Spotlight – Nicholas Hurst

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

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

Nicholas Hurst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

NICHOLAS HURST: Unrealistic timeframes!

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

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

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

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

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

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

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Nicholas!

Spotlight – Andy Burrow

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

Andy Burrow is a visual effects producer at Outpost VFX, and lists his career highlights as including Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Maleficent and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Andy Burrow

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

ANDY BURROW: I started in scanning and recording in 2001 at Framestore, and gravitated to visual effects when the industry dropped negative and went almost exclusively digital. I began working in visual effects at Lipsync in 2012 and haven’t looked back since.

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

ANDY BURROW: Undoubtedly the people I work with at Outpost. I have so much fun on a daily basis with my colleagues. Even if we are in an incredibly stressful crunch time we manage to keep the spirits up, although these are pretty infrequent. Also, being 10 minutes away from the beach doesn’t hurt.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

ANDY BURROW: Generally penalty shoot-outs in England soccer matches. But I felt a lot better after the Colombia game!

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

ANDY BURROW: The director of Maleficent was originally a matte painter, so as fast as we were creating the environments for the show he was annotating them and we’d almost have to start again from scratch.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

ANDY BURROW: It’s far too rude to mention here!

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

ANDY BURROW: Unfortunately, it’s tighter schedules for ever-decreasing budgets.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

ANDY BURROW: That everyone in visual effects is treated fairly with regards to work-life balance, as in other industries. This is something that Outpost genuinely cares about – for the first time in a long time I really look forward to coming to work.

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

ANDY BURROW: Be prepared to work hard and you will reap the rewards. And make sure you go to the pub with the more senior artists – you’ll be surprised how much you learn.

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 BURROW: First up would be the original Clash of the Titans. As soon as I saw it, I knew I would love movies forever. I still think the stop motion can’t be bettered and it was just so magical to watch as a kid, pure escapism.

Second would be The Matrix, I’ll never forget seeing bullet-time and thinking, “What the **** is going on here?”

Lastly, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I was blown away at the time as a teenager and the visual effects still hold up now.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

ANDY BURROW: A hot dog smothered in ketchup and mustard, naturally.

CINEFEX: Andy, thanks for your time!

2018 Emmy Awards Nominations

70th Emmy Awards

The buildup to the 70th Emmy Awards began yesterday, when the Television Academy announced over 9,100 nominations in 122 categories. Television Academy chairman and chief executive officer Hayma Washington commented:

“The continued growth of the industry has provided opportunities for acclaimed new programs to emerge, while allowing last season’s break-through programs to thrive. In addition, 36 performers – ranging from new discoveries to revered international stars – have received their first-ever acting Emmy nomination across all categories of scripted programming. We are honored to recognize both television’s seasoned veterans and rising talents. This year’s nominations continue to represent increased diversity and inclusion in front of the camera. And, there is a wealth of new and returning programs that reflect so many of today’s critical issues.”

"Game of Thrones" received 22 nominations in the run-up to the 70th Emmy Awards, more than any other show.

“Game of Thrones” received 22 nominations in the run-up to the 70th Emmy Awards, more than any other show.

The nominations in the two categories for special visual effects honor not only well-established series like HBO’s multi-award-winning Game of Thrones – the most recognized show this year with 22 nominations in all – but also newer streaming shows such as Altered Carbon and Lost in Space. Streaming giant Netflix led the field overall, narrowly beating HBO’s 108 nominations with a grand total of 112.

Here’s a breakdown of the visual effects nominees, plus those for prosthetic makeup and fantasy/sci-fi costumes. There’s a long list of key supervisors and artists credited for each show – we urge you to visit the Emmy Awards website to get all the names, and to check out the nominations in all the other categories.

Outstanding Special Visual Effects

  • Netflix’s Altered Carbon (Out Of The Past)
    Senior visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell
  • HBO’s Game Of Thrones (Beyond The Wall)
    Lead visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer
  • Netflix’s Lost In Space (Danger, Will Robinson)
    Senior visual effects supervisor Jabbar Raisani
  • Netflix’s Stranger Things (Chapter Nine: The Gate)
    Senior visual effects supervisor Paul Graff
  • HBO’s Westworld (The Passenger)
    Visual effects supervisor  Jay Worth

Outstanding Special Visual Effects In A Supporting Role

  • TNT’s The Alienist (The Boy On The Bridge)
    Visual effects supervisor Kent Houston
  • Netflix’s The Crown (Misadventure)
    Visual effects supervisor Ben Turner
  • FOX’s Gotham (That’s Entertainment)
    Visual effects supervisor Thomas Joseph Mahoney
  • Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (June)
    Visual effects supervisor Stephen Lebed
  • USA’s Robot (eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00)
    Visual effects supervisor Ariel Altman

Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Limited Series, Movie Or Special

  • FX’s American Horror Story: Cult
    Department head makeup artist Eryn Krueger Mekash
  • FX’s The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
    Department head makeup artist Eryn Krueger Mekash
  • HBO’s Game Of Thrones (The Dragon And The Wolf)
    Department head makeup artist Jane Walker
  • CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery (Will You Take My Hand?)
    Special makeup effects department head Glenn Hetrick
  • HBO’s Westworld (The Riddle Of The Sphinx)
    Department head makeup artist Justin Raleigh

Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes

  • HBO’s Fahrenheit 451
    Costume designer Meghan Kasperlik
  • HBO’s Game Of Thrones (Beyond The Wall)
    Costume designer Michele Clapton
  • Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Seeds)
    Costume designer Ane Crabtree
  • Netflix’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (The Vile Village: Part 1)
    Costume designer Cynthia Summers
  • HBO’s Westworld (Akane No Mai)
    Costume designer Sharen Davis

Voting for the final round begins August 13, and the 70th Emmy Awards will telecast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, September 17. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards airs Saturday, September 15.

Making the Summer Grade

Cinefex 160 Banner

What do Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Deadpool 2 have in common? Well, for a start, they’re all featured in our summer issue, Cinefex 160, out mid-August and available to preorder now.

The films have more in common than we realized, actually, as Blackmagic Design told us recently. Three of the four were graded by digital imaging technicians using the same DaVinci Resolve Studio software. Talking about his work on Deadpool 2, EFILM senior colorist Skip Kimball commented:

“The biggest challenge in balancing the look of Deadpool 2 was to seamlessly integrate a high volume of visual effects shots that came in from many different vendors. The footage was shot over many weeks at various stages and locations, so my aim was to make sure everything was kept fluid and cohesive. For example, the convoy scene is 10 minutes of action, but elements were shot on bluescreen and on location during different times of day. It took many external mattes combined with Power Windows, along with Resolve plugins like camera shake, blurs and many tricks to make it all come together.”

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes charge while Domino (Zazie Beetz) looks on. "Deadpool 2" photograph courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes charge while Domino (Zazie Beetz) looks on. “Deadpool 2” photograph courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Kimball worked closely with director of photography Jonathan Sela to create the final grade, acknowledging the fact that while Deadpool frequently dips his mercenary toe into the world of the X-Men, the two franchises have very different looks.

“I’ve worked on several previous films with Jonathan,” said Kimball. “His work is so even and straightforward, and I’m able to get what he exposed on the screen fairly quickly, which is a testament to his craft. The look for Deadpool 2 has less contrast, is a bit softer, and is not as saturated, which all serves Jonathan’s vision.”

Commenting on his overall approach to the colorist’s craft, Kimball added:

“I basically start from scratch as I look at the footage, and color grade based on instinct. I try to start off with being able to show the cinematographer what they exposed, and from there we build on it. If I get stuck on a shot, I walk away from it, then come back. The scene is not done until you can play all the way through without stopping.”


Solo: A Star Wars Story benefited from postproduction work by senior colorist Joe Gawler at Harbor Picture Company, with equivalent work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom being handled by senior colorist Adam Glasman of Goldcrest.

Spotlight – Helen Newby

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

Helen Newby is head of compositing at Cinesite. Helen lists her career highlights as The Shipping News, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Skyfall , The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mute.

Helen Newby

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

HELEN NEWBY: Back in ’91, I was lucky enough to land a job at RSA Films as assistant to photographer and director Lester Bookbinder. I learned all sorts including attending the telecine and postproduction sessions. It led me to have a rethink and I went on to train on Domino, a film-in, film-out digital optical system. At the time, Mill Film Shepperton had a Domino system in place and a position opened – and that’s how it started. I remember grading and outputting the title sequence for Beautiful Creatures through Domino in 2000 and thinking it was magic.

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

HELEN NEWBY: When a sequence is finaled, I like to think about the myriad parts that went into it – including the lucky accidents.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

HELEN NEWBY: Running out of time.

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

HELEN NEWBY: V for Vendetta in 2005. It was my first show at Cinesite and I was tasked with compositing a shot previously started in Inferno. It was a lovely wide shot of Natalie Portman in the ‘Evey Reborn’ sequence. The client-side visual effects supervisor was due to fly home and was waiting for this one last shot – which added an interesting edge. On the plus side, I was bought flowers when it finalled.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

HELEN NEWBY: Three talking dog shows. Really.

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

HELEN NEWBY: From a compositing point of view, the way we used to work and make images was very different to now. We had no access to cameras or anything outside of the 3D scene, unless we popped into Maya. The idea of projecting onto a piece of geometry was not an option. Interestingly, greenscreens still seem to be a regular feature.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

HELEN NEWBY: Alongside constant advancements in technology – whether it’s the way on-set data is gathered or how we process it – comes a faster pace to the whole process. I would like to see these advancements being used to the benefit of our industry, to allow us to find new and unexpected approaches and techniques, rather than them causing any detriment.

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

HELEN NEWBY: Be flexible – the industry is changing alongside technology. Be open to feedback – only one version can end up in the final film.

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

HELEN NEWBY: Solaris (1971) – technically it’s not an effects movie. Oh, but the opening 20 minutes … the set design …

Forbidden Planet – the matte paintings, the models, Dr Morbius and his ‘brain booster’ machine. And a serious Leslie Nielsen!

Ex Machina – I think maybe I love it for the same reasons I love Solaris. It has a slowness, an unrushed quality. The minimalism of it all. Oh, and that dance scene!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

HELEN NEWBY: Popcorn, giant-size for stealth reasons.

CINEFEX: Helen, thanks for your time!

The Cinefex Interview – CelluloidNation

Left to right: Mike Brown, host of the CelluloidNation podcast, Jody Duncan, Cinefex editor-in-chief, Joe Fordham, Cinefex associate editor.

Left to right: Mike Brown, host of the CelluloidNation podcast; Jody Duncan, Cinefex editor-in-chief; Joe Fordham, Cinefex associate editor.

“Every time Cinefex comes out, it’s a little slice of history.”

So says Cinefex associate editor Joe Fordham, quoting one of the many kind things said to us by filmmakers through nearly 40 years of publishing.

You can hear more from Joe and Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan in this exclusive 90-minute interview with Mike Brown, host of the CelluloidNation podcast. Want to learn how Cinefex first started? The answers are here. Want to know how we go about writing a Cinefex article? Listen in and find out.

During the wide-ranging discussion, you’ll hear the stories behind some of Jody’s and Joe’s favorite – and not-so-favorite! – articles. Some of these are tales we’ve never told before. Hear how Jody ended up writing one of C-3PO’s lines in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, or how Joe scooped an hour-long interview with a barefoot Peter Jackson in the editing suite of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Mike’s podcast has something for every fan of big-screen effects, old and new. So pour yourself a hot beverage, relax into your favorite armchair, and treat yourself an hour and a half in the company of the Cinefex editorial team.

“2036 Origin Unknown” – VFX Q&A

Origin Unkown - VFX Q&A

While recent planet-wide dust storms raged on Mars, a small sci-fi movie unspooled 33.9 million miles away, in a handful of theatres across the United States. 2036 Origin Unknown, released by Gravitas Ventures June 6, is an indie sci-fi thriller set mostly in an underground bunker on the Red Planet where a lone U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) and her artificial intelligence system, ARTi (Steven Cree), probe the mysteries of a giant cube unearthed in a Martian dune sea.

Filmmaker Hasraf 'HaZ' Dulull directs Sackhoff in the USPC set.

Filmmaker Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull directs Katee Sackhoff in the U.S. Planetary Corp set.

The film marked the sophomore feature from young British filmmaker and former visual effects artist, Hasraf Dulull, whose directorial debut The Beyond featured in an earlier Cinefex Blog a scant six months ago. Cinefex caught up with the prolific Dulull, who we learned one addresses as HaZ.

CINEFEX: Good evening, HaZ. We previously spoke with you about your early career in visual effects. We’re curious, where did you come from before that, and what were the influences that led you to become such a prolific filmmaker?

HAZ: I was born and raised, and went to school and university in London. I am the eldest of three boys, raised by my lovely parents who are from Mauritius. My dad loved renting VHS sci-fi and horror films from the library and video store, so he is to blame for all my early age film binges – I remember watching Silent Running, Blade Runner and Alien and being just mesmerized by the world of sci-fi. At the time, I had no idea what my career path would be, I just knew I wanted to do make stuff like that, where I could let my imagination run wild.

I got into visual effects and CGI at an early age, as a teenager, and I was self-trained. Instead of going out to play with my friends, I would hack away on my Atari ST, creating Basic-coded graphics, and then I got enough money to buy a PC and learnt 3D Max R4 and Lightwave. I’ve wanted to make films since the age of 12, but I didn’t go to film school. Instead, around 1998 I started working in video games creating cinematics, or ‘FMV’s, full motion videos, as they used to be called. I then moved into VFX and rode that career for over 10 years, starting as a compositor and then working my way up to becoming VFX supervisor and then VFX producing.

CINEFEX: What gave you the idea for Origin Unknown?

U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars in the indie science fiction thriller "2036 Origin Unknown."

USPC operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) ponders the mysteries of a giant cube discovered on the surface of Mars.

HAZ: Around 2014, I was in a supermarket queuing up to pay for my groceries. I remember thinking, where are all the cashiers? I missed having small-talk with the cashiers as I was scanning and packing my groceries – instead, we now have self-service systems, with only one or two staff on stand-by. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow! What if this was the future of space exploration, a way to afford more missions by minimizing cost and human error?

I wrote the idea as a treatment, and a lot of people told me not to set the film on Mars, as many Mars films were flopping at the box office – but I wrote it the way I wanted, just to get it out of my system and shelved it. A year and a bit later, I was working as a VFX producer on various TV shows, a colleague introduced me to Anis Shlewet and James T. Ryan, producers at Parkgate Entertainment, and I was pitching them various projects and then this came up during our ‘what if?’ conversation. They were both heavily into grounded sci-fi, and it was a great meeting outcome, which got the ball rolling. It also helped that Ridley Scott’s film The Martian, had just come out around that time and it was a hit, so Mars was back in!

Anis and James hired a writer Gary Hall to develop the Pathfinder script further. It was great to collaborate with another writer as we are both self-proclaimed nerds who love space exploration while keeping the story grounded.

CINEFEX: How did you manage to create Origin Unknown just six months after the release of The Beyond?

HAZ: Both Origin Unknown and The Beyond happened pretty close to each other, but not simultaneously. For example, we shot tons of second unit for Origin before I started shooting Beyond, and then there was a break on Origin while we went through casting and financing, and in that time, I shot The Beyond. By the time I finished Beyond, we were already moving into prep to shoot Origin. It was interesting, I spent years making short films and trying to get a feature film made, and then the two projects happened back to back. Either I am every lucky, or I am cursed. I prefer to think I was very lucky, and I was also grateful to be doing what I love, even if it meant lots of caffeine and late nights.

CINEFEX: How did your experience with visual effects disciplines influence story development and production plans?

Production design previz.

Production design previz.

HAZ: During script development, I generated tons of previz and visual material to help Gary Hall see what I had in my mind as he was writing. Sometimes, I created visuals to test what we could achieve on our budget. If our ideas were too ambitious, I’d tell Gary to modify scenes to help our approach production-wise. So, it was great to be involved in the script stage to help shape production as opposed to writing a script and then having to make sacrifices later, due to budget and schedule constraints.

While doing previz, I worked closely with production designer Jon Bunker and cinematographer Adam Sculthorp to discuss mood and tone, and types of lens we wanted to capture certain moments. Jon Bunker provided me with FBX – Autodesk Filmbox – files of the set he designed. I moved those around in Maya to figure out my shots. It was a very tight collaboration to ensure we were all on the same page, spending the budget correctly and not building stuff which wouldn’t get seen. Before we cast the film, I used our second unit material of Martian landscapes and space scenes and cut together a sizzle reel which the producers used to raise more financing.

CINEFEX: How did you cast Katee Sackhoff – who, of course, is a sci-fi genre star after playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica?

HAZ: From what I know, our producers and sales company sent Katee’s agent the script. She loved the complexity and layering of the story, but she had a million questions. I spent months getting to know her on Skype, discussing plot and character and coming up with more ideas. We ended up reshaping the script in a very collaborative way, and Katee influenced so much about Mack’s character, pushing us to take it further, both during script development and shooting.

Mack spars with ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) her USPC artificial intelligence computer interface.

Katee shares my love for improv. That was a challenge for my lovely script supervisor, Hannah Kenneally Muir, tracking all the changes on set, but it was important for the shoot that we all worked in synchronicity in a creative fun process, finding special golden moments, which you find in the moment and feel it on the day.

The idea of Mack using a stress ball – shaped like planet Earth – was something Katee came up with during blocking, and if you watch the film closely you will realize the ball actually has a strong metaphor with the main plot of the film.

CINEFEX: Mack spends most of her screen-time in one room, USPC HQ on Mars – how did Jon Bunker design that set?

HAZ: Jon is a very humble and experienced guy, who has been doing this since the 1980s, but also worked as a concept artist on films such as Gravity.

I created a look-book containing lots of images of NASA mission control rooms; Jon contributed ideas on how to take that technology into the future, while keeping it grounded. Jon was very invested in my pitch that the location should feel like a character in the film, and he made the set as spacious as possible, with just the right amount of tech to make it feel functional, while ensuring all the panels lit up as light sources for cinematography.

We had a very tight shooting schedule of 11 days, so that contributed to the idea of building a full 360-degree set, with functional buttons and controllers. It was important for Mack to be able to interact with objects in the room to keep it feeling natural. We also created a lot of screen graphics in preproduction. Jon and his team had those printed onto the screen surfaces, which we animated later animated with blinking lights and graphics, so it all felt authentic to Katee while she was on set, rather than asking her to stare at blank screens.

CINEFEX: Mack’s robotic co-star, ARTi, is an ornery but very non-athropomorphic fellow –a ball on a stick – how did you create his interactions with Katee on set?

ARTi offers counsel via an orb on a mechanical arm suspended from the USPC bunker ceiling. Territory Studio designed and animated the robotic appendage.

HAZ: I wanted ARTi’s design to be simple, with the slickness of Apple products, but I also wanted to him to have enough articulation in his movements to create a character, like the robot Max in Flight of the Navigator.

We had a real-scale ARTi head built for the close-ups where Mack would be interacting with ARTi physically. But for the main bulk of his scenes, ARTi was created digitally by the talented team at Territory Studio. Visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason worked with us on set and at Territory, designing and animating the character. And Territory animator Ashley Pay did an incredible one-man job of blocking, animating, shading, lighting and rendering ARTi shots. Compositing supervisor Caroline Pires then led the Territory team to integrate ARTi into footage in Nuke. Paddy Eason was also very hands-on with shot creation, too. When we needed additional closeups of ARTi, Paddy and his team generated new back-plates by projecting Canon 5D stills of the set onto simple geometry, and then they animated ARTi with little camera moves. All the time we were shooting, Paddy and his on-set VFX assistant Tizzy Gregory were snapping away with the 5D and they placed GoPros in hidden locations to grab witness camera footage to help with animation.

CINEFEX: How did you work with ARTi’s voice artist, Steven Cree, in creating the dynamic between Mack and ARTi?

HAZ: ARTi’s voice was one of hardest things to get right. On set, a stand-in actor, Jud Charlton, provided Katee with voice interactions. Jud’s voice also helped the animators, and I worked with editor Jeremy Gibbs to sometimes come up with more ARTi moments to help make the robot/human relationship feel more intimate.

We cast Steven Cree during postproduction. He never got to work with Katee directly. He worked with the animated shots – often works in progress – and he fell in love with ARTi. Steven approached the character the same as he would approach a human character, and I think that allowed the audience to empathize with ARTi. Like Katee, Steven sometimes came up with additional lines on the spur of the moment, which also helped ARTi feel relatable and real. Our sound designers, Richard Lewis and Steven Parker at Pindrop in London, then added subtle effects to make ARTi’s voice feel a little processed but not computerized. The idea was, when ARTi speaks, the room is speaking. And so, the guys at Pindrop carefully mixed the voice to resonate with the room acoustically.

7

Mack remotely activates a probe, containing a rover, to launch from an orbiter ship above Mars.

CINEFEX: What went into your spaceship designs, and how did you decide on creating miniature elements?

HAZ: I knew I didn’t want to go the route of building CG spaceships, mainly because I had done that in most of my VFX career. Instead, I wanted to go back to how films like 2001 and Alien were made – using practical models where you can feel the texture as light bounced off the ships.

We brought on the amazing team from The Model Unit at Ealing Studios, in London. Mike Tucker and his team built the orbiter ship, the lander probe, the rover, the cube and the Mars landscapes. I began by creating CG geometry versions of those objects and then sent the Maya files to Mike and his team to work from, both as reference and for 3D printing components. The amount of craftsmanship, attention to detail and passion that went into building those objects was so inspiring and helped the shots look real.

The orbiter ship miniature under construction at The Model Unit, Ealing Studios, in London.

During our second unit shoot, the Model Unit team added more textures to the spacecraft as Adam Sculthorp and his team lit the scenes against a black backdrop. We wanted to emulate the lighting of NASA footage. Adam mounted lights to a motion control arm and moved those to create the sense that the spaceship was moving as shadows slid across the surface. We later added stars to create depth, as well as the planet Mars and effects of rocket boosters igniting.

CINEFEX: How did you create your Martian surface scenes?

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.

HaZ confers with The Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker on the miniature Martian landscape set.

9

Preparing the miniature set of the lander probe to launch from the orbiter ship.

10

Lander probe miniature element.

11

Lander probe composite.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the cube.

The rover sets out on its mission to investigate the mysterious giant cube.

HAZ: Mars was a hybrid of landscape model work created by the Model Unit, taken further in VFX using digital set extensions. For most of our rover shots, we used Model Unit’s practical rover, built and operated via remote control, filmed on the real landscape. We extended into the distance stuff. We used a CG rover for the aerial shots and wide vistas of it entering the dust storm. During second unit, we also shot elements of dirt, smoke and atmosphere at various speeds on black for use later in compositing. We used imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover to help with the digital set extensions.

The Martian storms were mainly digital, rendered out of Houdini by effects artist Aleksandr Uusmees. I then took those into After Effects for compositing and I integrated lighting strikes, stock footage of retimed clouds and additional Houdini simulations along with some keyframe warping effects.

CINEFEX: How did you divide the work among your visual effects team?

HAZ: Territory Studios and Paddy Eason handled all the scenes involving ARTi, our hologram scene and our big end sequence. Andrew Popplestone and his team at Territory also created our opening titles, and visuals for ARTi’s points of view.

Filmmore VFX and visual effects supervisor Hans Van Helden, in Amsterdam, handled wireframe animated renders of the rover in action and a few full CG shots involving the rover and parachute lander.

Squint VFX and visual effects supervisor Jonathan Harris handled a few shots involving the CG cube on a terrestrial ice shelf, as well the Martian One crash footage.

I supervised a small team at my own company, HaZ VFX, handling all the heads-up displays and screen graphics for playback, previs, the launch of the probe, the orbiter space station, all the Mars storm scenes, the Cube scenes and several key sequences. A ton of shots cropped up during editorial that we didn’t have additional budget to award to a facility, so we handled a lot of those shots ourselves.

Cube miniature under construction at The Model Unit.

The cube miniature, under construction at The Model Unit.

Cube miniature on Martian landscape set.

The cube miniature on the Martian landscape set.

CINEFEX: Without giving too much away, your third act gets into some narrative pyrotechnics as Mack confronts the mystery of the cube on Mars – how did you design and execute those sequences? There are some pretty big ideas there, quite ambitious for an indie sci-fi film.

HAZ: We always knew the film needed a big twist, ramping up in scale and cranking up the imaginative sci-fi content toward the end. I was inspired by films like 2001, Jacob’s Ladder and Contact, where the last act blows your mind – we knew that was what was going to make the film more memorable, and this meant that sequence needed to be less exposition-based and more visual-narrative based.

We didn’t have the budget to execute the sequence the typical CG way, so we relied on the amazing compositing team at Territory who had pushed Nuke to its extremes with particle systems and high dynamic range lighting on some epic shots, to make them feel grand in scale and concept. The design of those scenes took shape during postproduction. As we were editing, I was working closely with Andrew Popplestone on our title sequence. Andrew and his team and his team tend to work in a very design + story approach, and they had developed so much high resolution imagery for the titles, we decided to incorporate some of that into our special ending scene. This wasn’t in the script – so, again, this was one of our many ‘think out of the box’ approaches that we used in the making of this film.

The cube responds to Mack's investigations and launches triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

The cube responds to Mack’s investigations and triggers an unexpected cosmic event above the USPC Martian base.

I built a sequence that involved 3D renders of the cube and cosmic imagery, using assets generated from the title sequence. Andrew supplied me with large 6K textures. Visual effects artist Lee Medcalf, a frequent collaborator of mine, then built the cube using planes textured with those renders, and then animated the camera and lit it all in After Effects. He supplied me with the After Effects file and I added additional animation and effects. We used cosmic visual treatments seen in the opening title sequence, so the film opened and ended with this style.

There were really no rules when it came to the last act of the film. I felt the more mind-bending it became visually, and the more depth and layers we had in those shots the better, to make those scenes feel complex and large. This would not have been possible, or affordable, on a typical indie-scale film. And it was all result of the collaboration between myself, Andrew Popplestone, Paddy Eason and their teams.


2036 Origin Unknown is currently on limited theatrical release in the U.S., and is now available on digital streaming platforms. The film will have its U.K. release, on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD formats, August 13.

Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.

Spotlight – Stephen Clee

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

Stephen Clee

Stephen Clee is an animation supervisor and animator at Method Studios, and lists his career highlights as Okja, Thor: Ragnarok, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Way back in high school I wanted to be an architect – until I did some work experience at an engineering firm and nearly died of boredom. I loved the design aspect but hated how mundane most of the tasks were. My drafting and design teacher, who also taught the digital animation course at my school, saw that I had a passion for the creative part of the work and told me about Capilano University. I applied to their well-respected 2D animation program but was promptly rejected due to my – in hindsight – utterly terrible portfolio. I decided that I really wanted to pursue animation as a career, so I spent a year working in a restaurant while taking as many drawing courses as I could in my spare time to build a better portfolio. I was accepted the following year.

My first job was on Reader Rabbit, a Flash-animated children’s show for Studio B, now DHX. I worked in television for a few years at local studios Atomic and Bardel to get some experience under my belt and improve as an animator. In 2007, I went back to Capilano University to learn 3D and got a job working in videogames upon graduation. Visual effects had always interested me and offered the higher level of quality that I was striving for, so, two and a half years later, I quit my job at Capcom and took a three-month contract at Method Studios, then CIS. I’ve been there ever since. Working at Method has helped me grow as an animator and work on a myriad of different projects ranging from Avengers to Okja. Getting to work here has been my big break and taught me more than all my other jobs combined. I’ve been fortunate enough to find mentorship here and grow in my career as an animator, lead and supervisor.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: So many things make me happy at work: taking a really challenging shot to completion; finding creative solutions with the animators for their shots; working with my colleagues to come up with better acting choices; figuring out better workflows with the team; being surprised in dailies by a fun performance choice an animator makes. And finishing the last shot on a show!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

STEPHEN CLEE: Probably the most frustrating part of the job is when we get drastic edits to a sequence while under the gun to deliver. It can be tough for morale when things change that are out of our control, or shots are omitted when we’ve put a lot of work into them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Puppeteering Okja the superpig on set for five months … then getting back into the studio and realizing we had to animate to everything we shot. Our goal was to build a relationship between Mija and Okja, and getting that right took lots of interaction between our CG, our on-set ‘stuffie’ puppets, and the actors. Director Bong Joon-Ho was amazing in that he would give us nearly minute-long shots with a barely-moving camera in which to let our creature breathe. That offers you a lot of opportunity but also a ton of room to fail. He was open to our ideas and we were often able to make the creative choice over the easy one. We didn’t shy away from letting the actors push, hold, ride, or sleep on Okja and because of that I hope you believe their bond to be real. It was by far the most rewarding show of my career, and the most difficult.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

STEPHEN CLEE: Being on set at two in the morning puppeteering the head of a six-ton superpig with my arm in a foam-filled sock representing a tongue sticking out of its mouth ‘licking’ the face of a 12-year-old actress – Ahn Seo-Hyun – who was playing a crying emotional scene in front of a crew of middle-aged men operating a Technocrane with incredulous looks on their faces. Yeah, that’s probably the weirdest.

Watch Stephen Clee puppeteering superpig stuffies in this Netflix featurette on the visual effects of Okja:

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

STEPHEN CLEE: The quality of the work overall has gotten to be so high. It’s amazing to watch television shows like Game of Thrones and see sequences like the convoy attack that Image Engine did last year, and be utterly convinced that dragons exist and are out there burning up the countryside. I also love that recent movies like Blade Runner: 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Dunkirk are emphasizing blending special and visual effects together to make things feel even more real. I think utilizing more practical effects and achieving things in-camera really helps push the quality bar and lets visual effects focus on what we’re good at.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

STEPHEN CLEE: I’d like to see an increase in the speed of our rigs and rendering to the point that we could get real-time feedback consistently at a high level of detail. My dream is to get myself and my animators focusing on the creative, not burdened by the limits of our technology. I’ve seen a lot of these types of workflows being developed and would love to be a part of working with them.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Start small and don’t be discouraged if you fail. I think working in television for a few years helps imbue a sense of confidence in your skills because of the quick turnaround. It teaches speed, accountability, great posing and fundamentals in a short amount of time. Visual effects can be a tough nut to crack for some animators jumping in right out of school as the level of detail and quality can be intimidating and the timelines quite demanding for someone lacking experience. Becoming a good animator takes a long time. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and still learn from my colleagues on a near-daily basis.

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

STEPHEN CLEE: Jurassic Park – for a kid born in the early ‘80s, this landed at the perfect time in my life to inspire and awe. The introduction to seeing the T-rex for the first time in the movie theatre was terrifying and opened up a whole new idea of what I could do with my life.

The Incredibles – Pixar … Brad Bird … superheroes … I mean, what else do you want? The animation in this film is still some of my favorite work out of Pixar. The acting choices and the simple, graphic style of the film really hold up.

Mad Max: Fury Road – talk about spectacle and the marrying of special and visual effects in a beautiful way. The way the story was told defied all normal convention and was so refreshing. I love how insane some of the design choices were – any film that thinks a man strapped to a truck playing guitar is a good idea is all right in my books.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

STEPHEN CLEE: The theater down the street from me serves booze. So, beer and Sour Patch Kids.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Stephen!

Spotlight – Sandra Balej

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

Sandra BalejSandra Balej is a digital effects supervisor at Method Studios, and lists her filmography highlights as Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: It was not the love of effects that got me into this industry but my love for movies in general. As long as I remember, I have loved to go to the theater to watch a movie up big! We had this amazing old-fashioned theater where I grew up and my parents took me there to watch movies like Babe and Cinderella. I still remember how I loved the whole experience, when the lights went out and the curtains opened – yes, they had curtains back then – and I was taken to this other world for few hours. I guess I just kind of got addicted.

If I had to pinpoint one moment when I decided I wanted to work in the movie industry, it was when I watched my first action film in theater: James Bond in The World is Not Enough. Granted, looking back, I question the quality of it, but I just loved the action and explosions. While I was still a teenager my aspirations were all a bit naïve: “I want to be a director.” But over years of doing research, I realized that I wanted to have a sustainable career where I actually might have a chance to break into this industry that seemed so out of reach. Visual effects seemed to be the right choice. That’s when I decided to go to Vancouver Film School.

Luckily, it turned out I love doing effects. I got a job in Germany right after I graduated, at a small visual effects company, Exozet, mostly doing effects for television. The CEO Olaf Skrzipczyk took his chance with me, hiring me as a generalist but mostly focused on compositing. He and his team taught me so much and groomed me into a proper artist. I will forever be grateful they took me under their wings. We used Fusion back then to composite and that’s what helped me to get my first big break in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. Still to this date, it’s one of my favorite projects I have ever worked on. Fusion compositors were hard to come by in Germany at the time, so the compositing supervisor Rony Soussan took his chance and hired this greenhorn of a compositor.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Seeing the fans’ reaction to a movie you have been working on for a very long time. Working on high pressure effects movies with tight deadlines, you sometimes lose sight why you were doing in it in the first place, and whenever I start working on a new project I go into this kind of hibernation mode where I put my real life on standby and give everything to the project. Probably not the healthiest approach, but I just can’t help but pour all my energy into something once I start. The year I was working on Doctor Strange, we just had finished delivering the Comic-Con trailer so I was able to escape for a few days. I was a bit in zombie mode after working such long hours but then I saw the fans’ reactions to the trailer. It was goosebump-inducing. That for me makes it all worth it.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SANDRA BALEJ: Omits. I know they are part of the process of moviemaking and need to happen, but it still hurts when a shot gets cut – especially when you’ve in a lot of work.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Designing a particular new environment for Ant-Man and the Wasp. I can’t say much since the movie is not released yet, but coming up with this very important look for the movie with the creative team has been the most challenging thing of my career so far.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SANDRA BALEJ: It was part of that Comic-Con trailer I mentioned earlier. It was a Sunday morning when I got this frantic call from our producer that Marvel needed 10 more frames for a trailer shot – not a weird request in itself. I was the comp supervisor back then, so I just rendered the frames and sent it to them. What was weird was that I received a phone call from Victoria Alonso herself to thank me for doing it on such a short notice. She’s probably already forgotten about it, but I really appreciated the gesture.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: In these times of social media and the internet where the fans have lots of opinions, moviemakers have become a bit more flexible in postproduction. Social media platforms and test screenings give them the chance to have their finger on the pulse of the fanbase’s wants and needs. As a consequence, the effects industry has to plan accordingly to keep up with any last-minute changes that need to happen.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SANDRA BALEJ: I wouldn’t shed a tear if we saw fewer stereo-converted movies. I like a good 3D movie like any other guy, but that mostly goes for native stereo movies. The conversion companies nowadays don’t get to spend a lot of time on the process and the experience suffers from that.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: Try to find a life-work balance. The effects industry is tough on body and mind, especially when you start out. After 10 years in the business, I am still struggling to find it, but sometimes it helps to remember that this is a marathon not a sprint.

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

SANDRA BALEJ: The Man from Nowhere – I am a big fan of South Korean cinema, and this film is very much a case of incredible invisible effects. Some of the stunt work and the subtle use of effects is just incredible. I worked in Asia for some time as well and it was a great experience. I enjoy seeing the amazing progress the effects quality has made over the last few years over there.

Gravity: I have always been a fan of Alfonso Cuarón’s famous long shots. The 17-minute-long opening shot in Gravity was absolutely stunning.

Independence Day – this classic inspired me a lot when I was a kid. The effects still hold up so well even today. My favorite shot is the spaceship’s first appearance when it’s coming out of that big cloud. Perfect example of how cloud tank footage can sometimes beat heavy effects sims.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SANDRA BALEJ: I’ll go with the classic – popcorn. But not that weird salty stuff you guys have in North America. I thought I was poisoned the first time I tried it.

CINEFEX: Sandra, thanks for your time!

Now Showing – Cinefex 159

Cinefex 159 - From the Editor's Desk

Sometimes we just can’t decide what to put on the cover of our new issue. Given the lineup of great films in Cinefex 159, is it any wonder we went for one of our legendary double cover options?

On one cover you’ll find a glorious portrait of Thanos, the undoubted star of Avengers: Infinity War, courtesy of our talented friends at Digital Domain. The other cover rewards with a stunning image of Parzival, the virtual reality avatar of Ready Player One’s Wade Watts, crafted by those clever artisans at Industrial Light & Magic.

Whether you end up with Thanos or Parzival – or complete your collection by grabbing both! – you’ll get the same great articles inside. Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan to guide you through the contents of our June 2018 issue, Cinefex 159.

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

A friend recently pointed out that while we tend to think of ‘nostalgia’ as a benign term, its suffix suggests that it is a malady of sorts, and those who wallow in it are exhibiting unhealthy states of mind. Pardon my pathology, then, but as I considered our new issue 159, I became curious as to where we – ‘we’ meaning Cinefex, cinema and the art and craft of visual effects – were 100 issues ago. ‘What was going on with issue 59?’ I wondered. So I turned to the handy ‘Cinefex back issues’ page on our website to find out.

On the cover of that issue was a shot from James Cameron’s True Lies, Cinefex story written by founder Don Shay. A blurb on the web page describes the film’s main visual effects vendor, Digital Domain, as a ‘startup company.’ Twenty-four years later, that same startup, along with Weta Digital (only a year old when Cinefex 59 hit the stands) delivered some of the most extraordinary computer character animation ever seen on screen with Thanos, in Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War, which graces the cover of our current issue.

The True Lies page also notes the film’s 100 digital and traditional visual effects shots. A hundred visual effects shots barely gets you five minutes into Infinity War, which boasted a total of nearly 3,000! Another difference? Cameron hung poor Jamie Lee Curtis from a hovering helicopter to get his shots in True Lies. Today, that task would fall to a digital double, and Jamie Lee could stay comfortably in her trailer.

Ah, yes, things are so different now … how I long for the good old days of slow-speed white Ford Bronco freeway chases and $1.15 a gallon gasoline and The X-Files and Sheryl Crow and Dumb and Dumber … wait, huh?

Okay, enough of that. We’re all happy to be in the present, covering the colossal Avengers: Infinity War, along with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Pacific Rim Uprising and the artful and intriguing Annihilation, from Ex Machina director Alex Garland. The successful marriage of visual effects and art department concepts in this last is of particular interest.

Enjoy the summer!

Cinefex 159 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already punching its way towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.