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July 01
2020

Ben Grossmann: Oscar-winning VFX Veteran Embraces Immersive Future

By TREVOR HOGG

Even though he has won a pair of VES Awards and an Oscar, the pathway to Hollywood was not an obvious one for Magnopus Co-founder and CEO Ben Grossmann, who shortly after being born in Washington, D.C. moved to Alaska, where reading books was his primary entertainment.

“I lived in a small town called Delta Junction,” recalls Grossmann. “If you looked in any direction there was nothing for at least 100 miles. I lived in a log cabin in the woods, surrounded by nature and fighting the cold. For most of my childhood we didn’t even have a television as there were no TV channels. I decided to buy a television after getting a job at a TV station where I was a cameraman, editor and the evening news weatherman.” Going to the cinema was not a major event growing up. “I can count on both hands the number of times I went to a movie theater when I was a kid.”

An interest in the film industry developed while Grossmann was working as a photojournalist for the Associated Press and studying political science and international relations at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “There’s a scene in Wag the Dog where it’s decided that visual effects are needed to create this farce of a war that will distract the population from the president’s misdeed and get him re-elected. They go into this room filled with Hollywood producers and computer technicians, and start creating this visual effects shot in real-time of a child running across bridge in a war-torn Albania. The actress is given a bag of chips that is going to be turned into a kitten. I was stunned and thought, ‘Forget politics. I’m going to Hollywood to change the world by other means.’ I threw all of my stuff in my car and drove straight to California. Turns out visual effects wasn’t like that at all.”

While the computer-savvy Grossmann was working as a temp receptionist at a Hollywood talent agency, an agent connected him with Bob Coleman, the President and CEO of Digital Artists Agency. “I got a job working at Digital Artists Agency formatting the résumés of visual effects artists, encoding their demo reels and putting their stuff on websites. What that did was give me the ability to see what skills the successful visual effects artists had and which ones were in most demand.” A job opportunity arose for a roto paint artist. “I went into the interview and said, ‘I’m not qualified for this job, but I’ll tell you this. If I’m not delivering work that makes you happy in 30 days, I’ll give you all of your money back. But I guarantee you that I can figure out whatever it is you want me to do and I can deliver it. Just give me a chance.’ They hired me, and that’s how I got into visual effects.”

In order to accelerate the learning process, Grossmann sought out the most difficult projects. “Bob had fun finding the most complex, impossible circumstances for me. I would routinely show up for a job that I was unqualified for and spend the whole week pulling all-nighters learning the software. As a result of those experiences I ended up working with some insanely talented people you either did or didn’t want to emulate.”

Ben Grossmann, Co-founder and CEO, Magnopus. (Images courtesy of Ben Grossmann except where noted.)

“I didn’t have a fervent devotion to cinema, but what I did develop was an obsession for solving hard problems that people said couldn’t be done. As a consequence, a visual effects supervisor is two things: a translator and problem-solver. You have to translate what is inside the director’s head, not what is coming out of their mouth, to the people who have to create the vision. A problem-solver knows how to make effective compromises without sacrificing the greater good. Sometimes you have to play creativity off of technology, the schedule off the budget, and there are occasions when you have to play all of those things off of each other and balance them all out.”

—Ben Grossmann, Co-founder and CEO, Magnopus

Grossmann and his wife, Ariane Rosier, get acquainted with the Oscar for Best Visual Effects awarded to Hugo, at the Governor’s Ball in Hollywood in 2012. (Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

Alex Henning, Robert Legato, ASC and Ben Grossmann with their Oscars for Hugo in 2012.

A storm sequence is shot against bluescreen for Shutter Island (2010). (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Shooting background plates on Shutter Island.

From left: Alex Henning, Rob Legato, ASC, Karen Murphy and Grossmann at the 10th Annual VES Awards in 2012, where they won the award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Feature Motion Picture. (Photo: Brandon Clark)

“I was fortunate to work with Rob Legato… Whenever anyone tells him, ‘You can’t do that’ you can rest assured that Rob will be sitting in his basement for the next 36 hours learning everything there is to know about why he can’t do that. The next morning Rob comes out and says, ‘This is how we’re doing it.’ And it works. Rob is not motivated by ego, but devoted to preserving the integrity of the story and executing the vision of the director in the best way possible. That sole ambition makes him one of the most invincible people I have ever worked for.”

—Ben Grossmann, Co-founder and CEO, Magnopus

With the train crash miniature on Hugo.

A rare experience was had on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World when the young roto paint artist was invited to sit next to filmmaker Peter Weir to review his work. “Anytime I went in that screening room he treated me with respect and appreciation, no matter how insignificant my shots were. I felt like I was a part of the movie, so I worked extra hard to make sure that my work was phenomenal. It’s hard to find that acknowledgement from a director when you’re so junior. But it’s like what Lao Tzu said, ‘If you fail to trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.’”

“When it comes to role models I think of Volker Engel (Independence Day) and Marc Weigert (White House Down), as I learned so much from them in my early days. Nothing could stop those guys,” remarks Grossmann. “Then I was fortunate to work with Rob Legato [ASC] (Titanic), who is also a director, cinematographer and editor. Rob does all of these things because they are a means to an end. Whenever anyone tells him, ‘You can’t do that,’ you can rest assured that Rob will be sitting in his basement for the next 36 hours learning everything there is to know about why he can’t do that. The next morning Rob comes out and says, ‘This is how we’re doing it.’ And it works. Rob is not motivated by ego, but devoted to preserving the integrity of the story and executing the vision of the director in the best way possible. That sole ambition makes him one of the most invincible people I have ever worked for.”

Eventually, Grossmann became a facility visual effects supervisor at The Syndicate, CafeFX and Pixomondo, with a résumé that includes collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a series of commercial shorts and Shutter Island and Hugo, as well as with J.J. Abrams, and Tim Burton respectively on Star Trek Into Darkness and Alice in Wonderland. “I didn’t have a fervent devotion to cinema, but what I did develop was an obsession for solving hard problems that people said couldn’t be done. As a consequence, a visual effects supervisor is two things: a translator and problem-solver. You have to translate what is inside the director’s head, not what is coming out of their mouth, to the people who have to create the vision. A problem-solver knows how to make effective compromises without sacrificing the greater good. Sometimes you have to play creativity off of technology, the schedule off the budget, and there are occasions when you have to play all of those things off of each other and balance them all out.”

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) enjoy a view of Paris behind the clock tower at Gare Montparnasse railway station in Hugo. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Upon the release of Hugo, Grossmann won an Oscar and VES Award for being part of the visual effects team, and subsequently received Oscar and VES Award nominations for Star Trek Into Darkness. “For Hugo, we needed four times our budget to make the movie that Marty wanted, and we launched a Hail Mary plan for the visual effects schedule, budget and crew while it was being shot. It took artists in a dozen offices around the world at Pixomondo to deliver the vision, but it was close. We had one shot that we worked on for a year and a half and only ever managed to get one render out. We finaled Version 1 of that shot, although Rob Legato comped more snow into it at the DI using a color matte, so I guess that that counts as Version 1.5.” Star Trek Into Darkness was an entirely different experience. “That was the last movie I worked on as a visual effects supervisor. I love J.J. Abrams, but not the machinery of what it takes to get a movie like that done. At the end of day, we finished on budget and did remarkable work that got nominated for an Oscar.”

A factory mentality prevails in the visual effects industry, observes Grossmann. “People like process, but that’s usually the death of innovation because every movie and challenge is unique. Visual effects companies are inherently about needing to process things because they’ve got to automate stuff as much as possible in order to survive financially. As a consequence, you have a generation of visual effects supervisors who come up through that system where optimism can be hard to find.”

In 2013, Grossmann ventured into the emerging medium of VR and AR by co-founding Magnopus with Alex Henning and Rodrigo Teixeira. “I noticed that my daughter was more interested in playing with interactive things than staring at the television. I thought, ‘Something new has to be created that goes beyond theaters, where each audience member gets to have their own unique perspective and role to play in a movie.’ We started this company to figure out how to get audiences inside of those experiences and get those experiences out into the real world. We’ve done experiments like Pixar’s Coco VR, Alcon’s Blade Runner 2049: The Memory Lab and Mission: ISS with NASA. Magnopus is checking off boxes in the problem process to get to that canvas where movies are a world you can experience from the inside. That’s what motivated our work on The Lion King.”

A significant creative and technical partnership has been forged between Magnopus, Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato and filmmaker Jon Favreau (Iron Man), which has led to virtual production methods being utilized when making photorealistic adaptations of Disney animated classics The Jungle Book and The Lion King. “It’s hard to find a filmmaker like Jon who is the passion and energy behind a team,” notes Grossmann. “He is fearless about technology but not foolish, which is hard. There are a lot of challenges with technology on a film like The Jungle Book. Because real-time filmmaking and virtual production is such a niche industry it was clear to us on The Jungle Book that no company could make enough money from it to properly invest in it. Jon had to struggle to see the picture while they were shooting and editing, and everybody was doing the best they possibly could to show him what it looked like. All filmmakers face that challenge when you’re trying to shoot in two worlds, physical and digital, at the same time.”

With a render farm built at Uncharted Territory in a weekend to make a trailer delivery.

Hugo Cabret tries to escape from Inspector Gustave Dasté (Sacha Baron Cohen) in Hugo. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Directing a team of Chinese acrobatic performers during a commercial shoot for Six Flags in Hollywood in 2005.

Grossmann worked with J.J. Abrams as Visual Effects Supervisor for Pixomondo on Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), which was nominated for an Oscar and VES Award. It was Grossmann’s last film as a visual effects supervisor before launching Magnopus. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Grossmann worked with director Peter Weir on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, an experience Grossmann found inspiring. (Photo: Stephen Vaughan. Copyright © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox)

Grossmann served as Visual Effects Supervisor for CafeFX on Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (2010). (Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Grossmann, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC, Rob Legato, ASC and virtual production producer Adrian J. Sciutto (not pictured) received the 2020 VES Award for Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a CG Project for The Lion King. (Photo: Danny Moloshok and Phil McCarten)

An opportunity arose for Magnopus to further develop the virtual production technology with MPC on The Lion King, which resulted in Grossmann, Legato, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC (The Right Stuff) and virtual production producer Adrian J. Sciutto (The Amazing Spider-Man) winning the 2020 VES Award for Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a CG Project. “We wanted to see what would happen if the world was built in a real-time engine. We constructed the tools that everyone expects from live-action filmmaking so they don’t have to learn it, and made hardware which adapted to that,” explains Grossmann. “Our idea was, ‘What if we put the film crew in the movie that’s a prototype for what it would be like to put the audience in there?’ In that sense it was successful because the film crew had a great time. The visual effects work was amazing.” A by-product of the virtual production innovation is filmmakers will be able to figure out what they want better and present it to the visual effects artists to improve. “More than half of visual effects budgets are wasted on bad communication and people not knowing what they want. I don’t blame the filmmakers because it is hard to understand a shot that is incomplete. We have to fix that.”

The next question is how the virtual production technology can be applied to live-action filmmaking. “The idea came from rear-screen projection, but powering the content that’s on the screens with a real-time game engine like we did on The Lion King and going for photorealism,” states Grossmann. “What would the future look like for live-action films if you were essentially shooting them on a Star Trek holodeck? The techniques of realtime film production need to be aligned with consumer technologies, though. When you come up with innovation that you target towards consumers your market potential is immense. It’s super cool to see people’s faces when you put them into something for the first time. The film crew inside of The Lion King was like, ‘This is awesome! I’m standing on Pride Rock.’


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