Interview: Kyle McCulloch, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

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Kyle McCulloch is visual effects supervisor at Framestore in London, UK. His impressive list of credits includes Iron Man, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s currently working on Warner Brother’s Pan. Kyle was recently in Dublin to attend the 2014 VFX and Animation Summit, where Lynn O’Reilly, an animation student at BCFE, had the chance to fire some questions his way.

 

This past weekend was the second VFX Summit, and let’s hope there are many more to come. Any words on the importance of having events like this one?

Events like this are really important to the industry, and the people who work in it. Being able to get together, learn about what other artists are doing, connect to your colleagues, and share your passion with like-minded people is key to growing as an artist.

 

The summit was open to students and graduates who are starting off in the industry. Many of them came out of your talk feeling very inspired. Where did you look to for inspiration when you were starting off? And where do you look for inspiration now?

When I was first starting out in the industry, the community was a lot smaller. For me, the magazine Cinefex was my connection to the industry, and the cutting edge of what people were doing. I read it religiously. Once I found SIGGRAPH [an international community of researchers, artists, developers, filmmakers, scientists, and business professionals who share an interest in computer graphics and interactive techniques], I started going to that convention, and left every year feeling hugely inspired to go back to work and try new things.

 

More than anyone else, artists learn a lot from their mistakes, and from trial and error. We saw some examples of this in different talks over the weekend. What is the happiest accident you’ve experienced when working on a film?

That’s a tricky one. I’d probably say that my happiest accident is a particular straight-to-DVD movie I was working on ran way over-schedule. At the time, this meant that I missed out on returning to LA to the job I had lined up, but meant that I was able to take a last-minute project with the Orphanage, where I wound up staying for 4 years, and working on projects like Iron Man and Die Hard 4.

 

You’ve worked on films like Harry Potter and Iron Man, which have the real world as a backdrop, and the fantasy elements and visual effects are then built on top/around this setting. In Guardians of the Galaxy, apart from Peter’s past on Earth, we are in a totally fictional world. Was it freeing to have that kind of blank(er) canvas to work on? Or what challenges did it present not to have the real world as a foundation to work the visual effects elements upon?

For me, the challenges of creating something fantastic, or replicating something from the real world are quite similar. Even though we were making a giant alien world in Knowhere, we still needed to fill it with details and structures that make sense to our human viewers. We needed to show the viewer how big it was, how complex it was, and still have it feel ‘real’. Part of how we achieve that is to find things in the real world as inspiration, and use those in the design.

 

When I watched Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time, I was struck by just how jam-packed the visual elements were, and we got an insight into this in your talk at the Summit. The Knowhere set alone was very detailed, and on top of that you have a large volume of both practical and computer generated effects, not to mention all that lighting, the vivid colours and all the characters – again both physical and computer generated… the poor compositors had their work cut out I’d wager! As a visual effects supervisor, how did you deal with such a visually heavy film? Was it difficult to ensure all that visual information would not overwhelm the audience?

With a project as big as Guardians, you really depend on your team. I was fortunate to have some of the very best artists in the industry working with me at Framestore. Like any huge project, you have do divide and delegate – I had sequence and department supervisors doing an incredible amount of work to move the project forward. Without them, we would have never finished the film!

 

 

The 2014 VFX and Animation Summit  was funded by Screen Training Ireland, Animation Skillnet and Enterprise Ireland.

 

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Going Gentle into that Good Night: Space Exploration in Cinema

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With Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar rocketing into cinema David O’Donoghue takes a look at how space has been explored in classic sci-fi films of yesteryear and how we look upon its inky expanse as a cinematic image and symbol in more modern movies.

 

Space, the final frontier. Well, not quite so when it comes to movies. Once human beings got a hang of this film thing we got right to speculating about space, from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902 right up to the science serials of the 1950s and sci-fi special effects extravaganzas of today. Space and the exploration of its vast and mysterious expanse has been a potent cinematic symbol since film first emerged from the primordial soup of flickering images and whirring projectors. I was thinking about this history when I went to see Christopher Nolan’s newest sci-fi epic Interstellar recently. Packed with all the bombast and mystery with which Nolan has endeared himself to so many, the film manages to seem both brand, spanking new, with its shiny and dazzling special effects, as well as endearingly old fashioned, with its many nods to sci-fi epics of the past. In this way, I figured that Insterstellar might be a good jumping off point to discover how space was explored in the classic sci-fi films of yesteryear and how we look upon its inky expanse as a cinematic image and symbol in today’s theatres. To do so, I’ll be looking at two sci-fi classics and two modern, celebrated sci-fi films that deal with space and see what makes them tick and how Interstellar represents these differing approaches to science fiction.

 

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2001:A Space Odyssey

This is the big one. Kubrick’s carefully constructed science fiction masterpiece, one of the most acclaimed, analysed and celebrated films of all time, looms large over any tale of space exploration. It would be remiss of me to say that Interstellar pays tribute to 2001 so much as it sacrifices itself upon the altar of Kubrick, with many of the images and ideas of Interstellar being direct reflections of Kubrick’s masterpiece. 2001 was fascinating not just for its stunning and revolutionary visuals and its arresting score but also the way in which it broke new cinematic ground in exploring ideas of rogue AI and lost missions into space that would become mainstays of space exploration on film and science fiction more generally. The most fascinating thing is the deft way in which Kubrick’s film takes science and turns it into a kind of existential mysticism. Kubrick’s film uses space and its exploration to talk about huge existential questions for the human race. The likes of: Where did we come from? How did we get here? What’s out there? Kubrick’s film uses the sweep and grandeur of space to create a sense of terrifying, profound awe at the mystery of the universe, not unlike a kind of religious devotion.

 

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Solaris

And of course, one can’t mention 2001 without Solaris in the same breath. Solaris is, much like most of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, long, winding and contemplative. The film follows a psychologist who travels to a space station orbiting a faraway planet to monitor the health of the crew there and find out why their mission has stalled. While the film’s initial focus is inward, on the despondent and emotionally distant crew members on the station, it soon becomes outward, focusing on the strange, alien intelligence that seems to inhabit the plant Solaris below. This exploration of how we might interact with an alien intelligence and what it might tell us about ourselves as a species and the nature  of our society is part of the grand and sweeping vision of sci-fi. It wishes to make philosophical and metaphysical statements about human culture through images that are powerful and that can have universal resonance.

 

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Moon

Duncan Jones’ quiet sci-fi sleeper hit from 2009 is a fairly neat encapsulation of a lot of modern sci-fi. Tight, small, intimate and introspective, this tale of a solitary Sam Rockwell mining Helium 3 on the moon accompanied only by a Kevin Spacey voiced AI is a haunting tale about what it means to be human. Not in a grand way that makes broad metaphysical statements about the purpose and impact of the human race as a whole, but talking about what it means to be and what it is that makes an individual. Its questions of the effects of loneliness on an individual and the nature of individual identity are hallmarks of much of modern science fiction, which looks at the vast expanse of outer space and uses it as a canvas through which to peer inward inside the human mind.

 

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Gravity

Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar sweeping orbital epic from last year, similarly upholds this modern tendency towards using space to explore the introspective and intimate relationships of human beings, as opposed to grand metaphysical questions. Gravity was essentially a two-man show, with the interaction between Clooney and Bullock (and later Bullock’s isolation) seeming all the more powerful in the vast emptiness of Cuaron’s expertly shot outer space. A moment of particular poignancy comes as Bullock, after floating adrift, manages to board a Chinese space station and communicate with a Chinese man. Although they cannot understand each other Bullock treasures this small scrap of human intimacy in the cold, unfeeling chasm of space. This is similar to a scene in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey receives messages spanning years from his children back home as he orbits a planet in another galaxy. This element of quiet intimacy crossing the vastness of space is endemic of the modern cinematic use of space exploration.

Science fiction films are, as all films are, ultimately about exploring ourselves. While the classics favoured using the grandeur and sweep of space to give us broad messages about metaphysics and human existence as a species, more recent science fiction films tend to use space exploration for an intimate and introspective look at human relationships and the interior life of individuals; like tiny flames of light growing bright as they flare up against the vast darkness of space and glowing gargantuan galaxies.

Interstellar, to its credit, attempts to fuse the two. It gives us the sweep and spectacle of space as well as being driven by a close examination of human love, intimacy and family bonds. This juggling act is not always perfect and balanced, but all three hours of the show represent some of the most admirable and ambitious science fiction in years.

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Cinema Review: Gravity

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DIR: Alfonso Cuarón  • WRI: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón • PRO: David Heyman • DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki • ED: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger • DES: Andy Nicholson • CAST: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Basher Savage

Two actors pretend to float in space. The premise promises little, but Gravity is an exceptional film that has already pulled huge audiences worldwide and attracted rave reviews, both well deserved. It’s simply stunning.

Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lt Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are among the crew servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. A Russian missile destroys an obsolete satellite. The debris hurtles through space, causing catastrophic damage to Stone’s shuttle. We know from film taglines that, in space, no one can hear you scream. There’s no air pressure, no oxygen. So, how will they survive? Is it even possible?

Gravity works well because Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the script with his son Jonás, directs it as a thriller. He clearly sets out difficulties to overcome and the stakes should the characters succeed or not. He ratchets up the tension as oxygen levels fall, fuel runs out and space debris strikes again. The pacing is excellent.

But it’s more than a thriller. Gravity may very well be this year’s Life of Pi, a visually impressive film best seen in IMAX 3D. Gravity surpasses Lee’s film because its philosophizing is less trite, more subtle. Their central device is much the same: an isolated hero confronted by a vast wilderness struggles to get home. It’s possible to read Gravity as an existential meditation, confronting our fear of dying, our need to connect to other people, and our utter dependence on the planet we take for granted. Cuarón’s direction and the intelligent writing allow these themes to emerge, to be contemplated perhaps after the film’s initial impact.

Its imagery beguiles. Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón’s regular DOP, worked wonders with Terrence Malick and his natural light in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. Here, he must integrate digital and live action, and it’s his lighting that makes it seamless. The visual effects are nothing less than marvellous. Gravity is often breathtakingly beautiful, with shots ranging from panoramic vistas of the Earth below or close-ups of Dr Stone’s tears floating before us in 3D. It’s one of the most technically accomplished films yet produced.

All this technical skill, philosophizing and striking scenery may draw parallels with the works of Stanley Kubrick, in particular 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, some of the film’s images, such as Dr Ryan Stone assuming the foetal position in a space capsule, directly recall the 1968 classic. Whereas Kubrick’s films could be cold, Cuarón’s film avoids that pitfall with Sandra Bullock’s excellent performance and George Clooney’s important contribution.

The actors are often confined in small spaces, their movements restricted in their spacesuits, leaving them to convey much with their voice and facial expressions, and they succeed admirably. The dialogue at times seems far removed and unrelated to the captivating imagery, but Gravity frequently becomes profoundly moving.

Clooney gives the film its warmth and its humour, playing on his roguish charm and playboy image. Bullock demonstrates how much Hollywood has undervalued her abilities to date. Ed Harris reprises his role as the voice of Houston, and his interactions with the astronauts at the beginning serve as a sweetener before the crisis ensues.

A big budget epic made with the skill and intelligence that keeps its more lofty elements grounded, Gravity is a deeply affecting, mesmerizing film that exemplifies the best of contemporary cinema.

 

John Moran

 12A (See IFCO for details)

90 mins

Gravity is released on 8th November 2013

Gravity – Official Website

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