Tuesday, July 17, 2018
  • Monday, Oct. 30, 2017
A New VFX "Wrinkle" For Director Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay
Filmmaker discusses her visual effects education in keynote session at VES Summit; others speakers, including two Hall of Fame inductees, share insights
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Becoming the first woman of color to direct a feature with a budget of $100 million-plus is an historic achievement for Ava DuVernay who’s currently in post on that Disney film, A Wrinkle in Time. A key part of her experience on the tentpole movie--which is slated for release in March 2018--has been gaining an education in visual effects, thanks to a number of giving artists, including VFX supervisor Rich McBride, an Oscar nominee last year for The Revenant.

DuVernay talked about the value of learning from her collaborators during a keynote session for the day-long Visual Effects Society (VES) Society Summit held on Saturday (10/28) in Los Angeles. Prior to A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay said her visual effects knowledge was pretty much confined to digital crowd creation for Selma, which entailed turning a hundred extras into a couple thousand civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama.

For A Wrinkle in Time, McBride and his colleagues were kind and willing to share their expertise with DuVernay, even showing her preliminary stages in effects creation that she didn’t necessarily have to see. DuVernay said, though, that the exposure to the seemingly unnecessary layers became necessary in that it gave her a better handle on the overall process, engendering questions on her part that proved valuable when it came to those elements which required her attention.

DuVernay urged VES Summit attendees to extend to newcomers the same courtesies and willingness to share that McBride and his team afforded her. She affirmed that part of being a community of collaborators entails showing those “who are not the same as you”--such as a woman or person of color--”the kindness to enter this space and give them the tools to blossom.” 

DuVernay described her visual effects education on A Wrinkle in Time as being “transformative,” noting that she never envisioned being at the helm of a VEX-intensive tentpole feature. With tongue in cheek, DuVernay noted that McBride has created a nightmarish monster, turning her into “a VFX snob” who’s now more demanding because she knows now what’s possible through the magic of visual effects.

Based on the novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time features a cast which includes Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Chris Pine.

Mead, Trumbull
Among other featured speakers at the VES Summit were two luminaries who at the end of the day’s proceedings were inducted into the newly created VES Hall of Fame: Syd Mead, VES Visionary Award-winning visual futurist and conceptual artist who was responsible for the look of seminal films including Blade Runner, Aliens and TRON; and Douglas Trumbull, filmmaker, innovator, entrepreneur, multiple award-winning VFX supervisor, VES Fellow and Lifetime member of the Society and winner of its Georges Méliès Award (Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

During a morning session, Trumbull told the VES gathering that movie attendance is down, making it imperative that the industry figure out ways to make the theater-going experience compelling enough to draw in more audience. While the issue is top of mind for the industry, not so, he contended, is one key solution--increasing frame rate in that the standard 24fps is no longer enough to facilitate rich storytelling and immersive experiences. Trumbull called upon the industry to insist on higher frame rates, joining the ranks of such leading advocates as directors Peter Jackson, Ang Lee and James Cameron. Otherwise, audience will continue to erode at cinema theaters.

Mead served as the VES Summit’s closing keynote speaker, interviewed on stage by long-time friend, director/VFX supervisor/designer Richard Winn Taylor II. Back when Taylor was at Triple I, he recalled asking Ridley Scott whom he had selected to design the Spinner Police car in Blade Runner. Scott hadn’t decided yet, to which Taylor said he couldn’t believe he wasn’t using Syd Mead. Scott didn’t know who Mead was, at which point Taylor showed him the visual futurist’s illustrations in U.S. Steel books. “The rest is history,” said Taylor. 

Mead also lent his visual sensibilities to the recently released Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve who wrote the foreword to Mead’s new book “The Movie Art of Syd Mead.”

Mead exhibited a wry sense of humor during his talk, sharing for instance that “chrome is my favorite color” while expressing his admiration for the work done by his VES audience, noting that “you guys an take a dumb story and make it visually entertaining.” At the age of 84, Mead said his plans for the near future are to “remember my medication” and “to stay an intelligent observer.” 

As evidenced by Blade Runner 2049, though, Mead continues to stay busy as an artist, breaking new ground. In that vein, he cited as a key contributing factor his penchant for hanging around intelligent people. He stressed it’s important to seek out and work with people “smarter than you” in order to help elevate the quality of the work.

Asked what his remedy would be for the declining movie theater attendance addressed earlier in the day by Trumbull, Mead said that the in-theater experience needs to be improved. He recalled that theaters “used to be movie temples” and perhaps part of the answer is to again romanticize the movie-going experience.

Trumbull, who was in the audience, then told Mead, one VES Hall of Famer to another, that a highlight of his career was “the privilege of bringing your visions to the screen” in Blade Runner.

Hall of Fame, Special Honors
The 9th Annual VES Summit celebrated the Society’s milestone 20th anniversary. Capping the Summit was the induction of the inaugural class into the VES Hall of Fame, as well as the presentation of special honors.

VES Hall of Fame inductees were:

  • Robert Abel (posthumous) - VES and Clio Award-winning innovator in Digital and CG Visual Effects (TRON, Star Trek: The Motion Picture)
  • Ed Catmull, VES - Multiple Academy Award-winning president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studio, VES Fellow and recipient of the VES Georges Méliès Award
  • Roger Corman - Independent producer and director who helped start the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron (A Bucket of Blood, Tales of Terror, Boxcar Bertha, Battle Beyond the Stars)
  • Linwood Dunn (posthumous) - Academy Award-winning VFX photographer who refined the Optical Printer and was an Honorary VES member (Citizen Kane, Mighty Joe Young, The Great Race)
  • Peter Ellenshaw (posthumous) - Academy Award-winning matte painter (Treasure Island, Darby O’Gill and The Little People, Mary Poppins)
  • Jim Henson (posthumous) - Pioneering puppeteer whose Creature Shop was the gold standard (Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth)
  • Ub Iwerks (posthumous) - Academy Award-winning animator and VFX innovator who perfected combining live-action with animation (Steamboat Willie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Birds)
  • John Knoll - VES, BAFTA and Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor and co-creator of Photoshop software; chief creative officer at ILM and former VES Board member (The Star Wars, Star Trek and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, Avatar, Rango, Super 8, Hugo, Pacific Rim)
  • Grant McCune (posthumous) - Academy Award-winning VFX artist and modelmaker (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Battlestar Gallactica, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Ghostbusters II, Speed, Sphere, Red Planet)
  • George Méliès (posthumous) - Illusionist and director (Le Voyage Dans La Lune, The Voyage Across the Impossible)
  • Dennis Muren, VES - Multiple Emmy, BAFTA and Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor;  VES Fellow, Lifetime member of the Society and winner of the VES Lifetime Achievement Award (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park)
  • Willis O’Brien (posthumous) - Visual effects stop-motion animation pioneer, writer and director (The Dinosaur and The Missing Link, King Kong [1933], The Lost World)
  • Carlo Rambaldi (posthumous) - Multiple Academy Award-winning VFX artist (King Kong [1976], Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)
  • Phil Tippett, VES - Multiple Emmy, BAFTA and Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor;  VES Fellow and winner of the VES Georges Méliès Award (Jurassic Park, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Dinosaur!, Starship Troopers)
  • Joe Viskocil (posthumous) - Academy Award-winning special effects artist who specialized in miniatures and pyrotechnics (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
  • Petro Vlahos (posthumous) - Emmy and Academy Award-winning pioneer in blue-screen technology (Ben-Hur, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope)
  • Albert Whitlock (posthumous) - Emmy and Academy Award-winning matte painter (The Birds, The Sting, The Hindenburg)
  • Stan Winston (posthumous) - Multiple VES, Emmy and Academy Award-winning practical, prosthetic and creature effects artist, director and producer (Edward Scissorhands, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens)
  • Matthew Yuricich (posthumous) - Academy Award-winning VFX matte painter (Ben-Hur, Blade Runner, Die Hard)

The alluded to special honors included the 2017 VES Founders Award being bestowed upon VFX producer and VES member Toni Pace Carstensen while also presenting effects producer Chuck Finance, longstanding member of the VES Awards Committee, with a Lifetime VES Membership, and Bob Burns, VFX archivist and practitioner, with an Honorary VES Membership. 

Additionally, three 2017 VES Fellows were named: four-time effects Oscar winner Joe Letteri, director, Weta Digital; VFX supervisor John Richardson; and VFX producer Lynda Ellenshaw Thompson.