Cinefex is the premier magazine of the visual effects industry. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at motion picture visual effects.
create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight
interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Spencer Cook is animation director
at DNEG, having worked previously at companies including MPC, Framestore, Sony
Pictures Imageworks and Tippett Studio. Ask him for his filmography highlights
and here’s what he’ll give you: Godzilla:
King of the Monsters, Alien: Covenant,
Beauty and the Beast (2017), Gods of Egypt, Men in Black 3, all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Cursed,
The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Hollow Man, Blade and Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Spencer?
SPENCER COOK: Animation was a
hobby when I was a kid. I grew up watching monster movies like King Kong, Godzilla, all the classic Universal monsters and basically anything
fantasy, horror and sci-fi. I was particularly inspired by the works of Ray
By age 11, I was experimenting
with stop-motion animation and had decided I wanted to make my living as a
stop-motion animator. I studied all aspects of film, video and fine arts at The
School Of Visual Arts in New York City where I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine
Arts degree, after which I began my career as a stop-motion animator. For the
next decade, I animated and directed dozens of television commercials in New
York, Los Angeles and Europe, animating classic characters like the Pillsbury
Doughboy and segments of the Saturday morning series Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
I then moved to Los Angeles
and began a new chapter in my career working on movies. By that time, the
industry had changed from traditional animation to digital. Luckily, all my
stop-motion experience applied to digital character animation, so it was just a
matter of learning a new tool. This transition wasn’t easy for me at first – I wasn’t
very familiar with computers – but eventually I got the hang of it and started
to enjoy all the amazing possibilities.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your
job makes you grin from ear to ear?
SPENCER COOK: I like the
collaborative nature of filmmaking, working with a team and mixing the best
ideas together. The creative process isn’t like following a recipe; it takes
experimentation and exploration. I like the process of figuring out
performances and body language. Every project is different and requires a
process of discovery.
I enjoy looking back at
previous generations of animators and visual effects artists and appreciating
that I’m continuing the cinematic legacy of creating fantastic settings and
characters. I’m thrilled to be a part of the movie industry, contributing to
images that might be inspiring the next generation of animators.
CINEFEX: And what makes you
SPENCER COOK: I hate the terms
‘CG’ or ‘CGI.’ I wish we could remove these from our lexicon. Saying ‘computer
graphics’ or ‘computer generated images’ makes it sound like a computer does
These terms seemed odd to me
when I first transitioned from stop-motion to digital animation, but it really
hit me a few years ago when I was reading an article about Pirates of the Caribbean. The article said something like, “Johnny Depp
stands in front of a greenscreen and the computer adds the background.” I was
like, “No, this is wrong! This isn’t how things work in animation and visual
Computers don’t create images
any more than a paintbrush creates a painting. A computer is a tool. Would you
call The Mona Lisa a ‘paintbrush generated image?’ Talented artists and
technicians create the images in movies. It’s the same as it was in the
beginning of cinema, we just use a different tools now. Calling it ‘CGI’
minimizes our creativity and hard work.
I know the term is deeply embedded in the industry but I think a better option is ‘digital modelling,’ ‘digital compositing,’ and so on. This would be consistent with all other art forms that refer to the medium instead of the tool, such as ‘oil painting’ or ‘marble sculpture.’ In animation, we broadly specify traditional techniques as ‘stop-motion animation’ and ‘cel animation.’ Why not just add ‘digital animation’ to that? It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s right.
See Spencer Cook’s recent work as senior animation supervisor at MPC in the final trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters:
CINEFEX: What’s the most
challenging task you’ve ever faced?
SPENCER COOK: Wow, it’s a
challenge to pick just one! Every production has unique difficulties to
overcome and problems to solve.
One of my most formative
challenges was the wall-crawl shot in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. I was the lead animator at Sony Pictures
Imageworks in Los Angeles with Anthony LaMolinara as our animation supervisor
and John Dykstra as visual effects designer. We were tasked with creating a
photoreal Spider-Man for the first time. At that time I was still fairly new to
digital animation, so while working on that movie I learned a lot about
animating on a computer, as well as client interactions and the movie biz in
The wall-crawl was incredibly
difficult. The shot was hundreds of frames long and the camera moved all around
the character as he climbed. I spent many long hours working on Spidey’s
physics and body language to make it as believable as possible and to see his
thought process, while mixing in the iconic poses from the comics.
I learned a lot about how to use reference, how to mix reality and fantasy into a believable performance. I gathered footage of spiders, frogs and lizards, and even went to a local park with our coordinator to shoot video of me climbing a chainlink fence! That was one of the key components that helped me find the reality in that shot. To get a feel for the grip and the pull against gravity, what it felt like to climb a vertical surface, was incredibly important to my final animation.
Spencer Cook on the set of “Alien: Covenant.”
CINEFEX: And what’s the
SPENCER COOK: Superheroes and
giant monsters aren’t weird to me. What I did
find really weird was working on television commercials. As animators, we need
to think about a character’s thought process, but many of the stop-motion
commercials I animated involved anthropomorphized food like the Pillsbury
Doughboy or various other happy, dancing snack foods. I admit that this is way
over-thinking the concept, but I always thought it was weird that a living
creature would be so happy about being eaten. Living snack food is at the
bottom of the food chain. They only exist to be eaten and yet they’re thrilled
about it. They’re either unaware of their situation or completely insane! This
was the kind of stuff we talked about when I was animating television commercials.
It was twisted fun!
CINEFEX: What changes have you
observed in your field over the years?
SPENCER COOK: One of the
biggest changes I’ve noticed is the mainstream acceptance of genre movies. It
used to be that monster movies and superhero movies were for kids. I think this
was because of the limitations of traditional techniques – the visuals weren’t
always realistic enough for a mainstream audience.
I feel like today we’re in a
new golden age of genre cinema. Digital tools allow us to create fantastic
images and characters with more realism than ever before. I think that’s why
these kinds of movies are now acceptable to mainstream audiences and not just
confined to genre fans. Plus, filmmakers now take this material seriously. Along
with advances in make-up, costumes and stunts, the sci-fi and fantasy genre is
now much more accepted than in previous generations.
Another big change I’ve
noticed is the number of people involved in animation and visual effects. When
I started in stop-motion it was a smaller community, most of whom got into
animation as fans of either Ray Harryhausen or Disney movies. Today there are
animators from every part of the globe who got into animation in many different
ways. It adds a great diversity to our animation teams. I frequently encounter great
ideas for shots and poses from my team that I never would have thought of.
CINEFEX: And what changes
would you like to see?
SPENCER COOK: As much as we’re
all used to it, I don’t like the crude interfaces we use to work on computers.
A mouse and keyboard is unintuitive and archaic. Wacom tablets are a little
better but, as a former stop-motion animator, I just want to grab the puppet
and pose it. I feel our current technology forces me to conform to the
computer’s way of understanding input rather than the computer adapting to my
human way of moving.
Maybe virtual reality or augmented reality will help us advance in this area. I recently visited the National Film Board of Canada here in Montreal. They’re researching and developing tech that could help artists interact with computers in a way that’s more comfortable and intuitive. However, most studios are reluctant to invest in new tech like this. It would be expensive at first and the learning curve for the team would add to the cost of production at a time when most studios are looking for ways to cut costs.
Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short “Mad God.”
CINEFEX: What advice would you
give to someone starting out in the business?
SPENCER COOK: Learning to use
a computer is easy. Learning to bring a character to life is hard.
Pay attention to life. Study
how people move and interact. Those kinds of human qualities are the difference
between a character that’s moving and a character that’s alive. As artists, we
need to see things that most people take for granted.
Use reference as much as
possible. YouTube is an amazing animation library but be smart about how you
use it. Don’t just copy or roto one to one – unless that’s the direction. Mix
in moments from the reference with your own poses. Make aesthetic choices
consistent with the style or tone of the movie.
Act out the shot yourself.
It’s important to get a feel for the action or performance. Even if it’s
something so fantastic a person could never do it, there’s still value in
acting it out. You may find a little human moment amid the spectacle that can
bring your shot to life.
I think it’s also important to
love movies and have an appreciation of cinematic history. Animators should
have a good understanding of the visual language of cinema – camera angles,
continuity and editing, lighting, and the basic structure of cinematic
CINEFEX: If you were to host a
mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the
bill, and why?
SPENCER COOK: It’s hard to
only pick three – there are so many films that have inspired me. But these
three are standouts for portraying monsters with personalities.
(1933) – The original King Kong is
top of the list. I was spellbound when I first saw it as a kid – I think I was
around eight years old. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I had no concept of
stop-motion animation or visual effects but I knew this was something special.
The incredible pioneering
achievements in animation, miniatures, matte painting and optical effects
cannot be overstated. This movie laid the foundation for all cinematic visual
effects and animation to come, and the work we do today stands on its
shoulders. But it’s not just a milestone in animation and visual effects – it’s
one of the most iconic movies in cinema history. Who doesn’t recognize Kong
fighting the T-rex or Kong atop the Empire State building? Also, this isn’t a
mindless monster smashing through a city. The story is mythic and dramatic.
Motivated by beauty, Kong has a personality, a goal and great pathos.
7th Voyage of Sinbad – all of Ray Harryhausen’s work is immensely
influential to me but 7th Voyage
stands out. Ray’s incredible artistry was light years ahead of anything else
being done at that time. His creature design and the way he added little quirks
of body language gave each of his creatures a distinct personality.
The standout sequences are
when Sinbad and his crew encounter the Cyclops on the beach, and then later
when the Cyclops captures some of the crew and begins cooking them for his
dinner. The Cyclops has a personality and a thought process that Ray conveys
wonderfully through body language. Another standout is the sword fight between
Sinbad and a skeleton. The technical achievement is impressive and Ray’s
distinctive choices for posing really bring the fight to life.
of The Gargantuas – one of the best non-Godzilla Toho monster movies is
this story about brothers. It just so happens the two brothers are giant
monsters. The brown Gargantua – the good one – is a gentle giant who lives in
the forest. The green Gargantua – the evil one – lives in the ocean and eats
This was a traditional Toho
production with the same crew as the Godzilla movies. The Gargantua designs
were more ape-like than most Toho Kaiju, allowing for more expression. The two
suit actors did an amazing job of portraying each brother with a distinct personality
through body language. A standout sequence is the terrifying first appearance
of the green Gargantua when he attacks a fishing trawler at night during a
storm. Another is the final fight – a mythic brother versus brother scenario
played out as an epic battle smashing through Tokyo. The tragic ending makes
their war all the more poignant.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite
movie theater snack?
SPENCER COOK: I like Dibs – chocolate
covered ice cream bites – but Montreal cinemas don’t have them!
Spring is here, and it reminds me that, for Cinefex, every year is a bifurcated one. Roughly, the six-month period of April through September brings with it the release of many large-scale, effects-heavy movies – the kind of movies that are our raison d’être. In contrast, the six months between October and March offer up a very different – shall we say, ‘more serious’? – type of film, those in which Nicole Kidman’s fake nose piece in The Hours is the most effects-y thing on the menu. Those are the ‘What the heck are we going to cover?’ months for us – not always, of course (thank you, movie gods, for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Interstellar and First Man) – but often.
The lineup for Cinefex 164 features the effects spectaculars we’ve come to associate with flowering blossoms, warm breezes, and purchases of Costco-sized bottles of Zyrtec. Captain Marvel graces our cover and is the fascinating subject of Joe Fordham’s comprehensive story, liberally laced with commentary from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend, and effects principals at no fewer than 13 top-drawer visual effects companies.
Graham Edwards’ interview slate was similarly extensive, both for his exploration of Hellboy, and for his second article on the history of animals – real, stop-motion-animated, animatronic and digital – in the movies, from Rin Tin Tin to Caesar.
And speaking of cinematic beasts, we round out the issue with my coverage of Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Full disclosure: I’d never seen the 1941 original, but spent a lovely afternoon with my four-year-old granddaughter to watch it in preparation for my story. (Her review: It was sad when Dumbo’s mommy went away.)
Watch a video preview of Cinefex 164:
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Co-founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, Alec Gillis has been in the film industry for 38 years, creating – with partner Tom Woodruff Jr. – makeup and practical characters and creatures for films such as Tremors, Death Becomes Her, Alien 3, Starship Troopers, Jumanji and It.
Gillis has now written, directed, produced and performed roles in Playtime, a 13-minute short – presented on ADI’s YouTube channel – that explores the question: what becomes of an animatronic star in the digital age?
The protagonist of Playtime is Billy, a ‘Chucky’-like 80’s-era animatronic doll whose hopes of returning to the big screen are raised with Variety’s announcement of a current-day reboot of the ‘Playtime’ horror film franchise. Billy is ready for his closeup – until he learns that his role will be played by a computer-animated character.
I spoke with Gillis about the film’s evolution and message, and where he – and animatronics – fit within today’s movie-making machine.
Writer/director Alec Gillis coaches Billy, the animatronic star of his satirical short film “Playtime,” available to view on the studioADI YouTube channel.
CINEFEX: How did Playtime come about?
GILLIS: A number of things converged to make Playtime happen. After all these years in the business, I’m constantly trying to stay relevant, and it is a challenge, especially as technology changes. So I’m always thinking about that. And then, I started immersing myself in silent films, and looking back at those people who didn’t make the transition to talkies – a subject that is brilliantly portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. There’s another movie, The Comic, about a silent film star who ages and ends up sitting on a park bench.
CINEFEX: As does Billy.
GILLIS: Exactly. The character in The Comic is named ‘Billy Bright,’ and that name stuck with me. I love all those stories of Hollywood, partly because they point out how superficial we all are in the industry, and how we attach so much importance to what we do – which is ultimately just entertaining.
CINEFEX: So your experiences and observations from inside the film industry were the inspiration for this movie.
GILLIS: Yeah – I joke that it’s an autobiography, but in a way, it really is. And then, of course, if it makes a statement about practical effects, which is my first love, and if I can create a character that emotes and even gets some emotion out of the audience, then I’m enforcing the idea that animatronics are still viable as a technique. Those are all the dry reasons I made this movie – but ultimately, I love writing and performing comedy, and I wanted to have some fun with this. I wanted to do something where I would be unfettered by commercial concerns or movie executives.
Watch Playtime on the studioADI YouTube channel:
CINEFEX: You not only wrote, directed and produced Playtime, you are the voice of Billy, and you play the role of movie producer ‘Robert Gorman.’
GILLIS: I really wanted to play that part because I sometimes find myself in a producer role, adopting a producer-like sensibility; and then, Billy is arguing the other side. The dialogue they have during that exchange, the producer explaining why Billy can’t be in the new movie – what Gorman says in that exchange are all paraphrasings of real things that have been said to me by executives. Things like, ‘Reality isn’t inspiring.’ So I loved this character – this producer who has a thin veneer of courtesy, but really, he’s just tolerating you, and he feels as if he is doing you a favor by entertaining your silly little notions of using practical effects.
CINEFEX: ‘Robert Gorman’ – can’t help but think of ‘Roger Corman’ in that name.
GILLIS: It’s a deliberate homage to my old boss, Roger Corman – who, by the way, never had that attitude. But I had to pay homage to him, one way or the other.
CINEFEX: You even wrote and sang the end credits song – ‘Hahahaha Hollywood.’
GILLIS: That was fun. Actually, Ben Brown, who shot the movie, wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics. I’m always writing dumb rap poetry, usually for my family. But then I thought: ‘Why should I contain my genius to the family? I need to share my gift with the world!’
CINEFEX: And the world thanks you. Tell me about how Billy’s design evolved.
GILLIS: Obviously, he’s a riff on Chucky from Child’s Play, but beyond that I wanted a design that would play to the strengths of animatronics. Rather than come up with a design I fell in love with, and then do anything to build to that design, I decided to come at it from the other direction. What do I need? I need good facial expressions, emoting and performance – and that required a head that was proportionately larger than any real doll’s head. Dave Penikas, our animatronics designer and engineer here, said, ‘As long as you don’t give me a head that’s too small, I’ll be able to give you a beautiful performance.’ So that was the start of the design – this oversized head that would enable us to fit in all the animatronics we needed for a good performance. Then I brought in Tim Martin, who is an excellent sculptor, and he designed Billy’s face based on his own kid.
CINEFEX: When we first see Billy, in the 1980s ‘Playtime’ movie, he’s a pristine looking doll. But when we cut to current-day Billy, he looks very much the worse for wear.
GILLIS: Yes – so we shot all of that beginning, with the kid and the babysitter in the mock Playtime movie, first. And then I went in and jacked up Billy’s look. I glued the eyelids down and made the skin look like it was peeling. I actually used the forehead mold of Pennywise the clown from It on Billy’s forehead, so it would have that cracking, corroded look. And then I painted him with a kind of Norma Desmond-ish makeup, making him look as ghastly as I could.
CINEFEX: There is so much expression in Billy’s face – that must have been a fairly sophisticated piece of animatronic machinery.
GILLIS: It was, but it was mounted on top of a cable-articulated body, which was not a particularly sophisticated bit of machinery. I knew we needed his face to perform and emote, but that his body could be a little funky. It was okay if the body looked like a cheap animatronic. So we built the body in a very simple way, but the face was very complex and realistic.
Alec Gillis and puppeteer Mike West put Billy’s cable control system through its paces.
CINEFEX: In the movie, there are three people puppeteering him – was that the actual number?
GILLIS: Yeah, it was – Dave Penikas, Mike West and Zac Teller, and they all worked on the build, as well. Dave was in charge of the head, with assistance from Mike West; and then Mike was in charge of the motion control system, where I pre-recorded all of Billy’s facial performance. Normally, we do facial functions live so the performance can be directed by the director. But in this case, since I was the director, I just blocked out the scene in my mind and did some rough storyboards, and then I preprogrammed all the facial expressions. We had complete control over the eyes, brows, cheeks, and there was even a little animation in his hair, so the wig could move back and forth. And then, Mike West preprogrammed all the lip-synch animation.
CINEFEX: Even though the point of the film was to use practical effects, there must have been some visual effects necessary.
GILLIS: We had a couple of visual effects shots. One was when it is revealed that Billy is watching his old movie – he walks up to the television set, and his reflection is in the TV, and the image degrades to look like VHS static. Andrew Ceperley did those shots. There were also visual effects shots for the little greenscreen demo you see on a kid’s iPad, and in a shot of girls outside a convention hall, screaming ‘Billy, we love you!’ Those shots were done by Stephen Norrington, my old buddy who directed Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He thought the project was a hoot, and so he wanted to help out.
CINEFEX: Any visual effects required for Billy operator paint-outs?
GILLIS: No, we always just framed them out – except for those moments where I wanted to show them for comedic effect.
Puppeteers Mike West and Zachary Teller with Billy on the ADI stage.
CINEFEX: At the end of the movie, Billy discovers that there is still a place for him in the film industry – that there are fans of what he represents.
GILLIS: That’s autobiographical as well. Because there are a lot of fans of practical creature effects, and there is no reason to have a knee-jerk negative response to all things digital – because digital frees you. I wish fans of practical effects would embrace the overlap between the digital and the practical. There’s nothing wrong with CGI; it’s just that techniques should always be used to their strengths, no matter what the technique is. I wanted to end the movie with a message about the practical and the digital coming together.
CINEFEX: Do you have plans to enter Playtime into any film festivals?
GILLIS: I haven’t done that. I did this primarily for Studio ADI’s channel on YouTube. It was kind of a gift to fans of practical effects.
Mahershala Ali stars as Wayne Hays in Nic Pizzolatto’s “True Detective,” aged into his 70s in Season Three by Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance.
In Season Three of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, the two main characters – Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) – inhabit three different time periods: the 1980s, 1990s and present day. The storyline called for both characters to be aged into their 70s, a task awarded to prosthetic makeup designer Michael Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance in Englewood, New Jersey.
The more dramatic of the two age makeups is that created for Wayne ‘Purple’ Hays, a long retired detective exhibiting signs of dementia as he grapples with a child abduction and murder case that has haunted him throughout his career.
As it happened, Mahershala Ali’s own grandfather had been a police officer in Los Angeles, and though he was a bit older than the character in the series, he served as fitting inspiration for what Hays might look like as an old man. “I already had a relationship with Mahershala from a previous project,” recalled Mike Marino, “so we had ongoing conversations about it via texts. Then, when I met with him to do the lifecast, we talked more about how his grandfather had aged, and I kept that in mind as I designed the makeup. Mahershala gave me photographs of his grandfather and I used those as reference.”
Marino also considered the character’s psychological traits and life experiences in designing the makeup. “He’s a detective,” Marino noted, “a very worried guy, a drinker, a smoker. I had to take all of those things into account. If someone says, ‘create a prosthetic makeup for someone in their 70s,’ there are a hundred different ways to go just because people age so differently. There are 70-year-olds who look like they’re 50!”
The age makeup was sculpted over a lifecast of Mahershala Ali.
More than anything else, the actor’s lifecast dictated the direction of the final old-age makeup. “I couldn’t just randomly make up wrinkles,” Marino explained. “I had to study Mahershala’s face very carefully and go from there. I took a series of photographs of him in all different facial positions – squinting, raising his brows, smiling, making weird faces – so I could identify where his own wrinkle pattern would be. Once I determined where those wrinkle patterns were, I knew where I could accentuate them.”
Marino did the lifecast of the actor in silicone. “The advantage to silicone is that you can do a lifecast in much thinner layers,” said Marino. “The cast is much less distorted by the weight of the casting material; and so, you get a more accurate cast than what you got in the 80’s or 90’s with alginate.”
Marino sculpted the old-age look over the lifecast, and from there produced nine prosthetic pieces made of a custom formulation of encapsulated silicone, working with prosthetic makeup artist Mike Fontaine. The prosthetics included a neck-and-half-cheek piece, eyebags, outer-corner eye pieces, inner-corner eye pieces, a center brow piece, an upper lip, lower chin, and a forehead piece. A wig finalized the look.
“My prosthetics are a little strange and unorthodox,” commented Marino. “I’ll sometimes do half-cheeks, or even a quarter of a cheek, or an eyebag that is only half an eyebag. I try to cover the face only where it is absolutely necessary. I avoid excess prosthetics so I can retain as much of the natural face as possible. And I can do that because I’m not afraid of landing an edge in the middle of nowhere. I know I can paint it and glue it down so it’s invisible; and so, I’m not worried about hiding anything. I’ve put edges where you would normally never want an edge and made it work. That approach allows me to use partial prosthetics, rather than having to cover an entire area; and that allows me to better retain the actor’s likeness and essence.”
Michael Marino and Göran Lundström apply the age makeup to Mahershala Ali, a process that took around three hours.
Marino’s ability to do partial prosthetics is due, in part, to the custom silicone material, which has properties that mimic real flesh. “It responds with a really great memory,” Marino said. “If you touch real soft skin, even aged skin, it bounces back very quickly – it doesn’t stay pushed in and mushy. A lot of silicones, when you press them, they stay pressed in a little too long. My formula of silicone reacts more like real skin, and that’s part of the reason for the makeup’s success. But it is also about the design. The material doesn’t give me the license to add prosthetics wherever I want. The design still has to be right for the character. In this case, there was so much movement and acting that had to come through in this character, I didn’t want to overdo it.”
Prosthetic Renaissance also created age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West.
Once Marino and crew members Kevin Kirkpatrick and, later, Göran Lundström got into the swing of the project, application time was three hours. The application of the old-age makeup for Stephen Dorff’s character, Roland West, took a bit longer due to Roland’s longer hair and scruffy beard. “We first had to flatten his hair down with a resin paste and blank out the color of it,” Marino recalled, “and then put a bald cap on him and a prosthetic piece over that. A thin, gray partial wig was then combed into his own hair. Another additional step on Stephen was his stubble, which was important to the essence of this character. We flocked his beard onto his face using a special gun that works with static electricity. We put glue on his face, and then we shot these little prepared chopped hairs onto it. When we combed it out, it looked like hair was actually growing from the face, sticking out like a beard would, rather than laying on top of the face. The hair and beard added about a half hour to Stephen Dorff’s makeup application time.”
To avoid the grueling prospect of the actors enduring the makeup chair for three hours or more each day, production scheduled old-age scenes for a maximum or three to four days per week; for the remainder of the week, the actors were either off or shooting their 1980s and 1990s scenes. “It would have been too much to have the actors in prosthetics five or six days a week,” Marino stated. “The producers on the show were the best ever because they really navigated the schedule to accommodate the makeup needs.”
The recently aired Season 2, Episode 9 of the Fox Network’s The Orville featured an epic space battle that rivaled – and arguably surpassed – those seen previously in the Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica television series. Working under the guidance of production visual effects supervisor Luke McDonald and visual effects producer Brooke Noska, FuseFX visual effects supervisor Tommy Tran and his team delivered all but about a minute of the space battle within a remarkably short eight-week time frame, without compromising anything in terms of dynamism and realism.
Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, The Orville is, at one level, a space comedy loosely based on Star Trek; but MacFarlane and everyone associated with the show, including the visual effects teams, fully understand that satire works best when the core elements of the subject being satirized are duplicated with precision and specificity. “Comedy or not,” said Tommy Tran, “this space battle had to look and feel like a dramatic space battle, without crossing the boundary from sci-fi reality to absurdity. The sequence does pay homage to the ‘red shirt guy’ from Star Trek, and there is also a Top Gun moment in there; but other than that, the space battle was presented as cinematically as possible.”
Watch the space battle in this clip from The Orville:
In addition to the Orville starship, the sequence features Kaylon, and Krill spaceships and fighters. Though the angular, green Krill ships had been seen previously on the show – their designs already well established – the Kaylon fleet was only introduced in Part 1 of Episode 9. Pixomondo, another vendor on The Orville, built CG models from Kaylon ship designs by in-house digital effects supervisor Brandon Fayette. “Brandon is a very talented CG artist,” said Tran, “and he worked with Seth starting on Season 1 to design the look of every ship in the Union fleet, the Krill fleet, and the Kaylon fleet. However, FuseFX did design the space station from a basic concept, as well as the little robot ships that repair the larger ships.”
Integrating the Maya assets provided by Pixomondo required the use of optimization tools developed by FuseFX as a means of producing shots quickly and efficiently – crucial, given the company’s eight-week schedule. “Our pipeline TD, Changsoo Eun, created a tool that allowed us to auto-populate the shots before they went to the lighters,” Tran said. “So all the tracking data was there, and all the CG assets were there. Without that, we would have had to manually bring in hundreds of ships and place them in 3D space, which would have been daunting.”
The optimization tools enabled shots to be auto-populated not only with ships but also with explosions and space debris. “We looked at several recent films to get a sense of the look and feel of space battle scenes – the look of fireballs and explosions and so on,” recalled Tran. “That’s where we started. From there, I sat the effects artists down for about two weeks to do nothing but make small, medium and large explosions, fireballs and debris. Then Changsoo took all those assets we’d pre-built for the explosions and put them into a library. He wrote some code, so when the lighters needed an explosion, they could just go to the drop-down menu and find a fully rendered Houdini explosion we could plug in anywhere in 3D space.
“We did the same thing for space debris – bits and pieces of broken ships. We sat our modelers down for a couple of days, and said, ‘Run several varying destruction simulations.’ Each asset then was categorized in our library; and so, when the lighter needed to fill the background with space debris, he just went to the drop-down menu through our pipeline. Doing that, we could populate shots with varying amounts of space debris. That was a very robust feature. We’ve been able to auto-populate scenes before but not at this level. It was like we’d auto-populated trees in a park before; but for this, we had to auto-populate Yosemite National Forest!”
In the end, the space battle was such a monumental task, Tran brought in the help of FuseFX visual effects supervisor Kevin Lingenfelser. “He ran part of the episode with me,” Tran said. “We just split it – I’ll do this, you do that. It was a big help; the task was bigger than any one supervisor could manage That’s the thing I’m most proud of – that we were able to deliver that incredible sequence in eight weeks, to the quality that we did. We did it through optimization and teamwork and communication. We did it through working smarter, not harder.”
During the television broadcast of the 91st Academy Awards, viewers may have glimpsed a trailer for a sweeping historical epic, Cliffs of Freedom. The independent feature, released by Round Hill Media, boasted an impressive cast – Billy Zane, Christopher Plummer, Patti LuPone and Lance Henriksen – and glamorous co-stars, Jan Uddin as a Turkish colonel and Tania Raymonde as a feisty Greek woman, in a Zhivago-esque romance of star-crossed lovers set against a backdrop of Ottoman oppression. Equally notable – to anyone conversant with the visual effects community – was the name Van Ling, a long-time collaborator of James Cameron’s, making his theatrical feature directorial debut.
A hidden ‘Easter Egg’ on the Aliens Blu-ray immortalized Van Ling’s introduction to Cameron’s world, revealing how the youthful University of Southern California film school graduate applied his fledgling filmmaker moxie to gain an impromptu audience with the Aliens filmmakers by recreating one of their sci-fi epic’s robotic props. Ling later served as Cameron’s right-hand man on projects from 1986 through 1994, before carving out his own niche with producing partner Casey Cannon at Banned From the Ranch, and then Van Ling Productions. It was Cannon who introduced Ling to Cliffs of Freedom producer Marianne Metropoulos, who was seeking assistance on her project, which required a giant leap into new filmmaking territory. “I became fascinated by this period of world history,” commented Van Ling. “In school, I learned Western European history, but it was all Victorian and Tudor periods, which took students from where they began to where we are in America today – they didn’t spend too much time teaching us about the Ottoman Empire and events in Eastern Europe. That fascinated me, and one of the things we wanted was to find themes that resonated with people today. We wanted this to be a human story, with themes that were relatable to our world today. Revolutions, hope and resilience never seem to go out of style.”
To trace Van Ling’s adventure – from USC to his directorial debut, recreating 19th century Greece, using vast reserves of moviemaking ingenuity and nearly 1,000 visual effects shots – Cinefex caught up with the filmmaker during the Cliffs of Freedom opening weekend.
CINEFEX: Was it always your ambition to become a filmmaker?
VAN LING: Going to USC Cinema School in the mid-1980s certainly encouraged my desire to make movies. That was an exciting time for visual effects films. ILM was king of the jungle, and the maturation of motion control work that was pioneered by ILM, Doug Trumbull and others was reaching its pinnacle. Around the time that I graduated, we were on the cusp of starting to use digital tools to raise the stakes in creating visual effects, and all of those influences inspired me to want to tell stories and work on amazing films.
CINEFEX: USC has a great mentor program. Who were your influences there?
VAN LING: Thomas Stanford, the film editor on West Side Story, taught an editing class and I learned a lot from him. Producer Leon Roth taught ‘The Art and Industry of the Film,’ where different filmmakers would come in every week of the ten-week semester – the first week you would see a current film, and then every subsequent week they’d bring in a department head from that film, one week the director, the next week the cinematographer, and then production designer and the composer would come in. In my semester, we had Back to the Future, which was fantastic. And along those lines, after I graduated, we made Terminator 2 and I came back and coordinated getting a lot of the people from T2 to come in and do that same class. I got to pay it forward.
CINEFEX: Was that how you met James Cameron?
Van Ling directs Christopher Plummer as Thanasi, advisor to a Turkish colonel caught between the whims of a capricious Sultan and an enigmatic rebel leader in “Cliffs of Freedom”.
VAN LING: Well, I first learned about James Cameron when he came to USC in 1984 to screen The Terminator for us in a class where upcoming films were screened for students and the filmmakers come to do a Q&A – this wasn’t the same as the full semester program, but every week they’d screen an upcoming film, and they usually had a producer or an actor or director come in for a Q&A in the big Norris Theater. I loved The Terminator, and I became fascinated by Jim’s stories about guerrilla filmmaking, and working for Roger Corman. I thought to myself, wow, this is an ingenious filmmaker, who’s doing dynamic filmmaking and great storytelling, but he’s doing it as a science fiction genre geek. I would love to work for this guy. Jim and Terry Gilliam and some other folks like that were the ones I was really looking at. But that was a pipe dream at that time, way out of my league, so I focused on my studies and looked forward to Jim’s next film, which of course was Aliens, which came out the year I graduated.
CINEFEX: Cinefex readers may be familiar with your recreation of the P-5000 Power Loader from Aliens, but give us the short version.
VAN LING: The summer I graduated from USC, I did two weeks as a set P.A. on reshoots for Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, and I worked as a lowly summer intern in the marketing department at Showscan. While I was doing all those things, I would call the Fox production offices of James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, his producer, asking about internships every week. They’d always reply, ‘Nothing this week, but call back next week’ – that was already a step above what anybody else would say. And then Aliens opened, I went to see it twice on opening day, and one of my roommates from college, Ed Marsh, made a gentlemen’s bet with me regarding my fascination with the Power Loader from the film, the big yellow walking forklift. He dared me to build a model of it in time for his dorm’s upcoming Halloween party.
I showed up at the party with a seven-foot-tall mobile costume, with lights, motorized claws and stilts that I cobbled together in my parents’ garage. And I won that bet. More importantly, earlier in the day, I had called Jim and Gale’s office on the Fox lot one more time, and told them, ‘Hey, I made a Power Loader.’ To my surprise, they said, ‘Bring it on down, we’ll leave you a studio gate pass, we gotta see this.’ I was floored. I rented a pick-up truck, and got down there late in the afternoon. I missed seeing Jim, but Gale came out and said, ‘This is the best walking resume I’ve ever seen.’ And then, she loaned me Sigourney Weaver’s costume and Reeboks for the night to make my costume complete. It’s the kind of story that sounds made up, but it’s completely true, and I don’t think it’ll ever happen again.
CINEFEX: So, is it true – that landed you a job with Jim?
VAN LING: Well, I didn’t build that project with the intent of trying to get a job. I did it because just out of the love of it, and just because I’m a geek. I think it was that sincerity and the love that went into it that showed. My friends who helped me on the project kept telling me, ‘Hey, you should show this to James Cameron!’ But after that experience, meeting Gale, Jim ended up coming down to my parents’ house to meet me. He arrived while I was working on a friend’s student film, building a set out of foam core. And he asked me, ‘Hey, do you know how to do this kind of cut?’ He got down on the floor and started showing me how to cut foam core in a way that you can create rounded edges. And, coincidentally, I’d just gotten my first Macintosh that day, Jim saw that and said, ‘What kind of computer do you think I should get?’ We really hit it off, and that’s when he hired me to be his researcher and technical assistant on The Abyss. I became his computer consultant, his technical assistant and his researcher, and because he knew I was interested in visual effects, I ended up working for Jim for the next eight years.
CINEFEX: What did you learn at Lightstorm that led you to become a filmmaker?
Anna Christina (Tania Raymonde), a young Greek woman, witnesses events that inspire her to become a freedom fighter against Ottoman invaders. Production plate.
Entity FX tracked the Steadicam plate, tracking backward with Raymonde, rotoscoped the performer and composited layers of fog passes, augmenting in-camera fog effects.
VAN LING: I learned so much about every aspect of filmmaking because I was there on almost every meeting on every project. Jim used to call me his ‘extra RAM,’ his random access memory. It was a great opportunity and responsibility. At one point, as digital technology was ramping up, Jim gave me some advice. He said, ‘You have to decide where you want to be. If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to spend more time on sets, learning the rhythms and how all that process works. But if you want to focus on visual effects, you need to spend more time working directly on a computer.’ It was a really tough decision and I thought, ‘What would he do with this opportunity?’
CINEFEX: Is that how you branched out in work with Casey Cannon?
VAN LING: Well, I had met and started working with Casey on T2. She was a friend of Mark Dippé at ILM, he introduced us, and she brought me in to work on some concert videos she was working on. I then brought her in to work with me on some of my Lightstorm projects, like the laserdisc special editions of The Abyss and T2. When Casey started her own computer graphics boutique, Banned From The Ranch Entertainment, I joined as creative director. We were designing and running interactive screen graphics on set for movies like Congo, Twister, The Relic, Dante’s Peak, Starship Troopers. This was before the days when most computer screen graphics in movies were comped in after the fact. Prior to that, all the computer screens you saw in movies were video resolution, they weren’t real computers, they all looked like video graphics on standard definition 640×400 TV monitors. We started using real computers, creating computer graphics and animating. We then added visual effects work to our plate, and moved toward more creative story work. For Deep Rising, I designed a graphic sequence to sell the idea that a character comes in and hacks this cruise ship – I storyboarded it all out, we shot the insert shoot, and that solidified my interest in becoming a director.
CINEFEX: How did Casey come to present Cliffs of Freedom to you?
Sultan Mahmud II hosts an audience in the gardens of Hagia Sophia, overlooking the Imperial Mosque, 1808. Agrapha Productions created the palace park environment with background mosque, ornate tent exterior and bluescreen crowd elements.
New Mexico production plate, jib down to reveal tent, exposed for tent interior.
VAN LING: Casey was helping the financier, Marianne Metropoulos, put together her passion project story about her Greek heritage – this fictional story that takes place during Greek history. Casey thought it would be beneficial for me, although I wasn’t thinking about directing. She brought it to me to help figure out some story and script issues, back in 2011. They had a decent script, it wasn’t quite where they wanted it, Marianne wanted it to be more of a love story that happened to be set in this historical context. I brainstormed how to get from point A to point B in her story, and Casey suggested, ‘Why don’t you write that up?’ So, what started as story notes became beat-sheets, which became scene descriptions and dialogue suggestions and, by 2014, I had done a complete page-one rewrite and I started to get invested in the storytelling aspects.
CINEFEX: What threw the switch that turned this into your feature film directorial debut?
VAN LING: I backed into it. We went through a couple of director candidates, while I was just a writer. In fact, as I was writing a script, I was still working on designing Blu-ray menus for all the Hunger Games films and working on Disney Imagineering projects for EPCOT and Disney cruise ships. I was a support player. In 2014, I went with them to Morocco on a two-week scout as a writer, supporting one of their director candidates. But it was really hard to get anyone – studios or cast – interested in a movie that took place in this period. Marianne shelved the project for a year or two and, in the end, I ended up being the last man standing because I knew the script better than anyone.
Janissary Lieutenant Nemid (Morse Bicknell) consults with Captain Sunal (Raza Jeffrey) on the ramparts of the Sultan’s palace. Otto..
For the past seven years, visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer has been living a transcontinental life, spending half the year or more in Northern Ireland to oversee the filming of visual effects sequences for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and then returning home to Los Angeles for the remainder of the year, working long hours in postproduction to shepherd the completion of final shots from vendors around the globe.
He is currently just a handful of weeks away from delivering the last of those shots for Game of Thrones’ final season – and so, the time seemed right to talk with Bauer about his seven-year journey through Westeros and environs …
You came onto Game of Thrones for the series’ third season, in 2013. From the beginning, the production has been based in Northern Ireland. When did you first arrive there?
I think it was May of 2012 – something like that. That first year, I was there for about six months. I remember that we were back in time for Thanksgiving. And then the next year we were back before Christmas; and the year after that, we stayed until after Christmas. For Season Eight, we stayed in Northern Ireland for a full year, from August 2017 to August 2018.
What accounted for those longer and longer production times?
It wasn’t the number of episodes – those actually diminished. In the beginning there were ten episodes per season, and in later seasons, there were six or seven. But the volume of work for all departments increased, and the length of the episodes increased, as well. Also, the visual effects work compounded dramatically – from 800 shots in Season Three to well over 3,000 shots in Season Eight.
Your first year, what kind of ‘catch up’ did you have to do to take over the visual effects supervision for a show that already had been in production for two seasons?
I hadn’t read the books beforehand, and in fact, I wasn’t even aware of the show. So, the hardest thing was just trying to get some grasp of the story and the characters. Reading the script and making sense of it all was like reading another language. I just focused on the things that seemed most likely to be visual effects, things I knew they wouldn’t be able to shoot.
Do you recall your initial discussions with the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B Weiss?
I remember one of the things they said right off was that they wanted the show to be cinematic – which was a nice thing to hear. And then we tested that immediately by asking them for some things that were unusual for production, things involving stunts and special effects. There is a horrible knee-jerk tendency out there to go the CG route. But it is so much better if you’ve got something there, even if it is just photography to match to – and I’ve been beating that drum for a long time. The idea was to go into postproduction with elements that would be much harder to create as assets or effects sims, especially in a constricted timeframe. If we shot something, I knew I could plug that in and it would look good. If you can put 70% of the shot together on the Avid, then you’re home free.
Were there any peculiarities to working in Northern Ireland?
The working style was a bit different. They work without stopping for lunch, for example, which definitely has its advantages. And so, you do a ‘walking lunch.’ You also do a 10-hour day, generally, unless everyone agrees to go longer. But that’s rare, especially when you’re shooting outdoors in inclement weather. You’d kill people if you kept them out there longer than 10 hours. Also, the crew was made up of a lot of Irish and British people, and it is the cultural tradition to head for the pub after your work is done. If we worked them too long, and they didn’t get to check that emotional box, we’d have a pretty unhappy crew.
Was it more difficult to get special equipment there?
A bit. Anything that was unusual had to come from London – or sometimes even from L.A. For example, in Season Four, we had a 30X400-foot greenscreen for the wall battle. They built this massive scaffold in a farmer’s field, not too far from the coast. A couple of nights, there was such a storm that it ripped all of the greenscreen that had been fabricated in the U.S. and shipped over. It was ripped into rags. They got more of it made and shipped, and they got some at Shepperton, but that was a big deal. Motion control equipment was brought in from the U.K. and the U.S. – so there were shipping considerations with that, as well.
You must have faced a lot of shooting challenges in your six years on the show – days in which things did not go as planned. Care to share any of those memories?
A lot of them revolve around our outdoor greenscreen needs, which increased with every season. Early on, we’d just rely on stand-by people to put up our greenscreens. We’d throw them up the best we could – but not in a way that anybody with any knowledge would have done it! For example, we did that for a scene with Hodor and Bran at the cave of the three-eyed raven, and then the winds came up and the greenscreen started falling over. We realized at that point that we couldn’t function like that any more. It was just too dangerous. So we hired Paul Hatchman as our visual effects key grip, and once we got him in, everything changed. But our worst day was before we hired Paul, and everything was blowing and falling. Most of the bad experiences I recall – those I can actually recount – were those Man vs. Elements situations, because the elements always win.
How did the workflow evolve from Season Three to Season Eight? What improvements or changes were implemented along the way to improve efficiency and productivity?
The biggest change, I think, was just the number of visual effects facilities we had to bring on. In Season Two they had one facility – I think everything was done by Pixomondo. By Season Six, we had 14 facilities. Another comparison: for Season Three we had three previs people; for Season Eight we had 22 – including several geniuses. We also brought on additional visual effects supervisor starting with Season Four – Stefen Fangmeier, Ted Rae and Eric Carney of The Third Floor.
Watch the trailer for Game of Thrones Season Eight:
You mentioned that Season Eight has 3,000-plus visual effects shots. What were the mechanics of managing that volume of work in postproduction?
After we had determined what the shot load was going to be, we told the producers that we had just barely delivered our 2,400 shots for Season Seven – and this was going to be a lot more than that! We simply couldn’t do it in the time we had. We either had to lose shots or we had to bring on another supervisor; and they opted to bring on another supe, which was Stefen Fangmeier. Stefen did the premier and I did the finale, plus the majority of the remaining shots – because I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess!
Many of the same people – department heads and crew members – have worked together on this show season after season. Tell me how that has impacted the production. I imagine there is a significant benefit to that.
Oh, yeah. Once you have a history, everyone is confident enough to own what they’re doing and not wait to be told. Confidence is the key – and once everybody has that, you can do great things. For example, for this season, The Third Floor came up with the idea of putting programmed LEDs on the walls of the stage to ensure correct moving eyelines. Previously, we’d just had numbers on the wall, and we’d be yelling out: ‘Number 1! Number 5! Number 4!’ The programmed LEDs were a big improvement – and The Third Floor just did it, because they had the confidence to do it.
Visual effects producer Steve Kullback preceded you by one season – but you’ve been working as a team since Season Three. What is that working relationship like?
Anything I want to do, Steve makes it happen. And I’m not overstating that.
That’s a great quality in a visual effects producer.
It is! Whenever I had an idea, I’d first have to sell it to Steve – and he would be the devil’s advocate, to some degree, until I held my breath and threatened to walk in front of a bus if I didn’t get what I wanted. Once I convinced him, he would march it upstairs to Bernadette Caulfield, the executive producer, and I’d hear her jaw hit the floor. But she trusted Steve, and Steve trusted me – so it worked out. He was the Great Facilitator. He put a kind of protective bubble over me and ran interference for me, so I could do what I had to do.
After working on this show and these people for six years, you must have had mixed feelings about its being over. Tell me about your final days working on Game of Thrones as the production side of it came to an end last August.
I remember that the number of effects shots was still growing, and that meant there were more and more elements to shoot. As the schedule worked out, the last elements were being shot as I was in Heathrow Airport, preparing to fly back to L.A. – and so, right there in the airport, I was getting QuickTime movies sent to me on my phone to sign off on. There wasn’t a wasted second. And everybody was on board. We had a couple of the best camera operators in the U.K. working for us, and they stayed to shoot elements! Everybody was invested in this effort, as a whole. Everybody wanted to stay and see it out.
You have another few weeks of postproduction ahead of you, and then your tenure on Game of Thrones will be over. What’s next? Do you plan to take some time off?
I’m not that kind of person – not a lay-by-the-pool kind of guy. Never have been. I’ve got some travel plans for this June, but hopefully by late summer I’ll be plugged into the next thing.
The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones airs on HBO, commencing April 14, 2019.
To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Gong Myung Lee is a visual effects supervisor at Method Studios, and includes the following in her career highlights: Triple Frontier, Deadpool 2, Black Panther, The Defenders, The Get Down, American Horror Story, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Finest Hours, The Strain, Vikings, Narcos, and Marco Polo.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Myung?
GONG MYUNG LEE: I was clearly an artist at heart. My college roommates were happy to have our apartment decorated with my paintings and I even made money on the side painting portraits. However, I studied political science, international relations and economics, believing I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a diplomat. After college, I worked in corporate law but felt restless and craved a creative outlet.
I took a continuing education course called “Computer Animation Theory.” It was a mind-blowing combination of art, physics, math, and programming that I soaked up like a sponge. At this point I decided to change my career. I got my MFA and, within three years, I co-directed and completed an animated short called Cold War, which did well in the festival circuits and the student academy. From there I landed an internship at Nickelodeon Digital – this was when they had a 3D team. I wanted to do rigging, but they were looking for lighting artists at the time. I insisted that I could do the job and spent countless days and nights doing just that. As a closet fine-artist and painter, all aspects of lighting theory and compositing maths suited me well.
I moved to fast-paced broadcast commercials at Charlex and, within a few years, I had worked on a few hundred commercials. I continued to have supervising roles at The Mill, and then moved to Mr.X Gotham, where I had the opportunity to build the studio and work on numerous television episodics and features. I’m at Method Studios in New York today, doing a blend of commercials, episodics, and features work.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
GONG MYUNG LEE: I love working with a great team that you know you can trust. I’m highly collaborative and expect all members of the team to bring their best to the table. If you can work with a team like that, where you can also learn from each other and continually grow, anything is possible.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
GONG MYUNG LEE: It makes me so sad to see images break. That means working without regard to gamut, non-linear workflows, working in display space – color workflows that throw away the beautiful range of the original footage. As a visual effects professional, I believe the products we create have to be of excellent quality inside and out. It’s amazing when the visual effects we add look like everything was shot native in-camera. Quality is something that clients generally don’t think about, but maintaining pixel fidelity from ingest to delivery – as much as possible – is paramount to faithfully presenting the artistic spirit of the product. We need to be forward-thinking, take care every step of the process, and be aware of what’s happening to the footage from set, through visual effects, to digital intermediate, and to our audience.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
GONG MYUNG LEE: I supervised a Dodge commercial directed by Tim Kentley in 2010 that had seven or eight characters, a car, a dog, full CG landscapes and effects. The mandate was to finish what would have taken 8-10 weeks from start to finish in one glorious week – actually five days. We agreed to this seemingly impossible task and made it through without sacrificing any of the creative aspects. I was amazed by the teamwork and final product, and very proud of everyone involved in the project. There have been many challenges since then, but this one to me was the most memorable.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
GONG MYUNG LEE: What happens in visual effects … stays in visual effects.
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
GONG MYUNG LEE: Advancements in technology have had a huge influence in the visual effects landscape and will continue to do so. Camera technology is at the forefront of this change. Almost everything is shot digitally now, not only for its ease of use, but also for lowering production costs.
The demand for visual effects has increased dramatically for major action effects as well as invisible effects. Technology has made it easier to apply visual effects, offering much more flexibility to filmmakers. Jobs are getting bigger, with visual effects shot numbers shooting up to the thousands, encouraging collaboration between visual effects facilities to share assets. Open Source contribution has become more active as well, and both visual effects studios and software/hardware vendors are taking notice. We are finding ways to be more efficient and consistent, in search of standards that maintain technical and creative continuity, both within individual studios and as a global network.
When I started in the field, you needed to commit to a specialty, as there was too much for one to wrap one’s head around in each discipline. For each task, a tool needed to be written by a programmer, and being a visual effects artist meant you needed to be just as technical as you were artistic. There were very few jacks-of-all-trades. Accurate global illumination render solutions were production-prohibitive due to the amount of time it took to render things, so one had to rely on the naked eye to achieve the photo-real. Today, with the latest off-the-shelf 3D software with procedural workflows, empowered by faster CPUs and GPUs, these calculations are easier to achieve. Most of the tools come built-in, or there are plugins widely available, and visual effects artists can better focus on the creative side of things. The disciplines are blending together – lighting into composition, for example – and strong generalists are emerging. The industry is moving towards a more agile, flexible, software-agnostic pipeline.
Technical advances such as cloud rendering, offline to real-time rendering, machine learning and AI are changing the way we work. The term “postproduction” may not be relevant in the future, as virtual production, performance capture systems and real-time game engines are bringing visual effects to the forefront of the filmmaking process. Real-time tracking and compositing lock the actors onto digital sets or set extensions during the shoot. The ability for directors of photography and directors to visualize with a CG environment and camera, and to receive immediate rendered feedback is quickly becoming the norm and is less invasive to the filmmaking process. It allows for a closer collaboration between visual effects and filmmakers.
Artists are able to more easily work from home, a big step towards a borderless workforce. A considerable amount of visual effects work is being outsourced internationally. A while back, any work that was done outside the facility was risky and faced numerous challenges, like differences in time zones, output levels, communication barriers and lower quality. Nowadays, with better communication and investment in global education by larger visual effects players, the level of trust in the global community is growing, providing new opportunities for growth, development of talent, and advancements in the field.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
GONG MYUNG LEE: Visual effects will only be as good as the data we collect on set and in real life. Lack of this is what makes for much wasted time and manual labor in visual effects. I look to a future where metadata can flow smoothly from shoot to finish without it getting lost or discarded along the way. Some of this has to do with the need for tools to better collect data – camera, tracking, image-based lighting, color – but also enhanced solutions to preserve and parse them along the way. Cameras that capture depth information, devices that capture live triangulation data, and tools that capitalize on machine learning are only a few of the things I’m looking forward to.
I’d like to see more diversity. When I was starting out, I had no women role models in visual effects creative supervision. A colleague of mine once told me: “You are a unicorn!” I felt special and sad at the same time.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
GONG MYUNG LEE: Listen to and trust your gut. Be relentless in your pursuit and love of visual effects. Keep an open mind and learn everything you can about your job and those of the people around you by being inquisitive, asking intelligent questions and learning every day.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
GONG MYUNG LEE: Fight Club – I remember being amazed by the opening sequence – the camera takes you to a building, into a garage, to a van and to the bombs inside, all in one camera shot – and by the effective way visual effects was used to enhance the storytelling.
Inception – the scene where Paris folds into itself was a “wow” moment for me. The director could have chosen to make the visual effects more fantastical or abstract, but I loved how the scene’s restraint made it grounded and believable. The way the lighting was affected by the directional changes kept the cityscapes intensely photoreal.
My last choice is a tie between the performances of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. These CG character performances, with their nuanced subtleties and emotional expressive details, have elevated visual effects to another level, thanks to Weta’s many years of motion and facial capture development and the performances of Andy Serkis.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
I spent my formative childhood years in a rural northern California town that had a population of 2,000 cowboy-hat-wearing people, one gas station, and a single main street still lined with hitching posts to which denizens had once tied their horses. There wasn’t a multiplex movie theater in sight.
And so, when Walt Disney Pictures released Mary Poppins in 1964, I only saw it because my mother packed me up along with my siblings and drove 30 miles to the one single-screen movie theater in the area. It was an event so thrilling, so outside my day-to-day life, I have never forgotten it.
That memory led me to approach my coverage of Mary Poppins Returns with particular joy. I also had some trepidation, though, wondering what in the world these new-fangled filmmakers were going to do with my beloved nanny. I need not have worried. Director Rob Marshall brought a sure and reverent hand to the project, and his commentary in my article is revelatory.
If there is a character diametrically opposed to Mary Poppins, it would be the manga warrior, Alita. The big-eyed girl’s big-screen debut, Alita: Battle Angel, has been in the works for more than a decade, and Joe Fordham brings you all the details of that journey. Joe also covers Mortal Engines, which marks the directorial debut of longtime Peter Jackson collaborator and concept designer Christian Rivers.
Graham Edwards delivers the behind-the-scenes story of Bumblebee and its 1980s-style Transformer effects by Industrial Light & Magic and Cantina Creative, which brought heart and character to the ‘rock-em, sock-em robots’ franchise.
Cinefex 163 – Practically Perfect in Every Way.
Cinefex 163 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already powering towards your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, out soon, featuring tons more photographs and exclusive video content.
To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Sara Bennett is co-founder of Milk, where she also works as a visual effects supervisor. Ask her to name some personal favorites from her filmography and she’ll tell you: Ex Machina, Adrift, Harry Potter, and Snow White and the Huntsman.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Sara?
SARA BENNETT: I originally trained as a makeup artist as I was very keen to get into horror makeup. I moved to London to pursue this career and went to work for a special effects company; that’s where I first heard about visual effects. I was intrigued, so I applied for jobs as a runner and that’s how I got started. My first proper work on a film was doing roto work on Babe: Pig In The City.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
SARA BENNETT: Without doubt the people I work with. This job can sometimes be stressful, with antisocial hours, so working with good company and funny people helps.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
SARA BENNETT: Working on shots for months that suddenly get cut out of the show.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
SARA BENNETT: I think our most recent work on Adrift. We had to create a CG ocean and storm with one huge continuous shot that starts off out on the stormy sea, then continues into a capsizing boat cabin, before exiting back out underwater! It was some of the most technically challenging work we had to do, and the time we had to get it done in made it hugely challenging. But we were very happy with the end result.
Watch a breakdown video showcasing Milk’s work on Adrift:
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
SARA BENNETT: After winning a major award, I was asked to help sell a brand of leggings by wearing them while holding the award. I politely declined!
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
SARA BENNETT: Technology has moved on so quickly. The things we can do now compared to just a few years ago are really exciting. Photoreal digital humans were impossible not so long ago, and then we see the incredible work MPC did with Sean Young in Blade Runner: 2049 and the photoreal Hugh Jackman in Logan.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
SARA BENNETT: There is a tendency to rely more and more on visual effects. But I think it is important to balance that with shooting in camera wherever possible – or shooting real elements – and using visual effects to help tell the story only when necessary.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
SARA BENNETT: Go into a company with passion and enthusiasm to learn new things. Be open to anything, as you never know what doors will open for you. What you started out wanting to do may be completely different to what you end up doing.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
SARA BENNETT: The Matrix – I remember going to see this for the first time, with no knowledge of what it was. I came out of the cinema grinning! The bullet time effect was something we had never seen before and it still gets talked about today.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day – When I go to the cinema, I want to be entertained and come out with a smile on my face. The T-2000 chrome man was a great effect, achieved before we started using motion capture.
An American Werewolf in London – Films like this that use prosthetic makeup are the reason I got into visual effects in the first place. The werewolf transformation was awesome and horrific. It was amazing for its time and brilliantly done.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?