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Andrew Whitehurst is a VFX Supervisor at Double Negative and explains his role liaising with clients, often the director of the film and the enormous teams of talented artists in the studio.
Double Negative is a large visual effects house based in London, with offices in Singapore and Vancouver. When I first worked there, 15 years ago, there were about 60 of us in total. Now we’re around the 1000 mark, so a lot has changed.
My role as a VFX Supervisor is to act as the liaison between our client, often the director of the film, and the team at Dneg working on the show. I will generally attend pre-production meetings and the shoot, working with the film crew to make sure that all plates, green screens and reference photography required for VFX are shot. Depending on the project, I may also be involved with designing effects and elements that will ultimately be produced at Dneg. This will be in conjunction with the artists at Dneg and those on the production side.
Once in post-production and turning out shots, I will try to make sure that the director’s vision is maintained in all the work produced, and it is my responsibility to present the shots to the director for feedback or, hopefully, approval. Some shows are very collaborative and artistically creative, offering us the opportunity to directly create beautiful imagery. Other shows are more technical in nature and require flawless clean up of photographed plates: removing stunt rigs and so forth. Every show has its unique challenges.
You can and should, find inspiration anywhere: it’s a matter of looking for it. There are the obvious places to go, like art galleries, museums and other arts venues, but I find most inspiration strikes me when I’m out walking, often with a camera. Anywhere can be fascinating. For instance, if you’re walking down a plain suburban street you may be able to figure out what period the houses date from by their architecture. You might notice how some have been modified over the years, repainted, conservatories added, satellite dishes, gardens remodelled etc. Looking at the accretion of detail gives you insight into the kinds of people who live, and used to live, at each house. Looking at the street itself, the name of it might give you clues about its history, you might be able to look at the lie of the land and understand yet more. That’s just an example off the top of my head. I guess my point is, everywhere and everything is interesting if you’re willing to look.
London is my favourite city that I’ve spent any time in. Chicago and Istanbul would be numbers two and three on my list incidentally. I moved to London in 1998, after art college, when I worked as a runner for a post house. People complain that London is very expensive, which is true, but if you invest the time in searching them out, there are plenty of places that offer inexpensive entertainment in the city. The big galleries and museums are free, which is even better. When you’re earning a runner’s wage you learn very fast where the cheap fun is.
I love London for its clash of history and progress, and its non-uniform layout: the result of many smaller towns growing together over the centuries to form one continuous city today. Near where I live, there are buildings that were used by the Knights Templar almost next door to a shop now selling 3D printers. The remains of the Roman amphitheatre are just down the road from Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building. That’s my kind of city.
I also love beer, and there are so many glorious pubs to enjoy a pint in.
To me, success is working with interesting people to make beautiful pictures that tell a story. I don’t think credits, awards, or job titles matter very much: the work is what is important, and the people you spend time with.
It is quite possible to be a VFX Supervisor and not actually directly produce anything yourself on a show. Often there is so much work that needs coordinating, critiquing, and organising that there simply isn’t time. I still love doing hands-on work though, so I try to work on shows that allow me the time to do some of that. I don’t think I would thrive long-term if all I did was the management side of the job.
I think the answer to that depends on the show. Inevitably some shows will appeal more than others, and some productions will be easier than others. I have emerged from some shows with my head held high and a spring in my step, and others, well, not so much. But that experience is true of any profession, especially project-based creative ones. I suppose, as a rule of thumb, if you are proud of the work, and if both the client and your crew are still on speaking terms with you once a show wraps, you can call it a success.
Film-making is a team game and I hope that I’ve been able to put people at their ease when working with me and enabled them to achieve the best they can. I am also insatiably curious about things. I love researching, exploring and learning and I think a broad base of knowledge is something that I’ve found very useful to have when working in VFX: I always need to know why something is how it is. I firmly believe that if you ever think you know enough, you’re sunk.
I have great hopes for virtual and augmented reality. I only recently tried VR for the first time when my wife got an Oculus Rift, but I see it as being an incredibly exciting and rich medium, offering new artistic, narrative and educational experiences. There is something so startling about the tangibility of everything in a VR world that we seem to be on the verge of something powerful and transformative. I also think the mainstream adoption of 3D printing and 3D scanning are softening the boundary between the virtual and the real in ways that we are not even aware of yet. Having grown up with the rise of computers, seen the emergence of CGI as an artistic medium and then watched the explosion of the internet, I think we will see similarly earth-shaking changes with these new technologies and I can’t wait.
Think about what you like to do and be honest with yourself about where your skills and talents lie, then aim for jobs that play to those strengths. The whole “you can be anything you want to be if you want it enough” schtick is nonsense. You will be better at some things than others. That’s OK. You just need to recognise it, and then nurture and work hard at maximising those strengths.
Be open to opportunities, even those that might not seem to be exactly what you want. I always wanted to work in film VFX but found myself making CG children’s TV for two years. I met some amazing people and learned an awful lot. It was a great experience.
Try not to have an attitude. You want people to want to work with you again. It’s a small world and if you’re difficult to get along with, word travels fast.
Don’t think it’s all glamour and fun-times. VFX offers some great experiences and some very special moments but it will be very hard work and sometimes you’ll have to work on things that just don’t appeal to you, sometimes for months at a time. That’s life, and being a creative professional means learning to take that rough with the smooth and remaining gracious throughout if you can.
Lastly, never stop learning.
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