By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Mike Chambers and the VES, except where noted.
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 Mike Chambers and the VES, except where noted.
Not many people can take it in stride when a movie director requests to physically recreate a nuclear explosion, but such was the case with Christopher Nolan and his biopic Oppenheimer, which had frequent collaborator Mike Chambers, VES, serving as the visual effects producer. When asked whether Nolan ran the risk of destroying the world in an effort to make his creative vision a cinematic reality, Chamber laughs, “We did some big practical explosions, for sure! Oppenheimer was imagining not just explosions but all of the atomic theory he was dealing with, and being only concepts at that time in history, they didn’t know what these things really looked like. We used a lot of elements, and while there is certainly a digital aspect to some of what we’ve done, there is no CG explosion. A big part of the pyrotechnics were shot in a New Mexico location that was similar geographically to White Sands where they actually did the ‘Trinity’ nuclear test. It sounds and looks huge. That’s all that matters!”
While studying at UCLA, Chambers started his career in the mailroom and was a projectionist for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. “I moved on to become production assistant on a bunch of films, a couple of which were heavy sci-fi, like Alien and Star Wars rip-offs. That was my first taste of it. After that, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute so I could learn to make movies of my own.” His next job was as a projectionist and production assistant at Showscan Entertainment, Doug Trumbull’s large-format film production company.
“The first guy who I saw as a real mentor for was Robert Hippard, a production manager/line producer working for Doug at the time. Bob later got a job running production for Richard Edlund at Boss Film Studios, and he brought me along. That was one of the few visual effects studios at the time where all of the departments were there, such as the stage, modelmakers, optical printers, editorial, roto artists and motion control. There was so much to learn there, and I realize even more so now that some of the people I worked with at the time were true legends and remain so today. When Jim [Cameron] was setting up The Abyss, a lot of the VFX crew, like the supervisor, John Bruno, came from Boss, and they brought me along to be a visual effects coordinator. Working at Boss and the move to work on the production side for a film like The Abyss were both huge opportunities for me.”
Whereas Christopher Nolan emphasizes the use of practical effects, James Cameron openly admits that digital augmentation is an essential aspect of his filmic language. “Obviously, Jim is big on pushing the boundaries, finding new technologies and helping others to develop new techniques,” Chambers observes. “Along with assisting Jim on some of his films, I helped to set up Digital Domain. My job in visual effects in general is dealing with the different attitudes and knowledge of various filmmakers who come from a variety of places and adapting to what they need. Chris definitely is a practical filmmaker, and his films have won a number of visual effects awards. He doesn’t denigrate visual effects but does think that the use of too much CG can take you out of it. There is some photographic element to most of what we’re doing. I can think of very few things over the many films that I’ve done with him that are full CG fantasy; whereas, with Jim and those kinds of films, it’s all about that.”
Movies like Avatar: The Way of Water (which Chambers didn’t work on) are blurring the line of distinction between the visual effects and animation industries. “The definition is changing because the technology is changing,” Chambers notes. “If we’re looking back in filmmaking history at what were visual effects and animation, they were definitely different pipelines, workflows and techniques. These days those worlds have come together. The technology and skills are the same. There is so much overlap. Avatar is a great example, but there are plenty of other examples of fully animated characters within live-action films, and it works. Then it’s just a matter of style. Avatar was blending fantasy characters with a photoreal presentation. It’s animation based on motion capture, as opposed to keyframe animation, although I’m sure throughout the film there is evidence of both techniques.” A blend is also taking place between visual effects and the other areas of filmmaking. “One of the things that I’ve loved about working in visual effects is the true cooperation and need to work with all of these other departments because we all affect what each other is doing. A cohesion in a crew, cinematography, art department, editing and visual effects, is essential.”
Like many roles in production, the visual effects producer has had to adapt to what is required today. “The roles are generally the same, certainly at a production level,” Chambers states. “I don’t feel overshadowed by a visual effects supervisor. We work in partnership but have different functions to serve. When I first got started, I was working for supervisors who were much more experienced than I was, and I was learning about it. As I’ve gotten further along in my career, I’m sometimes working with younger supervisors who need to understand how things work, and I’m there to help them to do that. In some cases, the producer needs to be the grownup in the room as would an executive producer or line producer. It doesn’t mean that I’m not involved in creative decisions and how we’re going to do things. And it doesn’t mean that the supervisor is not conscientious of how the budget works and what’s going on with the schedule. Every show is unique. Every grouping of producer, supervisor and crew has unique dynamics.”
Visual effects are no longer created just in California but around the world. “When the Visual Effects Society formed 25-plus years ago there were a dozen or so companies in the business, mostly in California,” remarks Chambers, who has been a member of the VES for over two decades. He served as the Board of Directors’ Chair for six years and is on the publication advisory committee for VFX Voice. “That whole model has changed completely. Now, the VES has become a truly global organization with over 4,500 members in 45 countries and 15 sections in major visual effects centers around the world. Visual effects aren’t only in movies anymore, but also television, streaming – and have uses in other areas like science, medical and forensics. We’re trying to bring all of those folks into the fold. The VES is not a union or guild, but we’re the only major organization that has made a family of this industry.”
Even with streaming services cutting back on content spending, demand for visual effects work is growing. “This is the challenge of the global business model that we have now,” Chambers says. “It’s changed a lot and is going to continue to change, who the big and little players are, where they fit into the greater scheme of things, and that balance will keep changing. When we came out of the pandemic every shop was full to the brim and overflowing with work.
“I realize even more so now that some of the people I worked with at the time were true legends and remain so today.”
You couldn’t find a place anywhere because everyone was so busy. Now, it’s scaling back. Does this give these companies an opportunity to better be able to approach the work, or are we going to get back to the same thing when it gets busy again? The fact of the matter is all of this work needs to be done. All of these shows do want stuff. Will some become smaller shows? The days of the majority of visual effects shows being 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 shots compared to more restrained use of visual effects, we might see that.” AI and machine learning are here to stay. “The question of the day is what does it all mean? I have a basic understanding of some of the applications for us as visual effects and filmmakers. I don’t know the answer. But the genie is out of the bottle. We’re going to have to learn how to deal with it. I worked on Transcendence with Wally Pfister where AI ran amok. Not that I will hold that up as our future!” Keeping track of advances in technology is important. “True, although personally, I will usually focus more on what I need to do. And if my next project is going to start utilizing AI, I’ll learn a lot more about it.”
Along with Christopher Nolan and James Cameron, Chambers has also collaborated with George Miller, Roland Emmerich, John Woo, Kathryn Bigelow and Jordan Peele, among others.
“I’m there to help fulfill someone’s vision. Jim’s vision is different from Chris’ and Jordan’s visions. How can we bring our knowledge and technology together to serve any of them and others?” Communication is the best way to prevent getting lost in the iterative process. “You have to talk to them. Some of their minds are easier to get into than others! I have had an opportunity with a few different directors to do multiple shows with them, and they’re so much easier. Oppenheimer is my fifth film with Chris, and so many of his crew are the same. With our shared knowledge of what Chris is after and how he likes to work, there is a lot of shorthand going on.”
The methodology does not completely change depending on the size of the project. “I scale it,” Chambers explains. “On a big show you have a big team, and it’s all about delegation. Smaller shows have a smaller team. On Oppenheimer, the visual effects production crew was me, the supervisor and production manager, and that was it, and it was fine.” Preparation is critical. “You have to have a plan and roll with the punches when things don’t go to plan, which will always be the case. In fact, part of the plan is that the plan is going to break at some point. What are you going to do about it? It’s all about solving problems. If everything always went according to the way it’s supposed to, it wouldn’t be much of a job!”