Paddy, what was your career route that got you in to digital effects and visual effects?
Accidental really though I do remember playing around with a carving knife, some tomato ketchup and a super-8 camera when I was about ten. I went to art college to do Fine Art, drifting away from painting toward photography and filmmaking, and then I did a Masters degree in computer animation. I was lucky enough to get student sponsorship for that course from The Computer Film Company, who had a very enlightened policy about recruiting, and I worked there for the next ten years, moving from technical assistant to video-to-film operator, to visual effects compositor, designer and then supervisor.
Whats your favourite project you have worked on and why?
Thats a hard one. You like them for differing reasons. Remembering a project that was particularly tough hundred hour weeks, and sleeping under the desk in order to hit deadlines can be fun after the pain has faded! I was particularly happy with the way the "Guinness Surfer" commercial turned out. From the first time we saw the script we knew the project was a peach, and that it was up to us to realise it visually 100%. Everyone did a brilliant job there. Another nice one was Michael Winterbottomss Jude mainly because the few effects shots that we did are so invisible, and because in the end it was such a wonderful film. Chicken Run was lovely because Aardman is a genius company who are also brilliant to work with.
The Guinness ad must have presented some formidable obstacles, in sheer scale alone. It looks so convincing on screen, but must have needed something like the combined computing power of NASA, the CIA and the Pentagon to blend those surfers and horses into one composite image
..how long did all that take?
If memory serves, the post-production schedule allowed 6 weeks for the effects. There were about 55 shots, and in fact we delivered a 90 second version which is hardly ever seen you mostly see a much shorter version. I think we had about 5 compositors working on it and about 3 CG animators. Any time you see a bit of horse underwater, the thrashing legs and bubbles and stuff, then that is 100% CGI. All the above water stuff is real horses shot on bluescreen and comped into real water, with quite a lot of CGI water spray generated to help knit it all together. Actually, it wasnt such a heavy project as far as rendering goes it was much more intense in terms of design.
Do you still get a thrill when you see it on the big screen, you know, that little jolt of pride, or do you get seasick at the sight of it, having ridden all those waves so many times before?
I have to admit that I still love seeing it. Everyone did such a great job, and after the dust has settled, its still there, and millions of people are familiar with it even my mum.
You also worked on Sleepy Hollow. That must have presented a particular challenge. The headless horseman has to be real to be unsettling. I mean a CGI that you can see is a CGI will never unsettle anyone let alone raise hairs on the backs of necks
Absolutely. Audiences are quite wary of CGI now they are beginning to think that its a cheat. Its hard to get scared by a bunch of pixels. But if you can do stuff in CG without them KNOWING its CG, then thats the real trick. In Sleepy Hollow many, perhaps most, of the scenes involving the headless horseman feature a CGI batwing collar. Nobody noticed that, but it was kind of the only way to do the shots.
I believe you once had to create a talking parrot for Paulie. Did the real parrot have trouble learning the lines or something?
Sure not even electric shocks would convince those birds to get it right. But seriously like Sleepy Hollow, that talking parrot movie (Paulie) was an example of using as much reality as possible with a real actor for the Horseman, and real trained parrots for Paulie, with CGI enhancements for the impossible stuff like the horsemans empty collar, or Paulies animated beak.
Filmmakers are calling for more and more digital and visual effects in movies. Are there fashion trends or is it just more of everything? Whats hottest?
Lots of things. Im particularly excited that some things that used to be quite hard, slow and expensive are now so much easier. We did a lot of the shots on Chicken Run on Apple Macs, which meant we could do a lot more of them for the budget. You now have the choice to do easy shots on less expensive gear, while keeping the top-end effects on your super computers.
There are some very exciting things happening in the grey area between 3D (CGI modelling, lighting and animation) and 2D (compositing, cell-type animation etc.). You can now get software that lets you take a series of photos of an object or a scene and just using the photos you can reconstruct the 3D geometry. Thats a tremendously powerful tool - its called photogrammetry. You can also get amazing results by taking some photos of a location and then using the photos to illuminate your CG objects, rather than using the more "traditional" CG lighting tools. The buzzword for that is "global illumination" and its great to see CG suddenly stop looking synthetic and start looking real. So you can see that in both these areas 2D and 3D techniques are working together to let us get away with more and more visual fraud!
Take us through the process of how you work on a film.
Im a producer, heres my script and some story boards. I think I might need some visual effects, but I dont know if they should be done for real as it were, or done digitally using computers. Advise me.
Whats the budget? (laughs)
First of all wed try to get an idea of what kind of film it is likely to be. Is it a childrens fantasy, or an intense thriller, a comedy or what? I want to find out what the director would like to get on film, with no technical or budgetary constraints.
Then we need to get a feel for whether there is the budget to really go to town, or whether we need to work out nice creative ways to get the shots done less expensively. The ideal in a way is to come up with a smart solution that lets us get the shot done in camera with no effects work at all. Nothing looks better than reality, after all.
But if there is no way to do it "for real" then we need to see what the best visual effects solution is. Is it best to shoot something bluescreen, do we do it all CGI, or what? After youve been doing this a while you get a feel for what is the most pragmatic solution, even when there are several choices.
Is this your preferred way of working
getting involved early?
Yes absolutely. You get the best results, the producer will certainly save money, and everyone is happy. The nightmare scenario for us is where someone has chosen to go and shoot all the bits and pieces for an effects shots themselves without talking to anyone, and then they come to us and want us to put it all together by 2pm tomorrow afternoon. Its not easy making a silk purse out of a pigs ear, and not much fun either. Starting your planning early, and asking for advice can save so much pain.
Believe it or not, visual effects work can save a production money. If you discuss your project with an effects supervisor, very often he or she can suggest ways to make your shoot quicker or cheaper. Perhaps you dont need to build such a big set, but instead add it in as an effect, or you can save a scene spoiled by bad weather by doing a digital re-grade and a sky replacement.
Its not all deskbound work then, slaving over a hot mouse.
What sort of locations have you worked in as a Viz FX Supervisor?
Actually it IS mostly deskbound and not only that, but in the dark too. But Ive been lucky enough to go to LA quite a few times, and we did a shoot in a fascinating crumbling mansion near Milan. Im hoping to spend 3 months in Malta soon on a feature. Unfortunately, for the Surfer ad, I didnt get to go to Hawaii, just an old studio west of London.