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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Iron Man

Iron Man
Iron Man

DIR: Jon Favreau • WRI: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway • PROD: Victoria Alonso, Avi Arad, Kevin Feige • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Dan Lebental • DES: J. Michael Riva • CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Terence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow

Another summer, another superhero to whet our appetites for the heroic and the slightly imaginary. Amongst the nominees for ‘summer’s biggest boom’, Iron Man ranks slightly ahead of the crowd in being the first all-comic produced blockbuster to hit our screens. Courtesy of Marvel, and under the auspices of $140 million, Robert Downey Jr. assumes the daunting task of bringing the enigmatic steel millionaire to the public.

Cast with known names, but not huge stars, Marvel took a chance in allowing Downey Jr. the lead – a gamble mostly down to Jon Favreau – and a risk worth taking. Not only do we see a playboy millionaire as we have always wanted to see one – funny, fun, frivolous – but we also see a flawed hero in the making, brought wonderfully to life by the star (as we must henceforth refer to him).

Burdened with the obligatory ‘tale of the beginning’ weight all first-outings of superhero adaptations must carry, Iron Man does better than most in giving us much detail, but little boredom. Much of this is down to the easy manner Downey Jr. has with his part – he truly seems born to be Tony Stark. Not only does he nail the funny millionaire and the change-of-heart playboy but he is also a magnificent man of (steel) action!

And what is a leading man without a few side-players? Gwyneth Paltrow is a witty and clever Pepper Potts, giving credence to that staple of comic tales – the prim secretary who holds a torch for her philandering boss. Her role, though small, gives humanity to Downey Jr.’s humour – showing a Tony Stark capable of commitment and steadiness, despite his Iron-tendencies. Jeff Bridges grunts and minces onscreen as the villainous Obadiah Stane, and is perhaps a little too pegged into a stereotypical baddie role, but he rises above the mediocre script direction and gives enough growl to make him an obstacle.

The finale, as with most first-time tales held back by too much back story, is more skirmish than explosive, but it serves its purpose – Iron Man can hold his own in a battle. However, the lead-up to this ending is so fun and clever that you really don’t notice the time pass, as you enter into the strange world of a man in a steel suit.

Though his evolution from playboy to hard-boy can be viewed with a slight amount of incredulity – after all, it is just a tad farfetched that Tony Stark would make such a high-tech outfit in a cave in Afghanistan. But, come on – this is comic world, and such craziness should be overlooked. In fact, as comic-adaptations go, his abilities are much more believable than, say, nobody recognising Superman because of a pair of glasses, or a huge Bat Cave being built under a mansion with nobody any the wiser!

All in all, Iron Man makes it on every level – entertaining, exciting, and leaving you salivating for the next instalment. Marvel will be happy, Downey Jr. will be happy, and one hopes fanboys everywhere will be happy. Summer has landed!

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