By OLIVER WEBB
Images courtesy of Roger Guyett.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By OLIVER WEBB
Images courtesy of Roger Guyett.
Roger Guyett grew up in the Farnborough area in Hampshire, England, where he went to school, then college in Bristol, before eventually finding his way into the world of computer animation in the mid 1980s. “After college, I didn’t know what to do with myself and ended up doing construction jobs, played music in bands around London, lived in France, and generally had a good time, but it wasn’t really taking me anywhere. I did an art foundation course and developed an interest in animation and the idea of making images with computers. Eventually, a friend told me that the British government was funding people to retrain in computer science, so I applied and did an MSc at University College London. I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to take me, but it felt like a positive step. This was all before people had home computers or even before email addresses, which sounds mad as it really wasn’t that long ago!” says Guyett.
After completing the course, Guyett saw an intriguing job advertisement in the Evening Standard for a position at a London post-production company. “As part of the interview process, they asked me if I could do an animation of a flag, an analysis of how it might move,” Guyett explains. “I did the best I could and fortunately was offered the job. At that time, people with all sorts of backgrounds were starting to work in computer animation. There was no specific training, no college courses in Computer Animation – there were probably only 20 of us working in the entire industry in London. I hadn’t known this world existed, but I’d stumbled into something that was a perfect fit for me, and I loved it. Working at a post-production company was incredibly exciting and you were exposed to all sorts of work – TV idents, commercials, pop videos, all sorts of different kinds of work. The people were amazing, and you got to learn every aspect of production from storyboarding to editing. We even acted in some of the work we did when we didn’t have much budget.”
Continues Guyett, “In those days, commercials were often shown in cinemas on film. The commercials were authored on video and then crudely transferred onto film. To do proper digital effects, you had to be able to scan film to digital and then, of course, get the resultant digital images transferred back onto film at a much higher fidelity. This issue was an ongoing development in the industry and crucial to the process. ILM, of course, had solved that problem a few years earlier. One of my proudest moments at that time was working on a Perrier commercial that was one of the first examples of a hi-res digital film out in the U.K. The technology had been developed by Mike Boudry, who had a company called the Computer Film Company, which was eventually acquired by Framestore. That was the first film work I was involved with,” Guyett notes.
Guyett’s big break came when he was hired by Pacific Data Images (PDI) in 1992 and moved to California to work in the rapidly expanding world of digital film effects. He worked at PDI for two years before moving to ILM in 1994. “When I was a kid, I loved movies, but I never imagined I’d get to work on one! The digital VFX world suddenly exploded after movies like Jurassic Park came out, and there were a lot of great opportunities in America for people who knew how to do that work. When I arrived at ILM, there was actually still a mix of more traditional VFX, like miniatures. A lot of work was still done using optical techniques, but the new horizon was the digital side. My first show was Casper with legend Dennis Muren as Digital Character Supervisor. I was a senior technical director there – you lit the shot, did any effects, and then composited it all together. There was a strong delineation between the disciplines, which became even stronger as each of the disciplines became more and more complex. From there, I was lucky enough to become a CG supervisor on shows like Mars Attacks! and Twister. That show pushed particle systems to a whole new level – all sorts of tools and ideas were developed for that film. There were a lot of very smart people working at ILM. It was amazing seeing ideas like ambient occlusion, for example, get developed there.”
Guyett worked with VFX Supervisor Stefen Fangmeier while at ILM. “He was one of the original digital guys at ILM and had worked on Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. We’d worked on Twister together. He needed a co-supervisor for Speed 2 and he was kind enough to ask me. That got me on the VFX Supervisor path at ILM, which I’m eternally grateful to him for,” Guyett adds.
In 1997 Guyett worked on Saving Private Ryan, which proved to be a turning point. “Although Stefen was the main supervisor, he got really busy on another show and it meant I was essentially on my own. There’s nothing like feeling the heat and pressure of your first solo show as a VFX Supervisor! It was a great mix of both digital and practical effects. The biggest digital shot was the beach establisher with all the ships, landing craft and troop replication – doing all the interactive water was such a challenge then. We did a lot of effects work – explosions, bullet hits and flying debris and plenty of grotesque wound FX work, standard fare in a war movie these days. And, of course, all the tracer fire! Steven Spielberg was a real force of nature at that time and at the top of his game. I was pretty inexperienced on set and suitably nervous, but had to step up and deal with it all. At that time, you didn’t have the ability to do the number of takes you can do now, the computers were a lot slower and disk space was a premium. It was actually one of the first shows we used the internet as a research tool. I remember typing in “D-Day” and we got back three or four images! What an incredible experience that show was. I was dealing with one of the greatest filmmakers in the world and watching him work first hand,” Guyett explains.
Guyett’s credits also boasts two Harry Potter films. “Rob Legato was the Production Supervisor on The Philosopher’s [aka The Sorcerer’s] Stone. I came and joined him as one of the main supervisors, working through the shoot and then supervising ILM’s work. One of the first sequences I helped shoot was the snake in the zoo. I learned so much from Rob – he was a big influence on me. He had such a strong perspective as a filmmaker, something that I tried to develop through my career. You’re not just looking at the VFX work artistically and technically, but also trying to understand the context of the work and how it contributes to the film as a whole. Warner Bros. was so anxious about the first movie, which is so funny to think of now. You don’t get to work on bigger or more complicated movies than something like Harry Potter and, again, it was a great learning experience. It was an amazing mixture of miniatures, practical and digital work.”
Guyett also worked on the action-packed Mission: Impossible III.
Guyett served as the main visual effects supervisor on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “It’s still one of the strongest visual movies I’ve ever worked on. Alfonso Cuarón is such a visual director – the shot compositions, the way his shots develop. He didn’t have a lot of experience doing VFX, but he had such great ideas. I learned a lot about filmmaking from him. It was big and complex show and we had a great team. Mike Eames was the Animation Director, and Tim Burke was the other main supervisor on the show. The complexity of the work often demanded innovation and a tremendous amount of planning to set the shots up for success. That’s something that seems sadly less important these days. For example, we developed some great motion-base work tied into the animation for the sequence when Harry rides Buckbeak the hippogriff.
“[J.J. Abrams and I] have worked on five movies together. He was somebody that I learned from tremendously and was able to grow with. He’s extremely visual but compliments that with his background as a writer. I think we have common sensibilities and similar tastes, which of course really helps. We’ve done so much work together now that we have developed a shorthand. You just don’t have to spend so much time communicating your ideas, you can cut to the chase. He still surprises and challenges me…”
—Roger Guyett, Visual Effects Supervisor/Second Unit Director, ILM
It was really gratifying seeing the final shots come together, seeing that Harry’s movement was so integrated with the animation because of the mo-base work we’d done. The Time-Turner sequence was another very memorable moment for me. It was probably one of the most complicated and most planned shots I’ve ever worked on. You had so many different elements. Different plates of the cast and background actors moving at different frame rates, but all tied together with moving lighting. Then multiple miniature shots of models at different scales all comp’d together,” Guyett details.
The Knight Bus sequence also proved to be particularly challenging to create. “Alfonso wanted the freedom to move the camera at will inside the bus. We had to figure out a way of shooting a 360 environment plate, something that people do all the time now!” Guyett says. “We built a 14-camera film rig on a vehicle. All the heads were stabilized, and we worked out the visual overlap between all the cameras to create the necessary plate for the interior of the bus. Of course, the bus windows helped because they restricted the view a bit. We’d go to all the locations, which were super expensive as it was all shot in the middle of London, and only needed one or two runs of the vehicle to do all the plates we needed, which, of course, production loved. Then, in post we used a terrifying number of avids to sync all the footage together, which then allowed us to figure out how to move the interior bus set on stage, essentially syncing the motion of the bus set to the background plates we’d shot. If the bus turned left, it leaned appropriately, and because we had a full background plate, Alfonso could shoot in any direction. Trying to explain all this to Alfonso was near impossible, but fortunately he trusted me and it all worked out. Another trick was using a bunch of projectors, which then projected the same footage back into the bus itself. It gave you this great sense of texture and speed and excitement. Alfonso certainly tested your ingenuity and imagination.”
One of Guyett’s most significant contributions to visual effects was his work on J.J. Abrams Star Trek. “At this point, I was more confident and had developed and refined my approach more. Working as both the Second Unit Director and VFX Supervisor really allowed me more control and authorship of the shots. One of those touchstones on Trek was that famous image of the Earth photographed by the Apollo astronauts from the moon. Half the Earth is in shadow and half is lit. When we made Star Trek, that image really inspired my approach to the work. It seemed to encapsulate the idea of exploration, the potential danger, the unknown, traveling into the shadows, but also light and the strong contrast of the potential outcomes and, of course, simply put, the kind of lighting style I was excited about. We also famously developed a whole ‘lens flare’ language for the film, something that I see now in other movies. It created this visual energy, like you were seeing into the future or something. It was certainly vibrant but also very dark. J.J. and DP Dan Mindel did such a great job with that movie. It was so well cast and so much fun.”
Discussing his relationship with Abrams, Guyett notes that he was fortunate enough to work with Abrams at the beginning of his career as a film director. “We’ve worked on five movies together. He is somebody that I learned from tremendously and was able to grow with. He’s extremely visual but compliments that with his background as a writer. I think we have common sensibilities and similar tastes, which of course really helps. We’ve done so much work together now that we have developed a shorthand. You just don’t have to spend so much time communicating your ideas, you can cut to the chase. He still surprises and challenges me – he’s incredibly inventive. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done together. I’ve been very lucky, he’s been a great partner.”
Guyett also collaborated with Abrams on Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. “I worked with some of my closest collaborators again, people like Pat Tubach and Animation Supervisor Paul Kavanagh. On that show we finally saw the opportunity to upgrade the famous lightsabers! It always bugged me, especially having done Revenge of the Sith, that you didn’t get the correct interactive light from the sabers themselves, you were always cheating the interactive light as a separate light source. On Force Awakens there’d been some really amazing advances in LED tech, so we could finally build a lightsaber that was literally a tube of LED lights. Finally the prop was real light source! It really helped the quality and realism of the work. DP Dan Mindel was also a great partner on that show, and he really took advantage of the new lightsabers in some key moments in the film. It’s great to work on movies that have the budgets to do that kind of work. Regardless, you’ve always got to be cognizant of budget and try to design the shot within whatever parameters you have for the best-looking shot.”
“As a visual effects supervisor, you’re often one of the first to join a production and the last to leave – you get to see the entire process unfold,” Guyett reflects. “I’ve been lucky enough to work on such a variety of projects, from Pirates to Mission: Impossibles, and work with some incredibly talented people. I enjoy every aspect of the process: the planning, the shoot and, of course, working with the team to create the shots and see the movie come together.
In hindsight I was lucky to start supervising at that crossroads between more traditional VFX techniques and the digital world, so I was fortunate to do a lot of miniature work, which I always loved. For example, on Star Wars: Episode III we had a massive practical model crew, despite the huge amount of digital work. It had one of the biggest miniature shoots in ILM’s history: the Mustafar scenes, which I supervised. It’s such a shame that it’s hard to do that work anymore. One of the fundamental ideas I learned from working with directors like J.J. and Steve Spielberg was about trying to make sure that each shot you worked on really advanced the story, even in a small way. Each shot has a purpose – it has a reason to be in the movie.”