Cinefex Diaries – Rush and Spectre

Unbelievably, I’ve been working at Cinefex for nearly five years. That’s three years in my current role as full-time senior staff writer, which was preceded by two years as part-time blog editor. Time sure does fly when you’re having fun.

Big anniversary years make you nostalgic, right? So I’ve been delving back through all the magazine articles I’ve written during that time. The first of these was my article on Ron Howard’s Formula 1 biopic Rush, published in Cinefex 136, January 2014.

At the time, I was as green as they come. Despite many years as a novelist and short story writer, this was my first serious non-fiction assignment, and my first experience conducting interviews as a research journalist. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I muddled through, but muddle through I did, and I’m still pretty pleased with how the article turned out. Check out the blogs I wrote as I went through the process:

As an aside, there’s a nice circularity here. I recently completed my article on Solo: A Star Wars Story, for which I finally got to chat with the very director I wasn’t able to interview for Rush. More about Ron Howard, the Kessel Run and the Millennium Falcon when Cinefex 160 launches a few weeks from now.

After Rush, it was all about the blog for two years, until November 2015 when I joined Cinefex on a full-time basis, writing articles for the magazine (while still keeping the blog romping along). My first assignment as senior staff writer was Spectre, published in Cinefex 145, February 2016. This was a very different kettle of fish to Rush, where my interviews were largely confined to the film’s sole visual effects vendor, DNEG. With Spectre, I found myself talking with the world and his wife – Industrial Light & Magic, MPC, Cinesite, DNEG (again), Framestore, Peerless, Propshop, IO Entertainment, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould … the list went on. No surpise that the interviews yielded over 50,000 words of transcript – twice what I’d had for Rush. Here’s the blog I wrote at the time:

My favourite Spectre interview was with production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, who spoke to me on the phone for over an hour while he was strolling through the streets of Edinburgh. Partway through our conversation, he found the optimum spot in the city for 4G reception – the interior of an old church. Steve’s obvious delight at the carvings he found in there was so beguiling that I almost wished I didn’t have to return his attention to James Bond and his latest exploits.

For the next issue, I took on not one article but two. Jody Duncan, Joe Fordham and I have a give-and-take way of sharing the workload, you see – if one of us has a couple of heavy assignments on one issue, the others will give them a break next time around. As the new boy, I only had to tackle one film on my maiden voyage. Next issue in, things ramped up. In fact, they ramped up more than any of us had anticipated so that, for various reasons, I actually ended up writing three articles for Cinefex 146.

But I’ll save that story for next time.

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 – 2018 Starts with a Splash

Cinefex 156 - The Shape of Water

Every New Year kicks off with movie awards season, and this year the film that everybody’s talking about is the romantic fantasy The Shape of Water. Regular readers of this blog will already know how much I enjoyed covering this film for the winter issue of Cinefex – I blathered on about it in this earlier post – so suffice it to say I was thrilled to see director Guillermo del Toro pick up the award for Best Director at both the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards this month. Also at the Critics Choice, War for the Planet of the Apes won the award for Best Visual Effects. Stellar work there by Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon and the Weta Digital team. Nominations for upcoming awards – not least the BAFTAs and Academy Awards – are stacking up even as I write, and I can’t wait to see who wins what.

 

Now, I had planned to start this year by telling you a little about my Alpha article, which I was working on during the run-up to Christmas. As often happens, however, Hollywood has thrown us a curve ball by shifting the release date of this stone-age survival story from March all the way down to September. So we’re now planning to move coverage of the film from February into our autumn edition.

 

Not to worry. Image captions aside, my work on Alpha is done and the article is safely in the bank ready to be dusted off later in the year. Our February issue is already jam-packed with fantastic stories, including the one everybody will want to read – my colleague Joe Fordham’s in-depth look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Right now, I’m deep into my assignments for the April issue. I submitted the first of these to editor Jody Duncan last week, and we’ve just locked the copy ready for production. Without saying too much, I can tell you it’s not a typical Cinefex article. I’ve been working on it on and off since August 2017, getting input from over 70 visual effects professionals in order to create something rather special.

With that assignment off my plate, I’m now hard at work covering one of the first mega-movies of the year. As often happens, my copy deadline coincides almost exactly with the film’s final delivery date, which I fear casts me in the role of “complete pain in the neck” with all the poor effects supervisors I keep chasing for information, when all they want to do is finish their damn shots! Sorry, guys, you know it’s in a good cause!

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 – The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins in "The Shape of Water." Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

We’re exactly a month away from the December 8 theatrical release of The Shape of Water, the latest offering from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Billed as an ‘adult fairy tale,’ this R-rated fantasy tells the story of mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who encounters a mysterious amphibian man (Doug Jones) in the secret government facility where she works.

The first Guillermo del Toro movie I ever saw was Pan’s Labyrinth. Instantly enchanted, I tracked down his previous films Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and have followed his career with enthusiasm ever since. This summer, the stars aligned and I found myself researching and writing a lengthy article on del Toro’s new aquatic fantasy, which you’ll be able to read in our next issue, Cinefex 156.

In many ways, The Shape of Water was the perfect partner to my other article for this issue, Thor: Ragnarok. My list of interviewees was much shorter, for one thing. Whereas my Thor story was all about multiple visual effects vendors working together to forge a monumental epic, the much smaller scale of Shape allowed me to focus on just two companies – Legacy FX and Mr. X. Yet through both stories ran a common thread – collaboration.

"The Shape of Water" theatrical posterThe more I talked with the teams at Legacy and Mr. X, the more I understood that the story I needed to tell was the story of how they had joined forces to bring the amphibian man to the screen. It turned out to be a pretty great story, one that celebrates the happy marriage between Legacy’s beautiful creature suit and makeup effects, and Mr. X’s subtle digital craftsmanship. At a stroke, it debunks the tiresome argument that inexplicably rages about the relative merits of practical and digital effects. From the top down, the filmmakers chose simply to use whatever technique best served the shot. The result is a seamless blend that defies you to work out how it was done.

When you’re writing about a Guillermo del Toro film, it isn’t enough just to speak with the artists involved. You have to get the man himself. An accomplished artist himself, del Toro is the driving force behind every creative decision on the films he makes. Luckily for me, he also reads Cinefex. Thanks to his support, and the tireless work of the Fox Searchlight publicity team, I ended up chatting with Guillermo on the phone for around 40 minutes. He was just as charming and insightful as I’d hoped, and his voice comes through loud and strong in the final article.

Another interviewee was special effects supervisor Warren Appleby, who delivered on-set gags and a wealth of atmospheric effects. Unusually for Cinefex, I also spoke to one of the actors. If my story was all about bringing the creature to life, how could I not interview the guy inside the suit? The guy in question was Doug Jones, currently playing the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery and the man behind many a movie monster from the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth to Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. Doug was an absolute delight and – what do you know? – turned out to be yet another reader of our magazine.

I’ve already confessed that I’m a big del Toro fan, and having seen The Shape of Water I’d have to rate it as one of his best. That I got to see it while writing my article was a tremendous help. Again, that’s down to the Fox Searchlight team, who arranged a screening for me in central London – just me, one other journalist, and an affable security guard who sat at the back of the otherwise empty theatre making sure we didn’t whip out our phone cameras and point them at the screen. The only downside was that I had to suppress my enthusiasm when the time came to put down words on paper. At Cinefex, objective reporting is the order of the day. We don’t offer reviews or opinions. We just give you the facts, ma’am.

You’ll be able to read the full story of how Guillermo del Toro’s amphibian man made it to the screen in Cinefex 156. The magazine will be on newstands December 15, just a week after the theatrical release of The Shape of Water. Also in this issue is my article on Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Jody Duncan’s stories on the horror smash It and firefighting drama Only the Brave, and Joe Fordham’s report on the runaway success Wonder Woman.

%d bloggers like this: