Sunday, 11 May 2014

What does a visual effects supervisor do, exactly?

Matt Johnson (left) in Los Angeles on Beverly Hills Chihuahua
What does a Visual Effects Supervisor actually do – and how do you become one? Matt Johnson, veteran VFX supervisor on dozens of Hollywood hits, including World War Z, Into The Woods, V for Vendetta, X Men, and Chronicles of Narnia, explains what a Visual Effects Supervisor actually does for a living, and how an aspiring film-maker might become one.

What does the job involve?

Matt: The role of a VFX supervisor is to be the person who is creatively in charge of doing the impossible. What that means in practice is this: you sit around in a room with the various heads of department on the film, and they talk about – are we going to build this set? Are we going to design this costume? Are we going to fly a camera on a helicopter? And, as you go through the script, you eventually come to the point where the script says: “…and then a 50 foot robot smashes through the ceiling and grabs the actor by the throat”. That tends to be the point where everyone looks at the visual effects supervisor and asks: “how are we going to do that then?. And you need to have an answer.

What tends to happen as a VFX supervisor is that, if you are lucky, and if it is still fairly early on in the process, you get given the script, and then you get to go through it, and start to break it down, shot by shot. In some cases the studio may have already made a first pass at breaking down the visual effects, but in the end it is your job to work out what can and cannot be achieved in practice. You have to work out what is the best method - and normally for the studio this means the most cost-effective method –  of achieving what it is that the director wants.

Once you have gone thru pre-production, you go through production, that is to say the filming of the project. When you are filming, you are responsible for making sure that what is filmed won’t cause trouble for the visual effects artists further down the line.

This can vary from making sure that the blue screens look right, to actually getting your own crew to shoot plates, or direct little bits of VFX action, to making sure that no-one is blowing smoke guns in front of the blue screens.

It involves being very diplomatic, working with the director, the cinematographer, the art director, the costume department - all the different departments. You must make sure that ultimately you get what you need to make the vfx look right. Often, fine levels of diplomacy are required, because often what you need runs contrary to the needs of others on set. The job involves long days, getting up early, standing in muddy fields for twelve to fifteen hours a day.

Once that is done, you are dealing with post- production, this is the bit that most people are familiar with when think of visual effects. Now you are working with the director and the visual effects editor on individual shots. In many cases all your brilliant plans you have made get discarded, because the director has a new fantastic idea for a shot or a sequence that you don’t have any material for. But you have to cobble it together anyway; you have to take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and stick it together to try and make the director's new vision work.

You have to lead creatively, a team of artists,  either at one facility or, if you are supervising the whole project, a team of different vfx facilities, all working together.

You have to be critical of things, but hopefully being you are critical in a positive and constructive way. Ultimately, the VFX supervisor is responsible for the look of every shot in the film. You have to say, yes that is good enough to be in the film. If something is not good enough, you have to be able to explain what is worng with it, and how it should best be fixed.

Depending on the movie, you could be working with hundreds of artists, and being open and constructive is vital. it is a team effort, animation supervisors, lighting TDs, comp supervisors, a big team of artists. Ultimately the final decision on a shot comes down to you and the director, but you must work as a team.  One thing you have to bear in mind is this: you are not making your movie. If you want to make your own movie, go away and make your movie. You are there to facilitate the director's vision - and in some cases the studio's vision - of the movie. You have to modify your style to match the style of the film.

Inspiration for the young Matt Johnson
How did you learn your craft?

Matt: Strangely, I decided I wanted to be a visual effects supervisor when I was six years old. It was either that or an astronaut – it was to be one or the other. Like many people of my generation I went to see Star Wars, and I came out of that movie thinking I would make movies or be an astronaut. Somehow, making movies seemed a bit more practical. I started animating early. My parents got me a clockwork Bolex standard 8 film camera. I used to animate my space Lego and make it move around. I had spaceships on little piece of cotton and I would fly them around my parents’ garage. I would make little models and blow them up and burn them, and make little James Bond movies. I rigged my parents' car up with smoke screens and thinks like that when I was about nine years old. I was an incredibly precocious child.

Later, I went to film school, and got familiar with cameras, lighting and editing. I did a lot of directing at film school, and got a good general grounding in film production. Then I became a runner - which is what I recommend many people should do - making cups of tea, and doing menial tasks. Then I because a junior compositor, and I found it was something that I could do well. I learned to use computers early on. I worked my way up through the system.

I found have a reasonably good eye, I have a sense of whether something looks right or wrong, and was able to articulate a way of fixing it. Then I became a comp supervisor, and eventually I was asked to go to Morocco to supervise the visual effects for an American TV series called Cleopatra. I came back several months later with an excellent suntan - that was my first experience as a VFX supervisor.

I got an Emmy nomination for that one, and then did another mini-series, and got an Emmy nomination for that one too. After that I was pretty much left alone, and allowed to get on with it.

Into the Woods - Matt's latest project

What are the highs and lows of the job?

Well, the highs are: I am currently sitting in my office in New York City looking out over the Hudson river. You get to travel a lot, if you like to travel. Right now I am working on Into The Woods. It’s a Rob Marshall movie, who directed Pirates of The Caribbean, starring Meryl Streep, and Jonny Depp. It's a musical.

In the past I have worked with Brad Pitt, and chatted with Angelina Jolie. It all sounds very glamorous, but in the end they are just people, and you are really just there to do a job. I get to travel a lot, I get to do stuff that people don't normally get to do. I got to close down the centre of Glasgow and have hundreds of people run around pretending to be zombies. I get to fly around in helicopters just above the surface of the ocean - it can be a lot of fun.

As to the lows of the job -  I don't really think of this as a job; it is a vocation. You don't have a life. You have to accept that. If you think you are going to go to work nine to five and then go home, or have plans, or see a movie…it's not going to happen. You do your work, whatever it takes. Last night I was in the office until 10.30pm, I got in early this morning and I will work until late tonight. You have to learn to exist on 2-3 hours sleep a night. It is mentally challenging - you always need to be on your game. You can't have an off-day, because someone will ask you a question, and if you don't know the answer, they may never trust you again.

It can be tough. I know a lot of visual effects supervisors, who were asked a question by the director and they didn't give a clear answer, or they changed their minds half way through, and they were gone. If the director smells weakness, you are gone. It can be tough on families and friends. You might spend a year away from your loved ones, working on a shoot. That is simply part of the job.

What is your favourite project you have worked on?

Matt: That is hard to say - they have all been amazing. Honestly, there is good and bad in every project. But the project I am working on now, Into The Woods, is really excellent. I saw a cut yesterday. Other times, you look at a rough assembly of the film and you say to yourself "how are we ever going to fix that?". But you have to say to everyone "don't worry, it's great, we can fix that, it's all going to be fine". 

I liked World War Z - that was fun. It was a tough shoot, but very interesting. Jack Ryan was fun - I got to go to Moscow a lot, which was fun.

Working with Meryl Streep was a great experiecne - she is a terrific actress. She is a lovely, talented person. I love the people I work with. You can even work on a terrible movie, and work with great people, where everyone brings their talents to the project. I like working on a team, it's a very creative process. I like to think of myself as a creative person, working with like minded people, that can be exciting. It can be a terrible movie, but still fun to work on.

What advice would you give to an aspiring film-maker who wants to become a visual effects supervisor?

Matt: In many ways it was easier for me; because I become a vfx supervisor at a stupidly young age. I was only 26 when I got my first job, and I got my Emmy nomination. I had it relatively easy. I was good at what I did, and I was in the right place at the right time. Luck plays a part in everything.

But I think the thing that was really helpful to me was starting at the bottom and working my way up. Don't just go in assuming that you are going to be the best supervisor in the world - you must learn your craft first. You have to be - obviously - technically competent, and know all the stuff. You have to keep up with the latest in digital technology. I started reading Cinefex magazine when I was eleven, I think. You have to be really immersed in film-making.

But bear in that this is only part of it. Most of my job now - sadly - is about politics. There is a lot of politics involved, because you can be talking to heads of film studios, or directors, or the guy who picks up the lights on set and moves them around. You have to be able to get on with a bunch of different people, because ultimately you need them as much as they need you. You might need someone to help you move a light, and you might need the head of the studio to spend another $50,000 on a shot, so you need to be able to get on well with everyone.

Too much of this may be bad for you
I would also advise people to stop playing computer games too much. Go to an art gallery; take up photography. Look at views, look out the window - and really look hard. It's quite a misty day here in New York, I am looking at the fog and the mist and the way the buildings look, the way the light looks. Look at real life; pick up a camera. Because ultimately if you want to work in the movies, you are not making a video game.

What makes an attractive composition?
You should study composition, both landscapes and portraiture, and look at why these work. Good landscapes don't just work because the artist slapped a couple of buildings together and put a green field in the background. There are rules of composition. I always tend to final the shots that feel right; this comes from instinct, where things just look real. A lot of that comes from experience of light and composition and photography and painting. Obviously, a lot of what we do is with the computers, but if that's all you want to do - then work in the games industry. If you want to be a visual effects supervisor, you have to be able to exist in the real world as well.

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