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By NAOMI GOLDMAN
By NAOMI GOLDMAN
“When I assumed this role, we were about 750 people, mostly situated in California; now we have more than 4,400 members in 45 countries and 14 Sections worldwide. I will proudly count our global expansion and influence as the most important part of the legacy I leave behind.”
After nearly 19 years of service as the Society’s Executive Director, Eric Roth retired from his leadership role last month. At the time of this issue’s publication, the VES Board’s Executive Search Committee was in the process of identifying the next Executive Director to helm the global honorary society.
VES Board Chair Lisa Cooke offered these accolades on Roth’s immense contributions to the Society: “We have been exceptionally proud and fortunate to have a leader of Eric’s caliber – imbued with deep passion, integrity and vision – and the unparalleled skills needed to drive this dynamic organization forward. As my colleague and friend, Eric is the kind of collaborator, mentor and cheerleader you always hope to work with. Eric has done transformational work in growing the Society into this rich global community, and he leaves an enormous legacy for us to carry forward.”
Roth had a front-row seat to the dynamic global VFX industry and a major role in the Society’s growth over the span of almost two decades as he shepherded the organization to reach its milestone 25th anniversary.
Roth’s tenure has been filled with many points of pride and accomplishment – our award-winning VFX Voice magazine, three editions of the VES Handbook of Visual Effects, extraordinary VES Awards shows, our VES Honors Program and Hall of Fame, and the many volunteer Committees who do essential work for our organization.
“For almost 19 years, I have been privileged to serve as the Executive Director of the VES. It has been a pleasure to work with extraordinary staff, passionate volunteer leaders that serve our Board and Sections, and our thriving global membership,” Roth said.
Under Roth’s leadership VES’s all-volunteer Committees have stepped up to create an industry-leading mental health benefit program, numerous mentoring projects, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, a video archive and a soon-to-be-realized VFX digital museum, and exclusive opportunities that foster education and professional development.
A key accomplishment of Roth’s tenure has been the tremendous growth and globalization of the Society. “When I assumed this role, we were about 750 people, mostly situated in California; now we have more than 4,400 members in 45 countries and 14 Sections worldwide. I will proudly count our global expansion and influence as the most important part of the legacy I leave behind,” said Roth.
But more than that, VES has created a powerful “voice” for our industry over the years by working together with a common purpose. VES has used its voice to convene industry leaders on vital topics, issue important whitepapers on the status of the industry, and annually bring the entire industry together to network and celebrate extraordinary artistic achievements at the yearly Awards Show.
With best wishes for a bright future, Roth concludes, “It has been my highest honor to serve as your Executive Director for nearly two decades. Thank you for entrusting me with this responsibility. I am more grateful than you will ever know. Thank you for allowing me to have the most fabulous ride of a lifetime on Team VES and for your unending support and friendship.
“Here’s to the next 19 years and looking forward to hearing all about the great things yet to come for VES!”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
In 1963, Tetsuwan Atom – an anime TV series about a robot boy with superpowers and a soul – launched on Fuji TV in Japan. Later that year, it was dubbed into English as Astro Boy and became the first anime TV series marketed in the U.S., where it enjoyed success with 104 episodes airing on NBC through 1965. Fast forward six decades and anime (Japanese animation) is now one of the world’s most popular forms of entertainment, one that has influenced many filmmakers in the West. There are an estimated 622 animation studios in Japan, according to Grand View Research, and thousands of anime movies and series have been released over the years.
“The rise of VOD and streaming, the expansion of the ecosystem around anime and the prevalence of anime in mainstream pop culture are all factors that have contributed to the growth of the global anime market,” comments Asa Suehira, Chief Content Officer for the anime streamer Crunchyroll.
Anime’s most popular franchises earn hundreds of millions of dollars from home entertainment and theatrical releases plus billions in merchandise (the most lucrative area in Japan, especially for a title like Pokémon). By 2030, the world market size for anime is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9.7% to reach USD $56.4 billion, according to a Grand View Research report.
Anime’s two all-time best-selling movie titles – Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train and Spirited Away – have earned over $503 million and $396 million at the global box office, respectively. Following them are Your Name ($380 million), Howl’s Moving Castle ($236 million) and Ponyo ($204 million). Some 17 anime feature films have garnered more than $100 million in theatrical revenue. Meanwhile, a hit series can last for years or decades and create a long-lasting revenue stream with hundreds or even thousands of episodes.
Leading Japanese anime studios include Toei Animation, Gainax, Ufotable, Madhouse, Sunrise, MAPPA, J.C.Staff Co. Ltd., Studio Pierrot, A-1 Pictures, Bones Inc., David Production Inc., WIT Studio, CloverWorks, CoMix Wave Films, Kyoto Animation, Studio Ghibli and Production I.G., among others.
Netflix and the other major streamers are rushing to bolster their anime catalogs. In the U.S., Crunchyroll (owned by Sony) has the biggest anime catalog of the companies competing in the market. HBO Max has licensed titles from Studio Ghibli that include renowned works by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo. Disney+ and Amazon Prime are expanding their anime offerings. Netflix has left its usual large footprint. The streamer has quickly amassed a significant catalog of existing content and is creating original programming at a rapid pace – Netflix was set to launch some 40 original anime movies in 2022. In the April 3, 2022 Hollywood Reporter article “Netflix’s Head of Anime Says Half of Global Subscribers Watch Japanese Animation, Bullish on Growth,” Netflix’s Director, Anime Creative Kohei Obara revealed that more than half of Netflix’s 222 million subscribers viewed “some anime” on the platform in 2021. In Japan, the percentage tops 90%, according to Obara.
PRODUCTION I.G. AND ANIME AWARENESS
Maki Terashima-Furuta is the President of Production I.G. USA, the U.S. division of a major animation studio based in Tokyo, and she has viewed the dramatic growth of anime over the last two decades. Production I.G. has produced numerous films, series and OVAs (Original Video Animations), including Guilty Crown, Psycho-Pass, Eden of the East and the Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 series. It has produced titles for Netflix Original, such as Cyborg 009 and B: The Beginning. It is also known for creating a sevenminute anime sequence for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) that gave a boost to anime in the international market, according to Terashima-Furuta.
Production I.G. also co-developed and co-produced two anime series of Immortal Grand Prix (IGPX) with Cartoon Network (2003 and 2005). “It was the first true anime co-production ever, where everything from deal-making, financing, development, production and marketing was a collaborative effort between Japan and the US. We were definitely the pioneer with that new business model,” says Terashima-Furuta.
She started the U.S. entity of Production I.G. in 1997, “when anime wasn’t as faddish as it is now. Because anime wasn’t in much demand back then, I really struggled to lock any deals, let alone pull off a meeting with major studios and distributors in the industry. That’s when I told myself that the awareness needed to spread from the non-industry crowds, and I started actively attending various anime conventions around the country in order to teach and educate the fans, who enjoyed and knew our titles but weren’t aware of or [didn’t] recognize who we were and what we did.”
For Terashima-Furuta, the global anime market is now “unquestionably better” when “compared to how I always had to be the one knocking on the doors of new clients. It is now the polar opposite. Anime is in so much demand.”
THE CRUNCHYROLL ECOSYSTEM
A recent sign of corporate interest in anime came when Sony Pictures Entertainment, through its Funimation subsidiary, completed a $1.18 billion purchase of AT&T/WarnerMedia’s Crunchyroll in 2021 (Funimation content is being moved over to the Crunchyroll label). Crunchyroll is an anime streamer withan estimated five million subscribers and 120 million registered users, according to SPE. According to the firm, Crunchyroll has the world’s largest collection of anime with more than 1,000 anime movies and series, 40,000 episodes and 16,000 hours of content, along with some 200 East Asian live-action dramas. Some of Crunchyroll’s most popular titles include Attack on Titan, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, My Hero Academia, Spy x Family, and The Rising Of The Shield Hero. Suehira notes that the company is more than just a streaming service. “We offer fans a variety of ways to connect to their favorite series across theatrical, gaming, consumer products, news and more. An entire ecosystem has been created around anime to give fans new ways to engage with their favorite series. Crunchyroll has helped globalize this ecosystem. Not only can fans stream their favorite series, but they can purchase the collector’s edition home video, and they can go to the movie theater and catch an anime film with their friends – like the recent Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie, which we have brought to fans in the U.S. and worldwide – or they can download a mobile game title from Crunchyroll Games, like My Hero Academia: The Strongest Hero. This is in addition to consumer products, fashion, manga and more.”
Suehira comments, “Now, anime can be found across every major streaming platform internationally, but no other service offers a catalog as deep as Crunchyroll’s or curates a community experience quite like we do.” As an example, he notes, “We recently collaborated with Lady Gaga on an exclusive streetwear collection inspired by [her album] Chromatica for Crunchyroll Loves, our in-house clothing brand.”
Michael B. Jordan, who released a line of Naruto-inspired menswear, and Megan Thee Stallion, who has cosplayed as Mirko in My Hero Academia, are other well-known anime aficionados.
“Many coincidental events can be the reasons behind why anime has shown [great] growth internationally, such as how people other than the otaku population also started discovering charm and attractiveness in this hidden box of gems, whether naturally or by word of mouth, but I also believe that the people who grew up watching and loving anime as children became adults and started introducing and implementing anime in business. You’d be surprised to learn how many executives and producers are fond of anime.”
—Maki Terashima-Furuta, President of Production I.G. USA
ANIME FANS AND FAVORITES
“Many coincidental events can be the reasons behind why anime has shown [great] growth internationally, such as how people other than the otaku population also started discovering charm and attractiveness in this hidden box of gems, whether naturally or by word of mouth,” says Terashima-Furuta, “but I also believe that the people who grew up watching and loving anime as children became adults and started introducing and implementing anime in business. You’d be surprised to learn how many executives and producers are fond of anime.”
Gilles Poitras, author of the book Anime Essentials: Every Thing a Fan Needs to Know, comments, “The number of anime/manga conventions [have] exploded since the early 1990s, providing a place where fans can gather and share their interests.” This added to their ability to purchase personal copies – first videotape and laserdisc and then DVD and Blu-ray. Poitras adds, “This meant an expansion of the market as the availability of titles increased. Greater variety and access also allow those who are not fans to have access to anime in ways they did not in the past.”
Another factor in anime’s growth is the steady release of movies and series that inspire fan loyalty: Mobile Suit Gundam, Ranma ½, Patlabor, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Dragon Ball Z, Cowboy Bebop (an animated series and 2021 Netflix live-action series), Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Blue Submarine No. 6, Oh My Goddess!, Robotech, Fullmetal Alchemist, Sailor Moon, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Hunter X Hunter, Naruto, and all the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, to name a few other fan favorites.
NETFLIX AND STREAMERS
“Streaming has greatly expanded access,” Poitras explains. “Companies like Crunchyroll are now a major international powerhouses. Funimation and Hulu were the [first] major places for fans to view anime. Netflix and Amazon have helped expand the audience beyond those interested in anime and foreign cinema. Then there is RetroCrush, which specializes in older shows. This is important as the other services rarely show older programs.” Digital distribution is added to this – downloading for rental or purchase, which increases on-demand access. Adds Poitras, “This has a positive impact on physical media, as fans can easily watch many shows and then decide which they want to own. Many shows would likely not get a physical release without the publicity streaming creates.”
Netflix has become a formidable force in anime in a short time, launching its streaming service in Japan in 2015 and debuting its first original anime title, Blame!, in 2017, produced by Polygon Pictures. Netflix has licensed series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, the original Cowboy Bebop, Naruto and The Seven Deadly Sins, and released newer titles like Record of Ragnarok, Violet Evergarden, Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 (produced by Production I.G.) and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean. It has ramped up anime production and inked deals with renowned companies such as Studio Colorido (Drifting Home).
The upsurge in anime production may cause disruption in the industry. “We all feel grateful that more anime titles are being made than ever in the past,” says Terashima-Furuta. But she also notes that, because of the rise in demand from the networks and platforms, the supply and demand chain has completely changed. She adds, “It takes years, a number of creators, and lots of money to produce an anime, and not many people realize how much work is required and put into the making process.”
WHAT MAKES ANIME ANIME
Anime titles have distinctive visual styles and conventions, but what else makes anime different from western animation? “Anime is not a genre,” Suehira explains. “It’s a rich storytelling medium offering something for every kind of fan: action, science fiction, horror, sports, romance, slice of life, and more.” By contrast, “In the West, animation is typically seen as comedy or children’s content. However, with the growth of streaming and the rise of video games, we’re seeing more fans comfortable with and interest in adult dramatic animation.” Poitras adds, “There are many stories with very serious storylines or with certain content that just would not be in animation made in the U.S.,” says Poitras. “This includes: character death, slow-paced dramas, same gender relationships, tragic death, anything in cinema and fiction for grown-ups. By contrast, American animation today is still predominantly kid-friendly fare or TV sitcoms.” Poitras continues, “Then there is the importance of the feelings of the characters – the emotional context is a crucial part of the story.” He adds that series set in Japan also are a draw, as viewers are exposed to things they often did not know about. “Many young people I know have said this is part of their enjoyment of anime and manga.”
In terms of what makes anime different, Terashima-Furuta comments, “There are many differences, such as the unique storytelling without age restrictions, beyond-imaginary worldbuilding, intricate artwork, distinct character and mecha designs, etc. However, I think all of these aspects ultimately boil down to the fact that the directors often have the final say on the picture, as opposed to the producers being the decision-makers for western animation.”
Suehira concludes, “Crunchyroll has been championing anime for more than a decade. We have always recognized the power and potential of this medium. Even so, we continue to be inspired by the caliber and creativity of the anime being produced in Japan, and we are excited to bring more anime to fans worldwide.”
By IAN FAILES
Images courtesy of Blur Studio, except where noted.
When the opportunity to make a live-action/CG hybrid Sonic the Hedgehog movie came to Blur Studio, Co-founder Tim Miller quickly suggested his friend and collaborator Jeff Fowler should direct it. Fowler had been hired at Blur as a character animator in the early 2000s and had since become a director for the studio. The two had many years of experience working on commercials, cinematics and animated shorts as Blur evolved and Miller added live-action feature directing to his animation résumé with Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate.
The 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog film from Paramount (directed by Fowler and executive produced by Miller) was a hit and quickly followed up with this year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Here, both directors discuss their collaboration at Blur, an early Oscar nomination experience, how Sonic came to be, and their experience working together for two decades.
HOW IT STARTED
Jeff Fowler: I went to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, with the goal of getting into movies in any way possible as a character animator. As part of your senior year at Ringling, you create a short film that becomes your calling card to get a job. Mine was a short called Monkey Pit, which featured little animated monkeys at the zoo. There was not much to it, but as part of the course, you’re responsible for every piece of production, which was really great training.
Tim Miller: I hired Jeff right out of college to work on Blur’s biggest project to date, a direct-to-video Disney feature called Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas . Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday, but it was a great opportunity for us to grow the studio. We hired quite a lot of artists during that growth spurt, some of which are still working here at Blur. As you can imagine, several of these folks have become much more than employees; they are good friends, and Jeff is among the best of them.
Fowler: I had put my short film out into the visual effects world, hoping to get some bites because I knew I wanted to work in L.A. Back then, L.A. was the hub of all things visual effects and CGI animation. After Tim saw my reel, he invited me to come out to L.A. and see Blur. He said, “We’re a couple of blocks from the ocean in Venice. It’s the best part of L.A.” And out I came.
THE BLUR SHORTS PROGRAM: CREATIVITY FROM INSIDE THE STUDIO
Fowler: Blur had a really interesting short film program. Tim loves to promote creativity inside the studio because it’s better to have people that you know and trust moving into leadership positions. Miller: But the shorts program was very democratic. Anybody could enter a short film, and if it won the competition, we would make it.
“It’s really a simple idea: don’t pretend you know; just ask all the talented people around you for help. That’s what I did at the beginning of Deadpool, and Jeff did the same on Sonic. I got up in front of the crew and said, ‘Hey, I really don’t know much about how live-action films are made, but I know what I want. I just have no freaking clue on how to get it. All you folks know my job better than I do, so please help me not look stupid.’ And here’s the big secret I’ve learned about this industry: when you ask for people’s help – and you’re not a giant asshole – they give it to you.”
—Tim Miller, Director and Co-founder, Blur Studio
Fowler: The short film program was something designed from the ground up for the artists at Blur. The contest was juried by the supervisors, because they are the most experienced artists, and I saw it as an amazing opportunity. So, I submitted a short film idea called Gopher Broke.
Miller: And Jeff’s film won, and so we put Gopher Broke into production.
Fowler: I admit winning felt surreal. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been working here only a year and Tim is offering to fund and make an idea that just literally came from a guy at the lowest rung of the studio ladder.’
Miller: We’ve been very lucky to hire great artists over the years. We’ve tried very hard to create a culture where people feel valued and want to stay.
Fowler: We made Gopher Broke, and it was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. I remember thinking, ‘This creative culture at Blur is amazing – our whole focus was to create great work,’ whether it be our own stuff or work we’d been hired to do. In fact, that was the single biggest thing that made Blur so special.
Miller: The shorts program started with Aunt Luisa and then Rockfish, but Jeff’s film really kicked off a wave of great films done in-house, like In the Rough, and then A Gentleman’s Duel, which was created by two of our concept artists, Sean McNally and Francisco Ruiz-Velasco.
Fowler: Tim always had a great eye for what the studio should do and what the artists would enjoy working on. He would often accept work based on how cool it was, rather than how big the budget was. He wanted the artists happy and inspired.
Making Films is Hard
Reflecting on the projects they’ve worked together on, both Tim Miller and Jeff Fowler are frank about the pitches they didn’t get, the ones that haven’t been made, or just the normal difficulties of making anything.
“There were so many projects that felt like they were going to happen, that felt so close, and then in a heartbeat they fell apart, stalled or just didn’t move forward as fast as you wished,” Fowler recounts, who engaged in a Sonic re-design after taking fan comments to heart during the making the first film (which ultimately proved very successful).
“I would always take inspiration from Tim because he had been out there going after his goals for almost twice as long as I had, so anytime I wanted to throw myself a pity party because something hadn’t happened yet or there were challenges, I would look at him and be like, ‘I don’t see him losing heart.’ Love, Death + Robots – which was inspired by Heavy Metal [a 1981 Canadian adult animated sci-fi-fantasy anthology film] – took hundreds of meetings and 15 years. And Tim is going to get The Goon made or die trying! He’s working as hard as he ever has.”
Also, Miller observes the strong work ethic inherent in Fowler’s approach to all of his projects. “When Warner Bros. was going to do The Lego Movie,” recalls Miller, “I called Chris DeFaria [at Warner Bros.] and said, ‘I’d love for Blur to help with the film in some way. Are there any tests we can do?’ Chris said, ‘Well, we haven’t figured out how the facial animation will work in this Lego world yet.’”
“So, I went to Jeff,” Miller continues, “and said, ‘I’d like you to supervise a test for Lego.’ He said, ‘What dialogue should I use?’ I said, ‘Just make up some temp shit that’s funny and is good enough to do some tests with.’ So, Jeff goes home and the next morning he comes in with a three-page script about Lego characters getting lost in a freezer. It was super clever and funny with a ton of heart.’
“So, we decided on the spot to just make it. It would be a very short film that showed the world off much better than a few tests. Producer Dan Lin later told us that our short really helped show everyone the potential of the film. And Jeff eventually did a full pitch for the film which was great, though we didn’t get it of course. But this was indicative of Jeff’s character. He didn’t have to write a script. He could have just written a few funny lines – which is what I probably would have done) – but he didn’t because he always wants to make something great.”
Miller: I’m not really a businessman or at all entrepreneurial, and the reason I started Blur was so I could decide what I worked on personally and what Blur worked on as a studio. At other companies, I often saw interesting work turned down because it wasn’t lucrative enough. The shorts program grew from that simple desire to do interesting creative work. Which in turn helped the studio as a business, because Blur became known as a company that created quality and was easy to work with. We didn’t just do what we were told, we tried to make everything great.
“[Embarking on the Sonic the Hedgehog movie] I had zero live-action directing skills at that time, but I benefited from Tim’s recent experience making Deadpool. We sat next to each other in the studio, so I basically spent our year in development picking his brain. I was very curious about his experience going from animation to live-action because Tim, like me, had always been an animator and had been working almost entirely in that industry for so long.”
—Jeff Fowler, Producer/Director, Blur Studio
Fowler: The budgets for the short films were always tight, but we still set the creative bar very high. You have to squeeze every pixel out of every penny and make sure it looks the best it possibly can. It was absolutely the finest possible training I can imagine to prepare me for making Sonic.
SPEEDING ONTO SONIC AND THE WORLD OF LIVE-ACTION
Miller: We had a pretty long-standing relationship with the Sega folks because we’d done a ton of Sonic cinematics. They came for a visit and said, “Hey, we’re going to develop a Sonic movie, would Blur want to be involved?” I immediately said an emphatic “Yes” and suggested Jeff would be an excellent candidate for director. They knew Jeff’s work and agreed. So, off we went to do a test.
We were shooting a Love, Death + Robots short in Salt Lake City, Arizona, [Miller created the Netflix series] and we figured, well, since we had all the camera equipment rented for a week and I was only shooting two days, why not shoot the plates for a Sonic short? So, we went out in the desert and shot what we needed for the test. It was a real team effort done on the cheap. I was off-camera throwing dirt and stuff in front of the lens. Jeff was shaking the cop car to simulate Sonic passing, etc. Then we did all the VFX work back at Blur, and we used that final test to sell the project. I think a few of those shots from the test actually made it into the first trailer.
Fowler: I had zero live-action directing skills at that time, but I benefited from Tim’s recent experience making Deadpool. We sat next to each other in the studio, so I basically spent our year in development picking his brain. I was very curious about his experience going from animation to live-action because Tim, like me, had always been an animator and had been working almost entirely in that industry for so long.
“The budgets for the short films [at Blur] were always tight, but we still set the creative bar very high. You have to squeeze every pixel out of every penny and make sure it looks the best it possibly can. It was absolutely the finest possible training I can imagine to prepare me for making Sonic.”
—Jeff Fowler, Producer/Director, Blur Studio
Miller: My main piece of advice to Jeff was that you can’t pretend you know everything about shooting live-action. There’s just too much specialized knowledge and it takes years to learn it. It’s really a simple idea: don’t pretend you know; just ask all the talented people around you for help. That’s what I did at the beginning of Deadpool, and Jeff did the same on Sonic. I got up in front of the crew and said, “Hey, I really don’t really know much about how live-action films are made, but I know what I want. I just have no freaking clue on how to get it. All you folks know my job better than I do, so please help me not look stupid.”And here’s the big secret I’ve learned about this industry: when you ask for people’s help – and you’re not a giant asshole – they give it to you.
Fowler: It was great advice about being honest, and it’s also important to work hard to make sure you’re creating an atmosphere for people to do great work. I took Tim’s advice to heart and found that people really appreciate the honesty about your experience. They appreciate that you aren’t trying to bluff your way through the process by pretending to know something you don’t. That’s not a great way to build a team for the difficult effort of making a movie.
Fowler: I still go to Blur once a week. I love being there. I edited some of the story animatics for both Sonic films at the studio. I still love doing some production work whenever I can – it’s a great way of digging into a scene and making decisions. Tim always helps with the story and the script. If I have a first draft I’m feeling pretty good about, I loop him in because I know he’s going to be brutally honest. He’s not a person who will spare your feelings if he feels something needs more work. So, he’s a wonderful resource for critical analysis.
Miller: For a first-time director – like Jeff was on the first Sonic film – it’s a lot of pressure. Not having any live-action experience makes it even harder. But Jeff handled it amazingly well – he’s really smart and he’s a super nice guy. The crew on Sonic, which had a lot of the same folks I worked with on Deadpool since they shot in Vancouver, just loved him. The whole cast loved him. I got a front-row seat to the whole operation because the editorial and post team were set up at Blur, and they loved him too. Literally, everybody I talked to about the film, including the folks at Paramount, had a great experience making the movie, and much of that is due to Jeff’s leadership and his calm and friendly style.
Fowler: It’s great to work with people you trust, and it all comes from this great creative place that is Blur. Actually, we had this crazy moment in Blur’s history in which three Blur directors – me with Sonic, Tim with Terminator: Dark Fate and Dave Wilson with Bloodshot – were all off making movies at the same time. When you think about how that all started at a company that, even today, isn’t huge. It’s a very creative, wonderful environment of a hundred or so artists, and that really says something about the talent and the artistry that has come, and continues to come, from Blur.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Domee Shi and Disney/Pixar.
Matriarchs have a dominant thematic presence for Domee Shi, whether it be her Oscar-winning short Bao or feature directorial debut Turning Red. The former imagines a son as a rebellious Chinese soup dumpling who gets consumed by his mother while the latter has a female tweenager contending with the onset of puberty and a matriarchal family secret. As for what her muse thinks of the cinematic portrayals and whether the experience has been therapeutic for mother and daughter, Shi responds, “It has been therapeutic for me! My mom is flattered and proud, but I remember when we invited her and my dad to the premiere of Turning Red, it took her a day to process the movie. She said, ‘I really like it.’ Then the next morning we were texting and she asked, ‘Was I a good mother?’ I said, ‘Of course you were. I wouldn’t be here without you being you.’ My dad was jealous and asked, ‘When are you going to make something about me and you?’”
Shi’s father was a college professor of fine arts and landscape painter in China. “I fought with my dad more about art because he was my art tutor early on and encouraged me to practice painting and drawing every day. As a teenager, we would go to a drawing class and sketch naked people side by side. Then we would go home and he would make me lay out all of my drawings on the floor and critique them one by one like a firing squad! His motto for me growing up was ‘No pain, no gain.’ Then my mother’s motto for me was, ‘Listen to mother or you will suffer!’ I feel like those two mottos have merged together and created me.” Born in Chongqing, China, her parents left for Canada two years later and settled in Toronto, Ontario, which is proudly on display in Bao and Turning Red. “I went back to China with my mom for half a year when I was six years old,” Shi recalls. “We stayed with my grandma and uncle who lived behind a temple – that was the inspiration for the temple setting in Turning Red. The last time I went back was in 2015 to see my grandma who is still alive and kicking. She just celebrated her 96th birthday.”
Personal memories were relied upon to reconstruct Toronto in 2002 for Turning Red. “It was more about creating the feeling of growing up in Toronto in the 2000s versus photo-accurate details,” Shi explains. “Because of the pandemic, the crew never got to take that research trip. I wanted it to feel like how Mei would see the city growing up, so we amped up all of the colors to make it dreamy, colorful, young and fresh. I have so much nostalgia for that era in Toronto. We had to include the SkyDome.” In reference to the major league baseball team, an actual Blue Jay makes an appearance with the sports stadium in the background. “In the script it was a bird, and we repurposed the Blue Jay from the Up Disney+ series Dug Days.” Meilin Lee in Turning Red is essentially the cinematic personification of her 13-year-old self. “About 70% to 80% of her is me. I was never obsessed with a boy band but all of my classmates and friends were. I was even more nerdy than her! I felt like I had to tone down the nerdiness. My 4*Town [hit ‘00s boy band] was Harry Potter. My friends and I would run to get in line to watch the movie or get the latest book, draw fan art and write fan fiction.”
Disney animated features from the 1990s have left a lasting impression. “Aladdin was the first VHS that my parents and I owned,” remarks Shi. “But The Lion King was the first movie I remember watching in theaters. The opening with the ‘Circle of Life’ and the sun coming up was beautiful – and the singers hitting that note, I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ I love that movie so much. I recall being really traumatized by Mufasa’s death and asking my mom to leave, which we did during ‘Hakuna Matata,’ so I never got to see the ending until a year later when I was finally brave enough to watch it on VHS.”
Art was a way to make friends at school. “I would always carry a sketchbook with me in elementary school, middle school and high school. I realized that if I showed people the drawings in my sketchbook it would get reactions out of them and they would lean in, be curious and ask me questions. That felt like a natural way for me to make friends and meet people. I quickly became the drawer in every class that I was in. I would draw a lot of fan art of TV shows, movies and books that I loved. I created my own characters in those universes. In middle school a female classmate said to me, ‘You draw so well. How much do you want if you draw me with my crush?’ I was like, ‘Oh, a dollar!’ That was when I realized I could maybe make money!”
This epiphany led Shi to graduate with a Bachelor of Animation from Sheridan College in 2011. “I loved that it was this gathering place of like-minded, brilliant, nerdy, talented artists – that was the best part of Sheridan College. There, I met Hyein Park who voices Abby in Turning Red.” Initially, the aspiring animator was turned down for internships, including at Pixar. “One thing that I changed about myself afterwards was, in my third year [of college] I had never reached out, hung out or talked to other classmates or students, but in my fourth year I did that. That actually helped me because I was able to create a stronger portfolio which would get recognized by the studios.”
Shi interned at Pixar as a storyboard artist. “During my internship, Josh Cooley [director of Toy Story 4] was Story Supervisor for Inside Out, and he sat in on one of my pitches. Josh saw something that made him say, ‘We should hire her.’ He has been a great mentor and boss because I worked with him for a while on Inside Out and again on Toy Story 4. The same with Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen who co-directed Inside Out, as they created such an open environment for me to feel comfortable speaking up in the room. I felt that my voice was valued early on in my career, which is rare. I lucked out because I was cast on this show about going inside the mind of a 13-year-old girl, and that was the one thing I was an expert at!”
Being a storyboard artist has had an impact on how Shi approaches directing. “It was a great training ground for me to go into directing because a storyboard artist is a jack of all trades. You have to draw as well as know composition, acting, appeal, comedy and how to cut. You get a little taste of every part of filmmaking. Also, because of the job you are working closely with the director and writer.” Her director’s chair debut was the short Bao followed by the feature Turning Red. “I am grateful that I was able to make Bao first, as it gave me a small taste of what directing a feature would be like. I wasn’t prepared for how much of the job is communicating and speaking to large groups of people and delegating. Just being very clear and also being a cheerleader and motivator for a team of hundreds of people when there is a pandemic going on or riots or wildfires. I took it one day at a time. I felt that if I didn’t get overwhelmed by the big studio machine then I would be okay.”
Much has made of the fact that Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar feature. “The goal at the end of the day is to get to the point [where people are identified as artists rather by gender and ethnicity], but we are still far away from that. I can see both sides. For those young girls or young Asian kids in the West who can see someone like me on TV or making movies, it gives them hope and encouragement for them to pursue something artistic. It also gives them solid evidence that they can present to their Asian parents who might want them to go to another career. I’m going to be honest. It does get tiring to be answering the same question about, ‘How does it feel to be a woman or Asian?’ My first identity is that I’m a nerd! I just wanted to make something that I could nerd out about with my colleagues and friends, and share with other nerdy people around the world.”
The animation style depends on the project. “For Bao, I wanted to make this modern-day fairy-tale, so I wanted the characters to look soft and appealing. For Turning Red, Mei is 13, and I wanted the world to reflect her personality, which is chunky, cute and colorful, but I also love Aardman, anime and Disney, so it’s all going to be reflected in the things that I make.”
Simple moments make characters believable, such as a mother spoon-feeding filling to her baby dumpling to regain its shape, the surprised facial expressions of son and mother when they discover that the daughter-in-law is very good at making dumplings, a red panda pushing a stunned classmate back into a washroom stall, and a father stepping back into the kitchen while witnessing the pubescent turmoil between mother and daughter unfold in the bathroom. “Most of those were either in the script or found through storyboarding,” Shi explains. “I remember storyboarding the Bao filling gag, thinking it makes sense because he’s a dumpling and his head is stuffed with filling. Panda Mei pushing the girl back into the stall and the dad backing away, those were discovered by the story artists who were assigned with storyboarding those scenes, and the animators take that and plus it. That’s the thing about animation. Every step of the way, at every stage, people can contribute to that one scene and make it better.”
In acknowledgement of her skill as an artist and filmmaker, Shi has been promoted to Vice President of Creative at Pixar, which makes her a member of the revered brain trust that includes Andrew Stanton, Peter Sohn and Dan Scanlon. “I’m still figuring it out because it’s a new gig. The best thing for a filmmaker to do is to put themselves in the project that they’re on. If the film can reflect the filmmaker, that’s great. There are always going to be notes on clarity and appeal. All of that stuff will be figured out. You have a chance to make a Pixar film and you’re going to spend at least four years on this, so you have to make it count.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Influenced by the societal and environmental impact of the industrial revolution, his experiences as a soldier during World War I, the rise of fascism in Germany which led to World War II, a fascination with languages, and the desire to expand upon English folklore, J.R.R. Tolkien conceived of a vast world known as Middle-earth inhabited by elves, dwarves, orcs, sorcerers, dragons and humans. The stories were originally told to his children and subsequently transcribed, leading to the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In order to create a vast cultural landscape to draw upon, the Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford developed a rich history which appeared in various appendices of his works, as well as serving as the basis for The Silmarillion. It is this backstory, particularly the period referred to as the Second Age, that the Prime Video series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, created by Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, focuses on.
The streaming endeavor is a massive investment for Amazon Studios, which purchased The Lord of the Rings television rights for $250 million and committed to produce five seasons at a total cost of $1 billion. Principal photography takes place in New Zealand, which was also the backdrop for the big-screen adaptations helmed by filmmaker Peter Jackson, with the first season consisting of eight episodes.
Conceptualizing Middle-earth was a balancing act for Production Designer Ramsey Avery (Waitress). “Based on the art that has existed for 50 to 60 years or more recent media representations, there is an expectation of what Middle-earth wants to be. We wanted to make sure that we had a world that was recognizable as well as felt real and lived in. It wasn’t high fantasy. It was a place where people actually had to eat and find food and had to make a living for themselves one way or another – that means various things to different cultures. It was also important that anybody turning on the TV somewhere in the middle of an episode would understand where they were. Then, the overall thing [to convey] was that this is the Second Age, not the Third Age. The Third Age is the decline of it all. The Second Age is the glory of many cultures. Khazad-dûm is building to be the best its going to be. The elves have built a beautiful kingdom in Lindon. Humans have built the strongest empire that they are ever going to build.”
Distinguishing between the different cultures meant developing a design-and-shape language for each of them. “Towers are about elves getting to a place where they can get closer to the stars as they are the children of the stars,” Avery states. “The towers should be open so that they can experience the nature that they want to be part of. Elves don’t sleep but meditate, and had to be able to have a place to do that.” Dwarves have a reverence for stone. “It wasn’t so much about forcing their will onto the stone but finding the beauty within it and manipulating that beauty into their environment,” Avery says. “I tried to find a way to make Khazad-dûm feel much more integrated into the flow of the mountain so that the mountain felt more important than the architecture.” The city of Venice inspired Númenor. “Tolkien describes humans as being the most creative of all the races,” Avery adds, “and that is partly because they die, which drives them to be creative within a short period of time. There is this real sense of volumetric creativity, an infusion of ornaments, shapes, scale, squares, spheres and blocks upon blocks. We get this frenzy of building going on. There is blue and water everywhere. You try to find those interesting things that can create a basis for why something exists, which in turn allows us to make other decisions down the line.”
It was important to make sure that the designs started in the art department could be carried forward by visual effects. “The worst thing in the world is to do something twice,” Avery notes. “One of the things that we did early on with this project was to make sure to figure out how to talk to each other.” A great example of how the two departments worked together was the design, creation and execution of Númenor. “A lot of that initial work was done by our Los Angeles artists working in SketchUp and Rhino 3D and sending that to the set designers in New Zealand, who would develop the models that were sent to the visual effects art department. The models were placed into Unreal Engine to figure out how to do set extensions and location integration. Meanwhile, I was working with [Art Director] Julien Gauthier at ILM to develop the overall model. With that interface we could adjust the practical sets if we needed to figure out if we had to build a wall or didn’t need to build as much as we thought we would, and then take that information and put it into the broader scope of the ILM model. This meant that the digital extensions actually tied with our sets.”
ILM and Wētā FX were the main vendors, while others contributing to the 6,000 visual effects shots included: Rodeo FX, Method Studios, Rising Sun Pictures, DNEG and Outpost VFX. “We tracked 9,500 shots with ShotGrid being the primary tool to track both visual effects shots and milestones, while Moxion was used for sharing and reviewing media,” Co-Producer Ron Ames (Shutter Island) explains. “We actually built a virtual cloud-based infrastructure with all of our vendors [utilizing Amazon Web Services]. Everything was S3 buckets and everybody participated. It was awesome.” A system was devised for sharing assets among vendors. “We wanted to create a sense among all of these different companies that we were one company, and that meant using USD and standard shader models,” Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Smith (Bumblebee) states. “It’s been that thing we’ve all wanted, and have had, to a degree, with things like Alembic out there. But on this show, we were able to get to a point where Wētā FX could hand off a digital double that Method Studios could then use in their shot.”
Nothing was created from scratch digitally. “We are building a world that takes place inside of a mountain, so Jason went to the Lost World Cave in the dark with flashlights and did photogrammetry,” Ames reveals. “We rappelled out of helicopters because we couldn’t land onto an icy snowfield.
There was no part of this that didn’t have a particular reality.” The mantra applied to creatures. “We didn’t just want to start putting animal parts together like Mr. Potato Head and call it a new thing,” Smith remarks. “The basis was real animals that are still living and others that no longer live on our planet and then folding them together. Carlos Huante, Lead Designer for Alien vs. Predator, created something that feels like a real animal. It’s not a cartoon roar-at-the-camera type of bad guy, but it’s a natural threat to the Harfoots [predecessors to Hobbits].” A two-day battle royale took place on the motion capture stage at Wētā FX. “Jason and the team went through hundreds of iterations to come up with the creature’s stance, fur, body weight, how it moved, how it fought, and how it was ultimately killed was worked through,” Ames states. “We worked with Ncam to make sure that the camera was not just waving around.”
Scale was a major issue as the characters and creatures covered a wide range of physical heights and proportions. “We used every single trick in the book, from forced perspective to motion control, but also had some excellent scale doubles both on the small and tall side that we could use to get a lot of these shots in-camera,” Smith explains. “We had a scale team that had its own dedicated QTAKE operator. We were able to tell the rest of the crew to stand by for 10 minutes while this highly trained person composites what we just shot before we move on and tear down the lights to make sure that it’s working.” Props and environmental elements assisted in conveying scale. “We would talk about these scale anchors,” Smith says. “In some early scenes we see some human characters walking through some plants that go up just above their knee. Then, as we see our first Harfoot character in that same location, those same plants are going up about shoulder height.”
“There is this real sense of volumetric creativity, an infusion of ornaments, shapes, scale, squares, spheres and blocks upon blocks. We get this frenzy of building going on. There is blue and water everywhere. You try to find those interesting things that can create a basis for why something exists, which in turn allows us to make other decisions down the line.”
—Ramsey Avery, Production Designer
There was no shortage of practical effects provided by Special Effects Supervisor Dean Clarke (Whale Rider), which ranged from a magic potion to a waterfall. Clarke describes, “The potion was quite a tricky little number that came down to dissimilar fluids that don’t mix in a bowl, with a feedline underneath, and keeping it at the right time, as well as a flower that had to turn precisely with a self-centering servo. The petals of the flower had to remain at the right position at the end and turn, go backwards and forwards to find the true direction of what it needed to. It was quite an elaborate rig and was something that many people were shocked to see how amazing it was practically.” A number of pumps and filters were required for the river and waterfall. “It’s about being able to treat and move and clean up the water,” Clarke explains. “The river was a part of a particular New Zealand scenery that we recreated on the backlot. We were probably moving 2,000 liters [of water] a minute cascading down the waterfall and then into the river. We had separate pumps in the river, so you could either have the waterfall on with mist or no mist or no waterfall, or the river flowing itself. We had a 20,000- liter holding tank underground to recirculate the water at the end of the river.”
A massive build was the loader ship. “It was 46 tons and 105 feet long,” Clarke recalls. “There were a lot of additions to that rig because of the size of it. We were only initially told that it was going to be 25 tons. We had a fair bit of additional engineering calculations and steelwork to add to it. Then, even the feat of getting the boat when it was built to the set. We had to have a 250-ton crane come and move it around to the studio in the middle of night to get to the outdoor area where it was shot. There was a lot of testing, R&D, pre-testing on it, and then concept stuff that we worked through. A lot of that was heavy involvement with Ron and Jason to figure out what we could actually deliver practically for them. Because the boat was so long, the cantilever for it was a tricky thing to deal with and get the motion of the boat so that it was lifelike.” No water tank was utilized. “That was shot dry for wet,” he adds. “The ship was outside against the greenscreen.
“We did end up doing a reasonable amount of pyrotechnics when the lava bombs went off,” remarks Clarke. “Meteor impacts was what Ron and Jason came up with for us. You use the softest explosive stuff that you can and the right amount of coal powder on the top to replicate the fireball so that they can be in close proximity to the cast involved in the shot.” One unique task was a wall of candle flames. “It was about six and a half meters high and five meters wide with 192 individual flames. You could dial up every flame individually and turn them on and off automatically, with its own fire extinguisher system above because it was in the studio.” Wax and snow resin were combined to create the illusion of a frozen waterfall. “The stunt team had the cast on ropes with icepicks,” Clarke says, “and we had to break away bits for them to hit.”
For Clarke, the most exciting aspect was the sheer size of the project. “Patrick McKay and J. D. Payne said, ‘Every leaf has its own story.’ It was amazing to be a part of something of such a grand scale for a television series.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
After spending three decades in development hell trying to produce an adaptation of The Sandman that was a worthy extension of the seminal graphic novel, which was originally published in 1989 and went on to span 10 volumes, a dream has finally become a reality for English author Neil Gaiman (Good Omens). The Netflix series has been described as a story about stories. Gaiman utilizes the oldest storytelling technique, using deities to personify various human emotions that in turn serve as the means to examine the world in which we live. The narrative begins when an occult ceremony results in the capture of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, who embarks on his journey of self-discovery within the DC Universe.
“Part of the joy of being able to take on things like dreams is that they are still the place where we’re the closest to the fantastical,” Gaiman notes. “We wake up, live sensible lives, and then for six or seven or eight hours a night we go quietly stark, scary mad. We experience impossible things. Some visit and talk to people who are dead. We find ourselves escaping monsters on dark couches and living things that are absolutely outside of our experience. That for me becomes a metaphor for everything that we don’t understand. With Sandman, when I was writing the comic, I got to essentially take dreams and stories as my lens to look at and inspect the world. What I love about what we’re doing now in television is we can make the impossible real. There’s something so magical about that.”
There was talk about a feature film starring Joseph Gordon- Levitt as the title character, but that was never the true ambition for Executive Producer David S. Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) who co-wrote the pilot episode. “The advent of streaming has now made it possible to do these wild, dramatic swings, and the whole point was to embrace its quirks. We’re not going to try to turn it into something that it’s not because for 30 years people were always trying to adapt Sandman and even out its bugs.” A critical collaborator was missing from the previous failed attempts. “One of the things that gives Sandman a narrative feeling is the voice of Neil himself,” Goyer observes. “That’s why it was so important to me that Neil be a producer on the show and that he would also co-write the first episode. Wherever possible, we want the characters in the TV show to feel like they’ve sprung from off the page.”
“The cool idea about Sandman is what it’s really about is humanity and the humanizing of a god over the course of the story. [Author/writer/Executive Producer] Neil [Gaiman], [Executive Producer] David [Goyer] and I wanted to try to shoot it as much practically and enhance it with the visual effects, rather than go full greenscreen or a virtual setup like The Mandalorian.”
—Allan Heinberg, Showrunner
By the time the schedules had aligned between Gaiman and Goyer, the latter was no longer available to be the showrunner, so Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy) was brought onto the Warner Bros. Television and Netflix production. “None of the shows I have worked on had any elements of visual effects and certainly not of this scale,” Heinberg admits. “Ian Markiewicz [Krypton], our Visual Effects Supervisor, was the first person hired, so Ian and I were working together before I assembled the writers’ room. From the first episode, we were able to talk specifically at the idea stage in terms of how to achieve the best version of these visual effects in a way that the show could afford.” The visual effects were not to overshadow the storytelling. “The cool idea about Sandman is what it’s really about is humanity and the humanizing of a god over the course of the story,” Heinberg explains. “Neil, David and I wanted to try to shoot it as much practically and enhance it with the visual effects, rather than go full greenscreen or a virtual setup like The Mandalorian.”
Episode 101 has 57 set locations, which is indicative of the other 10 episodes in Season 1. “You’re trying to plan way in advance because you want to do these big, grand, beautiful things,” Production Designer Jon Gary Steele (Outlander) states. “For instance, we had one set which was like a restaurant or pub 700 years ago. We come back to this pub every 100 years, and it needed to look different each time. There was not enough time in the schedule where you have a week or two between. We had to play with the idea of two giant chunks with each piece evolving. You’d be changing one area while they were filming in the other to give the directors and showrunners more room to play.” Sets like the Undercroft could not be repurposed. Steele says, “The Undercroft was built as an underground dungeon and has a moat running around it on the inside with flames everywhere. We built tons of lighting fixtures to hold flames. The centerpiece that Dream [aka Morpheus] is locked up in went through so many different looks. It was hard to get everybody to agree.”
In describing his creative process, Steele remarks, “You read the script and you can lean things your way as long as the director loves your ideas. On this one, I had lots of crazy ideas, but it was all going through the direction of the graphic novel. My favorite set for the whole show is the Threshold of Desire. It’s basically the inside of the heart or organ of the body. I found this research of buildings that were amoeba-shaped and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I ran the idea by the three showrunners and said, ‘I want to do something like this where it’s amoeba-shaped and reminiscent of a heart.’ We had six sculptors working for a month and a half on it. Visual effects added on and changed the backgrounds on some of it. It’s very cool.” The art department and visual effects had their own concept artists. Steele comments, “I would take most of the interiors, and for exteriors we would both do ideas and turn them in and do a show-and-tell. It was a lot of fun having the two teams involved to see where we would take it. And then it evolved even further.”
“I want to give the facilities every opportunity not only to have the supervisors and producers on shows be decision-makers in their own right, but also have the artists put forward their ideas. With a show like Sandman there are so many different creative opportunities that there’s never a situation where there’s not enough to go around.”
—Ian Markiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor
Special Effects Supervisor Mark Holt (Wonder Woman) created a wide range of practical effects. “The director wanted a close-up of a flapping raven and to capture the real shadows in camera,” Holt states. “It was basically inside of this set which was full of fire. We made an animatronic flapping raven. To be honest, we hadn’t done that in years because it would just go over to visual effects.” Then, there is the shot of the floating feather that suddenly ignites and disappears. “We made this feather out of flash paper and had a tiny fire on it so if you pushed a button, it would suddenly ignite and disappear. We had it on these really thin wires. They did get it all in camera. That came out of our discussions with visual effects and the director. We would come up with a plan, show them tests and decide which department covers that specific effect,” Holt says.
The Undercroft involved complex special effects. “In the first episode, when Dream appears, that was a complicated set for us because fire was everywhere and every fire source had to suddenly ignite,” Holt explains. “It was tricky to do, because if you have a gas source that doesn’t ignite and the gas mixes with the oxygen you can have an explosion. We had to make sure that every time all of these 50 sources ignited at exactly the right time. It was all on an electric circuit. We designed an infrared sensor for each fire source that would detect whether the actual flame was alight or not. If the gas was coming through and the flame hadn’t ignited, it would shut everything down. Each gas source had to have its own pipe, pilot light and an electronic valve. It took us about a month to get that actually up and running. Wherever the flames were on set, we had to extract the fumes and soot. We had other effects going on as well inside of that set.”
Framestore, ILM, Important Looking Pirates, Untold Studios, One of Us, Rodeo FX, Union FX and Chicken Bone VFX created about 2,900 visual effects shots, while Proof handled previs and postvis, and MonkeyShine provided animatics. “I want to give the facilities every opportunity to not only have the supervisors and producers on shows be decision-makers in their own right, but also have the artists put forward their ideas,” Markiewicz states. “With a show like Sandman, there are so many different creative opportunities that there’s never a situation where there’s not enough to go around.” Very few visual effects shots were omitted. “We had a combination of previs, animatics and postvis to help the editors craft the story,” Markiewicz notes. “It was important to be able to show what something might look like with the postvis so that Allan could get a sense of the rhythm of the cut so that he could make decisions around locking cuts early on, if at all possible.”
Mathew the Raven was a blend of real birds, animatronics and CG. “Framestore was comfortable in letting us know that Matthew is the most advanced bird asset that they have ever created,” Markiewicz remarks. “We were fortunate to be able to hire three trained birds. Most of the shots are either what we call a ‘Frankenbird,’ which is when we take a live-action bird, do rotomation and some performance adjustments so that he fits the criteria, or 95% of the time he is a full-CG creature. Patton Oswalt is the actor behind Matthew, and that was an enjoyable process when we got his line reads. We wanted to put that in early so that we had Patton’s performance cues, cadence, rhythms and unique contributions to the character. It was certainly something that we wanted to guide the animation process as we crafted Matthew into what he is.”
Something that needed to be made a cinematic reality was the materialization of Dream when he is initially captured by Roderick Burgess in 1916. “We wanted the paranormal and surreal qualities of the materialization and capture to feel in keeping with that time period,” Markiewicz describes. “We spent a lot of time looking over film and photographic techniques from the early 20th century purported to capture paranormal and metaphysical phenomena, emphasizing aura photography along with other early optical effects, and early celluloid film with loose gates, peculiar light leaks and double exposure techniques. That served as a springboard into experimental work, including slit-scan photography by Ansen Seale and more current works like Chris Cunningham’s Flex. During the shoot, Mark Holt and his excellent SFX team provided hundreds of old-school magnesium flashbulbs to deploy during the materialization sequence, continuing the theme of period-appropriate lighting and FX, designed beautifully by our Cinematographer George Steel [Robin Hood]. ILP did the hard work of bringing the scene to life.”
Dream’s Palace was an interesting design task as it continually evolves in the graphic novel. “The initial process was figuring out how that palace looked in its pristine state,” Markiewicz explains. “But then also one of the big reveals at the end of the first episode is that the palace falls into deep ruin. Deak Ferrand [Concept Designer at Rodeo FX] and I started looking at all manner of palaces from around the world. Our thinking was that dreaming should be a representation of the collective consciousness. It was important to us that the palace itself reflected a broad cultural context. In terms of creating that space in ruin, Deak pointed out Mono Lake in California as a salt lake dry bed where you have these peculiar almost coral-like salt individual stacks that have these pockmarks of decay, like petrification, throughout their structures. The palace is a building that has been destroyed, but in a way that happens when dreams and memories fade.”
“My favorite set for the whole show is the Threshold of Desire. … I ran the idea by the three showrunners and said, ‘I want to do something like this where it’s amoeba-shaped and reminiscent of a heart. ’ We had six sculptors working for a month and a half on it. Visual effects added on and changed the backgrounds on some of it. It’s very cool.” —Jon Gary Steele, Production Designer
Determining true and false dreams are the Gates of Horn and Ivory, which were digitally expanded upon by ILM. “Our Production Designer, Jon Gary Steele, built a 20 x 25-foot approximate full section of the gate, which is where some of the sequences were staged and photographed,” Markiewicz remarks. “The concept was ripped from the comic book pages, but put on steroids to make it as cinematic as possible. In Sandman, it is built from the bones of these gods who were oppositional forces to Dream. We tried to embed part of that story into the gate itself in the hope that it would be more than an Easter egg, but actually a featured part of the story of what that was. We have actual artwork panels inscribed into our CG gate that we built out, which was a nice way to try to not only pay adequate respect to the source material, but also embrace it for its artistic beauty as well.”
Two distinct environmental looks had to be created for the Pier sequences which featured heavy water simulations. “During our first visit to the pier environment, the Dreaming is in a state of disrepair,” Markiewicz states. “Allan asked that we make the scene feel ‘bruised’ to complement and enhance that story point and fit Dream’s state of being during the scene. We leaned into that description, working to balance deep purples and reds in the dark, mottled sky. In our second visit to the environment, Dream has started the difficult process of restoring the Dreaming, thanks to a friend’s sacrifice, and is ready to embark on the next phase in his journey. This allowed us to evolve the look over the course of the episode and shift the palette into a more hopeful, steely cyan/blue.”
Season 1 of The Sandman is described by Markiewicz as being an 11-hour multi-genre road movie. “We journey through different realms, meet and leave behind an array of characters and creatures [both real and imagined] and are constantly on the move. We leaned heavily into the source material as a guide and always had Neil Gaiman nearby to shepherd us. Every page of my copies of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House is dog-eared or annotated or has screengrabs in some way, and Allan Heinberg knows Sandman. Fortunately, our excellent visual effects vendor partners were with us at every step, working as artistic collaborators and problem solvers, and co-authoring the experience. We were able to leverage the creative energies and technical expertise from artists all around the world on the show. That collaboration made for a deeply rewarding experience.”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
“We’re seeing a VFX explosion worldwide, and it’s not limited to one country or even one continent. The growth of streaming and the boom in content production generally mean that there’s more demand than ever for VFX,” says Akhauri P. Sinha, Managing Director of Framestore’s Mumbai studio. Helping to take care of the increased demand – in Asia and globally – is a flourishing VFX industry in South and East Asia, in countries such as India, China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore. Some of the companies are locally owned VFX studios. Others are outposts of multinationals like Framestore, ILM, Digital Domain and DNEG.
The region’s visual effects sector has benefited from a growing population of skilled VFX artists, and many studios that initially focused on outsourcing services have now expanded into fullservice visual effects facilities. “The VFX offerings and capabilities of the larger Asian studios have grown by leaps and bounds,” comments Merzin Tavaria, President of Global Production & Operations at DNEG.
BOT VFX has shown the great potential in developing visual effects talent in India, starting when it opened its doors in 2008 as a classic outsourcing facility. “It has always been a U.S.-owned company, but when it began, and until the last two years, the production operation was always India based, initially in Chennai,” says BOT VFX CEO and founder Hitesh Shah. Recently, it built a production operation in Atlanta to go with its production facilities in Pune (opened in 2022), Coimbatore (2019) and Chennai. Thetotal team numbers over 600 today, with 500+ artists.
Shah continues, “What inspired me to get into VFX based on Indian talent years ago was a key trend I observed. The democratization of technology the industry was undergoing could enable democratization of talent. Hardware, software and Internet bandwidth were no longer the massive entry barriers they once were. In the early 2000s, India had a significant pool of artists of various kinds but very little in the way of digital creative talent. We knew we could capitalize on that Indian artist talent if we brought in VFX industry know-how and strong operational discipline and developed the budding ecosystem of talent there. Today, it seems unthinkable to accomplish the volume and complexity of VFX in the industry without the talent base in India. Back in 2003, when I started on this journey, it was just a notion and just a kernel of a new idea.”
While BOT has expanded now into a full-service firm, it is not moving away from RPM services. Shah clarifies, “Instead, we still provide – and intend to provide for the long-term – outsourcing services to other VFX facilities and production houses. In fact, we are actively expanding the capacity we offer to serve the outsourcing needs of VFX facilities, which will remain an integral part of BOT’s success story.”
As the demand for VFX increases, Shah notes, “We have in the last few years built bench-strength in 2D and 3D compositing, FX and CG integrations, as well as matte painting and motion graphics over and above our long-standing strengths in roto, paint tracking and rotomation. We are invested in pipeline tools and infrastructure to meet the needs of both full-service clients as well as outsourcing service clients.”
He explains that, not long ago, “If you looked at the [Indian] sub-continent in terms of the artist skills distribution, the vast majority were engaged in the delivery of RPM services and a relatively small portion was engaged in other areas like compositing, CG and matte painting. In the last several years, that mix has begun to gradually shift towards the non-RPM areas, especially compositing.”
Shah adds, “As the industry’s appetite for VFX shots continues to grow, compositing and CG artists are as much a potential bottleneck for these companies as RPM capacity is. As a result, these multinational companies see great value in widening the skill base and not looking at their India operations as simply a ‘back-office’ to the teams elsewhere.” BOT has worked on VFX for Stranger Things (all seasons), The Orville (all seasons), Foundation, See, Westworld (all seasons), Lovecraft Country and The Umbrella Academy, among many other movies and series.
Of DNEG’s nine studios, four are located in India. The Londonbased multinational has had a remarkable trajectory since CEO Namit Malhotra founded what became Prime Focus in 1995 in a one-room editing studio in Mumbai. Three years later, Double Negative launched in London. “Following the merger of Prime Focus and Double Negative in 2014 [to become DNEG], we expanded and upgraded our studio in Mumbai and revamped our pipeline, integrating the facility with our DNEG studios in the West,” Tavaria says.
He comments, “Our India headquarters in Mumbai has been delivering high-end visual effects for both Hollywood and Bollywood movies for many years. In 2017, we grabbed the opportunity to establish our presence in southern India by setting up a studio in Chennai, and we expanded into India’s technology and IT hub, Bangalore, in 2020. Currently, our studios in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore work closely with our western studios on all of DNEG’s film and episodic VFX shows, while Chandigarh continues to deliver services that cater to the demand for stereo 3D conversion for theatrical releases.”
Tavaria continues, “Our sites in India work in tandem with our western studios on all the shows that DNEG delivers. Notable recent work includes: The Matrix Resurrections, No Time To Die and of course our most recent Oscar-winner, Dune. While most of our projects are for the Hollywood studios, we have also been involved in some of the most successful Asian shows in recent years. The Battle at Lake Changjin comes to mind as one example of an incredibly successful collaboration with an Asian client, which has gone on to become the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, and we have some huge films in production for the Indian market right now, including the upcoming fantasy adventure epic Brahmastra.”
Tavaria notes, “The work we have been doing behind the scenes here at DNEG, in developing our technology and pipeline and nurturing talent in different regions across the country, has opened avenues that enable close creative collaboration between our studios in the West and our teams in Asia. From an industry standpoint, the recent growth of the streaming companies has unlocked a new wave of content creation and increasing demand for visual effects and animation of the same level of quality as our Hollywood studio clients.”
Framestore formally opened the doors to its Mumbai office in October 2021, but the team had been in place and working on film and episodic projects since early 2020, according to Fiona Walkinshaw, CEO, Film & Episodic. She explains, “We’d had a successful partnership with Pune-based studio Anibrain for several years and continue to do so, but as we’ve scaled up our business and our ambitions it quickly became apparent that, rather than a partner, we wanted a presence in India that was Framestore through and through – one that knew our pipeline, knew our people and was part of our rich creative culture. We looked at several locations, but Mumbai really stood out. The city has a tremendously rich film heritage, and there’s an incredible melting pot of skills and specialisms that don’t just begin and end with VFX but encompass tech and engineering as well.”
Walkinshaw adds, “We were very clear that we wanted our Mumbai studio to be a fully integrated part of our business. If it was going to be a Framestore studio then the work has to be excellent, and that means a commitment on our part to making sure the team in Mumbai have access to the same training, opportunities and company culture as everywhere else. Paint and roto are part of our offer, but right now we’re building out teams across the studio, trying to find the best texture, lighting, FX, DMP, compositing and modeling talent at all levels.”
Managing Director Sinha comments, “India, in particular Mumbai, is reaching a stage of maturity. We’re seeing senior and mid-level artists really come into their own having worked on a range of very different shows for high-profile clients, and this provides additional support for those earlier in their careers. It means you have more educational and mentoring opportunities, which has a sort of a ripple-out effect for the whole talent base.”
Sinha expects that Framestore’s Mumbai studio will have 300+ employees by the end of the year. “We’re in the process of doubling our studio space and doubling our headcount. As with the initial build, this will be a purpose-built, state-of-the-art space that lends itself to training and creative culture as much as the work itself.” He notes that the team has worked on recent titles such as Thor: Love and Thunder, The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan & Wendy.”
ILM expanded into Singapore in 2006. “It was our first international studio, so it really meant a lot to the company,” comments Luke Hetherington, Executive in Charge, ILM, Singapore and Sydney Studios. “The Singapore location has now developed into a full-service studio, just like our others. In Singapore, we offer the whole pipeline of work for visual effects, animation, and immersive projects. The Singapore team has contributed to a vast array of projects, from Rango and all the Transformers films up to now, to the recent Star Wars and Marvel films, through to regional projects like Monster Hunt 2 and streaming projects such as The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett.”
South Korea’s VFX studios are thriving along with the country’s film and television industry. Founded in 2011, Dexter Studios was the main VFX vendor for Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite and for Space Sweepers (original title: Seungriho), Korea’s first high-production sci-fi movie. “The studio developed as an allcontent production company and [offers] services in new media and virtual production,” says Jay Seung Jaegal, Head of VFX Dept. at Dexter Studios. “The firm also produces and provides immersive media and media played in theme parks.” He adds, “In the beginning, Dexter [Studios] participated in a lot of foreign projects from countries such as China and Japan rather than domesticallyproduced films, but now we participate in more domestic projects and [in] a few foreign projects.”
Jaegal adds, “The VFX industry of Korea has grown [a lot] for the past few years. One of the biggest reasons is that as the OTT industry expanded from companies like Netflix, causing the content production demands to increase.” Westworld VFX, founded in Goyang in 2018 by a group of industry veterans, provided visual effects for many Netflix-distributed titles, including sci-fi tale The Silent Sea, undead flick All of Us Are Dead and drama Itaewon Class. Scanline VFX, a Netflix subsidiary since 2021, announced in 2022 that it would make a $100 million investment over six years in a new Seoul VFX studio. Gulliver Studios, based in Goyang, supplied VFX for the Netflix hit series Squid Game (2021).
Headquartered in Busan with branches in Seoul and Beijing, Korea’s 4th Creative Party is another prominent Korean firm. It contributed VFX to Bong Joon-ha’s acclaimed Snowpiercer and Okja films. Digital Idea, based in Goyang, worked on the hit zombie film Train to Busan.
VA Corp was founded in Seoul in 2021 and opened VA Studio Hanam, a virtual production facility located in Hanam. It covers 15,000 square meters of land. “It consists of three soundstages and three virtual stages,” says Minseung Kang, VA Corp’s Corporate Public Relations Manager. The virtual stages feature large walls with ROE LED panels powered by Brompton Technology’s Tessera processing. “Studio C” is Asia’s largest virtual studio, with a floor area of 907 square meters and the biggest oval LED wall in Korea, according to Kang.
Another Asian VFX success story, VHQ Media was founded in 1987 in Singapore as a small boutique post-production studio and has grown steadily to the point where it is one of Asia’s largest post-production houses. It works on everything from movies by China’s Wanda Pictures and Alibaba Pictures, to a multitude of corporate commercials, to releases by Netflix (such as News of the World, Skylines and Locke & Key). It also has facilities in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei and Jakarta.
MORE SOUTH BY EAST
Rotomaker Studios is based in Burbank and has studios in Hyderabad, Pune, Patna, Chennai, Goa and Vijayawada. Rotomaker is a VFX outsourcing facility that has over 2,500 artists employed in facilities across India. Rotomaker founder and CEO Mike Yatham states, “The demand for VFX in OTT films and TV series has increased drastically. Our technicians have been working relentlessly to cater to the needs of local and international clients. We have doubled our talent pool to meet the current demand and keep increasing the manpower through our in-house training institutions.”
Anibrain (in Pune) has partnered with Framestore and many other VFX studios in dozens of major releases over the last 10 years. Base Media (or Base FX) is headquartered in Beijing and has studios in Xiamen, Wuxi and Kuala Lumpur. Bad Clay Studio is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Supreme Studio in Bangkok claims to have Thailand’s largest XR LED wall. AUX Immersive Studio in Singapore is an XR studio built with technical support from ROE Visual. Other Asian studios include The Monk Studios (Bangkok and Chiangmai), Yannix Co., Ltd. and Yggdrazil Group (both based in Bangkok).
Among other foreign VFX firms with studios in Asia, Digital Domain has facilities in Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Hyderabad. The Third Floor, Inc. opened an office in Beijing in 2020. Stuttgart-based Mackevision has locations in Tokyo, Beijing, Mumbai and Shanghai. L.A.-based Tau Films has studios in Kuala Lumpur, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Beijing. Method Studios has a facility in Pune. Other examples include MPC (Bangalore and Mumbai), Alt.VFX (Tokyo), Nomad Editing Company (Tokyo) and Smoke & Mirrors (Shanghai and Bangkok).
Outpost VFX launched a Mumbai facility in 2022 and scaled up to over 200 employees in six months. According to Syamantak Thakur, General Manager of Outpost VFX ‘s Mumbai studio, the company aims to set up a full-service studio within a year. He comments, “Outpost’s India studio is emerging as one of the key players in the market. The growth and response received by industry folks in Mumbai has been very encouraging. We have been able to attract superb creative talent thanks to Outpost’s progressive culture and the opportunity to work on some of the best shows.”
“There has never been a more opportune time to be part of the VFX industry,” says DNEG’s Tavaria. “With the huge growth in demand for new content creation, the evolution of technology and the increasing crossover between VFX and gaming, not to mention nascent opportunities in the Metaverse, I’m sure that Asia will enjoy continued growth as a hub for content creation for many years to come. The talent pool in Asia is large, passionate and driven, and working with our colleagues in the West, I have no doubt that the Asian VFX industry will continue to play a huge part in transforming the landscape of visual storytelling on the international stage.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Janelle Ralla.
After taking time off to establish a balance between her family life, which includes a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, and professional career as a visual effects supervisor, Janelle Ralla is back in action again. “Right now, I’m working on two films. Both studios are being incredibly kind, respectful and flexible. After the pandemic we all went through so many ups and downs. It’s like, how many creative ways are there to make a movie? We have come out the other side with a lot more flexibility. Last year I reassessed my career when I started to see how much it was affecting my family and the loved ones around me, and I realized that it wasn’t worth the fight anymore. I stepped away from visual effects.”
The opportunity to work with filmmaker Marc Forster again and actor Tom Hanks was what finally brought Ralla back. “Marc is one of my favorite directors to work with. I helped him set up Marc Forster’s next film project, including setting up the shoot in Pittsburgh with the kids in tow, crewing up the show, including hiring an amazing Co-VFX Supervisor, Leo Bovell. Now we’re in post with team members, [the] filmmaker and editor in different parts of the world.”
There is more of a push over the last few years for productions to hire a female visual effects supervisor. “I found myself often getting those calls and felt like saying, ‘What about my résumé?’ I like to see the push for equality but don’t think that a female should get a job just because she’s a female. It should always be the best person for the job. The focus needs to be on outreach, training and mentorship, all from the ground up. No person should be pushed into a role because of gender. Being a good mom and also a good VFX supervisor is tough. As an industry, we need to make efforts to create environments, especially in regards to work hours, that allow people to not have to make a choice between career and family, particularly in the U.S.”
Movies were not an obvious career choice for Ralla, who was born in Sonora, California, and grew up in nearby Angels Camp where her family has owned a local grocery since 1935. “I was working in the grocery store from the time I was nine. I loved it. We were so free-range back then. Angels Camp is an old mining town. You would ride your bikes out to the fields and hunt for crystals, and go checkout mine shafts. Super dangerous!” When it’s mentioned that this sounds like something out of a Richard Donner classic, she laughs. “Totally! I love The Goonies. I played a little basketball, did a lot of softball, snowboarding, skateboarding, swimming, and was really into art. I would take a photograph of someone, then draw them with pencil and give it to them. I wish I had a couple of those because I remember them being pretty good, but I gave them all away!”
A defining moment occurred in 1999 when Ralla watched The Matrix. “At the time I had just found out what visual effects were and had started to learn LightWave. Up until that point my brain was so deep into itself, but when I saw the movie I realized that there were other people like me! I felt I was where I should be.” A conversation with a classmate in a junior college Photoshop course in San Diego led to an illegal internship where the unpaid receptionist taught herself how to organic model in LightWave. “It was a whole new world for me,” revealed Ralla. “I was on a chat program called ICQ in the middle of the night, working round the clock because I was so excited to be learning 3D, messaging with former colleagues who were working at Threshold Digital Research Labs in Los Angeles and asking them, ‘What’s a transparency map?’”
Eventually, Ralla left for Los Angeles and was a generalist responsible for a wide range of effects, animation, texturing, lighting and modeling for a Mortal Kombat and Starship Troopers Animated TV series. A career turning point occurred when Digital Domain Commercials had a job opening for a LightWave artist. “I was still a teenager when I started at Digital Domain. They had me on little projects like an MTV intro and an after-school Coca-Cola ad. I was doing well, so my manager placed me on an American Express commercial working with Eric Barba.” Barba served as a mentor over the years. “Eric thought I was good at compositing my own CG passes to make them look better. I was using Digital Fusion at the time. He encouraged me to learn Nuke. My Nuke scripts were simple. I would be creative with the elements doing whatever was needed to make the final image look real. This approach worked well in the commercial world. I was moved into the Flame suite and would sit there on many David Fincher projects. Fincher would up the gamma on the monitors, go frame by frame toggling the red, green and blue channel calling out pixels to be fixed. His eagle eye taught me to make my composites seamless.” Barba also encouraged her to pick up photography. “He said I had a good eye but needed to better understand how the images were captured. I needed to learn about lenses, optics composition. I took his advice, bought a camera and started taking pictures.”
Ralla found her love for digital humans as the Compositing Supervisor for Digital Domain on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In preparation for Benjamin Button, David Fincher directed an Orville Redenbacher commercial where the popcorn man was brought back from the dead. “He threw every problem we might encounter on the film at us for that commercial,” remarks Janelle. “It was a painful lesson in what not to do when we made the film. We learned from the Orville experience and setup that a new digital human pipeline centered around new anim and lighting tools and ‘checks,’ automated Nuke scripts that were run for every department to check and QC the work.” She went on to supervise effects for the Tupac “hologram” at Coachella. The five-minute Tupac performance was accomplished with a small team of less than 20 artists in around six weeks. It was another highlight of her career.
More recently, she oversaw the de-aging of Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel. “My passion is keeping characters out of the uncanny valley, starting with casting the right VFX teams, to thorough prep, successful shoot execution, and then pulling it all together in post using the data and reference as the foundation for photorealistic-seamless work. Comp is the cherry on top. Every shot and every frame in the pipeline need the same level of scrutiny. Even in these times of machine learning and AI-based workflows, it still takes a human eye to create a convincing digital human character, although maybe not for long given the technological advancements happening these days.”
Ralla reflects, “I find that the older I get, I realize that it’s so much about relationships and collaboration. It takes so many people to make these projects whether you are working for a vendor or studio. On the studio side, you’re interpreting what the director wants, collaborating with the heads of departments, overseeing the visual effects and casting your vendors correctly. The vendor’s side is a whole different beast because you’re working with teams of artists and focused on the fine details of every department. For now, I like being on the studio side while also having the opportunity to work with multiple companies and visual effects supervisors and their teams at the same time.”
“I feel we, as the visual effects team, have a great responsibility to the project to stay on our A-game the entire time because our work, our craft is what completes the imagery on the screen.”
—Janelle Ralla, Visual Effects Supervisor
“My passion is keeping characters out of the uncanny valley, starting with casting the right VFX teams, to thorough prep, successful shoot execution, and then pulling it all together in post using the data and reference as the foundation for photorealistic, seamless work. Comp is the cherry on top.”
—Janelle Ralla, Visual Effects Supervisor
Before serving as a visual effects supervisor on 2 Guns, Ralla was a compositing supervisor on Contraband, which was also directed by Baltasar Kormákur. “By the end I was in the mix of finalizing shots. Then I was asked to come back for 2 Guns, and it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. We shot in New Orleans and New Mexico. Because I didn’t know any better, it was just me most of the time. Dadi Einarsson was also a visual effects supervisor, but more on the Framestore Iceland side of things. It was intense. Those locations were really hot. Some of the visual effects weren’t as planned out, as we didn’t know it was going to be that way until shooting happened. It was figuring things out on the fly and being creative.”
Spike Jonze has been a long-time supporter and has partnered with Ralla on Her, Apple’s Welcome Home, Kenzo World, I’m Here, Aziz Ansari: Right Now and Beastie Boys Story. “Spike likes to figure out how to do it practically. If you’re not able to tell him in prep exactly how the visual effect is going to be shot and look, he won’t even entertain it. Spike often does iPhone shots so you have a template of what he wants.” Ralla assisted Ryan Gosling with his directorial debut Lost River. “Ryan is the nicest guy I have ever met and knows what he wants. The effects for his film were surreal and vibrant. He was blown away by the process and excited the whole time. I enjoyed doing that film for him.”
“Every shot and every frame in the pipeline need the same level of scrutiny. Even in these times of machine learning and AI-based workflows, it still takes a human eye to create a convincing digital human character, although maybe not for long given the technological advancements happening these days.”
—Janelle Ralla, Visual Effects Supervisor
Episodic beckoned in the form of the historical FX miniseries Mrs. America, which streams on Hulu. The directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck met Ralla while working on Captain Marvel. “It was like a history lesson reading the scripts and learning about Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and others from that time,” notes Ralla. “The different thing about TV is having multiple directors, editors and DPs. You have to make a good first impression and earn trust quickly. It’s important to make yourself accountable.” With the dominance of blockbusters, a prevailing question is whether uniqueness has given way to a fast-food approach to visual effects. “It is a concern, but there are so many unique projects. I always tend to gravitate towards things that are unique and haven’t been done before.”
Over the years, Nuke has remained her tool of choice. “I still use simple scripts. I make contact sheets, load in reference, do mock-ups and create style frames. It was always easier for me to explain with pictures.” Sketching portraits has helped to develop the eye needed to produce believable digital humans. “One of the best parts of visual effects supervising for me is looking at something real, comparing it to the render and dissecting what is off.”
There is no shortage of talented individuals in visual effects. “This industry blows my mind. There are so many geniuses. I’m constantly absorbing as much as I can from the talented teams around me,” Ralla states. “I’m always trying to find that balance of wrangling in my intensity and passion for the project and the imagery versus creating a fun and easy-going work environment. I feel we, as the visual effects team, have a great responsibility to the project to stay on our A-game the entire time because our work, our craft is what completes the imagery onscreen.”
“I’ll never forget watching Benjamin Button with my grandpa on Christmas day at the old Los Angeles Theatre downtown. I explained to him that we made Benjamin on the computer. When Benjamin came on screen, he would squeeze my hand and loudly say, ‘Hot damn!’ I still cry thinking about how special that was.”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of Netflix.
Asked if Season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things is bigger and more intense than what came before, Visual Effects Supervisor Jabbar Raisani responds, “It has a longer run time, higher shot count and higher budget than any of the previous seasons, so it’s probably safe to say it’s all of that and more.” Indeed, Season 4 has more than 4,000 visual effects shots spread over some 13 hours in nine episodes with a total budget estimated at $270 million by The Wall Street Journal. Twenty-eight VFX vendors contributed to the effort, according to Visual Effects Supervisor Marion Spates, who was Additional Visual Supervisor on Episodes 1-6 and Visual Effects Supervisor overseeing Episodes 7-9 with Raisani, while Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Maher was responsible for the visual effects in Episodes 1-7 and was Additional Visual Effects Supervisor on Episode 8. Most of the cast has returned for Season 4 of the hit horror series created by Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer, including: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink and Natalia Dyer. Maher notes, “I’ve been on since Stranger Things 2, and it’s amazing to see how much the show has grown.”
Raisani points out that every shot of Vecna’s Mind Lair and an expanded Upside Down required VFX in Season 4, and in general “we had multiple climaxes and sequences that involved fully digital or CG-augmented characters. So, there is just a lot of storytelling on the show that requires an extensive amount of VFX support.” Spates adds, “Especially in Episode 9, there is so much happening, the brothers are brilliant, the editing is amazing and the shots never stop.”
Key vendors for Season 4 included Rodeo FX, Important Looking Pirates (ILP), Digital Domain, DNEG, Lola VFX, Crafty Apes and Scanline VFX. Production started in early 2020 but then paused for six months during the pandemic. Filming finally wrapped in September 2021. Spates says, “We were playing catch-up from the gun. Therefore, just trying to keep up with the pace of the looming deadline and deliver quality VFX we could all be proud of, and serve the story, was the biggest challenge for me.”
Along with new or expanded environments, Season 4 effects highlights include the formidable monster Vecna, numerous digi-doubles, Demobats, a Russian prison, the epic Hopper- Demogorgon fight, the de-aging of Eleven, and assorted creations such as swarms of black widow spiders.
Vecna is a fearsome and creepy nemesis, a mostly practical creation who also had VFX augmentation from Rodeo FX. The creature’s origin lay in the Duffer brothers’ wish to take the series into a darker place than before. Maher explains, “From the beginning the brothers were really inspired by A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser. We went through lots of variations to achieve the balance of Upside Down, Dungeons and Dragons, Pinhead and Freddy Krueger that they were after. Pretty early on they knew that Vecna would be cast as an actor in a practical suit [rather than] a full CG villain. The brothers have an uncanny knack of knowing their audience and understanding what will have ‘presence’ on screen.”
Maher began providing Vecna concept art in 2019, and the monster was fine-tuned in later discussions between the Duffer brothers, Maher, the visual effects team and Special Makeup Effects Designer and Makeup Effects Department Head Barrie Gower, a three-time Emmy winner for his work on Game of Thrones. Maher continues, “I digitally sculpted just about every option just so we could see it in a turntable and get an idea of how different lighting would look. In the end it came down to three different choices, and we settled on [a version that] Barrie Gower then made into a beautiful, practical sculpt.” Each shoot day, Maher recalls, “It took Barrie and crew hours and hours to apply the practical suit on [actor] Jamie [Campbell Bower]. Many different molded parts came together on his body to form the base of the costume.”
“On most of the shots we’d replace the shoulders to add the crawling vines on his body, replace the nose with our hollow nose, and paint out Jamie’s pupils,” notes Julien Hery, Visual Effects Supervisor for Rodeo FX, about adding the VFX. For Vecna’s tentacle-like vines, Maher explains, “We augmented [them] with a technique called ‘UV crawl,’ which was a texture displacement animation that gave the illusion of movement.” Maher notes, “Whenever his clawed hand was interacting with his victims, it became fully digital. We would use the practical hand as a reference, but due to interaction with skin when he punctures faces, it made it easier to go fully CG.”
Maher comments, “Previously, we’d had success with CG creatures of all shapes and sizes, but this season the challenge came from the sheer amount of CG humans that we attempted.” He explains, “Every Vecna victim had to be fully digital due to how dramatically they would break, and the camera was so close that it required an extreme amount of detail in animation, texture, groom, dynamics, etc. to pull off. Luckily, we had some extremely talented artists working on those shots from Rodeo and Digital Domain.”
The Demobats, a new menace introduced in Season 4, resemble bats with tendrils. Hery recalls, “For the Demobat, we started with a concept from Michael Maher. Our main goal was to make sure we could cover all possible actions with its anatomy. So, we started animation tests to develop the behavior. For example, it would walk and climb like a spider but then fly like a bat or a large bird. Once we settled on a behavior, we implemented all those changes on the bats while also adding a lot of sculpt and texture detail to its skin. The rigging was also a challenge with a creature that can do so much with its body, even use its multiple tails to strangle.” Along the way, Rodeo “shared their work with DNEG and both did some great animation to bring them to life,” Maher says.
DNEG’s Demobat work was often complex. DNEG Visual Effects Supervisor Neil Eskuri recalls, “One shot that came in at 1,600 frames, over a minute and a half in length, was definitely our most difficult shot and biggest challenge. It had five different plates, four live-action characters and three CG bats in a CG environment, and a constantly moving camera. It took roughly five months to complete as the complexity was enormous, from the roto and prep to the body and camera tracking and stitching of the multiple plates, to specific animation of the bats and EFX.”
Digital Domain worked on a smaller threat in the black widow spider sequences. Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Manolo Mantero explains, “We took special care with the modeling and grooming of the spiders to make them feel as real as possible while also creating variations based on real references. Our animation department was delighted to bring them to life and give different personalities to the individual spiders. We limited the use of crowds of spiders created by the FX department to the ones in the background to bring as much realistic movement and behavior as possible through pure animation.”
Maher notes, “We certainly see a lot more of the Upside Down in this season than others. We’ve never really shown a sprawling bird’s-eye view of it like we did in Episode 3 when the Demobats fly toward the Creel House over downtown Hawkins.” Practical vines covered entire outdoor locations like the trailer park, but there was still a lot left for VFX to accomplish. DNEG contributed to the extensive environment work, which, according to Eskuri, “required a lot of CG vines, lightning with sky replacement, and the ever-present spores floating in the atmosphere.”
Hery comments, “One of the most challenging and iconic environments was the Mind Lair [existing in Vecna’s mind] that is featured in a few episodes. We built close to 200 shots in that environment. It was a real challenge to come up with an environment covered by spires, fog and rain squalls to infinity. We took a procedural approach based on the LiDAR scan of the set. We were able to keep the look and feel of it while generating an infinite environment. It was a large volume of shots with a lot of art direction, and our compositing team really rose to the challenge.”
“We were playing catch-up from the gun. Therefore, just trying to keep up with the pace of the looming deadline and deliver quality VFX we could all be proud of, and serve the story, was the biggest challenge for me.”
—Marion Spates, Visual Effects Supervisor
Hellscape is a full CG environment in Episode 7 that was developed by Digital Domain and is essential to Vecna’s origin. Mantero comments, “We received some beautiful concept designs from Michael Maher and brought to life a fully digital character – One – for the occasion. The result is a full CG sequence immediately after One is banished by Eleven, where he is falling and burning. It was heavy in FX and character work.”
Another important location is a Russian prison where Hopper and other inmates battle with a Demogorgon. According to Niklas Jacobson, ILP Visual Effects Supervisor, establishing shots or exterior views of the prison utilize ILP’s full CG build that includes a digital environment of the area around it. He explains, “Our CG set features cars and digital guards patrolling the area to make it feel alive. A handful of shots also feature the actors together with the digital environment, and those cases used a large green screen to separate the actors from the live-action environment and were blended seamlessly into our digital extension.”
Hery comments, “In Season 4, we now experience the Demogorgon in the light performing a lot of actions in any type of framing. So, we needed to update the asset to a 2022 standard and make sure we could film it anywhere without having to hide it in the dark. Our first step into this re-haul was slightly changing its morphology to allow for new actions, as we needed to make him run on all fours, slash prisoners and jump around. So, we did animation tests to see what kind of morphology changes we would need. Once we established our new proportions, we started to sculpt much more detail into the asset and re-do the texture to support closeups, also adding many more scars coming from its captivity.”
The Demogorgon’s menacing movements are on full display in the epic prison-yard battle it wages with Hopper and the other inmates. Raisani reveals, “We started with the storyboards that Michael drew and used that as a blueprint for all of the action and beats in the fight.”
Spates adds, “This is by far one of my favorite sequences in the show. It’s not often you get the chance to create a raging creature slashing his way through some inmates! Rodeo was tasked with creating the high-fidelity asset, which gave us complete control to create the best shots possible. One of the biggest challenges was to make the Demogorgon feel animalistic yet give him weight because of his size; he stands nine feet tall. It was such a pleasure to bring this creature to life.” ILP also contributed to the Demogorgon sequence. “We were provided amazing assets by Rodeo,” Jacobson comments. “The creatures were rigged in Maya using our own proprietary modular rigging system. Muscle and tissue were added using Ziva Dynamics and involved us creating a skeletal and muscular structure of our own to drive muscle, fat and skin simulations, with some additional Vellum and Ncloth for custom shot work and drool. To give life to the Demo creatures’ unique petaled faces we built custom facial rigs that favored a high degree of animator control. The sequence also featured a wide variety of FX simulation work like fire, smoke and ember simulations for the flamethrower effects.”
Jacobson adds, “Creature work is always fun, and this was even more special, as it takes place during the epic crescendo of the episode. The work passed through most disciplines, and it was a fantastic team effort and collaboration to make it all come together.”
In Season 4, flashbacks to the past in the Hawkins National Laboratory required some VFX wizardry. Maher praises the “astounding de-aging of young Eleven by Lola VFX.” He observes, “It’s interesting to me that some people still think we found unused footage of young Eleven from Season 1 and just repurposed it. It’s a testament to how well Lola did on the face replacements. We started by shooting our wonderful stand-in, Martie [Blair], who would act out the scene completely, and then we employed the help of our friends at Lola to perform an ‘egg shoot,’ capturing footage of present-day Millie Bobby Brown acting out each scene as Martie had and then doing a full face replacement in post. It was one of the hardest things we did on the show, especially with moving cameras and matching the consistency of her age and look across several shots.”
One of the least obvious uses of VFX in Season 4 came in a sequence where Eleven bashes Angela with a roller skate. “The blood on Angela was fully digital,” says ILP’s Jacobson. “This sequence is an emotional peak, and it was important to really feel the damage inflicted by Eleven. Angela was meticulously match moved in order for us to have a solid base to run the FX blood simulations on. The blood was lit carefully matching the very dynamic lighting from the set, featuring a lot of animated light sources, flickering, blinking, and actors going in and out obscuring light sources. In the end, there was a lot of compositing work to really integrate and refine the look of the blood.”
Additional vendors for Season 4 include: Some of the other vendors for Season 4 not mentioned previously include: Clear Angle Studios, MARZ VFX, The Resistance, Jellyfish Pictures and El Ranchito (this is not a complete list). Spates remarks, “Our pipeline was pretty robust, giving us all the ability to work from home or in the office which was helpful when you’re working with vendors that are all over the world.”
Digital Domain’s Mantero comments, “This season was epic in terms of VFX. But it is not just about scale – the level of sophistication and complexity of the VFX work went well beyond anything before. The work done throughout Season 4 took the look and all the classic elements from previous seasons and evolved them, while also adding completely new work and complexity to the visual effects design.”
By IAN FAILES
When Special Effects Supervisor Dan Oliver was just a kid growing up in Australia, his favorite show to watch was The Dukes of Hazzard. A movie he saw repeatedly with his brother was Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior). “There were all the cars jumping and sliding and all the stunt action,” he recalls about those two pieces of entertainment. “I didn’t even realize that they were ‘special effects.’ I just thought it was a lot of fun.”
Perhaps the cars of The Dukes of Hazzard and The Road Warrior were a strong harbinger of the work to come. Indeed, many years later Oliver would supervise the special effects on Mad Max: Fury Road, a film for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Achievement in Visual Effects. It was a feat he achieved again this year for Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Of course, it’s a long way from watching special effects to supervising them. Oliver studied aeronautical engineering at university. “I’ve always been the kind of person who enjoyed fixing things and pulling things apart and understanding how they worked,” he remarks. “So, I went for something that fit in with that.” Starting in 1993, he got a taste of the film world.
“I got a part-time job assisting on a film with a Sydney-based special effects company run by Steve Courtley, who went on to [special effects] supervise The Matrix trilogy. I very quickly went, ‘Oh wow, so this is what a film set is?’ Then I realized that everything they do in special effects was based around physics and engineering and understanding how things worked. With my engineering background, all of that stuff made sense to me.”
That on-set experience was so exciting that Oliver didn’t complete his aeronautical degree. Instead, he launched into a career in special effects, beginning with on-set roles. At the time, Oliver took advantage of a bevy of Hollywood films that were filmed in quick succession in Australia in the late ‘90s, including Dark City, Babe: Pig in the City, Mission: Impossible II and Red Planet.
“I rose up through the ranks quite quickly and was soon running the set. I was a floor supervisor at a reasonably young age, so that made me think, ‘This is my career. I’m already getting paid pretty well. I’m in a supervisory role.’ And then being a floor supervisor, being on set all the time, meeting a lot of people. It was the coalface of filmmaking, making a lot of good contacts. That was a great way to start.”
Oliver credits Production Designer Colin Gibson for handing him his first big break as a special effects supervisor on Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin’s Nim’s Island (Gibson and Oliver would later work together on Fury Road). “Straight after that, I landed [the] Special Effects Supervisor [position] on X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That was a $100 million-plus action film starring Hugh Jackman. It was a big studio feature. That’s when a lot of things started taking off and eventually led to working with George Miller on the new Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Planned initially as an extensive special effects and stunt-filled shoot in the Australian desert, Mad Max: Fury Road moved to Namibia when the original location became too ‘green’ from unexpected rainfall. Working overseas proved tough for all of the crew and Oliver, who notes that the workload on the film was fun but intense.
“Fury Road was a hard job because there were a lot of big effects day in, day out. Sometimes you’ll do a film and even if it’s an action film, it might be a car crash one week, then gimbal work the next week, then a couple of weeks of smoke and bullet hits. But Fury Road had something big going on at all times. It was relentless.
“George wanted to shoot as much as he could in camera and wanted to do as many practical effects as possible,” Oliver adds. “We had to be prepared for that. But it was very rewarding when it was all over.”
The most challenging special effects sequence in the film, according to Oliver, revolved around a cavalcade of vehicles and an eventual massive fuel tanker explosion. “We had a two-trailer fuel truck that was rigged with hundreds of pyrotechnic events because George wanted the explosion to be like a ripple traveling up the truck. It also wasn’t the sort of thing you could have a stuntman drive – it was just too dangerous – so it had to be radio remote-controlled. We rigged it so it could change gears, it could brake, it could steer, it could do everything, really.”
On the day of the shoot, which involved multiple camera cars, helicopters and crew members in Namibia, Oliver’s team noted that there was a problem with the braking system on the truck. “Our second unit director, Guy Norris, was great. He said, ‘You’ve got to be happy before we go. Don’t feel pressured. Let’s come back tomorrow.’ So, we brought all this gear back, tinkered with it into the night and got it working.”
The final result – a huge orange, red and yellow cascade of fireballs emanating from the truck – was nothing short of spectacular, with Oliver remembering Miller’s reaction, in particular. “He was in Cape Town at that point. We sent the footage to him and he was ecstatic. It was one of those happy endings.”
Oliver also praises the subsequent digital visual effects work done on that sequence, overseen by Production Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Jackson. “Iloura did such a great job on that. They had to put all those vehicles back and add in extra people and elements. When you look back at it, it just looks real. You’re not questioning. It was a nice collaboration on that shot.”
Vehicles have certainly become somewhat of a specialty for Oliver, including on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In that film, the San Francisco accordion bus fight scene required an elaborate studio gimbal rig setup on bluescreen. This was to enable actors and stunt performers to carry out the fight amid believable bus motion. The bluescreen plates would be composited against San Francisco environments (that VFX work was done by Luma Pictures, which collaborated with Production Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend and Additional Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Farrell).
Both an airbag and six-axis hydraulic gimbal approach were used on set in Sydney to achieve the effect. “We ended up having two bus gimbals side by side on the stage,” outlines Oliver. “Some shots needed a lower amount of movement on the bus rig to enable all the crazy martial arts. So, that was the airbag gimbal operated by three or four guys using hydraulic valves. Others needed the bus to lean around corners and almost roll over and bend on its hinges. That used the six-axis gimbal, and was all run through our motion control computer.
“Here, we could watch the previs and then we would program a move based on what the previs was doing,” Oliver says. “Then we’d offer that up to stunts and they’d have their own feel for it. Once we captured a move that we liked, we could just play it over and over again, which gave the stunt team a consistency of movement while they climbed all over the top of the bus and everything.”
Oliver once again enjoyed the close collaboration with visual effects on the sequence, noting that Townsend and Farrell were keen to achieve as much of the bus fight practically as possible. “If you talk to any visual effects supervisor on any job now, they’ll always say, ‘Let’s shoot as much as we can of this in-camera.’ They’ve already got so much to do. It’s not like they’re chasing more work. They want it to look good, and they know that what looks good is when you can get as much in the frame as possible and then you enhance it or you do some rig removal or the parts that are too dangerous to do.”
An effect that Oliver supervised on Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man was vastly different to exploding trucks or careening buses – it involved causing a fry pan to start getting hotter, start smoking and burst into flames. Importantly, this was to happen all without anyone appearing to touch it all, since it was intended to look as if Elisabeth Moss’ character’s invisible taunter in the film was responsible.
“That was a shot that Leigh wanted to do all in one take with no cuts,” explains Oliver. “First of all, we rigged the stove so that we could remotely turn the gas up and down and change the flame size. Then on cue we started the smoke. For that we had a little mini tube running from behind the stove, rigged up into the back of the fry pan as low as we could to keep it out of shot. Then we made the fire burst into flame.
“It was a tricky little gag, but actually worked quite well. We managed to get it all in one shot. It’s always tough to make all those things happen on cue and make it safe for the actor to be right there in front of it all.”
Oliver’s most recent special effects supervision projects just happen to both be Chris Hemsworth starrers: Thor: Love and Thunder and Extraction 2. The latter film certainly harkens back to Oliver’s earliest days of admiring the car chases in The Dukes of Hazzard.
“There were all sorts of things in Extraction 2, like The Dukes of Hazzard, from flipping cars and cars blowing up and crashing cars and cars sliding through the bush. It’s in a totally different style to Fury Road, but Sam Hargrave, our director, is an ex-stuntman and wanted to do all the stunts for real. There will be a lot of visual effects in there, too, tying it all together, but we did everything we could practically. Just so many crazy car effects. It definitely links back to some of the stuff I enjoyed as a kid.”
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