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 28
2021

ISSUE

Winter 2021

SARA BENNETT: Oscar-Winner Turns Passion Into Inspiration For Women In Film

By TREVOR HOGG

Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founder, Milk VFX. Images courtesy of Milk VFX and Sara Bennett except where noted. 

During the 2015 Academy Awards, Sara Bennett became the second woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for her contributions on Ex Machina. The career path that led to her standing on the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood involved a change in profession and becoming a co-founder of a visual effects company.

Bennett is the daughter of a police photographer and a nurse who still embraces the family tradition of being an avid reader. “I was born in Worcestershire in the West Midlands and grew up in a small town called Droitwich. I have fond memories but I couldn’t wait to move to London, and from the age of 14 I started planning my escape! My family were big readers, so I tended to read quite a lot from an early age.

“My brother and I used to stay with our grandparents on weekends,” Bennett recalls, “and one occasion they rented The Dark Crystal for us. I must have been around 12 years old. I was blown away. That’s when I got my first real taste of inspiration to get into film. Legend was another film that inspired me and after that I started to think that makeup and prosthetics were the way to go.” Another of Bennett’s personal favorite films is James Cameron’s Aliens. “Everyone always says that Alien is their favorite, but for me it’s the second film, Aliens. I love the final scene with Sigourney Weaver and the alien Mama fighting. The visual effects are fantastic.”

After graduating from what was a new course on makeup and prosthetics at her local college, the aspiring artist headed to London and found work with a special effects company as a receptionist. It was here that a casual conversation sparked her awareness and intrigue around the emergence of computer effects. “I applied to every VFX and production company in London for a runner’s job,” says Bennett. “A year later someone finally got back to me. From there, I fell in love with compositing. I gradually worked my way up through the ranks at various studios and learned different software, and that’s how I started my visual effects career.” There were no courses or mentors. “It was hard because you had to learn from everyone around you, and very quickly. I remember being surrounded by all of these fantastic senior compositors and getting frustrated as a roto and prep junior who was desperate to become a compositor. It was a steep learning curve. But I love a challenge, and the stubbornness in me ensured I pushed ahead with it and kept persevering. I learned a great deal of patience and pushed to learn as much as I could.”

A change in corporate mandate resulted in Bennett co-founding Milk VFX in 2013. “Myself and the other Milk co-founders were part of The Mill’s film and TV team. The Mill decided to close that department to concentrate on commercials. There was a small group of us who had worked closely together for six or seven years at that point. We’d joked before about establishing our own company. Then this opportunity came along. We thought if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it. We took a leap of faith and Milk was born. To have that level of control over your own venture was an amazing feeling. We hired key members of the old Mill TV and film team and we got a couple of key projects on board, including Doctor Who and Sherlock.

Official Oscar photo of Bennett, Mark Ardington, Paul Norris, Andrew Whitehurst and presenter Andy Serkis. 

“I don’t think anything could have fully prepared us for Adrift. … [T]his was a whole new level in terms of creating thousands of frames of stormy ocean. Just in terms of the rendering power required we used Amazon and Google cloud services because of the sheer number of caches from the effects that we had to render. The dramatic opening shot alone was 7,000 frames of water simulations. Then the end shot was 3,000 frames.”
—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founder, Milk VFX

“We did fly by the seat of our pants at the start,” Bennett acknowledges, “because it’s one thing to say that you’re going to set it all up, but doing it in reality is, of course, tougher than it looks. And, as we know, visual effects is a tough business. But what I love is that we started the company based on our ideas and passion for what we do. I headed up the 2D compositing department. We each managed different areas in the business so we never stepped on each other’s toes. Seven years on, I’m proud of what we’ve done with it so far.”

The multiple layers of water simulations made Adrift one of the most difficult projects that Bennett has ever worked on. (Image courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Bennett feels that being a woman in the visual effects industry did not impede her career. “I never found any major issues when I was coming through the ranks. There were always people around who were difficult, but most of the time I had very good people around teaching me. There were only a few women back then as I was coming up, but more so now. We need to keep encouraging women into our industry until we have a more balanced ratio. Other than ensuring women in mid to senior roles in VFX are visible in order to inspire the new talent coming through, one of the things that I believe is super important is mentoring. It was something I never had access to in my early career.

Attending the 2016 Into Film Awards with her Oscar.

With Will Cohen, left, Milk VFX Co-founder and CEO, Jean-Claude Deguara, Milk VFX Co-founder and VFX Supervisor – and her Oscar.

Bennett wins the Technicolor Award for Creative Technology at the 2016 Women in Film and TV Awards.

“We need to keep encouraging women into our industry until we have a more balanced ratio. … [O]ne of the things that I believe is super important is mentoring. It was something I never had access to in my early career. … There are so many more powerful women running studios now and that inspires me too.”
—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founder, Milk VFX

Leading up to the Academy Awards, I didn’t know what to expect,” Bennett says. “After I won the Oscar, I wasn’t prepared for the barrage of people getting in touch. I had so many lovely emails from women saying how inspiring it was to them. They wouldn’t have known about me if I hadn’t had that visibility. It’s so important to have mentors for new talent coming through. There are so many more powerful women running studios now and that inspires me too.”

As to why Ex Machina, an independent film about an android breaking free of her volatile creator, was able to beat Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian and The Revenant, Bennett believes, “This was an incredibly well-written, independent sci-fi film. The design of Ava and the simplicity of it was beautiful. It was quality work. No big setup pieces. It was brilliant storytelling and people responded to it accordingly.”

One of the most technically difficult projects Bennett has tackled was the film Adrift, which required massive water simulations for a stormy ocean with terrifyingly immense waves threatening to capsize a sailboat. “I don’t think anything could have fully prepared us for Adrift,” admits Bennett. “You plan these jobs ahead as much as you can – and I’ve been doing the job for a long time, but this was a whole new level in terms of creating thousands of frames of stormy ocean. Just in terms of the rendering power required
we used Amazon and Google cloud services because of the sheer number of caches from the effects that we had to render. The dramatic opening shot alone was 7,000 frames of water simulations. Then the end shot was 3,000 frames.

“At one point we had a power cut after 24 hours of simulating water and had to restart the sims all over again. I remember the poor effects team members were trying to mesh together two or three different simulations and jaw-dropping render times. The cloud enabled us to scale up to tackle that job. A studio of our size wouldn’t have the capacity to tackle it without the cloud.”

For The Old Guard, a Netflix film about a covert team of immortal mercenaries fighting to keep their identity a secret, Bennett took over the role as the Production Visual Effects Supervisor for Netflix, which meant working closely with filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) and actress Charlize Theron (Monster). “Charlize was quite an inspiration on the film. She had her two little girls walk around and hand out water to the crew, which was so sweet. I love the John Wick films, so this kind of film is right up my alley. It has two kick-ass leading female actors. I love the fight choreography and the stunts. There is an element of fantasy with them being immortal, but it was never sold as a big visual effects film.

Clockwise from top: Matthias Schoenaerts (Booker), Charlize Theron (Andy), Luca Marinelli (Nicky) portray immortal mercenaries in The Old Guard. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“There are now about 180 of us [at Milk VFX] working remotely. It’s slightly slower creatively than being in the studio face-to-face, but in other areas it has sometimes proved more productive. We’ve had a lot of meetings over the past few months for jobs that don’t involve travel and huge crowd setups. Clients are exploring ways of shooting scenes in a virtual production setup and relying on visual effects to solve crowd issues within that.”
—Sara Bennett, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-founder, Milk VFX

“When I first met Gina Prince-Bythewood and had the initial meetings, she was keen to shoot as much for real as possible. The immortality [wounds regenerating] had to be visual effects. You just couldn’t do it any other way. It felt nicely contained. When the script was first broken down, we had 450 shots in mind and ended up doing 835 shots. Things change.”

The rise of streaming shows was something that Bennett and Milk VFX were prepared for due to their long-time involvement with high-end television. “From the outset, we focused on longform TV shows and did smaller pieces of high-end film work. The amount of TV content that is being made now, thanks to the rise of Netflix, Amazon and the other streamers, is great for the industry.”

Milk VFX produced Dalek Saucers for the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. (Image courtesy of BBC Studios)

Ex Machina is a proud achievement for Bennett, who enjoys working with Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and filmmaker Alex Garland. (Image courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Immortal mercenary Quynh (Ngo Thanh Van) gets placed inside an iron coffin in a shot produced by Milk VFX for The Old Guard. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The coronavirus pandemic presented a challenge that the team was able to overcome by adapting to work remotely. “We had a few of our crew working remotely already, but when the pandemic happened we had to quickly adapt and work from home in a safe setup,” Bennett states. “Milk got set up remotely within two weeks in a fairly smooth transition. We have delivered three shows during lockdown. All Netflix projects: The Old Guard, Ben Wheatley’s remake of Rebecca and Cursed, which is an episodic retelling of the Arthurian legend with a twist. There are now about 180 of us working remotely. It’s slightly slower creatively than being in the studio face-to-face, but in other areas it has sometimes proved more productive. We’ve had a lot of meetings over the past few months for jobs that don’t involve travel and huge crowd setups. Clients are exploring ways of shooting scenes in a virtual production setup and relying on visual effects to solve crowd issues within that.”

Looking back on her first film credit, Bennett remarks, “I loved Babe: Pig in the City. That was when I first joined Mill Film in 1998. I was compositing on Flame and working nightshifts roto-ing ducks, pigs and a variety of other farmyard animals. Other big formative projects for me were the Harry Potter films. I worked on them while at Framestore and Mill Film – this was where I made my first jump into compositing.”

Bennett remains an avid reader. “I read a lot. Escapism all the way. Fiction and fantasy. Some of my favorite books are The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Quarantine by Jim Grace and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It’s how I relax after a long day at work.”


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

The Miniature Models of <strong>BLADE RUNNER</strong>
02 October 2017
VFX Profile
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.
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave <strong>TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY</strong> a 3D Makeover
24 August 2017
VFX Profile
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...
How to Start a <strong>VFX Studio</strong>
01 October 2019
VFX Profile
How to Start a VFX Studio
Four new VFX studios (CVD VFX, Mavericks VFX, Outpost VFX, Future Associate) share their startup stories
The New <strong>Artificial Intelligence</strong> Frontier of VFX
20 March 2019
VFX Profile
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
VFX Profile
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...