By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Marcus Stokes.
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 TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Marcus Stokes.
Marcus Stokes describes himself on Twitter as a director, visual effects supervisor, screenwriter, surfer, snowboarder and martial artist whose personal journey has taken him from Atlanta to Tokyo to Los Angeles. “I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised in Macon, Georgia, which is located in the suburbs of Atlanta. It was so different from Los Angeles. Nowadays, there is so much filmmaking in Georgia, they’re a lot more similar.” Stokes’ mother was an actress in Atlanta, but upon divorcing his father (a dentist who subsequently remarried a future state senator) she became an attorney. “At the time, Atlanta was a metropolis that had a lot of Black and white people but not much of anybody else, but has since become more ethnically diverse.” He had no intention to pursue a career in the film industry. “I got into filmmaking through visual effects and I got into visual effects through architecture. I don’t have this story where my father gave me a Bolex camera when I was seven and I made little movies with my friends.”
His ambition was to be an architectural revolutionary like Frank Gehry and Richard Meier. “It didn’t matter if it was a big or small structure,” notes Stokes. “I just wanted to do artistic interpretations of livable spaces.” Upon majoring in architecture, the Georgia Tech graduate went to Japan for three years to teach English to junior high school students. “I didn’t want to be the foreigner forever, so I decided to go back to grad school and continue my architectural quest. While on a scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, I realized that I didn’t want to do architecture anymore.” A new inspiration emerged upon seeing the walk cycle of a skeletal dinosaur at the computer lab. “It was the coolest thing that I had ever seen,” he remarks. “We had the option to start designing on the computer, and I found that I had some skill at it.
“When that opportunity comes, you cannot fumble it. You get one chance. As a Black male director, I have to be exceptional. Maybe that has changed now. But you have to be prepared, polite, clear, direct, and try to make everyone enjoy what they’re doing. You can’t be above the crew.”
—Marcus Stokes, Director
We had one class in CG animation where we put together these short films, which I used to apply for the Lucasfilm internship, and that changed everything. I interned in the training department where the new hires could learn the proprietary software. After work I would sit at the same cubicle for the new hires and learned the same proprietary software, so by the end of my internship four months later, I blinded them with content.”
As part of the commercial department, the new recruit had to become a generalist. “Within a year I was rendering shots, comping and learning how to code,” states Stokes. “If you’re at ILM, then you’ve made it to the top of the mountain. What that means is there’s no need to horde information.” Aspirations soon went beyond doing visual effects. “The thing that got me to want to direct is the fact that I was in the commercial department and had access to the directors like Steve Beck, Robert Caruso and Bill Timmer. One day we were doing a Pepsi tie-in for Star Wars: Episode I [The Phantom Menace], and it was the first time I saw a film being shot – that was the moment where I decided I wanted to direct.” After working on the Star Wars prequels and Wild Wild West (1999), the desire to work on The Matrix sequels resulted in Stokes leaving ILM for ESC Entertainment. “That experience made me so bulletproof in how to create something from the ground up.”
Other projects included being a computer graphics supervisor on Peter Pan (2003) for Digital Domain and a sequence supervisor on Serenity (2005) for upstart Zoic Studios. “Serenity was another difficult show at a facility that was scaling themselves up to do a feature film.”
Around the time of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Stokes joined the DGA. “While I was at ILM, on weekends I would borrow their 35mm cameras, buy some short ends and shoot fake spots. I wanted to join their stable of directors and, in order to do that, I needed to have a reel of three to five commercials. Since no one was going to hire me to make commercials, I had to go out and make fake ones. I put together three or four and posted them on my own website. Someone found them, thought they were real and hired me to do a car commercial. I found a way to struggle through that experience which gave me the opportunity to join the DGA.”
Stepping behind the camera provided a change of perspective and understanding. “I learned from doing the short films how hard it is to create the media that visual effects artists work on. In my day-to-day life, I know what are the optimum set of conditions to do post work, what are the reasonable set of conditions, and what is the minimum that we need to give them so that we can be successful. I would rather get the scene than that one perfect shot because otherwise you don’t have a movie.”
Making the transition to directing television shows was assisted by creating short films such as The Catalyst (2005), Till Death Do Us Part (2013) and The Signal (2015). “Television is a fast medium which is not always great but also comes with an army to help you, and that is great,” notes Stokes. “In short films, you don’t have an army and there isn’t any time. The Catalyst was my first short film. It was too long and expensive, and looked like a film school film. Both my AD and DP came out of the AFI and they taught me how to make films. When The Catalyst got put on HBO, I got a lot of heat. It made me think that I might be able to make a run at this.” The small-screen résumé features helming episodes for Blindspot, Station 19, Criminal Minds, The Astronauts and 9-1-1. “The process has changed because I’ve gotten access to more toys. I pride myself on two things: the strength of my ideas and my ability to work with less.” He has also been involved with the Arrowverse, in particular Arrow, Supergirl and The Flash. “There is a lot of mediocrity in the superhero genre, but in general the shows that are doing the best are the ones taking the biggest swings, such as The Boys. As you know, visual effects have become a part of every show. It is my job to know what is going to happen to those visual effects elements so that I can fight to make them right.”
Narrative storytelling is not going to become obsolete despite the push for virtual and augmented reality and the mass popularity of video games. “For me, there is a difference between playing Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto or Fortnite and being able to relax with a drink and watch someone tell me a story,” observes Stokes. “The desire for stories to be told is not going anywhere.” Black films were not made because it was believed that there was no market for them. “Over the past 10 years, producers like Will Packer and Tim Story have proven that there is a market for almost all types of films, including ones that have almost an entirely Black cast or almost an entirely Korean cast. Look at Parasite. Those days [of no market for them] are coming to an end.” The issue is with those determining which cultures are showcased. “The argument would be, ‘Why are you bringing in all of these international films when we are from Detroit and can’t get our film made? Culture is great, but we all still have our films.’”
“The reason that I’m directing now is because I always thought there was a higher level of creative input that I wanted to be involved in. Now I’m on the other side where I can determine what the shots are going to be that will make the story better, and the visual effects will back into that.”
—Marcus Stokes, Director
There has been a content explosion fueled in large part by the streaming services. “If you want to see a particular type of content, you’re able to find it. If you want one-hour dramas about the MMA, there was a show called Kingdom that is on Peacock starring Frank Grillo. You can expand that to whatever you want. There is probably a one-hour drama about someone dedicated to making French cuisine.”
A common mistake for filmmakers starting out is for them to do too much. “You try to use your strengths to the best of your ability and have that at your disposal so that it can help even the playing field,” remarks Stokes. “If you’ve done your job, you’ve hired competent people. You tell them what you want, not how to do it. As long as the methodology doesn’t affect the timeline, it doesn’t matter to me. The same applies with the actors. I will explain the scene, see what happens, and will guide them.”
“The argument [about which cultures to showcase] would be, ‘Why are you bringing in all of these international films when we are from Detroit and can’t get our film made? Culture is great, but we all still have our films.’ If you want to see a particular type of content, you’re able to find it. … You can expand that to whatever you want. There is probably a one-hour drama about someone dedicated to making French cuisine.”
—Marcus Stokes, Director
It took 10 years to get his big break in television. “I figured if I kept winning these director fellowships [eight in total] that I would eventually get an opportunity, and that’s exactly what happened. The reason I got the opportunity is technically Criminal Minds was an ABC Studio show that was aired on the CBS Network. At the time I had done both the ABC and CBS director fellowships, so I had them surrounded!” There was no margin for error. “When that opportunity comes, you cannot fumble it. You get one chance. As a Black male director, I have to be exceptional. Maybe that has changed now. But you have to be prepared, polite, clear, direct, and try to make everyone enjoy what they’re doing. You can’t be above the crew.”
The next step for the former visual effects artist is his feature directorial debut. “We locked picture in November 2021, and it will be coming out in the first half of 2022. State Consciousness is a psychological thriller that stars Emile Hirsch. Without doing television, there is no way I could have done this because it was a low-budget run-and-gun feature. It was a good experience, and I hope to bring what I learned to the next project I have in development which is for Disney+ and is something that I created.”
A certain attitude has served Stokes well over the years. “I am good at sticking to my goals, which is necessary for directing and, to a lesser extent, visual effects. Throughout my career I have always found a way to get to the place I want to get to. I felt if I kept going at it, eventually the walls would break. I’m starting to get inbound calls with people wanting to hire me for television shows. The reason that I’m directing now is because I always thought there was a higher level of creative input that I wanted to be involved in. Now I’m on the other side where I can determine what the shots are going to be that will make the story better, and the visual effects will back into that.”
Thinking about his experience of directing an episode for Magnum P.I., he adds, “When I was 10 years old in Macon, Georgia, if someone said to me, “We’re going to pay you to fly to Hawaii to shoot car chases and interrogations,’ I would have thought that was the best job in the world. And I do feel like I have the best job in the world.”