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!

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.

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!

Cinefex Diaries – Issue 156 Hits the Streets

Cinefex 156

Cinefex 156 is hot off the press and due to land on newsstands this week. I’ve talked already on this blog about my two articles this issue – the first on Marvel’s epic Thor: Ragnarok, and the second on Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite The Shape of Water. Also in our winter edition, Joe Fordham writes about Wonder Woman, and Jody Duncan delves into It and Only the Brave.

As the only Cinefex staff member living in the UK, I’m always the last to get my copies of the print edition, so I’m yet to sniff the ink and fondle the pages. Luckily for me, the iPad edition launches this week too, so my first sight of the finished thing is likely to be a digital download. No hardship there – the iPad edition has loads more photos!

I’ve already submitted my article for Cinefex 157, though I’ve yet to write the image captions. It’s on Albert Hughes’ Ice Age survival story, Alpha. Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but it turned up a few hidden gems and proved to be one of this year’s more rewarding assignments. I’ll tell you about it in a future blog post.

Cinefex 156

Right now, I’m working hard on my next assignment. This one’s for Cinefex 158, our April issue, and it’s a big one. My copy deadline is February, but knowing how people tend to scatter to the four winds over the holiday season, I’m trying to get as many interviews as possible done before Christmas. I’m off to a good start, having had a lengthy chat with the production visual effects supervisor, and my diary is booked solid for a bunch of vendor interviews through the rest of this week.

As a matter of fact, I probably shouldn’t be writing this blog. I’ve got far too much transcribing to do!

Cinefex Diaries – In With the New


Behold the desk of a Cinefex scribe

Hurrah! Today I finished the final draft of my next Cinefex article. I won’t reveal what film I’m covering just yet, but I will say that my research steered me in a few unexpected directions and resulted in interviews not only with the usual raft of movie effects professionals, but also with an animal trainer and an archeological expert from The British Museum.

I know what you’re thinking. With my article for the February issue in the bag, now’s the time I get to kick back and relax. No such luck. My desk is already starting to buckle under the weight of my three articles for April which, due to our long lead time, are due for completion just a few weeks after Christmas.

The first of these is not a regular Cinefex article in that it doesn’t cover just one film. I’ve actually been working on it since before the summer, on and off, talking to the effects crowd and steadily gathering material. This phase of the operation is now mostly done, which means it’s time to for me to try and make sense of the research, and work out just how to format it all into an article. That’s a slightly terrifying prospect. But I don’t think I can put it off any longer.

I’m on more familiar ground with my second assignment for Cinefex 158 – a soup-to-nuts article on the making of one of 2018’s big movies. I’m about ready to set the ball rolling by requesting permission from the studio to interview everyone involved. The timing of this one should be interesting. Not only does my copy deadline coincide with a major production milestone, but we also have the holidays slap-bang in the middle of it all. That means I’ll be trying to arrange interviews precisely when everybody is more concerned with preparing to party, partying, or recovering from the party of the night before.

The third story is … well, frankly it’s a bit of a long shot. It’s something that all of us on the editorial team want to make happen for issue 158, but right now we’re not entirely sure if it’s achievable. All I can say for now is: watch this space.

I know, I know. All of the above is terribly vague. If my evasiveness irritates you, I apologise, but remind you that everything I do for Cinefex is bound by strict rules of confidentiality. Sometimes that makes writing a diary a little difficult. Rest assured that, once we’re in a position to reveal the contents of these various future issues I keep teasing, I’ll open the floodgates.

Until then, mum’s the word.

Cinefex Diaries – Writing for the iPad

Cinefex iPad Edition

I woke up this morning fully intending to work on my draft article for Cinefex 157. My email inbox had other ideas, containing as it did all the resources I needed to write the iPad captions for my two articles in Cinefex 156. What’s that saying about best-laid plans?

With any magazine issue, writing iPad captions is my final editorial task, and by the time it comes around the production department is usually rushing towards its deadline with steam pouring from its ears. That’s why I like to jump on it right away. So the next article will just have to wait.

Cinefex iPad captions serve the same purpose as the captions in our print edition – namely describing the content of the images while at the same time delivering a condensed summary of the article as a whole. A lot of the time I can simply duplicate the print captions, but there are two important differences that mean it’s not always that straightforward.

Firstly, we publish a lot more pictures in the iPad edition. The print versions of my Thor: Ragnarok and The Shape of Water articles contain 24 and 19 images respectively. On the iPad, those numbers go up to 48 and 40. That’s around double the content.

Secondly, I have to obey some slightly funky iPad formatting rules. When our publisher Gregg Shay does the layout, he assigns a code to each caption. There are nine different codes, each corresponding to a slightly different page design. Using a specific typeface, point size and line length, I have to make sure my text conforms to the maximum space allowed by each code – this can be anywhere between 4 and 8.5 lines.

Writing the iPad captions is therefore a mix of straightforward copying from the print edition, editing the print captions down to make sure the new versions conform to the required line length, and writing completely new captions for pictures I’ve never seen before. It’s not as big a job as doing the print captions, but it has its own unique quirks. The most entertaining of these is trying to cut a lean-as-it-gets 100-word caption down to half its length, without losing any of the essential meaning.

Anyway, the work is now done, which means my work on Cinefex 156 as a whole is done. My print caption word count for both articles combined was about 2,500 words. For the iPad, I’ve written just short of 3,300 words. Looking at those numbers, a thought occurs to me: the word count for Cinefex picture captions alone exceeds the word count of most internet articles you’ll read on the same subject.

Just saying.

Cinefex Diaries – The Rhythm of Captions

Cinefex 156 Captions

There’s a rhythm to life at Cinefex. No sooner do you get your teeth stuck into a new assignment than the previous one comes knocking at the door again.

The new assignment in question is my article for our February issue. The movie I’m covering won’t be released until next year but my copy deadline is early December, so right now I’m trekking through my interviews and trying to bludgeon the material into some kind of order. If you’re wondering what the movie is, sorry, mum’s the word.

The previous assignment – two assignments, actually – is back because it’s time to write the picture captions for the print edition of Cinefex 156. That might not sound like a big deal, until you understand that Cinefex captions doesn’t just describe what’s going on in the pictures. In fact, they’re almost a mini-assignment in themselves. The idea is that, by browsing the captions in sequence, the casual reader gets a highly condensed overview of the main article.

My first job when writing captions is to study the collection of amazing images that our publisher, Gregg Shay, has selected for the article. Typically these include film stills, behind the scenes photographs and visual effects before-and-afters, all approved by the studio for publication.

Next, I’ll try to give the image context in terms of the film’s narrative, and write copy that explains the picture contents. If space allows, I’ll provide extra contextual detail that helps to illuminate things further. All this means lifting content from the final draft article, editing and rewording to present the information in fresh, compressed form. I have just 100 words to play with for each caption, so it’s a meticulous process where every syllable counts, and some captions cover more than one picture. My print edition article on The Shape of Water has 19 pictures and 11 captions; Thor: Ragnarok has 24 pictures and 19 captions. For the captions of both articles together, I’ve written about 2,500 words.

Occasionally, Gregg will throw something at me that demands additional research. Maybe there’s a photo of a bunch of sculptors in a creature shop, with no indication of their names (when people appear in the photos, we always try to credit them). Even when I do recognise faces, I always double-check – the camera does sometimes lie you know. Or maybe there’s a gorgeous-looking visual effects shot that didn’t specifically get discussed during the interview, or that was mentioned only in passing. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it prompts a hasty call or email to the supervisor concerned, something along the lines of: “Help! I have to write something intelligent about this shot and I have no idea what I’m looking at!”

My Cinefex 156 print captions are now done and dusted, but I’m still awaiting the pictures for the iPad edition. We always include more images in the iPad articles, and the rules for formatting the captions are slightly more complicated. No doubt those will land when I’m neck-deep in the final draft of my current assignment.

Like I said, there’s a rhythm to life here.

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