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June 08
2021

ISSUE

Summer 2021

ARTEMIS OIKONOMOPOULOU: CINESITE SUPERVISOR IS EXACTLY WHERE SHE SHOULD BE – LIVING VFX

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Cinesite and Artemis Oikonomopoulou except where noted.

Artemis Oikonomopoulou

 The ability of the visual effects industry to quickly adapt to the pandemic-inspired, work-at-home mandate was a pleasant surprise for Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor Artemis Oikonomopoulou. “For everyone and other people I have spoken to, we were all surprised how all of the visual effects companies managed to sort it all out in a matter of one or two weeks. It’s opened the doors now for a new way of working, which was something that was going to happen eventually, but this forced the issue. Since our industry is based a lot on tax breaks, the next step would be for governments to go, ‘Can you work for a London facility but be in France?’ It will be interesting to see how they resolve that. But I will certainly be happy when I’m back in an office again. I’ve never thought I’d say that!” 

Growing up in Athens during the early 1980s, Oikonomopoulou was a fan of Batteries Not Included, Ghostbusters, and anything by Steven Spielberg. “My parents encouraged us to go to the cinema a lot. It was the golden age of family movies,” she says. The ancient buildings and artifacts were simply part of the landscape. “As a child you spend lots of time being dragged around museums looking at stones and pots from an era which at the time means nothing to you. But when you grow up and think about it, it takes on a different perspective. My mom was an archaeologist.”

Artemis Oikonomopoulou on set filming Death on the Nile in Egypt.

The first personal computer introduced into the family household was by Amstrad. “There was a lot of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong! It was a different time growing up as there was no Internet. I was subscribing to cinema magazines. It was also a golden age of Disney animation with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A lot of people say that they got into this job because of Star Wars, but I got into this because I wanted to be a Disney animator.” 

Computer generated effects – in particular, the ballroom in Beauty and the Beast and the alien water tentacle in The Abyss – deepened her fascination with how movies were made. “In the mid-1990s, when I was a teenager, I randomly met someone who said, ‘You shouldn’t be a hand-drawn animator, but go and study computers because everyone is going to be using them in the future,’” recalls Oikonomopoulou. “On a whim I applied to Bournemouth University in 1997. At the time, it was the only bachelor’s degree in something like that in Europe. I finished school at the age of 17 and then moved to the U.K.” 

Look development of Yellowjacket in Ant-Man. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios and DNEG)

“During the final weeks of doing our master’s dissertation [at Bournemouth University], we had a couple of recruiters from Cinesite come to the university and I had a meeting with them. Two weeks after finishing my course, they offered me a job. It was a time when the visual effects industry in London was picking up with the first Harry Potter film.” 

—Artemis Oikonomopoulou 

Oikonomopoulou served as an on-set supervisor on Venom

The part that Oikonomopoulou enjoys the most about visual effects is being able to craft cinematic imagery as she did on Death on the Nile.

Oikonomopoulou learned a great deal from filmmaker Andrew Stanton during the making of John Carter. (Image courtesy of Cinesite and Disney)

Oikonomopoulou subsequently graduated with a bachelor’s in Computer Animation and Visualization, and a master’s degree in Special Effects. “When I got to the course and did the degree, I realized that I was lucky because I ended up loving computer graphics. During the final weeks of doing our master’s dissertation, we had a couple of recruiters from Cinesite come to the university and I had a meeting with them. Two weeks after finishing my course, they offered me a job. It was a time when the visual effects industry in London was picking up with the first Harry Potter film.” 

Initially, her ambition was to be an effects artist, but the new recruit was considered to be too junior for the position. “I started in lighting and texturing,” remarks Oikonomopoulou. “I’m so happy that I did because it was all about painting pictures. It was before the advances in physically-based lighting. You have your fill and bounce light. You had to create it all yourself. I ended up loving that. One sad thing about this lockdown, outside of having to work from home, is not being able to go to the cinema and galleries because that’s something I do on a weekly basis. First of all, it’s because I love it, but it also trains your creative eye to get better at what you do. You always have to look at art.” 

Eventually, Oikonomopoulou began to ponder her future beyond what she had been doing. “I was a lighter for six or seven years and then a CG supervisor for a long time. You have to think on your feet all of the time, be organized, make sure that you keep everyone connected and that every department is talking to each other. Over time I realized that I wanted to become a visual effects supervisor. I care about the technical part of my job because it is such a big part of it, but I mostly care about how something looks. I like to look at pictures, give people feedback and bounce ideas off of them. Even with something that is unreal you still have to add a level of reality to be able to sell it to your audience.” 

“A lot of people say that they got into this job because of Star Wars, but I got into this because I wanted to be a Disney animator.”

—Artemis Oikonomopoulou

On Death on the Nile and Venom, Oikonomopoulou was an on-set supervisor. “It’s about being constantly aware of what’s going on, being able to foresee any issues that might arise on set, and being quick on your feet in coming up with solutions. When I started working, visual effects was considered part of the post-production and not such an important aspect of being on set. That has definitely changed. Virtual production is going to be an interesting one to see where it takes us and how much of a tool it will be in the next few years, or it’s going to be something that people try and think it’s too much for what it is. It was the same thing 10 years ago when all of the films wanted to be in stereo. Virtual production is great to help directors to visualize something, because it’s hard shooting and looking at a greenscreen and not really knowing how that would look for another few months down the line. You always have to remember; you can do it with or without.”

“I never like being asked what it’s like being a woman in this job, because I don’t see that,” remarks Oikonomopoulou. “You go to work every day and do hopefully as much as anyone else can, independent of who you are. In London, and I’m sure it’s the same in Canada and the States, it’s such a multicultural close-knit group of people. Everyone brings something different to the table, from the way that they see things to their backgrounds. When I started working in the 3D department, I was the only woman for eight or nine months. There were a lot more women in the compositing side. But over time that has changed. People have gotten more educated about this industry, and realize that it’s not only about sitting in front of a computer and coding all day. It’s another medium for your creativity. You could be more technical or creative. There are so many avenues and niches you can fit yourself in this job.”

Oikonomopoulou assisted showcasing the struggle between Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the symbiote inhabiting his body in Venom.

“Over time I realized that I wanted to become a visual effects supervisor. I care about the technical part of my job because it is such a big part of it, but I mostly care about how something looks. I like to look at pictures, give people feedback and bounce ideas off of them. Even with something that is unreal you still have to add a level of reality to be able to sell it to your audience.”

—Artemis Oikonomopoulou 

Among her career highlights was creating the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ sequence in Ant-Man. “What I liked about Ant-Man is it felt different than your usual Marvel Studios movie because of that smaller scale,” remarks Oikonomopoulou, “when he shrunk down to tiny proportions, how little stuff affected him, like fluff on the street. I was a CG supervisor [at DNEG] on that. We were sent a cupboard full of the toys that were in the little girl’s room. Every day we would pick one out and give it to a modeler and texture artist and say, ‘Make this little teddy bear.’

What was so interesting was looking at the minute detail, especially when Ant-Man is running on a carpet – that carpet took us so long! To be at that scale and show all of the microfibers to sell, that was hard but fun.” Another personal favorite was creating the destruction of the lighthouse cave and a dancing Mandelbulb, which is the embodiment of an alien, for Annihilation. “It is a great movie that is more of a thinking man’s sci-fi. The photography was beautiful. The things we had to make were beautiful and so interesting.”

With the growing importance of the Chinese market, Oikonomopoulou worked on the development and execution of the barren Earth landscapes and space environments for Mermaid 2. “It was intriguing trying to connect different cultures and find a common ground. I was on set for six weeks. They work differently, and the language barrier is hard when you’re there on your own. I worked closely with the director, Stephen Chow, because he wanted a lot of concept ideas. [It was unnerving] when you were having a conversation in Mandarin or Cantonese for about half an hour and someone would only translate one sentence! There was a lot of that happening. You had to try to figure out the in-between.”

The poor critical reaction to John Carter was a disappointment for her. “The movie didn’t deserve all of the hate that it got. I was on that for two and a half years. Andrew Stanton is a great director and storyteller. You learned so much from the way Andrew talked about what he wanted to see and how he wanted to see it. At the time it was a challenging film for technical reasons. There were a huge number of shots to work on. We had to redesign the whole pipeline [at Cinesite]; 200 to 300 extra artists were hired. It was a shame that John Carter was pushed aside in the end.” 

Machine learning is a scary prospect for the visual effects industry in terms of its unforeseen impact on the creative side. “There are definitely areas that we can improve and economize, but it is still a job in a creative field,” observes Oikonomopoulou. “It still needs people’s eyes, not just a machine to operate behind the scenes.” The advances in smartphones, like the iPhone Pro Max to include LiDAR scanning, is something to be excited about. “I had an app on my phone where you could take an HDRI – that stuff is great.”

The career appeal lies in the nature of visual effects. “I don’t see it as a job,” she says. “It’s part of who I am. That’s when you enjoy what you do. Sometimes it does take over your life and there are long hours, other times not so much. I can’t see myself doing anything else in my life.” 

Natalie Portman encounters a mysterious alien lifeform in Annihilation. (Image courtesy of DNEG)

The microscopic imagery of Ant-Man made it a fun and unique project for Oikonomopoulou. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios and DNEG)

After watching The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Artemis Oikonomopoulou initially had ambitions to become an animator.

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