Cinefex Diaries – Robots and Monsters

Pacific Rim Uprising posterThe visual effects industry is a global affair, which means that I conduct most of my interviews over the phone, desperately trying to remember which time zone the person on the other end is in. As I set out to cover Pacific Rim Uprising for Cinefex 159, however, I sniffed an opportunity.

The majority of the effects work on Pacific Rim Uprising was done by Double Negative, overseen from its London office, which is not too far from my home in the UK. When I asked the company’s charming PR team if I could visit for the day and conduct my interviews face to face, they graciously agreed. They even arranged for Peter Chiang, overall production visual effects supervisor on the show, to be there too.

As interview experiences go, it certainly beat sitting on the phone. I spent a delightful couple of hours with Peter Chiang and Double Negative visual effects supervisor Pete Bebb, sitting in a darkened screening room and discussing shot after shot as they played on the big screen. Next, I grilled a steady flow of artists and supervisors, discussing everything from city building and creature rigging to compositing and concept design. I covered a lot of ground. I was punch-drunk by the end, my brain filled up with everything I needed to know about how this talented team brought their remarkable images to the screen.

Well, not quite everything. I followed up my visit with the inevitable round of telephone interviews, catching up with those people I’d missed. One highlight was an entertaining Skype call with Double Negative animation director Aaron Gilman. In keeping with his role, Aaron was highly animated, and spent nearly as much time physically demonstrating his ideas for Jaeger and Kaiju movement as he did talking about them!

I also spoke with visual effects supervisors at the other companies working on the film – Atomic Fiction, Territory Studio and BLIND Ltd, plus previs specialists The Third Floor, Halon and Day for Nite. Production designer Stefan Dechant gave me a dazzling overview of the film’s design, and special effects supervisor Dan Oliver delivered nuts-and-bolts breakdowns of the extraordinary physical rigs that he and his team built. Rounding out the practical picture, I learned all about specialty costumes and props from Legacy Effects, Weta Workshop and Odd Studio.

Putting the icing on the cake, my final telephone interview was with the director of Pacific Rim Uprising, Steven S. DeKnight, who talked to me about his fondness for Guillermo del Toro’s original film, and the creative approach he took with the sequel. He even made a point of telling me he was a fan of Cinefex!

Cinefex 159 contents

You can read my article on Pacific Rim Uprising in Cinefex 159, which also contains in-depth articles on Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One and Annihilation. It’s out in June and available to preorder now.

In the meantime, you’ll want to get your teeth into our brand new April edition, a special tribute issue celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Marvel Studios. More about that very soon!

Book Trailer Tease

Book Trailer Test-1Anticipating the publication of my next novel – out at the end of the year – I’ve started work on a book trailer. All right, I’ll confess, it’s really just an excuse for me to fool around with some new animation techniques – well, new to me, anyway. Before you ask, no, I still can’t reveal what the book is. The best I can offer at this early stage is the above enigmatic video clip that represents my latest animation test. It’s just four second long, so blink and you’ll miss it.


Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“It’s making something new.” So says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) about the alien infestation occupying an area of coastal swampland in Annihilation. ‘Something new’ is exactly what writer-director Alex Garland has delivered, in his adaptation of the acclaimed science fiction novel by Jeff Vandermeer.

I read the novel a few years ago, shortly after it won the 2014 Nebula Award and some time before it was announced that a film was in the offing. In his strange tale about a party of unnamed scientists exploring Area X, a restricted zone that may or may not have been contaminated by an otherworldly presence, Vandermeer serves up a banquet in which every dish is full of extraordinary flavours, yet somehow you’re never quite sure about what it is you’re eating. You’re grasping, constantly, for a meaning that always eludes you, yet somehow this is never frustrating. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s the only meal I’ve ever eaten where I’ve ended full to bursting, yet hungry for more.

Annihilation posterIf you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said the novel was unfilmable. To my delight, Alex Garland has no truck with that notion. Structuring the human stories in  way that’s accessible to a movie audience, he’s mapped a narrative course that provides the sense of resolution that the novel deliberately avoids, without losing any of the tantalising weirdness. Right at the end, there’s even a suggestion this film is but one facet of the growing body of work that Garland began with his cautionary tale about artificial intelligence, Ex Machina.

Portman leads magnificently, but her co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac are as immersed in their roles as their characters are immersed in Area X. However, it’s with its visuals that the film shine – often quite literally. I frequently couldn’t tell where Rob Hardy’s caustic cinematography left off and Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects took over. From the soap bubble glare of the ‘shimmer’ – a kind of barrier that conceals Area X from the outside world – to the bizarre flora and fauna beyond, Annihilation brings you the very best kind of sights: those you’ve never seen before.

Best of all, Alex Garland isn’t afraid to celebrate the strange. The film’s climax builds around a decidedly peculiar encounter with something that almost makes sense, yet which you know is just a tantalising glimpse of something ineffable. Throughout, Garland allows his camera to linger on some of the most intriguing images I’ve ever seen in cinema. Even after just one viewing, I’m convinced Annihilation belongs among the sci-fi greats. Am I overstating it? I don’t think so.

It’s a shame the film didn’t get a theatrical release outside the U.S., where it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. Everywhere else it’s on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, Netflix is fine, and my TV screen was big enough to give me a reasonable sense of what it might be like to venture into Area X. Still, given Garland’s penchant for holding the camera back and offering long, wide views of remarkable things, I’d love to see Annihilation on the big screen.

“A Kingdom Rises” – Czech Edition

A Kingdom Rises - Czech edition

I just got author comps for the Czech edition of A Kingdom Rises, the final novel in my Crown of Three fantasy trilogy for younger readers. Check out that gorgeous cover art!

Cinefex Diaries – Soup to Nuts


At Cinefex, we often use the term ‘soup to nuts’ to describe the way we cover motion picture visual effects. I must confess that, as a Brit, I hadn’t come across this term until I started working for the magazine. If you’re not familiar with it either, I can tell you it’s a dining metaphor that simply means ‘from start to finish.’

What does this mean for a Cinefex writer? Well, the main course of any Cinefex article is an in-depth analysis on a film’s visual and practical effects, but no meal is complete without entrée and dessert … wait, like I said, I’m a Brit, so let’s make that a tasty starter and great big dish of hot steamed pudding! While we’re at it, let’s throw in a little apéritif, and why not round things off with a sweet liqueur coffee?

You get the picture. While we love digging deep into all the creativity and technical innovation that goes into making movie magic, we’re also big on context. We don’t just want to learn how visual effects professionals do what they do – want to know why.

The why can come from many quarters. Frequently it comes from the production visual effects supervisors, who have the overview of a project. It can also come from the individual artists, who are usually smart cookies and as keen to understand the context of their work as we are.

In seeking the why, we’ll often seek interviews beyond the world of effects. In particular, we always try to speak to the director. That’s not always easy, but we hit more than we miss – out of my last 10 articles, I lost out on only three.

I don’t need to spell out the reasons why speaking with the director helps us to get that all-important context. These are the people steering the ship. If anybody know the why, it’s them, right? Oh, and here’s another confession – I get a buzz every time I secure a director interview. Why wouldn’t I? Over the past year, I got to chinwag with Guillermo del Toro about The Shape of Water and Luc Besson about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Most recently, Disney hooked me up with Ryan Coogler to discuss Black Panther. Seriously, what’s not to like?

Sometimes we’ll cast the net even wider, bringing in production designers, specialty costume fabricators, props masters, even animal handlers – in short, anyone who might help us light up all the hidden corners of a project.

Why do we go to such lengths? The answer’s simple. Because our articles run to 20 pages or more, we have room to explore. That’s not to say we’re not heartbroken at all the stuff we have to leave out, because even 20 pages is never enough! Still, that’s a lot of printed real estate, and it’s our job to fill it up with the good stuff. We’re not serving up table scraps here. We like to treat our readers to a five-course meal.

What is it those Americans say? – Oh yes soup to nuts.

New Fiction Bubbling Under

Book trailer test frame

Yes, I know, you haven’t seen much new fiction from me recently. This year that’s going to change.

First up, in July 2018, Simon & Schuster will publish the Crown of Three Epic Collection. It’s a three-volume box set collecting together my trio of fantasy novels for young readers, written under the pseudonym J.D. Rinehart – Crown of Three, The Lost Realm and A Kingdom Rises. Okay, maybe these books don’t quite fall into the ‘new’ category, but it’s a thrill to see them all smartly packaged up like this.

The real ‘new’ comes at the end of the year, however, when you’ll be able to get your hands on my brand new novel. Call me a tease, but I’m holding off saying too much about it until a little nearer the publication date. So what can I tell you? Well, it’s a fantasy novel. It’s closely connected to some of my earlier fiction. It’s also a little strange.

Right now I’m looking forward to the imminent copy editing process with my publishers – a smashing bunch of people I’ve worked with before – while simultaneously having tremendous fun putting together a book trailer and accompanying website. With the publication date some way off, you might think it’s crazy to start such nonsense now, but with my animation render times going rapidly through the roof I figure it makes sense to get ahead of the game.

In fact, the image at the top of this post is one of the trailer test frames. If you’re familiar with my fiction, this sneaky peek may give you a clue as to what’s in store …

Cinefex Diaries – Dragons and Porgs

Cinefex 157It’s a weird feeling holding my shiny new copies of Cinefex 157. Since I joined the magazine staff over two years ago, this is the first issue that doesn’t contain one of my articles.

That’s not because I’ve been slacking, I hasten to add. I spent a couple of months before Christmas researching and writing a soup-to-nuts article on the Ice Age drama Alpha, which was scheduled to appear in this very issue. Then, at the eleventh hour, Sony Pictures decided to shunt the film’s release date from March 2018 all the way down to 14 September. They politely asked us to delay publication until after that date – a reasonable request, since like most Cinefex articles the piece I wrote is not exactly free from spoilers.

The good news is that there are still four fantastic articles in the new issue. Jody Duncan went to town on a massive story covering Game of Thrones Season 7, followed by a jaunt through the jungle with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Joe Fordham did a magnificent job covering the latest tale of a galaxy far, far away, with his story on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and somehow still found time to dig into the pint-sized social satire Downsizing.

Cinefex 157 covers "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

As for me, well, I’ve been busy writing a mammoth article on Black Panther – no question of that one getting delayed! You’ll be able to read it in Cinefex 158, out in April. Right now, I’m collating review feedback prior to locking the copy for production. At the same time, I’m interviewing for the first of two articles I’m writing for our June issue.

Not that I’ve turned my back on the current issue completely. I’ve just finished making a mini promo video for Cinefex 157, showcasing that Game of Thrones cover story. You can watch the video below – but you might want to put on your flameproof underpants first.

Cinefex Diaries – Black Panther

Cinefex Black Panther article tease

I’m excited to report that I’ve spent the first few weeks of 2018 in Wakanda.

Actually, my trip to the fabled African nation began just before Christmas, when I started interviewing for my upcoming article on Black Panther, due to be published in Cinefex 158, out April.

I have a confession. Before starting work on this article, my knowledge of the Black Panther character was limited to what I’d seen in Captain America: Civil War, which marked the superhero’s debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having generated 55,000 words of transcript from over 20 interviews, I’m now considerably more informed!

Black Panther posterEarly in the process, I spoke at length with Marvel visual effects supervisor Geoff Baumann and the film’s production designer Hannah Beachler. My journey then took me on a tour of companies through the US, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia and all points between, chatting with the visual effects teams at Method Studios, Industrial Light & Magic, Scanline, Luma, Trixter, Rise, Double Negative, Ghost and Storm.

En route, I took in the previs department at Digital Domain, and the concept, animation and motion graphics teams at Perception and Cantina Creative. Having just spoken with Marvel stereo supervisor Evan Jacobs, I’m now mopping up all things 3D with Stereo D and Legend 3D. Oh, and not forgetting the ever-charming makeup department head, Joel Harlow. Phew!

Only one piece of the puzzle remains, as the Marvel team tries to hook me up with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler. He’s currently just about the busiest man on the planet as he springs from one Black Panther press junket to the next, but it looks like we’re homing in on a slot this weekend. Fingers crossed.

Towards the end of my chat with Hannah Beachler, she said something about the production design that stuck in my head: “[Ryan and I] wanted this to be something that people hadn’t seen before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Almost every review I’ve read confirms that Black Panther does indeed look fresh and different, so I’d say they succeeded in that ambition. That’s a rare thing, especially in an industry ruled by franchises, and something to be celebrated.

Cinefex 158 - Marvel Special

Speaking of celebration, Cinefex 158 is exactly that – a special edition celebrating 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only will our April issue take you deep into Wakanda, but it will also bring you an overview of the creative and technological highlights of all 17 films released by the studio so far.

And that’s not all. This special issue will also contain Jody Duncan’s exclusive interview with Marvel Studios executive producer and head of physical production, Victoria Alonso, discussing the studio’s origins, its hits and misses, and its plans for the future. We’ll also have an interview Ryan Meinerding, Marvel’s head of visual development, plus key member of his team, in Joe Fordham’s in-depth article on the conceptual roots of all things Marvel.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve put together a roundtable discussion in which around 70 visual and practical effects professionals look back over the past decade, chew the fat on just what it’s like to work on a Marvel film, and share some of their favourite Marvel movie moments. If ever a Cinefex assignment was like herding cats, that was it!

Cinefex Diaries – A Little Light Blogging

I’m in the process of wrapping up my next Cinefex magazine article, covering one of the first big blockbusters of 2018. I have just the director left to interview – that should happen next week, assuming the studio lets him out of the dark room he’s been confined to for the past few weeks, finalising the film. The rest of the article is done, so once I’ve managed to pin him down it should only take a few days of rewriting and editing to incorporate the new material.

Cinefex - "The Beyond" VFX Q&A

While I’ve been waiting, I’ve kept myself busy on the Cinefex blog. Last week, I posted a lengthy Q&A with independent filmmaker and visual effects pro Hasraf Dulull about his debut feature, the sci-fi pseudo-documentary The Beyond. Hasraf took me behind the scenes on the making of the movie, and also shared his experiences as a first-time director grappling with the Hollywood studio system:

It really started when I was working on the feature film development of Project Kronos [a short film by Dulull that went viral on the Internet] in my spare time. That was great, as I learned so much from working with the executives and producers, but as with a lot of film development it took several years. I didn’t have the patience for that. Also, I was getting a lot of ‘first-time director’ stigma in Hollywood — studios were not keen on taking risks with someone who had only done short films. I took back the rights to The Beyond and planned that as my debut feature film. I redeveloped it to make it feel more like Project Kronos — a cerebral science fiction film that blends the realism of documentary with the fantastical ‘big ideas’ of science fiction films today. I’d describe it as a passion project with a commercial angle.

Earlier today I posted a blog article on The Commuter, the latest pulse-pounder directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Liam Neeson. Cinesite visual effects supervisor Stephane Paris spoke to me about the 860 visual effects shots that he and his team delivered for the film, including a sequence involving a spectacular train crash:

The team built a one-and-a-quarter-mile asset of the environment approaching Beacon and the wide station yard, dressed with buildings, tracks, trains and general industrial content. The CG environment included a large curved section of track to match with the action … The impact of the train crash required realistic simulations of bending and crumpling metal, dynamic interactions between the derailing train and the destruction of the environment, and the generation of a large number of secondary dust and fire/smoke simulations from the resulting carnage.

Cinefex Diaries – Up Against the Clock

I often find myself chatting with visual effects supervisors during the frenzied weeks just before their final delivery date for some new blockbuster movie. I always feel guilty about keeping them from their work, and I’m always grateful that they take time out of their busy schedules to do the interview.

Just before Christmas, the wheel of karma turned to the point where I found myself (almost) in their shoes. With the holidays looming, I had just a few short days to put together a Facebook promo video for Cinefex 156.

I usually base these little videos around the cover story, presenting iPad edition pages in what I hope is an entertaining way. In the case of our December 2017 issue, that story was Thor: Ragnarok.

My first notion was to create a shiny gold iPad and launch it through a Bifrost-like tunnel to land with a crash in the middle of a vast metallic city, with Cinefex pages swiping across its screen all the way. One glance at the ticking deadline clock was enough to restore my sanity.

Keeping the essence of the idea, I built a quick model of a baroque-looking iPad and flew it over a flat plane mapped with a basic reflective water texture. I threw in some golden architecture assembled from 3D primitives and backed the whole thing with a stock photo of mountains at sunset. When I was halfway happy with the result, I hit the render button and hoped I’d left my poor groaning laptop enough time to crunch through the gigabytes before the time came to post the damn thing on Facebook.

Cinefex 156 Promo Video

The finished video does the job, although I’d love to dig back into the model and fix all the things I didn’t get to fix first time around. The simplistic buildings are a little too simplistic for my taste, and the whole thing is crying out for some atmospheric haze. The main thing I don’t like is the water – the waves are static (although the camera’s moving so fast that you don’t really notice) and there’s some nasty chatter as the high-frequency ripple texture falls away into the distance.

On the plus side, I had the luxury of being both client and vendor on the project, which meant I didn’t have to schedule cineSync review sessions in the middle of the night and the only eyeballs I needed to satisfy were my own – even if they ended up not entirely satisfied.

Best of all, I met the delivery date!

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