except maybe Marlon Brando. About three or four months into the project, when we were getting ready to shoot in England, we heard that George had just cast Alec Guinness to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. I thought, “That’s it! He’s the guy!” It was the perfect casting. I realized at that point the film was going to transcend the teenage demographic and capture the adult audience as well.

CINEFEX — So Alec Guinness was the key?

RICHARD EDLUND — Oh, there were four keys to Star Wars. The first was Ralph McQuarrie. He did a series of maybe 12-15 paintings of various aspects of the script, and George used those paintings to sell the project. The second was choosing us to do the visual effects. It was just a great team that John put together. Nobody else at that time that could have done it— you have to remember there was no infrastructure at that time in visual effects. The third thing was the casting of Alec Guinness, and the fourth was John Williams’ music. Those were the four super-critical things.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists

Now Showing – Cinefex 169

Cinefex 169 - celebrating 40 years of the journal of cinematic illusions

We’re proud to present the 40th anniversary edition of Cinefex!

It was tempting to make this special celebratory issue, Cinefex 169, all about the past – after all, Cinefex is a grand old lady, and reminiscing is what grand old ladies do. But we quickly discarded the idea as too pat, too self-indulgent, too expected. Instead of looking back, we decided to look forward. We would talk to visual effects supervisors and directors, and though, inevitably, there would be some shuffling down Memory Lane, the focus of our discussions would be the future.

It was a big idea, but we think we’ve pulled it off.

Inside our 40th anniversary issue are interviews with George Lucas, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Robert Zemeckis, all of whom have delivered some of the most spectacular and innovative films covered in the pages of Cinefex. We also offer a roundtable discussion of visual effects past, present and future with 21 Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisors.

We round out Cinefex 169 with detailed coverage of The Mandalorian and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which seemed fitting for an anniversary issue of Cinefex. By launching a new era in visual effects, the original Star Wars was, in part, responsible for the magazine’s inception, and The Empire Strikes Back graced the covers of both our second and third issues.

All of us offer our profound thanks to readers, subscribers and advertisers for making Cinefex possible these 40 years. We trust we’ve given you something valuable in exchange for your support – and we hope to be around to say that 60 is the new 100!

Cinefex 169 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will soon be landing in your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.

Spotlight – Angela Barson

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

Angela Barson is creative director and co-founder of BlueBolt. Based in central London, BlueBolt’s credits include Game of Thrones Season 1, Skyfall, The Current War, Mary Queen of Scots and The Last Kingdom.

Angela Barson

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

ANGELA BARSON: My route into the industry was very haphazard. I sometimes feel guilty that it was never a dream of mine to work in film and yet I’ve been lucky enough to succeed. I think I’ve had lots of little breaks rather than one big break; it’s all about making the most of any opportunity that comes your way.

I studied architecture, during which time I developed an interest in photography and computing. On a visit to London to see friends, I visited Parallax – a software development firm – for a general look around, which ended up being an interview, which led to a job offer. I had no idea what they did or what I was getting myself into! They had developed a digital paint package, Matador, and were developing a digital compositing package, Advance. I spent several years showing this software off to post houses around the world, mainly in London and Los Angeles. This allowed me to visit some of the top facilities like ILM, Digital Domain, CFC and Cinesite.

After having children I wanted more flexibility. Starting out as a freelance compositor with two very young kids probably wasn’t the brightest idea! I managed to get a job at the BBC as a Flame operator – having never used Flame – and spent a really fun year there working with some great people. I wanted to move into film after that, so I got a job at MPC, where I stayed for eight years working my way up the ranks. That’s where I met Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor which ultimately brought about the creation of BlueBolt.

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

ANGELA BARSON: Creating invisible effects. When a client thinks they are looking at something they shot, not realizing it’s CG – that’s the ultimate compliment.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANGELA BARSON: When shot turnover is delayed, the shot count is doubled, but the delivery date is still the same.

Watch BlueBolt’s 2019 visual effects showreel:

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

ANGELA BARSON: I was working with the ‘Oompa Loompa’ unit on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We were shooting multiple motion control passes of one Oompa Loompa singing and dancing. I had to capture each take as it was filmed, sync them together with the music, composite them, and cut the result into the edit, ready to show the second unit director for sign-off as soon as they’d completed the last take. We couldn’t move onto the next setup until I’d finished and shown everything was okay. This went on for about five months. Probably one of the most stressful, yet enjoyable, jobs I’ve done.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANGELA BARSON: Also on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My desk was on a platform in the middle of the chocolate river for several weeks. It’s amazing how fast that can become normal!

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

ANGELA BARSON: Visual effects used to be seen as an expensive luxury. Now, it’s often seen as the default fix to almost any problem. Just because something can be done in visual effects doesn’t mean it should be! “Fix it in post” is sadly heard way too often.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANGELA BARSON: I’d like visual effects to be embraced as just another tool of the filmmaking process. I believe films should be all about the story and vision, with visual effects used to aid and support that where needed, and not be the main focus of the film. It would also be great if the other departments understood visual effects more – although it’s getting much better – and gave it the time and respect needed both on set and in post. Having to battle when on set to get your clean plate or HDRI data is just ridiculous.

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

ANGELA BARSON: Get a range of experience in other, but related, fields. It’s great when we get people who have had a previous life in photography, or architecture, or set design. You can bring so much more to the craft when you have other areas to draw on rather than just doing a visual course then coming straight into the industry. If you do go down the direct route into your first job, try and supplement that with other interests.

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

ANGELA BARSON: I don’t particularly enjoy watching effects movies. I spend too much time analyzing the visual effects work instead of just watching the film. The worse the film, the more I watch the visual effects; the better the film, the more the visual effects are irrelevant. I won’t know my favorite visual effects shots, as I wouldn’t know they were visual effects!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANGELA BARSON: None. If I’m enjoying a film, I don’t want to be distracted by eating … or by anyone else eating!

CINEFEX: Angela, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Simon Carr

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

Simon Carr is a visual effects supervisor at Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Face/Off, Star Trek Into Darkness, Bohemian Rhapsody and Mindhunter.

Simon Carr

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

SIMON CARR: After writing a lot of letters to a lot of companies, I was offered a job as a runner in a motion control studio for cel animation. I essentially made tea for two years whilst learning everything I could about the business. When the Quantel Henry came along, I used my evenings to teach myself that, which led to an opportunity with Animal Logic in Sydney. I would say that was my biggest break as it led to working on film compositing and gave my career a real boost.

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

SIMON CARR: The job is most fun when you see the work that’s been discussed and planned coming together in support of the story. The effect can be a very simple one, but if it bridges a gap and sells a scene or action, that’s really exciting. But the one thing that has given me most pleasure over my career has been discovering talent. There’s nothing quite like having your expectations exceeded by a brilliant artist.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SIMON CARR: Nothing would be quite that bad – we’re not saving lives! But it is frustrating to work on projects with no clear direction and constant undecided feedback. The best projects are the ones in which a clear idea is followed through from script to screen.

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

SIMON CARR: Many years ago, I worked as a compositor on a beer commercial. The material came to us from a chaotic shoot as a paper edit, which I had to reassemble. I was working from 24/25 pull-down, juggling cuts on Henry and Domino, running a video and film cut simultaneously. After 14 days working 16 hours a day, I was incoherent with exhaustion. The boss sent me home and banned the client from the building! After that, almost everything seems reasonably benign.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SIMON CARR: I was once asked by a client to put a penguin in a shot. Let’s just say it was not a shot that would naturally feature a penguin.

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

SIMON CARR: The biggest change is in the speed and power of the technology, leading to a huge growth in the use of visual effects in all genres. Alongside the recent explosion in content creation, this has led to a much greater demand for visual effects and the technology to produce them. When I started, producing a 30-second commercial on one machine was almost inconceivable. Now, my phone has more computing power and storage than the workstations being used back then. The downside, to my mind, has been the tendency to push decision-making to later and later in the process, and this can lead to some projects being uneven and rushed.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SIMON CARR: Although the industry has become more diverse than when I started, it would be great to encourage more people from all backgrounds to join, and also to break the idea of art and science being mutually exclusive. If there was ever an industry that illustrated the blend of math and art, it is visual effects.

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

SIMON CARR: There are so many good courses now – that seems an obvious place to start. However, I would also say the visual effects industry – like the film industry in general – has such a wide range of jobs needing such a diverse set of skills that plenty of people move across into it from other areas. The most important thing is to find something you’re passionate about and aim to do it as well as you can.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

SIMON CARR: I expect AI will have an impact, potentially helping with tasks like rotoscoping and clean-up as image detection and recognition improves. It will also help with tracking for both cameras and objects. I imagine there may be an increase in the use of digital actors or digital make-up. Hopefully, the current level of content creation will continue and lead to a more stable relationship between studios and facilities. That stability will enable longer-term R&D and investment.

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

SIMON CARR: This is a difficult one, because I don’t really think of films in terms of their effects, more in terms of their storytelling or the effect they had on me. My stand-out films tend to come from my early years. The original Star Wars – now called A New Hope – had a massive impact on me. If I had to choose one sequence, it would be the opening space battle. The entrance of the Star Destroyer is still one of the most breathtaking moments in movie history.

My second choice would be Blade Runner, for its visual invention and the completeness of the design. I loved that movie from the first time I saw it and have loved it ever since. The spinner journey across the city of Los Angeles, which was made from etched copper flats, is an object lesson in achieving a huge amount with very little.

The third choice is hard. It’s between E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I think CE3K wins for the arrival of the spaceship. The fact it never touched down but was just this gigantic hovering object had a visceral impact in the cinema.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SIMON CARR: I’m a terrible curmudgeon who thinks no food of any kind should be allowed in a cinema. I go to watch movies, not to eat!

CINEFEX: Simon, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Andrew Popplestone

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

Andrew Popplestone is creative director at Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Far from Home, No Time To Die, Ghost in the Shell and Dune.

Andrew Popplestone

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I trained as a fine artist then studied graphic design at university. I had no idea I would get into this industry – all I knew was I loved design, films and telling stories. My first big break came when I was offered a design role in Los Angeles at Prologue Films, which specialized in film title sequences. It was there I started to understand how design can be translated across into visual effects. I’ve always loved the idea of combining practical hand-crafted processes and a graphic designer’s eye with innovative CG and visual effects techniques. It’s this ‘designed-VFX’ approach that we specialize in at Territory Studio.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I love those seemingly magical days where the creative just flows effortlessly and you really crack it. You go home floating on air. Also, when you show the client, visual effects supervisor or director something they love but which surprises them – in a good way – or goes beyond their expectation. Ultimately, our job is to help the storyteller tell their story; if we can do that in a way that is new, innovative or unexpected, that’s the really fun part. Outside of that, the real joy of what we do is provoking some sort of emotional reaction from an audience that draws them into the story.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Well, thankfully it’s never got quite that bad! Although, it can be quite disheartening when schedules and budgets in no way align to expectations, ultimately leading to comprising the work. As designers and artists, our desire is to create something to the very best of our ability.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: A lot of what we do at Territory has some sort of narrative or storytelling objective, helping to explain a plot point and push the story along. These are often the most challenging tasks, but also the most satisfying. We have to work very closely with the director or visual effects supervisor to visually communicate a complicated part of the script.

We had some really interesting challenges on Ready Player One. In one case, we were asked to create a volumetric database archive that a character had to physically interact with. This being Ready Player One, it needed a distinctly ‘80s vibe. We based the design concept off an old reel-to-reel system. Another task was to design the entire OASIS galaxy as a 3D interactive map in the form of a Rubik’s Cube.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: So many! We’ve been asked to create all sorts of bizarre things ranging from the inside of Ryan Gosling’s brain, worm protein vending machines, holographic ‘Love Motel’ signs, and even an alien porn channel!

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The incredible advancement of technology would be the first obvious answer. This is an industry that pioneers innovation in technology, which has made everything wonderfully more accessible and allowed individual artists to explore new ways of doing things. Along with that, the expectations of clients and audiences has massively increased.

However, utilizing more developing technology needs to be done in a considered way. The downside has been a perception of speed, ease and scale which can cheapen the art, to a degree. This has led to situations where, instead of thinking or designing a way to a solution, it’s all too easy to simply throw people and technology at it. This can lead to less consideration in the early stages of the script/production process.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: I would love to see a little more crossover and collaboration between the production art department and postproduction visual effects.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Firstly, grow some thick skin and make sure you truly love what you do. If you can’t do that, this is most definitely not the business for you. Always keep asking questions, stay curious and never stop learning. Be flexible and generous with your time, but always try to maintain a personal life.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The quality and complexity of visual effects is going to continue to grow. Volumetric capture, augmented reality and AI tools will all become more commonplace. With the increase in original content from the likes of Netflix, Apple and Amazon, there is a huge amount of work in both features and episodic television. Hopefully, this will allow the industry to consolidate and facilities to become more robust in structure.

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

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: The first is Jurassic Park. As a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Seeing them brought to life before my eyes is what made me fall in love with the magic of movies.

The second is The Matrix. I was a little late seeing this after it came out. Everyone was raving about it, and I couldn’t imagine what all the fuss was about. When I finally saw the film, it absolutely blew my mind. It was like nothing I’d seen before, and possibly the first time I realized how visual effects can bend the rules of reality in storytelling.

The last is a toss up between Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings. I think The Lord of The Rings would take it. As a massive fan of the books, I was just gobsmacked at how it was re-created on screen at such an epic scale. It’s an incredible example of beautiful cinematography, practical effects and visual effects working seamlessly together, all wrapped up in a compelling story.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDREW POPPLESTONE: Sweet and salted popcorn all the way.

CINEFEX: Andrew, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Marti Romances

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

Marti Romances is co-founder and creative director of the San Francisco office of Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Avengers: Endgame, Infinity War and Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, Ex Machina, Ad Astra, The Fate of the Furious, The OA, Jupiter Ascending, Mile 22 and Rampage.

Marti  Romances

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business?

MARTI ROMANCES: I started as an Autodesk Combustion artist creating animated DVD menus, back in the day. This gave me close proximity to senior Flame artists and visual effects talent, so I quickly became exposed to matte painting, rotoscoping, compositing, color – all that great stuff. I began creating visual effects on film and commercial projects that required the re-creation of realistic surroundings — for example, placing a tree here, a road there, or whatever else the scenes required.

What really fueled my desire and propelled me into visual effects was discovering its overlap with design. That’s when I hit my stride. I began designing holographic interfaces and other 3D elements on some incredible sci-fi films. Joining Territory Studio and helping it grow into a global company with over 120 people is another feather in my cap, and a crucial element in the trajectory of my career to date.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Working on films that I grew up watching and admiring, including the experience of designing on several Marvel films. All these different franchises have defined my taste over the years, and now I’ve actually been able to participate in them as a designer. Thinking about it makes me grin like the Cheshire cat!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

MARTI ROMANCES: Seeing effects used just for the sake of adding them. Unfortunately, some people force stuff when it’s not required. Conversely, I am always looking for something that needs to be designed, especially if it has never existed before. This is what drives me as an artist.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Starting Territory Studio in San Francisco has been an incredible challenge, creating a facility out of nowhere and, within a few years, being lauded for our visual effects and design work. Challenging, but very satisfying!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

MARTI ROMANCES: For Guardians of the Galaxy, we had to add a cassette tape from the ‘80s into a holographic screen from another galaxy, all so that Star-Lord could play his mix tape.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: One of the most impressive changes we’ve seen has been the accessibility young artists have to the software we use, and how easy the internet has made it for them to learn how to master such tools. Without this, we wouldn’t have as much talent working in the industry today.

I’d also highlight the many advances we’ve seen in raytracing, and almost real-time photorealistic rendering. It helps the creative process so much when you can actually iterate while lighting a CG scene, or when moving cameras around. Something we needed to wait for hours to achieve in the not-so-distant past can now be updated in a fraction of a second.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

MARTI ROMANCES: I experience a lot of visual inconsistencies between departments on big jobs. Each department has its budgetary concerns and they don’t always play well with others. Because some studios are so big and complicated to navigate, this can lead to people trying to re-create your work under a different budget, generating the same assets for use in production, then postproduction, then for marketing purposes. I see this working well on smaller productions, but it’s something bigger studios could learn from.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Never take shortcuts. I think the industry puts you where you need to be. If you want to gain seniority and respect, the only way to do so is to build up your career step by step. Experience becomes everything: one day you will have people below you who rely on your knowledge and wisdom, because you’ve been there before. Self-entitlement is definitely something that doesn’t work very well. Also, there is no final goal. Our industry won’t ever stop, so you should never slow down.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

MARTI ROMANCES: Real-time render engines are already beginning to pick up the pace. Computational power is growing exponentially, and our perception of what’s possible should also follow suit. I envision more integrated experiences with the audience, with immersive storytelling and experiential narratives leading the way.

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

MARTI ROMANCES: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – take a look at those gorgeous hand-made effects and environments! Even the propmaking department on this film would be a gold mine of information for anyone who wants to work in the art department nowadays.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – I think there is a before-and-after watershed moment here regarding elements of the film like matte painting or crowd duplication. While we rely on CG techniques to create these things today, back then there was a lot of stitching and compositing work happening.

The Matrix – this is an obvious one, but the techniques they used back then were definitely ahead of their time, especially being so innovative visually with just camera effects.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

MARTI ROMANCES: Always salted popcorn. None of that melted buttery business I’ve found brazenly added to popcorn here in the US!

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Marti!

Spotlight – David Sheldon-Hicks

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

David Sheldon-Hicks is co-founder and executive creative director of Territory Studio, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. His filmography highlights include Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, Ex Machina, Guardians of the Galaxy, Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One and Dune.

David Sheldon-Hicks

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: From the age of four or five I was watching Star Wars, Labyrinth, Ghostbusters and other visual effects-heavy shows. I was fascinated by how they were made. Then, at the age of ten, I discovered a series of documentaries on UK television that explored the making of films, showing what animatronics entailed, optical printing, stop-frame animation, matte painting … I was completely hooked.

I remember forcing my parents to take me to London so I could buy my first large book about Industrial Light & Magic, which I devoured from cover to cover multiple times. At an early age, I hunted out friends with video cameras and we’d sculpt clay heads and then try to create animatronic creatures of our own. Discovering suppliers of liquid latex at the age of 12 in the UK was not easy, especially prior to the internet!

From there, I studied design at university, always knowing I wanted to combine animation and visual effects with design; all my submitted projects at university had these elements in them. My first break came on music videos. I was able to experiment and play with lots of styles before winning my first film project: working with the art department on Casino Royale, creating on-set screen graphics.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Seeing our teams exceed my own ambitions. Allowing people to innovate and devise original solutions is so satisfying. We’re so lucky to have some very ambitious clients who not only expect the highest levels of artistic craft but also want to see something new and original each time. Time and time again the teams step up to this challenge and it always amazes me. I’m never bored of seeing how everything grows.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Its a creative industry, so everything swirls around a degree of chaos and unknown factors. I think that’s okay, though. We’re comfortable with the chaos and finding clever solutions. If there weren’t problems to solve, we’d be very bored!

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Running a company and having a family – as well as finding my own balance. It’s a challenge because I’m so passionate about both aspects in my life. I used to blame external factors, but really it comes down to me being honest with myself and properly managing my time. Because I’m essentially paid to do my hobby, it sometimes is hard to switch off.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: The collaboration between various departments on films is getting closer and closer. Territory Studio has always worked across both art departments and visual effects, but this is happening more and more. With virtual production and real-time technologies coming through, I can see this expanding even further; it’s very exciting. The physical design of places and objects is an incredible craft and discipline that I’ve learned so much from over the years. Also the camera department. All this feeds into the visual effects work that we do, and its massively inspiring and rewarding to be a part of.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Just go ahead and do it! Don’t think too hard about the specific role at first, because you might want to try a few things out to find what works for you. There’s so much opportunity out there and as your career grows you’ll become very familiar with learning new tools and techniques, so don’t become too rigid in your expectations. It all keeps changing and evolving and that’s what makes it interesting.

CINEFEX: Territory is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What are your predictions for the next decade?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: At some point, machine learning is going to have a massive impact, not only reducing the need for simple tasks to be done manually, but also becoming an integral tool in the entire pipeline. Volumetric capture and display is a technology I’ve been waiting to see come into maturity my entire lifetime. I hope that happens in the next 10 years; I want to be watching films fully three-dimensionally in holographic form. That can only happen if we start shooting films with 3D scanners as well as lenses.

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

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Labyrinth – any shots with animatronics. That film just enchanted me with its world-building and made me passionate about filmmaking. There was also great matte painting and optical printing that adds to the charm.

Contact – it made me realize that visual effects can have great design and be an integral part of the filmmaking process. I’m thinking of the mirror flip shot, or some of the shots of Jodie in the capsule as she’s traveling through space.

The Matrix – seeing the time slice effects and all the incredible CG robot work in the cinema felt like a leap in our industry. I came out of that film thinking I’d just witnessed a completely new art form.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS: Nachos with far too many jalapenos.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, David!

“Tremors” Turns 30

Bob Skotak lines up a Graboid shot in the quarter-scale miniature basement constructed for 'Tremors.'
Bob Skotak lines up a Graboid shot in the quarter-scale miniature basement constructed for ‘Tremors.’

As the lights dimmed in the intimate theater of the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, last Saturday evening, a cheer went up from the room, packed with a hundred die-hard movie fans assembled for a screening of the science fiction cult favorite, Tremors. They had gathered from all parts of the country for this moment, the highlight of a two-day event organized by the museum to mark the 30th anniversary of the film. And while the museum’s meticulously curated exhibits of memorabilia celebrate the area’s rich film history as the ‘largest Western back lot in the country’ – the shooting location of countless B-movie westerns from Hopalong Cassidy to Roy Rogers – Lone Pine’s real claim to fame, at least for the gathered throng that weekend, is that Tremors was filmed there.

The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, site of the ‘Tremors’ 30th anniversary celebration.
The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, site of the ‘Tremors’ 30th anniversary celebration.

On hand for the festivities were some of the movie’s original cast – including Robert Jayne, who played teenage troublemaker Melvin; Charlotte Stewart, cast as young mom Nancy; and Michael Gross, whose comic turn as armed-to-the-teeth survivalist Burt Gummer has since become a fan favorite. Joining them were director Ron Underwood, production designer Ivo Cristante, creature effects designer and creator Alec Gillis, and screenwriters and producing partners S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock.

Writer/producer Steve Wilson (left) and Cinefex founder Don Shay.
Writer/producer Steve Wilson (left) and Cinefex founder Don Shay.

My husband (Cinefex founder Don Shay) and I first learned of the Tremors event through Steve (S.S.) Wilson – a longtime friend whom Don first met when Steve was still in film school and Cinefex was in its infancy. Steve had even done some freelance writing for Cinefex, contributing an article on Dragonslayer back in 1981, before he and Brent made it big in Hollywood with Short Circuit, *batteries not included, Wild, Wild West and others. When we heard that Steve and his wife, Michelle, would be attending the reunion, and that it was to be held in Lone Pine – a favorite place of ours – we eagerly made plans to join them.

After settling into our hotel on Friday night, we headed out the next morning to the nearby museum, just down the road on Lone Pine’s single-stoplight main drag. Despite having attended a previous 25th anniversary screening of Tremors in Los Angeles and witnessing the single-minded devotion of its fans, given the remote location of this event, we were a bit surprised to see a line already forming at the entrance to the museum, waiting for the doors to open. Perhaps our first clue should have been the car parked opposite ours, which sported a custom license plate frame that read: ‘Perfection, Nevada: Home of the Graboids.’ Clearly, these were serious fans, some of whom had traveled great distances to be here, as we soon learned after chatting with one woman in line who had flown in the night before from Chicago.

A full-size Graboid puppet, built by Amalgamated Dynamics, is one of many 'Tremors' artifacts on permanent display in the Museum of Western Film History.
A full-size Graboid puppet, built by Amalgamated Dynamics, is one of many ‘Tremors’ artifacts on permanent display in the Museum of Western Film History.
Cinefex 42

Inside we discovered that, in addition to the Tremors display – complete with full-size Graboid – that is part of the museum’s permanent collection, there was now a much more expansive display in the main lobby, featuring additional memorabilia and artifacts from the Tremors universe. There were creature models of varying scales, production photos, movie posters, scripts, props, and much more. There was even a copy under glass of Cinefex 42 from 1990, featuring Tremors as its cover story. That back issue can still be purchased, by the way, on the Cinefex website.

Tremors writer/producer Brent Maddock, director Ron Underwood, writer/producer S.S. Wilson, actor Michael Gross and production designer Ivo Cristante share a laugh during a panel discussion on the film.
Tremors writer/producer Brent Maddock, director Ron Underwood, writer/producer S.S. Wilson, actor Michael Gross and production designer Ivo Cristante share a laugh during a panel discussion on the film.

After a meet-and-greet, everyone gathered in the museum’s theater for a panel discussion in which all of the film’s luminaries were interviewed about the genesis of the movie and the details of the eight-week location shoot. It was fascinating to hear their stories and how it was that the filmmakers chose Lone Pine’s remote Alabama Hills, with its dramatic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, for the shoot – a decision that ultimately paid off in spades by giving the story its small town charm and sense of place. Other anecdotes told of the camaraderie of the cast and crew, despite the challenges of working in the harsh desert environment where one day it was snowing and the next sizzling, or dealing with a budget that today would barely cover craft services on a major effects film. The personal stories clearly delighted the fans, and the morning passed quickly.

Creature creator Alec Gillis discusses the challenges of building and puppeteering the subterranean Graboids for ‘Tremors.’
Creature creator Alec Gillis discusses the challenges of building and puppeteering the subterranean Graboids for ‘Tremors.’

Following lunch at a local eatery, we all raced back to the museum to hear a presentation by special effects designer Alec Gillis, who, along with partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. and their company, Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, was responsible for designing and building Tremors’ subterranean Graboids. In the pre-digital age of 1990, with a company that was barely underway, the task of creating convincing creature effects proved no small feat. In fact, Gillis related, initial strategy sessions with the producers took place in restaurants because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, Gillis and Woodruff had yet to set up a physical shop. But such minor details weren’t about to deter them, and ultimately their on-set animatronics, working in conjunction with miniatures by Robert and Dennis Skotak, gave Tremors its genuinely terrifying moments.

There’s nothing like watching a movie with an appreciative audience, and when it came to the evening’s entertainment – the screening of Tremors – the payoff was huge. These were, after all, the very people who had enabled Tremors to achieve its cult status, and they cheered their favorite moments, yelling “Wait for it!” when lines like Burt’s “Guess you broke into the wrong God damn rec room, didn’t ya!” were coming. Afterwards, cast and crew once again took the stage to answer more questions from the audience.

Production designer Ivo Cristante with Steve Wilson at one of the filming locations in the Alabama Hills.
Production designer Ivo Cristante with Steve Wilson at one of the filming locations in the Alabama Hills.

On Sunday morning, we all gathered in the museum parking lot one last time to caravan out to the Alabama Hills with the event’s special guests and local guides, who had mapped out the precise locations of key scenes in the movie. The movie-set town of Perfection was torn down after the picture wrapped, but we visited the stretch of blacktop where telephone repairmen in the film meet a gruesome fate, and the exact spot where our heroes pole-vault from rock to rock to reach the safety of their vehicle.

Don and Estelle Shay at the filming site where ‘Tremors’ characters pole-vault from rock to rock to evade a fearsome Graboid below ground.
Don and Estelle Shay at the filming site where ‘Tremors’ characters pole-vault from rock to rock to evade a fearsome Graboid below ground.

Upon our return to the museum, which had scheduled additional screenings of other Tremors franchise films for the rest of the day, Don and I said our goodbyes and headed home. It was a fitting end to a perfect weekend, spent in the company of people whose magnificent obsession with this little gem of a film got me wondering: What was it about Tremors that made it so special? I think, perhaps, one of the fans in the audience the previous night had hit the nail on the head when he stood up during the Q&A to thank the people on the stage for making Tremors. It was a perfect script, he observed – a flawless blend of humor and genuinely scary moments, with characters you like and care about, and a story that hits all the right notes. I couldn’t help thinking those are the ingredients that make real movie magic – and, in this case, all achieved without the aid of fancy computers or sophisticated software. I miss that.

VFX Q&A – The Two Popes

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

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.

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

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 and textures.

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.

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

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!

VFX Nominations Announced for 92nd Academy Awards

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced this year’s nominations for achievement in visual effects. The nominations are:

  • Avengers: Endgame
    • Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Matt Aitken and Dan Sudick
  • The Irishman
    • Pablo Helman, Leandro Estebecorena, Nelson Sepulveda-Fauser and Stephane Grabli
  • The Lion King
    • Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Elliot Newman
  • 1917
    • 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.