VFX Voice

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.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


January 02
2020

ISSUE

Winter 2020

High Demand, Streaming, Tight Schedules Mark Industry Growth

By TREVOR HOGG

In order to develop a better understanding of the current status, as well as what the future holds for the SFX industry, VFX Voice asked SFX supervisors from around the globe to provide insight about the state of their unique craft – combining imagination, engineering, technology and artistry to conjure practical magic on the big screen.

Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman in Annihilation, with Hayley J. Williams looking after the special effects. (Photo: Peter Mountain. Copyright © 2017 Paramount Pictures)

Hayley J. Williams

Hayley J. Williams (Annihilation, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) has frequently collaborated with filmmaker Tim Burton (Dumbo) and has founded her own special effects company located at Longcross Studios in the U.K. “My father was a special effects supervisor and I worked closely with him for a good number of years. I’ve also worked closely with the likes of Neil Corbould, VES. It’s very much about learning the job on the job and having very good teachers.”

In regards to the lack of female special effects supervisors, Williams believes, “Over the years there has gotten to be a few more of us in the industry. It wasn’t something you came across frequently when I started. Lack of opportunity back then had something to do with it. It’s obviously a bit of a fight. I’ve built my reputation up now, so I don’t feel like I face that fight anymore. For sure, early on I did.”

Sandra Bullock floats in zero gravity in Gravity, with practical assistance from Neil Corbould, VES. (Image copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Neil Corbould, VES, is a celebrated member of one of the most renowned families in the history of special effects. With their uncle, Colin Chilvers, pioneering the way by being the Special Effects Supervisor on Superman (1978), brothers Chris, Ian, Paul and Neil Corbould each have gone on to forge careers working on high-profile projects such as Inception (2010), Gravity (2013), Doctor Strange (2016) and Black Widow (2020). “When I was special effects technician on Superman, we had a little tin shed at Pinewood Studios with a crew of 15 or 20 people,” recalls Neil Corbould who has received Oscars for Gladiator (2000) and Gravity (2013). “Today, special effects crews are a lot bigger with 80 or 90 people for a movie of that sort of size. Because the technology has moved on, we have more resources at hand, like C&C cutters, milling machines and waterjet cutters. What we can do now is far greater than what we could do back then and for a reasonable price.” Twenty-five years ago, a visual effects supervisor told Neil Corbould that special effects had five years left as a practical entity. “We’re probably stronger now than we’ve ever been. I like to work with people who embrace what we do and build on something that we’ve produced.”

Neil Corbould, VES

Chris Corbould won an Oscar for Inception, which featured a gravity-defying hallway. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Chris Corbould

Chris Corbould is a mainstay of James Bond films, including the latest No Time to Die (2020) and received an Academy Award for Inception. “There was a time when I thought that the role of SFX would totally diminish and give way to the amazing world of VFX. Fortunately, there is a proportion of audiences that still crave some reality in the films they go to watch, with James Bond, Mission: Impossible and Christopher Nolan’s films being examples where physical effects play a major role. SFX crew numbers continue to rise on major films, and it is not unusual for crews in excess of 100 technicians. However, the secret behind all these films is a good marriage between SFX and VFX where the prime objective is to give the most realistic result while taking into consideration safety, cost and filming schedule.

“The two departments, although specializing in totally different skills,” he continues, “perfectly complement each other, where VFX will add/remove specific elements to a SFX scene and SFX will create real elements for VFX to enhance digital scenes. It is the duty of every SFX supervisor to continually explore the possibilities and work closely with VFX to create those jaw-dropping moments that audiences talk about and remember for years. The most crucial part of these events involves the development of original content and storyline, and all SFX supervisors should strive to be part of this creative process and inspire the next generation of SFX.”

The Electra crash rig used for Amelia was built by Tony Kenny.

Tony Kenny and his company, Dynamic Effects Canada, has worked on the Amazon series The Boys as well as features such as Pompeii (2014) and X-Men (2000). “We do everything wireless. Before, we would have miles and miles of wire running around for various things like bullet hits. It’s so much easier now in terms of digital gauges. Everything is much quicker. It’s so much easier to rig it, hook it into a receiver, stand back with a transmitter and fire it off. We use iGNIUS out of England, which is technically a blasting company. iGNIUS have their instruments set to an odd frequency that is not used by cellphones, walkie talkies or anything to do around a film set. They’re safe. We’ve been using them for years and they’re fantastic.”

R&D is project driven, Kenny adds. “We end up building things for one show, and the next one we will have something similar, so we’ll use the same rig that was built and modify it. We’re constantly modifying our gear to make what we ever need to happen on set.”

Tony Kenny

Transformers: The Last Knight would not be complete without explosions from long-time Michael Bay collaborator John Frazier. (Photo: Andrew Cooper. Copyright © 2016 Paramount Pictures and Hasbro)

John Frazier

John Frazier has received Academy Awards for Spider-Man 2 (2004) and technical achievements such as the pneumatic car flipper. “We’ve all been in those situations where we’re rushed. That’s when you say slow down. I remember one case when I got into it with Michael Bay. We were working on The Island (2005), and it was a dangerous stunt. We had the two stunt players on motorcycles being hung by the back of a truck and we’re going down the freeway. Michael said, ‘I’m going to go up to the other end, grab a couple of shots, and then we’re going to come back and do this.’ I said, ‘Okay, when you come back, I’ll need five to 10 minutes of your time.’ That was so we could go over the whole scenario and contingencies of what might happen. He went to the other end, got his shot, came back and said, ‘Let’s mount up and do the shot.’ I said, ‘No. We agreed that I’d get my 10 minutes.’ He said, ‘I used your 10 minutes at the other end getting the shot.’ I answered, ‘You’ve got to find 10 minutes.’ Without getting into a screaming match I told him to take a timeout. I thought that was going to be my last day, but that’s what you have to do. You can’t let them rush you.”

Joel Whist executed numerous explosions for War for the Planet of the Apes. (Image copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Joel Whist has a diverse blockbuster résumé that includes Cabin in the Woods (2011), Sucker Punch (2011), The BFG (2016) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). “There’s so much 4K photography happening now, and the imagery is so crisp. We’re using a lot of atmosphere onstage in set because if you don’t the image is too clean. It’s like watching a soap opera in the 1970s. Instead of using a haze you’re getting thick smoke, and that starts to become an issue with certain restrictions and crews. Normally, you would come onto a stage, fill it to a level that the DP likes, keep it at that level and keep shooting. What’s happening now is that you’re not allowed to put any atmosphere in on certain shows until the last minute. When you put it in that way then it’s luck of the draw, because you’re just filling a section of the stage, which means you can get layers of smoke and movement of atmosphere, which is a dead giveaway.”

Joel Whilst

A seamless integration of special and visuals effects in First Man led to J.D. Schwalm winning an Academy Award. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures)

J.D. Schwalm

J.D. Schwalm has followed in the footsteps of his father, Special Effects Supervisor/Coordinator Jim Schwalm, to establish Innovation Workshop, and has worked on Venom (2018), First Man (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019). “When you shoot a car into a building or flip a car there are imperfections that take place, whereas computers are going to give it more of an algorithm. Doing gags for real allows the CG guys to follow that template of the imperfection and make them bigger and better.”

Oscar-winner First Man (2018) was an example of the art, special effects and visual effects departments coming together to make a seamless hybrid of practical and digital elements. “First Man proved that if everyone does their homework and studies the shots, you can make an amazing special effects movie affordably,” Schwalm says. Technology has had a major impact on the special effects process. “Technology and the advancement of technology have given my company the ability to have a full-fledged manufacturing facility right down to fully automated computerized machines, milling machines, robotic arms, 3D printers and laser cutters. All of these things allow us to prototype in an extremely fast manner.”

Terry Glass, who early in his career was an effects technician on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and most recently supervised Angel Has Fallen (2019) and 6 Underground (2019), wonders about the ramifications of the U.K. leaving the European Union. “Brexit came up on the Marvel show I’m working on. In theory, we’re going to leave the country with lots of equipment while we’re still part of the European Union, and we could be coming back out of the European Union. Do we have to bring it back on a different form? Do we import it back into England or is it just returning?

“They had this damn referendum without actually thinking what would happen if they said, ‘We want to go out,’” says Glass. “Our explosive legislation that affects us greatly is based on European explosive legislation. Will that change? I hope so because it will make life easier.”

Tax credits make a big difference, says Glass, adding, “The production world has gotten so corporate. Before, you used to get producers coming up through the floor as first and second ADs. Now producers are coming through the accounts side of it. Sometimes they don’t see what actually goes on to make it. Without the money you can’t have the big effects.” Streaming services have had significant impact on U.K. productions. “Everything seems to be Netflix at the moment. They’re coming at it from a slightly different angle. We still work on the premise that whatever we’re going to do is going to be seen on a big screen, not television, although most things are shown on a TV screen these days!”

Terry Glass

A ship gimbal for Pacific Rim constructed by Laird McMurray. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Laird McMurray

Laird McMurray has collaborated on Take This Waltz (2011), Pacific Rim (2013) and Suicide Squad (2016), “In terms of photorealism, [the industry is] not going to replace actors. I don’t think [audiences] will accept it. It’s one thing to go to a Disney movie and say that the lion looks real. Actors sell movies. People want to read about them in the tabloids. Molly’s Game (2017) had everyday effects where you’re doing some rain on a window, wind on a ski slope and maybe some blowing snow. Those types of effects are still cheaper – especially when they’re [built] around the actor – to do practically than to generate [digitally].”

Streaming services are responsible for a bad trend, according to McMurray. “They spend amazing amounts of money on their programming, which is wonderful and looks great, but are still shooting on a TV-style schedule. That’s an anathema for effects guys. We need time to develop things and ensure safety and test. Television schedules don’t allow for that. You start at 7 a.m. on Monday, finish on 7 a.m. Saturday and are back at work on 7 a.m. on Monday. I won’t do that.”

Frank ludica utilized a rotating platform to go along with rotating wire rig for the spacewalk scenes featured in Ad Astra. (Image copyright © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

“I see less puppeteering going on. Now creatures are becoming mostly all CG. Maybe it’s a guy wearing a mocap suit with dots all over it… We’re at this equilibrium of where now it’s more enhancement. Shoot it practically and get what you can. It gives visual effects something to build off of. I feel fairly confident that I’ll be employed until I retire!”

—Frank Iudica, Special Effects Supervisor

Frank Iudica started off as a special effects technician on Alien: Resurrection (1997) and subsequently supervised Fear the Walking Dead (TV series premiering 2015) and Ad Astra (2019). “I see less puppeteering going on. Now creatures are becoming mostly all CG. Maybe it’s a guy wearing a mocap suit with dots all over it and he’s the Velociraptor, where it used to be [if possible] you would try to have the actual thing on hand. In Alien: Resurrection, there was this baby alien nine feet tall that was entirely animatronic. We’re at this equilibrium of where now it’s more enhancement. Shoot it practically and get what you can. It gives visual effects something to build off of. I feel fairly confident that I’ll be employed until I retire!”

Computer-based motion-control platforms are a major innovation, in essence creating a civilian flight simulator. “It used to be that they would have to either free fly it or do a flight sequence that needs to be choreographed with turbulence,” Iudica says. “You can, through rehearsal, get all of that dialed in, record that move and repeat it. Now you can have a jet fighter flying through a canyon and plug that action into the craft so the platform is following that move and the actor is pretending.”

Frank Iudica

Neal Scanlan on the set of Solo: A Star Wars Story with Six-Eyes. (Photo: John Wilson. Image copyright © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd.)

“I have a theory that CG is so brilliant and able to take you to a place that is beyond reality that in many ways as human beings we need to feel grounded before we go there. It’s almost like we need to cue up before we get on the roller coaster ride. What a lot of productions feel is by using practical effects you ground your audience, and then they are ready and willing to go somewhere in CG.”

—Neal Scanlan, Special Effects Supervisor

Neal Scanlan

Neal Scanlan has developed a reputation for creating creature effects from Babe (1995) to the Star Wars franchise. “It’s natural within any industry to push boundaries as far as one can go, and to use all of the technology and methodology that you can in order to create the most convincing effect. Nowadays, I’m looking back to the Babe days [when the approach to effects was more hands-on]. For example, when Blue is lying on an operating table in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), that was a complete rod puppet. Twenty puppeteers were on a rostrum working together to bring that to life. To me, there’s something about placing your hand onto an entity and bringing it to life that gets something which is soulful and magical that could never be achieved robotically.”

Visual effects are best when digital and practical elements are combined, says Scanlan. “I have a theory that CG is so brilliant and able to take you to a place that is beyond reality that in many ways as human beings we need to feel grounded before we go there. It’s almost like we need to cue up before we get on the roller coaster ride. What a lot of productions feel is by using practical effects you ground your audience, and then they are ready and willing to go somewhere in CG.”

A complicated gimbal was constructed by Mark Hawker for the A Wrinkle in Time cast to stand upon. (Image copyright © 2018 Walt Disney Pictures)

“With the 120 frame rate you have no motion blur, so everything is crisp and clear. Doing something like squibs you can [clearly] see what [the result] is. Or if we’re shooting dust balls [the camera] picks up everything. We’ve done rain in the past with rain interacting with the sets and actors. In the deep background you can do a wet down and get away with it. But when you’re at 3D HD at 120 frames you can see exactly where the rain starts and stops.”

—Mark Hawker, Special Effects Supervisor

Mark Hawker has a career spanning Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) to A Quiet Place (2018), and had to deal with 120 fps rate and HDR imagery for Gemini Man (2019). “With the 120 frame rate you have no motion blur, so everything is crisp and clear. Doing something like squibs you can see [clearly] what [the result] is. Or if we’re shooting dust balls [the camera] picks up everything. In the past we’ve done rain interacting with the sets and actors. In the deep background you can do a wet down and get away with it. But when you’re at 3D HD at 120 frames you can see exactly where the rain starts and stops.”

Mark Hawker

Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

The Miniature Models of <strong>BLADE RUNNER</strong>
02 October 2017
SFX
The Miniature Models of BLADE RUNNER
In 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner set a distinctive tone for the look and feel of many sci-fi future film noirs to come, taking advantage of stylized production design, art direction and visual effects work.
The New <strong>Artificial Intelligence</strong> Frontier of VFX
20 March 2019
SFX
The New Artificial Intelligence Frontier of VFX
The new wave of smart VFX software solutions utilizing A.I.
THE PEARL: THE SUPER ALIEN MODELS OF<strong> VALERIAN</strong>
02 August 2017
SFX
THE PEARL: THE SUPER ALIEN MODELS OF VALERIAN
Among the many creatures and aliens showcased in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are members of the Pearl, a beautiful...
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave <strong>TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY</strong> a 3D Makeover
24 August 2017
SFX
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY a 3D Makeover
James Cameron loves stereo. He took full advantage of shooting in native 3D on Avatar, and has made his thoughts clear in recent times about the importance of shooting natively in stereo when possible...
2018 – Year of the Rapidly Expanding <b>VFX Moviemaking Vocabulary</b>
03 April 2018
SFX
2018 – Year of the Rapidly Expanding VFX Moviemaking Vocabulary
Industry leaders discuss trends and issues.