Visual effects for "San Junipero" episode from Season 3 of "Black Mirror". Courtesy of Painting Practice

Invisible digital worlds – interview with Dan May

March 20th, 2017
Visual effects for "San Junipero" episode from Season 3 of "Black Mirror". Courtesy of Painting Practice

Last month I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Joel Collins about the production design of the extraordinary “Black Mirror”. And today I am thrilled to have an opportunity to talk with Joel’s colleague at Painting Practice, the VFX art director Dan May. Dan’s portfolio is as wide and deep as the variety of positions he has explored over the years in the art department – from concept artist to matte painter to pre-vis artist to art director to, most recently, the crossover roles that bridge the worlds of physical and digital. In this interview we talk about the role of a VFX art director and where it fits in the ever-evolving world of art and technology of feature films and episodic TV productions, diving deeper into the intricate universe of “Black Mirror”.

Kirill: Please tell us about how you started in the field.

Dan: I’ve been quite lucky. My dad was an actor, and when I was at school I already knew I wanted to do something in set design. I used to go to theaters and see him play in musicals and other productions, and when I went backstage, set design was always magical for me. You could be in a mundane space on the outside, and then you go inside on a stage and there’s something amazing – a forest or a New York street. You walk behind it and there’s nothing, just plywood and people smoking. There was magic in that for me.

I pushed in that direction when I was at college. Originally I was going to do theater design, and I did my internship at the Royal Opera House making models. I had a really good tutor called Moira Tait who had lots of connections in the industry and a lot of her students become senior people in the industry that are often looking for new juniors and apprentices. I spent the first year of my career working on a list of people I’d like to work. Every Monday morning my job was to go down that list, find them and ask if I could come over to see what they were doing. Lots of people replied that they didn’t have time, but eventually you’d get lucky and they invite you to come over and show your work.

Eventually I got a few breaks and I started at the bottom of the art department, drawing things like windows and doors, going on set and doing the things that you do at the bottom of the ladder. You’re making tea, driving to get prints, helping to dress sets – there’s lots of things to do. And I enjoyed that.

I was always into the CG (computer graphics) side of things, and when I started out twenty years ago, it didn’t really exist. Some people in the art department were starting to use computers, but mainly it was in VFX (visual effects). I started using 3D modeling software early on, and a lot of people were freaked out by it. I did very early pre-vis on some set designs, helping the art department to calculate where the back windows go.

At that point I was getting quite a few jobs, and I was able to go around and see different designers. At that time Joel Collins was doing commercial and music video work. I went to show him my work, and he was really into it. He didn’t understand all of it, but he knew that the computer side of things was going to be good. We did a few smaller jobs together, and I continued to work on bigger feature films, doing 3D set design, drawing in the computer. As I was getting better at it, I worked with Joel quite a lot. We were doing much bigger productions at that point, working with people like David Slade, Hammer and Tongs and Traktor.

We started traveling around the world to places like South Africa and Prague, doing a lot of high-profile work. I’ve gained a lot of experience in set design, and at the same time I was quite keen to do VFX and post-production design. We were building our sets, but also designing matte paintings for post houses. That evolved and grew to the point about ten years ago when I said that it was what I needed to do. And if we wanted to do it well, we needed more equipment and more people to help us.

Back then we started getting into pre-vis which was in its early infancy. They’ve been doing a lot of it in US, but there was only one company doing it here in the UK somewhere in Soho. There was that gap in the market, so we started pre-vis. We kind of got lucky because nobody was doing it at that stage. I did pre-vis on “Quantum of Solace”, “Angels and Demons” and a couple of other big films. It was a fast learning curve because a lot of people didn’t understand what it was for. It frustrated people.

Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: What kind of a frustration are we talking about?

Dan: It’s a tool that needs to be used right, and to be engaged with by all the department heads. Otherwise it costs a lot of money and doesn’t gain anything for anyone. Everyone needs to have time and energy to feed into it for it to be of any value. Otherwise you have people best-guessing what the director and the cinematographer and the production designer want to see.

But over time it has changed. People now understand what it’s for. It’s more productive and efficient, and that’s what I’m doing right now for my next production. Everyone is engaged, and it’s essential to the pipeline. We have people building sets and making shots, and it’s all working very fluidly.

That took us ten years of understanding what the company does, and understanding how the computer tools have evolved. The ethos of our company is about how the two worlds, that of the traditional art department and that of visual effects, are combined and how they work together in pre-production for the shoot to be better, as well as for post-production to be more efficient. If it works, the final product is more creative and better for it.

It’s still very much work in progress. People are changing the rules trying to figure out how it works. Who drives the pre-vis? When does the VFX start? There’s an enormous amount of VFX work on these big-budget productions these days. It might be something invisible that you don’t want the audience to be aware of – like set extensions for period films. You don’t want the audience to see that it’s CG. It’s part of the rollercoaster ride of going to see a film. You want to see beautiful shots and amazing things.

Matte painting for “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

“Black Mirror” fits in a different camp. VFX wants to be invisible and accepted as a part of that world. But at the same time, people are interested in us trying to predict what’s next. They want to see a less showy and a more realistic version of what the future might look like. I can’t talk for the creators or the producers of the show, but in general the opinion of VFX that Joel and I share is for the show to be pared down. It has to be believable and acceptable. I think that’s what people like about it. It feels like a very believable universe. It’s not too glitzy.

There have been moments in the third season which are more traditional VFX shots. They’ve been generated from scratch in CG, but they had to be completely photo-real. We didn’t want them to feel created in any shape or form.

That’s where we are at the moment. The company is a mixture of concept design, matte painting and motion graphics. We’re in this weird space between an art-based pre-production company and a VFX house. We do use fairly expensive bits of software and equipment to do what we do. It’s the same tools that a VFX house would use, but primarily for the design purposes. We have to create a place to house that, to have an office with the people that service that equipment. I suppose that by necessity we are a production company of art work and art creation that can service any point in the production process.

In the ideal world, like with “Black Mirror”, we service from the very beginning seed of the story all the way through to the very end. On most of the episodes of the third season it was myself, Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn or another freelancer Sean Mathiesen who VFX-supervised all the shots to the very end. I was also the VFX art director for Joel on most of the show, and Joel did the production design for all the episodes.

So we’ve started at the very beginning in terms of conceptualizing what the VFX would look like. And then it’s our responsibility, but not necessarily our job, to facilitate the look of those and get them signed off by Charlie, Annabel and the directors, so that everybody is happy with the final result. We wouldn’t necessarily do that through our company. It would be done with vendors like Framestore, Glassworks and Jellyfish.

Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: Does it help that you are the one company who does both sides of the sets – physical and digital?

Dan: That would be my ideal world. In that world the VFX house would very much be part of the pre-production process. It still needs to be designed by the art department, but nowadays those houses already have art departments. They are gaining experience in that aspect too.

My cheesy saying is that I’m happy ‘to design in pixels or plaster’. It doesn’t matter for me which one you’re doing it in. Ideally, it’s whatever works for the production. If the production can’t afford to build a huge set, then half of it is finished in post. If the production can’t afford to have lots of post, you build a set and don’t shoot off that set. In either case you need to visualize that set to understand what it is. Anyway a producer or company should think about it in both cases to see what’s the most economic route.

This is especially relevant if you’re dealing with digital actors or entities like creatures or robots that you might have to perform to. It’s impossible to understand what something will cost until you start to include it in the pre-production process of story building.

From the traditional point of view, most of the work that we do now  is in the design of the environment, from conception of a set to building, shooting and extending it as a matte painting. We’re comfortable in all these areas. And we defer to bigger VFX houses when it gets to bigger, more traditional VFX work like weather, rig removal, roto-scoping, character animation or creature creation. That is the bread and butter of VFX houses. We would design that creature and express how it moves, but we wouldn’t get into rendering it out and putting it in the shot.

Concept art work for “Maleficent”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: Bringing you back a bit to when digital started to gain a foothold in feature films, do you think there was a mismatch of a sort between what the proponents of technology promised it could deliver and what it was actually able to? My outsider impression was that there were quite a few people that wanted to see all-digital productions where everything is created in CG. How do you think it evolved over the last decade or so as far as the capability of the tools, but also the sensibilities of directors and cinematographers?

Dan: You answered your own question in many ways. There are always going to be directors who would want to work in the digital world and create everything there. You have James Cameron with “Avatar” and Jon Favreau who did “Jungle Book” in pure digital. But then there are other directors who want tangible physical sets. I think that any actor you ask would prefer something to be there. Some directors don’t want digital at all. They prefer to see everything for real, to have a set on camera where the DoP [director of photography] lights what is there.

In fact, when I started out, all the construction people were in fear of the computer. They saw it as the prediction of their demise. But it actually has gone the other way. In order to create the fantastical worlds in the blockbusters, you have to create equally ambitious sets for the actors to run through on camera so that you extend them to an even bigger universe. The films have ballooned in scale on all levels.

I think people thought it would be an efficiency saving where you’d create the sets on computer to save money. We might be at the tipping point where it is like that, where the art and the technology reach an apex where it becomes more affordable, and you have to build less. We’re getting close to that. If you have the right team, where the director knows what they want to shoot, and you build the smaller part of that set because you’re confident of where the shots are going to be and how they are going to extend them digitally afterwards.

But there are always going to be producers, directors and actors who would want to be on a real set. It’s not a death knell. It’s a bit of both. I’m happy in both, and I’d be sad on the day when they don’t build sets anymore. If I’m honest, I do prefer to work on shows that are more digital. You’re not as constrained when it comes to designing because of gravity, engineering, expense of materials or practical issues of shooting on locations. There’s huge amount of wood and plaster used, and even though some of it is recycled, there’s so much that ends up thrown in a bin after the shoot.

Concept art work for “Maleficent”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

I’ve worked in all disciplines, and the one I enjoy the most is animation and VFX creation. I’ve done work on “Maleficent” castles, and I’ve spent a lot of time concepting the castle on “Beauty and the Beast” which is coming out this month. I was the main concept artist on that castle, working with a with the Art Director James Foster and the production designer Sarah Greenwood. They brought me in to do the castle extension work to make it fit with the sets. There were lots of sets to be built in camera because that’s what they wanted to do for the musical numbers and it was probably more affordable that way. And then those physical sets had to connect to the digital castle that was being built by a couple of post houses.

We had to plan different shots, and that’s where my job often gets confusing. You’re designing something in the art department, and then you have the VFX department trying to figure out what it will be in the end, and there’s another department doing pre-vis and shot sequences for the director. And as they are planning what the camera would see throughout that sequence affects what the art department is designing and making physically, and that has the knock-on effect on what the post would have to make work.

When I’m doing concept work or VFX art direction, as  I did on “Jungle Book”, I very much like to also do the pre-vis work myself, or to be involved in that stage. That way everything we are designing is fed into pre-vis, and pre-vis is kicking back things that do or do not work. That’s exactly what we’re doing on the show that I’m working on at the moment. Our company is doing all the art and design, as well as the pre-vis. Everything is inter-linked. I have people in our art department doing pre-vis so that when something is changed it’s OK,  because we’re doing both jobs. Everything feeds back to the right people so that it all works when it’s on camera.

Concept art work for “Maleficent”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

I feel that a lot of films could be that way, to be more creative and to save the production a lot of money. Often it’s very hard to get all the right characters to talk to one another. Things start late, or the company that is doing the pre-vis is in another country, so they can’t be next to the art department. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done still.

Essentially, all the big tent-pole productions have an animation pipeline. There are some physical things that are shot, but the sheer volume of shots they end up doing, upwards of 1500 or 2000 shots, is the same as animation. Often, other than cleaning the physical plate and putting their elements in, they pretty much go through the same process as an animation film would. However, an animation film would have three or four years to do that, but a feature would have two or less.

They would do a year of storyboarding, pre-vis and planning on an animation film, and then all the shots would make sense. But on most features you have much less than that. And if things in pre-vis don’t sit with what is shot, then you get into major design, budgetary and production problems. That doesn’t have much to do with “Black Mirror”, but rather goes to what we’re trying to do at Painting Practice with our productions.

“Black Mirror” is not a typically tent-pole VFX show. There are certain scenes that need a lot of VFX design and planning, and often myself or Justin would do some pre-vis for that. There’s rarely a budget though to hire a whole pre-vis team to work something out.

Concept art work for “Maleficent”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: If we’re talking about “Black Mirror”, how did it start for you?

Dan: Joel was the series designer on all the episodes of the show so far, and I mainly got into the second episode of that first season – “Fifteen Million Merits”. We saw that it was a very visual show, with what we call world creation. We needed to design a science fiction world, and it really grabbed me. I also like shows that are hard or virtually impossible to do, where there’s something complex about them, like the budget or the way they have to be shot.

That happened on “Black Mirror” where it felt that the only way to do it with the budget we had was to have all the motion graphics in camera. I wasn’t even sure that it was achievable, but I said that we’d have a go at it. We built all the sets with what was, at the time, quite hi-tech screens with small bezels around them. We connected them together to feel like a seamless single panel screen. They were all LED and we found a bunch of programmes that would allow us to play back the motion graphics that we’ve created in real time.

We had little hidden cameras on the set, and we were going with it like a news company. We would play back live, so that when Daniel Kaluuya the actor was on the set manipulating things in the room, we would see those movements and cue the matching graphics. I suppose that now the technology is almost there that we could programme it for him to do it live. But that was six years ago, and it either didn’t exist, or if it existed, it would cost a fortune. I think that when it came out, everyone thought that we did it in VFX and comp’d all the graphics in.

I also wanted it for the interactive lighting. If we shot it all on blue or black screen, and then comp’d it all in, because of the very close proximity of the actors to the screens, you would find it really difficult to look right. It would not sit well.

The screens of “Fifteen Million Merits” episode from Season 1 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: So you’re talking about the light that spills from the screen on the actors’ faces.

Dan: Right. If it was green or blue, it wouldn’t be quite right. We made the screens quite glossy, and then we made a reflection pass. But the main part was indeed about the light. Often the graphics were quite gaudy and bold, and that was what Charlie was going for. He wanted that graphic world to be hectic and mad. There were old-style computer games with 8-bit graphics, basic reds, greens and blues. If somebody was standing in close proximity to the screen, you would definitely get a lot of light leak.In order for it to work, you had to believe that they were interacting with the screens and they were completely surrounded by that technology.

In addition to doing VFX, I was also co-designing that episode with Joel. We were nominated for it, which was great. We were really surprised, because often those things go to period dramas ( A Period drama won it of course!) . I think it was ground-breaking that we did it all in camera. It was a really fun job to do.

It was also very stressful. I felt sorry for the director Euros Lyn because they had a bare minimum of coverage to pull it together. The shoot was only about two weeks, and it took so long to set up the renders and the computers, and to get the lighting right for the cameras. If we did it again, we’d definitely ask for twice the shoot time just to allow for the setup of the graphics, and to have more time for the actors and the director to do takes.

Concept art for “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

It all comes with experience. At the time “Black Mirror” did not have a big budget. It was exciting, but no one really knew what it was going to be. We had no idea and we just enjoyed doing it. It was great working with Charlie. He had great ideas about the world he was creating, and I think we all enjoyed immensely the first season.

It was a steep learning curve. Not much has changed since. We are doing similar stories. The budgets do get bigger, but it gets more complicated. You have more experienced people who want to spend more money, and it becomes the same situation where you want to make that money go further. Things cost more.

Kirill: And you never can say “no” from the production perspective. You need to find a way to make it work.

Dan: You always say “yes” secretly meaning “no” or “later”. Joel has to sometimes because it’s just impossible. At certain times it’s unrealistic.

Sometimes you say, “We can do this for you, but it will look terrible because we don’t have the time to do it properly”. Or “We would happily do this for you, but it would look terrible because we don’t have enough money to make the set look good, and it’ll be painted really quickly”. It’s something positive and negative. Some directors come to you and say that they are not going to do something if they don’t have enough shoot time. Then it’s an easier job from the beginning.

Concept art for “San Junipero” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: How was the third season for you? Was it more work because of that bigger budget?

Dan: Yes. It was twice the work, and not much more time. They’ve doubled the schedule, with a little bit of a break in the middle for Christmas. It was slightly more complicated because the new directors came from the world of feature film, and they wanted more in terms of design. Everyone wanted it to be essentially the same type of show – why fix what is not broken? Maybe we went a bit more global in terms of the locations and the acting talent.

Because of that we had to ramp up a bit. On the previous shows we were assisted by Technicolor with the visual effects, mainly in comping and grade. But a lot of it was DIY at Painting Practice, with Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn being the VFX supervisor. We had a very small VFX budget, and we did a lot of it in house. On the third season we knew that we wouldn’t be able to do that on six back-to-back episodes with the level of things that we were asked to do.

At the time when we were trying to piece the season together we only knew about three of the stories. This is one of the most stressful parts of the show – trying to preempt and guess what Charlie will come up with next. Who is going to be directing it and what they might want? What kind of budgets you would have to put together for that? The production needs to keep the budget realistic, but at the same time we didn’t know what we have to contend with.

Very quickly we learned that we needed a VFX producer to run across all the shows in the season, and to make sure that all the delivery would be done on time. We needed multiple vendors because the shows were overlapping, and we wanted to be able to outsource the shots to a number of different companies – and someone needed to manage that.

Matte paintings for “San Junipero” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

My job at the beginning was to be the VFX art director to help Joel visualize all the ideas, across motion graphics, concept design, set design, set extension and just general concept art. As Charlie and the writers were coming up with ideas, Joel would suggest things and we needed some people within Painting Practice to visualize those things. We have a number of graphics design artists working at the studio – Gemma Kingsley, Simon Russell, Jon Wilkinson and a few others.

Part of that process was finding the right people with the right skills for those genres. Different artists have different types of things that they enjoy doing. Gemma knew the show really well, so we put her straight away to do “Nosedive” because she had done social media and iconic graphics for us before on quite a few things. And I’ve been working with Simon Russell who is really good at complex motion graphics, doing sophisticated things in 3D with crazy particles.  He was perfect to do the hive in “Hated in the Nation”.

Part of it for me was facilitating the design across all the episodes through content design, prop design, set extension work and getting the right artists to do motion graphics. For the most part Joel and Charlie had very specific ideas about how things should be. We would try something, and if Charlie liked it, we would evolve it. And in some cases the artists had brought a lot to the table already because of the work they already had. Justin was the VFX art director “Men Against Fire” and the VFX supervisor on “Playtest”. I didn’t really need to get involved in those ones at all.

For “Nosedive” we couldn’t find a VFX supervisor that could do the whole show, so Sean Mathiesen did the shoot because I couldn’t go to South Africa at the time as I was prepping the other ones. And then I delivered the VFX, which was the first time I’ve done that. I’ve done VFX work, but I was never the VFX supervisor. That was a steep learning curve, but I enjoyed it. And then on “Hated in the Nation” we had vendors working on various shots, but no one person to bring deliver the vision of the graphics through animation and motion graphics. We had lots of people working on different parts, but no one was collectively making sure that it was all sitting together, so that job was mine as well.

Concept art for “Hated in the Nation” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: What about the technology in “Hated in the Nation”? Blue’s laptop had some kind of a soft touch keyboard, and there was a curved screen in the self-driving SUV – just as a couple of examples. How do those pieces get defined?

Dan: In this particular case we had different artists working on those pieces. By that time we’d already worked on eleven or twelve episodes of “Black Mirror”, and the process starts by asking what we can do with screens. The first question that comes up is which world are we in now?  Are we in analog screens, in today’s screens, or in screens of the future? In “Nosedive” we were in a plexi-world, for example.

There is also a nice cross-pollination of design for the shows. They are independent and very much films in their own right. The screen technology and some other cross-overs are a part of the show’s look. Each show very much exists in its own universe, but there is definitely the “Black Mirror” universe. I suppose screen technology is one of those signifiers of that “Black Mirror” world.

We were keen on using a real Landrover car so that it felt like it was something that was going to be out in a few years time, to be something believable. Joel fought quite hard to have a permission to use the real car. There were talks about the GUI that would be in that car, taking what was physically in it at the time and have it dictate the screen space. We didn’t want it to be too showy. I think it drew upon quite a bit on our previous episodes in terms of design.

We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel on it. The police station was rather subdued and believable, with nothing too showy or spectacular. We wanted it to feel like something that we’d be seeing in three or four years’ time, but not be boring either. We didn’t just want a desktop with Sierra, Safari, or Windows XP opening up Excel documents. There needed to be a certain amount of tech that was not dull.

Blue was quite technical, and you needed to have something believable like a programming language, but not baffling or boring to look at. It was about finding that balance.

Matte painting for “Hated in the Nation” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: Do you find that it’s hard for you to describe what you do when people ask what you do for a living? You wear so many hats, and the particular hat of a VFX art director has a very cryptic description.

Dan: It is a new role that is now becoming more common. I’ve been a VFX art director for a long time, but I didn’t know I was one until 3-4 years ago. That’s when it became a title on American productions that had an enormous amount of VFX work that needed to be art-directed at those houses. That’s when it became easier to say what I am. I did that role on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 2005, but at the time no one knew that the title existed, my role was between a concept artist and an art director.

In the past I’ve always been Joel’s right-hand man and assistant. It was always difficult to give myself a clear role. And part of it was because I don’t always know what I want to do. I get interested in doing lots of different things. My CV is a bit of a jack of all trades.

I enjoy it. The best way to describe it is that I’m a symptom of what my company does. I can and will happily do all the disciplines that fall under Painting Practice’s banner. Sometimes I do one of them on one particular job, like doing concept art for “Maleficent” and “Beauty and the Beast”. On “Jungle Book” I was a VFX art director, and I did that as well as VFX supervision on “Black Mirror” out of necessity. I might do VFX supervision again, but then I might not. It’s not something that I think of at the moment.

Right now I’m sequence-directing for an animation film. It’s really enjoyable and it inhabits all of those roles. It has pre-vis, lighting, concept design, and it’s fun. It’s quite nice to have a break from a project where you have to supervise a lot of people. I think the next job I’ll do is going to be a concept artist again. I’ll work under a production designer and make pretty pictures for someone. That’s what I enjoy the most, but it’s not very good for the company if I’m just sitting there doing a nice pretty picture.

Concept art for “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: Going back to the push and pull between physical and digital, do you think it’s still a struggle for people who started in the art department a long time ago to adjust and accept the presence of these digital tools in the overall production?

Dan: Without a doubt. I’ve been fighting that for the first half of my career. It was very frustrating, I suppose because of my youth and ambition, or perhaps my naivety. After a while I realized that some people are not going to listen to me, and I need to go off and do that on my own. That’s why I started the company. And even then you have to sell those services to people. Some people are really into it and can see it, while others see it as a job threat. You get pushed off when you have a computer. You shouldn’t be in the art department, you should be in the VFX. It was that kind of thing.

But know I have lots of friends in the art department that are comfortable in both. I feel quite lucky that I’ve worked in both areas, that I can still pick up a pencil and draw a house on tracing paper on a drawing board, or make a model of it. It’s just so much easy to do that on a computer, so that’s what I do.

I think it’s changing. A lot of those people are either retiring or realizing that it’s just part of their world now. I think that the more relevant question is not whether that exists because that happens across the entire world. I’ll soon bemoan people who are doing it all virtually without having to render things as I did. They’re going to render it in two seconds in Octane while I have to sit and watch my render for 30 minutes. You either moan about it or get excited and embrace it.

So the more relevant question that I mentioned earlier is when the VFX becomes the art, and the art becomes the VFX. Or perhaps when the VFX doesn’t exist and the art doesn’t exist, and they are the same thing. That to me is the question that I want to answer in the next ten years. Is there going to be a 100% blend? Is it going to be financial, creative or both?

Kirill: It’s certainly very impressive for me as a viewer how much it opens up the possibilities of story telling. I’m thinking of movies such as “Gravity” or “Life of Pi”, productions that might not have been possible twenty years ago.

Dan: It’s an amazing tool, and if it’s used by the right directors for the right reasons, it always adds something. You don’t have to use it all the time. There are lots of films that you watch and enjoy just as much when it’s all shot for real. And then there are directors like Ang Lee who wanted to make something more wonderful because they can – and they do. They are great people to work for, because why not do that?

It feels like we’re in a sort of a bubble right now. I think that the superhero genre in terms of VFX design is probably at its peak. We’ve been at amp 12 for the last five years. How many buildings can we explode? How many characters can we throw through six windows? How many creatures can we have flying around, smashing everything? How many times can we destroy New York over and over again? That’s a bit tired. We might see some quieting down on that.

But there’s certainly millions of other productions out there that can do amazing things with VFX that have not been done yet. I don’t know what they are, but I’m sure they are out there.

Concept art work for “Maleficent”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

And here I’d like to thank Dan May for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about the intersection of physical and digital in feature films and episodic TV productions. I’d also like to thank Anton Rush and the whole team at Painting Practice for providing the supporting materials for the interview. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.