July 5th, 2016

The magic of visual effects – interview with Jay Grunfeld

His first feature film was the seminal “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. Later on he was part of the team that won the Oscars for best achievement in visual effects on “Golden Compass” and “Life of Pi”. And just some of his recent work includes “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Fast and Furious 7”, both parts of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” and the most recent “Captain America: Civil War”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Jay Grunfeld to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

In this interview Jay talks about his last ten years working primarily as a digital compositor on a variety of productions, the ongoing evolution of tools and artistic capabilities of software tools at his disposal, holographic screens and their applicability in the real world, and his excitement about the virtual reality revolution. We also talk about his work as the visual effects supervisor on “Mockingjay”, its technology, screen and holographic projections.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your professional path so far.

Jay: My name is Jay Grunfeld and I work as a visual effects compositor/supervisor. I was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in New City, NY, a suburb of NYC in the Hudson Valley. Growing up, art and talent surrounded me. My parents knew early on that I had an eye and encouraged me to take courses at the Arts Students League and the School of Visual Arts for high school students, in addition to providing me with private lessons as well. My greatest influence is my dad, a graphic designer and a graduate of Art Center here in LA. We worked on a bunch of projects together and he was always encouraging me to try everything and anything because it always leads to something.

I went on to study photography at Cal Arts. The idea of capturing a moment in time within a frame always intrigued me but now, I create instead of capture. Unfortunately, Cal Arts suffered terrible damage due to the Northridge quake of ’94, so I spent the next six months in NY and began learning Photoshop.

After college I became interested in motion graphics. One of my early jobs was at The Picture Mill. This is where Stephen Lawes and I first met. Stephen would later hire me for my first job as a compositor on “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” “Sky Captain” was a truly innovative film as a good portion of it was computer generated. It was a feeling of freedom with an entire large canvas to create. It was on this film that I knew I had found the work I wanted to pursue.

Scene from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. Courtesy of Jay Grunfeld.

I spent the next few years working at Entity FX as a compositor, which led to Rhythm & Hues where I was part of the creative team that earned Oscars for “The Golden Compass” and “Life of Pi.” I am incredibly proud to have been a part of these films. You could say I earned my masters in compositing at R&H.

Presently, I am working at Cantina Creative. Stephen Lawes and Sean Cushing, co-owners of Cantina, have created a special, supportive environment in which to work. They both encouraged me to try my hand at supervising, which is very challenging and fulfilling. Wearing a different hat within the process I thought I knew so well was humbling.

Kirill: What drew you into the movie industry? If you go back to the time when you just started on your first feature film productions and some of the expectations that you had, how close (or far) has the reality of working in the industry turned out to be?

Jay: I never imagined working on feature films so I really had no expectations. I was always leaning towards fine arts/photography. After my experience with “Sky Captain,” I fell in love with VFX. It is extremely challenging but so rewarding. I knew then I wanted to spend my days in VFX. It’s really about the team aspect of working with different types of artists, each with their own specialty, putting their collective talents together for the same purpose.

Tiger smile from “Life of Pi”. Courtesy of Jay Grunfeld.

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June 27th, 2016

Production design of “The Last Witch Hunter” – interview with Julie Berghoff

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Julie Berghoff. In this interview Julie talks about her ongoing work on commercials, the beginning of her involvement with feature productions as the horror genre starting taking off in early 2000’s, creative collaborations across multiple departments, what makes people stay in the field and what makes people leave, and the evolving landscape of storytelling across various screens around is. The second half of the interview is about her work on “The Last Witch Hunter”, bringing together physical sets and digital extensions, working with live plants, sculpting the impressive sets for the movie, and extending the continuity of sets through post-production via collaboration with the visual effects department.

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Julie: I’m Julie Berghoff and I’m a production designer for film, TV, commercials and music videos. I’m from Chicago IL and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was always really interested in fine art, drawing and building. I completed a sculpting and a fashion degree at the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1994-2000, I worked for a graphics/model shop in Chicago called Kaleidoscope Imaging.

We worked mostly in table top which is directly connected with shooting food products. I specialized in sculpting oversized models. Some of my favorites were the oversized mini-wheats and Snickers bars and things of that nature. We’re talking about a 2-foot Snickers bar that you crack open with the real product inside. Around 1996, I did a stop-motion spot for Coca Cola, and I built all these models that moved and danced, and I fell in love with stop-motion and decided that I wanted to pursue more stop motion. Which brought me out to Portland Oregon, where I worked at Will Vinton Studios for 1.5 years. I did various positions on a Fox show called “The PJs”. It was a hilarious stop motion show about the project, starring Eddie Murphy’s voice.

Around 2002, I moved from Portland to Los Angeles and started working on commercials. The speed and accuracy of working on commercials was nerve racking. They were very demanding and definitely kept you on your toes. You have to work really fast, you have to be on the spot when you go on scouts with the director and they ask you about your vision, and you have sometimes to draw and build things in days.

Commercials really taught me how to be efficient, smart and fast with fabrication and concept ideas, but there was really no narrative aspect to it. You want to be inspired by your work and the film industry as a whole works incredibly hard. A 60-80 hour week is somewhat the norm. When you’re going to dedicate so much of your energy of you life to something. It’s important to be passionate about it and figure out how to keep the passion. I really take my time in choosing my projects, and I need to feel completely energized by it which is the tell-tale sign.

Kirill: How did the field of commercials evolve for you over the last 20 or so years? You’ve seen the advent of high-definition televisions, and explosion of video on web and mobile devices and micro-channels everywhere. Is anything different for you these days?

Julie: I just did a commercial last week, and I have to say that the client is really the king now. It was a mid-range commercial, and maybe on the higher end the directors have more of a voice, but the clients really care so much specifically about their product, and that’s what they want to focus on. And then, time permitting, you can do some fun narrative or something interesting, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make the cut.

I still find it to be a great learning platform for people starting off, much better than reality TV shows which I’ve never done. It teaches you discipline of fast film making. Working with a director, scout, producer on all the different platforms of how to make a commercial.

The more you work with people, the more shorthand you have. It’s the same as working with the same director. You know what they like, what they don’t like, how they tell a story, how they move the camera, and sometimes even what furniture style they like. Working continuously with the same people is extremely helpful.

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June 17th, 2016

A conversation about fantasy user interfaces

A few weeks ago I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to chat with Khoi Vinh about fantasy user interfaces. Khoi asked really great questions, bringing in his experience as a designer and his passion for film. We talked about the overriding directive to support the story, the fantasy bleeding into the reality and, in turn, being shaped by the advances in the world of real-life technology, trying to evaluate how well those interfaces are done, and what might be happening when virtual reality becomes a form of cinematic storytelling.

Here’s the bit where I talk about screens as plot devices that might not seem very believable:

I don’t think that the question here is about how plausible the screens are, but rather how plausible the technology that those screens manifest is. So you’d be talking about the AI engine that is J.A.R.V.I.S. in “Iron Man,” or the AI engine that is manifested as Samantha in “Her,” or being able to track the bad guys via thermal scans in a 3D rotating wireframe of a building in any number of action movies, or even the infamous zoom-rotate-enhance sequences in low-budget procedural crime drama on television. The interface bits are just the manifestation of the technology behind the screens. Are we close to wide consumer availability of J.A.R.V.I.S.-like software? There are certainly a lot of companies working on that.

When we look at the devices around us and see all the annoying bits, and then see those annoying bits not being there in a feature film, that is quite believable in my opinion. So something like not needing to charge your phone every evening or getting a strong mobile signal as you’re driving on a deserted road gets a pass. When we look at the devices around us, and see those capabilities pushed just a few steps beyond the edge of what we see right now, that is quite believable as well. Especially with the recent revelations on the state-level surveillance programs, I as a viewer am not surprised to see similar technology taken a couple steps forward in Bond, Bourne or other similar spy-action thrillers.

The full conversation is over at Khoi’s great Subtraction.com. And as always, the ongoing series of interviews I do with designers working on screen graphics and user interfaces for film and TV is just one click away.

June 16th, 2016

Production design of “Miss You Already” – interview with Amanda McArthur

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Amanda McArthur. As a production designer, she splits her time between the worlds of film, theatre and commercials. In this interview Amanda talks about starting out in the industry and how things evolved over the years, differences between doing production design for film and stage, various aspects of working on commercials, what makes people stay in the field and what makes people leave. The second half of the interview is about her work on “Miss You Already”, a touching story about lifelong friendship between two women played by Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore, and how that friendship is put to the test as one falls ill and the other starts a family.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Amanda: I grew up in New Zealand, the daughter of a sculptor and an accountant. And I figure I am something in between. My job involves creating spaces in three dimensions and bringing it in on budget. My mother was a creative force and our home and garden were always full of life, beauty and wonder. Creations would be rising out of lumps of clay, wood or resin on our kitchen bench and finding their way out into the world. My Dad had a workshop under the house. So I guess I have always been surrounded by possibilities.

I grew up partly in the country with three boys having adventures, there was always a mystery to explore, an old abandoned house, a Victorian rubbish dump filled with treasure, a maori burial site, making rafts, eeling and finding the best swimming holes in the river.

I read a lot and this fed into these adventures, we would create our own stories and legends. So I guess it was inevitable I would be attracted to bringing stories to life. Collaborating with a director and finding a visual language for a story is a thrilling thing.

Kirill: What drew you into the industry, and how those expectations compared to the reality of being in the industry?

Amanda: I remember as a child sitting in a cool, dark cinema on a hot day watching a re-run of “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang” and being captivated – the real world on the screen but magical. But my teachers at school were pushing me to be a scientist. I think the movie that changed it all for me was “Blade Runner” – the possibility of another world so beautifully realized blew me away. You always have pictures swirling in your head when you read any story and this made me realize that those pictures can become tangible. I knew what I wanted to do.

There was no training for film design in New Zealand at the time so I trained as an agency art director. A holiday job in a theatre troupe putting on a big summer spectacular was the springboard I had been looking for. And I threw myself into fringe and then mainstream theatre with abandon and did well. Downstage theatre took me on as a trainee and a new post-graduate course at University in theatre design followed. I was the guinea pig, the only student, having my lectures alone.

It was a very exciting time, lots of great new writing. In the theatre you do costume as well. It was a time of experimentation, and learning lots of different skills. I find now that all the best crew I have, have come up through the theatre. It’s incredibly hard work with a few moments of glamour and I find that theatre people have a strong imaginative backbone.

The only difficult thing was being so young and a girl. Sexism in the set building trade at that time was rife and I really had to earn my right of passage with the old construction managers. I won a few awards and then got a grant from the NZ and British arts councils to travel and study in England, at the National theatre and the Royal exchange in Manchester.

I still really wanted to get into TV and film so I knocked on lots of doors and ended up at Granada TV and then the BBC. A student film I designed at the NFTS (set in an imaginary world) got me into commercials because a director wanted that look.

Visual sketch for the apartment in “Piccadilly Jim”, courtesy of Amanda McArthur.

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