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How to spot the vfx pro’s signature

Some visual effects supervisors stand apart

With visual effects taking such a leading role in today’s tentpole pictures, few would dispute that visual effects supervisors are artists.

Some artists on a picture, particularly cinematographers at the level of Gordon Willis and Janusz Kaminski, have a very distinct visual stamp. Is there a similar creative stamp for visual effects supervisors? If so, who is able to spot it, and what are they seeing?

When Variety queried vfx supes and designers on this year’s vfx tentpoles, they generally had to mull the idea before admitting, sometimes reluctantly, that vfx supervisors can have a creative stamp of their own.

“When you talk about the stamp of a visual effects supervisor, it can’t be in the way it is with a production designer,” says “Inception” production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas. “With my trade, you can see the hand of a production designer. You can see the colors they like. You can see very easily their influence.”

Yet even Dyas can identify hallmarks of the work of his colleague on “Inception,” vfx supervisor Paul Franklin.

“His stamp is understanding what his job is, which is not to show off with flashy visual effects shots but to exercise the right level of sophistication to make the shot as believable as possible.”

Franklin’s work, which is characterized by meticulous, scientific attention to photo-realistic detail, is partly a result of his frequent collaboration with Christopher Nolan, who favors a hyper-realistic style.

Franklin is aware that preference has nudged his work toward realism, but he also sees a more personal style emerge on the more abstract effects, like his past efforts on the “Harry Potter” movies and the Limbo Beach sequence of “Inception.”

“I’m drawing on artistic and creative references I’ve picked up over the last 25-30 years since I started in art school,” he says.

“The Limbo Beach cityscape that’s falling into the sea owes a lot to concepts from early modernism, particularly early modernist architecture,” he adds, “(such as) the Bauhaus artists and the Russian Constructivists. Friends from art school can spot my ideas and say they remind them of drawings I did back (then).”

With David Yates directing and Tim Burke as vfx supervisor, the “Harry Potter” pictures have moved toward a realistic, almost gritty look — within the strictures of the family-friendly magical realm of the stories. Stuart Craig, production designer on the series, says the place one might spot Burke’s hand is in the atmospheric effects, such as spells, or the patina on digital set extensions.

“The architectural set extensions are to a large extent conditioned by the architectural drawings from the art department,” says Craig, “but not completely. There’s atmospheric perspective where things get bluer and mistier as they recede into the distance.”

Burke was also a big part of the pictures’ creature design, says Craig, making sure animators got involved early.

“Tim has taught us all that what works in a two-dimensional drawing doesn’t necessarily work as a moving, three-dimensional animated creature,” Craig says.

Vfx supervisors are aware of styles, or at least strengths, in each other’s work. Franklin says he can spot work by his former colleague Janek Sirrs, who was the studio vfx supervisor for “Iron Man 2.” “His work has a very strong photorealistic aspect,” says Franklin. “There’s a clarity, a lack of fussiness. It gets straight to the point and does everything it needs to do.”

Franklin also believes he can pinpoint where vfx supe Angus Bickerton made a unique contribution to “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

“Angus is very strong on illustration and design,” he says, “and that fits perfectly with a film like ‘Narnia’ where you have the storybook sensibility.”

Ben Snow, who worked under Sirrs as Industrial Light & Magic’s vfx supervisor on “Iron Man 2,” also can identify strengths, and maybe a touch of personality, in other supervisors’ work.

He says “Hereafter’s” Michael Owens “has a fairly realistic look and there’s a rigor and a realism I look forward to seeing.” On John Gaeta, of the “Matrix” trilogy, he detects “a flamboyance there sometimes, and an inventive quirkiness.”

Yet probably the most senior of the vfx supes in the race this year, “Alice in Wonderland’s” Ken Ralston, is reluctant to claim any style or stamp of his own.

“I try to become the director, become his vision, the emotional nuances he wants in the shot, get all that in,” says Ralston. “All the things that influence me come to bear, so I guess there may be a stamp there, but I don’t do it deliberately.”

Yet Ralston is highly esteemed among his peers for his artistry. He sees no paradox there.

“I believe what I do is an art,” he offers. “Becoming that thing, that overall look of a movie, the feel of a movie, the vision of a movie, is an art in itself. And it’s not an easy thing to do. To get your ego out of the way and become the movie is not easy.”

That attitude is common among vfx supervisors, and it’s appreciated by the pros with whom they collaborate; those filmmakers must trust the vfx department not to upstage their work.

As ILM’s Snow says: “We are commercial artists, and we’re working at the service of the directors and the films.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sounds & Editing:
How to spot the vfx pro’s signature | Editors say the eyes have it | ‘Unstoppable’s’ track trek | Music shapes sound effects | Echoes of the Old West | Silent takes speak volumes