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PHYSICAL AND VISUAL EFFECTS - Job Title: Visual Effects Supervisor

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionPHYSICAL AND VISUAL EFFECTS - Job Title: Stunt Coordinator, Job Title: Aerial Director/coordinator, Job Title: Visual Effects Supervisor

JOB TITLE: VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR

Job Overview

The visual effects supervisor is responsible for designing those visual effects that cannot be produced on set due to practical, budgetary, or safety constraints. For example: a stunt involving two cars narrowly avoiding head-on collision is dangerous and expensive to create. A safer and more cost-effective way of accomplishing the stunt might be to shoot each of the cars individually and combine the footage using computer generated effects to ensure the maximum action value. Visual effects people are also responsible for correcting shots. For the movie Bounce, visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti was called upon to alter the background footage to make it appear that there was more snow. Visual effects may also be required to remove unwanted elements from shots, such as telephone wires.

Expanded Job Description

Ideally, Magliochetti is involved with a project while the script is still being written. Because of his training in writing and directing, in addition to visual effects, he is often able to make suggestions to the writer that will maximize the visual effects budget.

Generally, he reads the script and makes notes about possible effects. He meets with the director and/or producer to discuss the director's vision for various effects. Often, he reviews the storyboard to identify particular sequences that involve effects. Then he, the director, and other department heads, such as art director, stunts, and makeup effects, meet to discuss who will handle the various aspects of the effect: “If it's a transformation, makeup effects can handle the altering of the person's body structure up to a certain point. After that, a digital effect might take over to blend, or morph, to the next stage of the makeup. In the case of stunts, the stunt people will outline what they can safely do. Let's say they are going to perform a high fall off a building, but need to be tethered by some type of safety wire. We will discuss the best angle to shoot from and what it will cost to remove the wire using visual effects.”

Next, Magliochetti submits a budget that outlines what the various effects will cost. In some instances, the effects job will be presented to several effects companies and it becomes the producer's job to decide who is the most cost-effective person to deliver the quality desired.

Once filming begins, Magliochetti prefers to be on set as often as possible when scenes involving effects are shot. This enables him to do damage control, correcting potential problems and continuity errors. He also takes photographs, measurements, and notes to use when the effect is put together. Although some prep work can be done at this stage, generally he must wait until the locked picture cut of the film is available before he begins creating the effects.

Once the picture is locked, Magliochetti can begin ordering the original negative to be pulled and scanned to the specific lengths required to complete the shot. Once the footage is scanned, it can be loaded into the computer as a series of sequential files. “We don't work on it as a movie, we work on it as a group of stills. If you were to see this data in the computer, there would be the shot number, with a number after it, like 001, 002, 003. Each of these individual frames is loaded sequentially as a separate photograph.” Similar to animators working on cells, the work is broken down into single frames.

Temporary shots are completed first to ensure the visual effect is proceeding in the manner the director and producer envision. For many directors and producers, committing their film and financial resources to the visual effects department is a leap of faith. Temporary versions of the shots allow them to see they have hired the right person to deliver the effect. “We give them a lower resolution version on video so they can see the direction the effect is going in. It is a lot easier to implement any changes they have at this stage. Once everything is locked down perfectly, a change could send us back to square one. Keeping the lines of communication open is important.”

Once temps have been approved, the final render is made. “Basically, we have the computer complete the shot at film resolution. The sequential files are then transferred to a data tape and delivered to a service bureau, where the sequences are read into a laser film printer, which creates a new negative for the film—essentially a duplicate negative with the newly created visual effects in place. Then hopefully you get paid and get a credit!”

Special Skills

Visual effects artists must have advanced computer skills and an understanding of cutting edge technology as it applies to the creation of visual effects. A well-rounded background in filmmaking is a must.

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

“Learn filmmaking,” says Magliochetti. “Don't just learn computers. Film is a very collaborative medium; you need to be aware of other people's jobs. More importantly, you need to know film itself: you need to know a little about the chemical structure of film—how it works and how it reacts to light. Creating the effect is only part of the equation. Ultimately, you must make the effect look like it was shot on film. Many computer people forget this. That is why a lot of effects are digital looking. The average viewer can't really tell what is wrong with a shot, but it doesn't look right. The visual effects person's job is to integrate the digital effect into the film seamlessly, so that it looks like it was always a part of the film.”

“Learn to draw, which teaches you how to see, and then go out and make a little movie—a little short. Make as many of them as you can because the process teaches you almost everything you need to know to go out and do a visual effects supervising job … Learn how to be a filmmaker,” advises visual effects supervisor Jeffrey Okun. From the short films you create, put together a reel of your best work to show potential employers. “I recommend that you go to work at a little visual effects house where they will give you an opportunity to grow, as opposed to a big visual effects house where you'll be a runner or the guy logging stuff, and it takes years to move up … There are a billion little companies that desperately need people who want to learn and are willing to sleep on the floor or whatever it takes for their opportunity.”

Professional Profile: Al Magliochetti, Visual Effects Supervisor and Owner, Eye Candy

“I was always interested in movies,” says Al Magliochetti. “I have been making my own films since the age of ten.” The small-town Connecticut native was captivated by classic monster movies from a young age. “I didn't find them scary, I found them fascinating: when I saw the invisible man unwrap these bandages and there was no head underneath, or when I saw this man standing in the light of a full moon and then turn into a wolf—these images to a child of 7 or 8 years old were completely fascinating. I wanted to know how those effects were done.”

At the time, not much was written about how effects were created, but Magliochetti searched for answers. Along the way he learned more and more about film, developed a passion for it, and decided to make his own movies. He soon discovered that effects were a way to make his movies stand out.

After high school, Magliochetti attended film school at Columbia College in Chicago. Midway through his studies he decided to take a year off from filmmaking. “I had to decide whether it was something I wanted to pursue as a profession or if it was just a hobby. I was still locked into the small-town Connecticut mentality and didn't know for sure if it was something I could do. Hollywood seemed so far away and unapproachable; it was kind of intimidating.”

During the year break from film school, Magliochetti attended a state college, taking general education classes and discovering that he missed filmmaking. With much of his general course work behind him, he was able to concentrate on film for the remainder of his college education, enrolling at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. “At the time, it was the number four film school in the country. They used teachers from NYU, the number three film school in the country.”

While other Bridgeport film students made several short films, Magliochetti opted for another approach, channeling all his resources into one film with numerous visual effects. “It was eight minutes long and there were 128 shots in it. Of the 128 shots, 65 of them had some form of visual effect. The most complicated one had 43 layers of film.” The film earned a Student Academy Award nomination.

After graduating from Bridgeport, Magliochetti began to look for a job. Living about an hour and a half outside of New York City, he spent his days papering Manhattan production companies with his résumé. “Anyone who would let me through the door!” When the phone didn't ring with an offer, he made cold calls, following any lead he could find. He discovered an ad in a horror magazine that had been placed by a woman in Canada who was seeking a makeup effects artist. Magliochetti called: “I learned some makeup effects while studying animation and visual effects.” Although the telephone call did not immediately lead to work, the two traded makeup techniques and eventually met. He agreed to pass out some of the woman's business cards at a horror film convention, where he managed to network his way into his first couple of jobs.

Another break came through reading an article in the same horror magazine, about a low budget independent filmmaker who had released a film that was heavily censored. “I was curious about what was cut out of the film, so I located his phone number and called the guy.” A few months later, the director's producer called Magliochetti and asked him to come to New York for a meeting. He was hired and put in charge of effects for the director's next movie, Brain Damage, which went on to become a cult horror favorite.

Through his earlier connection with the woman in Canada, Magliochetti was asked to speak at a horror convention in Toronto, where he made contacts that led to his first television job, working on the Friday the 13th series. Work continued to come sporadically. He moved to North Carolina for a year and worked in makeup and miniatures at De Laurentiis Studios. In 1991, he decided to give Los Angeles a try.

What do you like least about your job?

“My least favorite thing is trying to clean up someone else's mess.”—Al Magliochetti

What do you love most about your job?

“My very favorite thing is sitting very quiet and unassuming in a movie theater with a paying audience, watching the final result of my work, and hearing the reactions around me; the satisfaction of knowing that my work is being seen and appreciated.”—Al Magliochetti

“I heard Terminator 2 was employing every effects person they could find—even those with minimal experience. At that point, I had a pretty good résumé, so I thought it might be worth a shot. I didn't know that Los Angeles effects companies are very geographically prejudiced. Meaning, if you're not in Los Angeles, they won't import you for work. They don't want to tell you to come from out of state, because they don't want that responsibility if the work dries up. To get a feel for what work was available, I got a Los Angeles voice mail number for $10 a month. I put that number on all of my résumés and mailed them out while I was still on the East Coast. Basically, I faked my geography.” Once he received enough job leads that he felt confident about making a living in Los Angeles, Magliochetti relocated.

Thinking he was moving to work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Magliochetti arrived in Los Angeles to discover that the production was stalled for a few weeks. Stranded, he printed up résumés and began taking them to production companies around town. “I had been out here three weeks and a day, when I got a call from a company that needed help on a film called The Dark Half, which became a complicated film to complete.” The company's other projects were pushed to the back burner while everyone worked on The Dark Half. Magliochetti went in after hours, on his own time, to work on the other movies, so that the company would not get too far behind schedule. “The one I did the most work on was The Addams Family.”

Although Magliochetti created most of the visual effects for The Addams Family himself, the film's success found many others taking credit for his work. “I was shocked one night to turn on a documentary show on special effects. One of the makeup artists for The Addams Family was showing my footage of the hand running across the street and claiming it was a robot hand that he built. I couldn't believe it!”

Eventually, Magliochetti did work on Terminator 2 for a couple of weeks, but continued to devote his free time to The Addams Family. His next break was being hired as supervisor of animation on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Although he was taking on more responsibility, the effects facility he was working for did not give him a raise. “When I had the audacity to ask for a raise, they let me go, saying they couldn't afford me.”

The effects load for Star Trek VI was shared with another house, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)—the world's premiere effects facility. When Magliochetti telephoned his colleagues at ILM to let them know he was no longer involved with the project, they invited him to come work with them. At ILM, he not only continued his work on Star Trek VI, but worked on Hook, as well.

Having worked steadily for more than six months, Magliochetti decided to permanently move from the East Coast to the West. “I threw all my belongings in a truck and drove out to stay. Suddenly, all the effects splurge dried up and I didn't have any work for the next six months.”

Terminator 2 proved to be a groundbreaking film for computer generated visual effects. Once it hit screens, traditional animation was outdated. Up until this time, effects were created by traditional animation and graphics; the only computers were motion control cameras.

Magliochetti knew he would not only have to learn to use a computer, but also figure out how to integrate his experience into this new technology. A break in his learning curve came through Waterworld.

Similar to what had happened when Terminator 2 had gone into production, Waterworld employed anyone who had even rudimentary knowledge of effects, training them to complete the project. Working on Waterworld, Magliochetti mastered computers and discovered the potential they had for creating visual effects.

CAREER TIPS

* “What has helped me be successful is having a thorough background and training in filmmaking. I'm not a computer personI learned film first. I have held down almost every conceivable job possible on a film set, at one time: from cameraman, to running sound, to being a production manager. I know what everyone's job is and how those jobs overlap. That enables me to give more to the production.”Al Magliochetti

After Waterworld wrapped, he went to work for an optical facility whose primary services were titles and simple visual effects. When he landed the job of visual effects supervisor on Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Magliochetti struck a deal wherein the facility would provide support, in terms of equipment and personnel to put the effects together, and he would create all the animation. “I did every frame of animation for Jason Goes to Hell myself. I had a crew of three people: one person running an optical printer; one person running my animation camera to shoot my artwork, because it was a union shop; and one person to transcribe my notes into optical printer terms, so they could be composited on the film properly.”

Through a connection made in a film chat room, Magliochetti discovered that Columbia College, where he first went to film school, had a support group in Los Angeles. Serendipitously, the association was having a get-together the following week, very close to where he lived. Magliochetti was able to reconnect with people from his film classes 20 years earlier, one of them being a writer/director who was putting together a remake of the 70s cult film Vanishing Point, for Fox Television. “He asked me what was possible with visual effects and computer graphics. At this point I had a 486 computer with a whopping 16 megs of RAM that I purchased for the very good price of $5,000! I wanted to get into computer graphics, but RAM was hideously expensive. With 16 megs, I was limited in what I could do.”

Hired as the effects supervisor for Vanishing Point, Magliochetti planned to farm out the more complicated effects to shops around town, and handle the basic effects with his own equipment. When three-quarters of the filming was completed, the crew, pushed to the breaking point by the production manager, decided to unionize. To handle the union conversion, money had to be taken from postproduction: editing, music, and visual effects. Left with less than one-third of the original visual effects budget, the director and producer met with Magliochetti to discuss concentrating on just the effects he was working on, or cutting them all. Although he had only an early version of Photoshop and a morphing program to work with, he convinced them to let him see what he could do.

“With only 16 megs of RAM, I had to be resourceful. I was trying to make these programs do things they weren't designed to do. I figured out a way to make the morphing program do motion tracking—which I still can't believe I did. Fortunately, there was just enough versatility in these programs that I was able to squeak by and create all the effects required, and even do a few fix-its.

“At this point, I thought, ‘If I can do this with a machine that is just limping along, what happens if I get a couple of machines that have some real firepower?’ That was the next step.”

In 1996, Magliochetti formed his own effects company, Eye Candy. His first projects were a couple of children's films for Kushner-Locke Company and Full Moon. From there it was onward and upward, with work on the miniseries Dune, and features Bounce, Miss Congeniality, and The Cider House Rules.

Interestingly, the producer of Vanishing Point, Alan Blomquist, who had been so impressed that Magliochetti was able to create visual effects with his bargain-basement computer, was one of the producers of The Cider House Rules, proving the clichés: “What goes around, comes around,” and “It is not only what you know, but who you know.” Magliochetti is currently finishing up work on Ghost World.

Professional Profile: Jeffrey A. Okun, Visual Effects Supervisor

A former comedian, musician, and record producer, it was probably Jeffrey Okun's work as a magician that best prepared him to be a visual effects supervisor. He earned an advanced degree in international marketing and management from the United States University in England, and gained entertainment experience in a variety of areas before discovering his talent for filmmaking.

At one point, Okun drove a tow truck by day and worked nights as a standup musician, performing a comedic musical act and touring with a band called The Cross. The group caught the attention of Jimi Hendrix, who signed the act with the intention of producing them. Hendrix jammed with the group, took them to a concert, and then flew off to England and died.

A brief fling with record producing followed. “I dropped out of that and went to the unemployment office and picked up magic. In those days you had to sit in the unemployment office for days. It wasn't like it is today, where you fill out a form and they mail you a check. You had to actually go there, fill out the form, be interviewed, and sit there until they found a job for you … My job was to convince people that they didn't want to hire me.

“I used to sit down in the unemployment department and read books on magic and bore all the people by trying magic tricks out on them … ‘Pick a card … ‘ I learned a lot of things about visual effects through magic. It's all about illusion and misdirection.”

At the time, Okun's next-door neighbor was a film music composer. He introduced Okun to a friend named Saul Bass, who needed a gofer. “Saul was one of the leading graphic designers in the world, the guy who reinvented the title sequence for movies. He won an Academy Award for a short film called Why Man Creates. He was quite influential and knew everybody under the sun. He was George Lucas's student adviser when Lucas was at USC.”

What do you like least about your job?

“What I like least about the job is that there is a great deal of talk and waving your hands around, trying to get people to understand what it is that you can do for them … People come to you asking for something nobody has ever seen before. You present them with an idea and they say they have no idea what you're talking aboutthat's because nobody has ever seen it before!“Jeffrey Okun

What do you love most about your job?

“What I love the most about the job is that it is never boring … You never know what new and exciting challenge you're going to have to solve.”Jeffrey Okun

Because Bass didn't drive, Okun's job was to pick him up and drive him to meetings and work locations. The first Saturday, he drove Bass to USC: “They had rented somebody's apartment and were shooting out the window to the USC football field, where the marching band was standing by to march and form the word ‘And’ for a title sequence for That's Entertainment II. The DP offered me a doughnut, which was phenomenal, and let me look through the lens. It was a brand new lens that had just been invented, called an 11:1 zoom. From where we were, I could zoom back and see the entire stadium or zoom in and get just one person on the field. From that moment on I was totally hooked … The doughnut and looking through the lens was the thing that hooked me.”

Bass was simultaneously working on two major projects at the time: NBC's Fiftieth Anniversary Special and an industrial film for Warner Communications, which gave Okun the opportunity to observe the editors of each. He begged them to teach him about the process. The assistant editor on one project abused Okun's offer to work for free by assigning him to take out the trash, pick up food, drop off and collect his dry cleaning, and have his car gassed up, washed, and detailed, but taught him nothing about filmmaking. The other editor, Gary Rocklen, not only taught Okun about film editing, but allowed him to practice using the equipment.

“I would get in at 8:30 and make the coffee for everybody in the building, go out and get the pastries, open up all of the offices, turn on the lights and get the air conditioning set. Then I would go pick up Saul and bring him in, and then do gofer work all day long. At 5:30 I'd take Saul home, and then go back to the office and edit from 6:30 until 3:00 in the morning. I would sleep on the floor of the editing room until about seven or eight, then get up and go into the bathroom and scrub myself down with paper towels. I did that for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, Gary [Rocklen] came to me and said they had very bad news: they had decided to reinstall the segment I was editing. I'd have to take the whole segment apart and put it back into its original roll so they could work on it. I begged him to look at the segment. He did, then ran out of the room and came back with Saul. They looked at it and then ran out of the room and came back with the producers of the piece and looked at it. Then everybody left the room. Saul came back in and said, ‘Well, my boy, we're going to air your piece.’ So the first thing I cut was shown on national television.”

The assistant editor who had treated him poorly was fired and Bass made Okun his editor. “Saul said, ‘I'm not going to pay you very much,’ and I still had to do my gofer job, but at night I cut the Warner's piece … Eventually, Saul added slide library to my title. He was paying me $500 a month. I was editing all night and every weekend, and doing gofer work all day long.” After a year, Bass allowed Okun to hire someone else to do the gofer work, giving him more time to edit. Okun worked with Bass on a variety of commercials, television specials, and a 30-minute film over the next few years, becoming his postproduction supervisor, line producer, location manager, and assistant director. Over time, he gained expertise in effects, working with the optical houses on Bass's footage.

After explaining the effect Bass wanted to achieve, Okun would sit with the technicians while they worked, eventually learning the technology. “I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that. I was a very entertaining fellow, telling them jokes and getting them coffee …” In time, when he brought in footage and they told him the effect was impossible, he was able to offer creative suggestions for accomplishing it. “Eventually, these optical houses would get phone calls from movies that were in trouble and they would tell them to talk to me—I became known as ‘the fix it guy.’”

The first feature Okun was called in to fix was The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle. “It was really the first movie that ever used 3-D computer created graphics—not Tron, as everyone thinks. It turned out to be a small success and my name got around. That's how I became ‘the visual effects guy’: I got drafted into it.”

Working on films like Die Hard 2 and Shocker, Okun established himself as the optical king. On Shocker, he replaced a supervisor who had made promises to director Wes Craven that he could not fulfill. “I had to unravel everything, down to finding out where the negative was … and figure out how to accomplish a ridiculous number of shots in a ridiculously short amount of time, for no money.” With technology rapidly changing in the early 1990s, he began mastering the digital effects world.

For Sleepwalkers, Okun employed the use of morphs in a new way. “Nick Garris is the nicest director in the world. He actually understood [visual effects] and gave us the proper amount of time to do them. We did half of the film optically and half of the film digitally. It was another transition stage. We did morphs like nobody had seen before … the camera was moving all the time instead of locked off.”

Working with director Renny Harlin on Cutthroat Island required yet another set of skills. Okun had to create the illusion of two ships doing battle with one another, having only one ship to work with. When the director dangled people over an ocean that wasn't there, Okun had to create it. A big yellow crane was left behind the actors in a sequence of shots, which Okun had to remove in post. Having seen Okun perform magic in the repair of Cutthroat Island, Harlin expected even bigger tricks when he directed The Long Kiss Goodnight.

“Renny, being a quick learner, figured he didn't really have to shoot anything on the right set or in the right places. He would say to me, ‘That building that is behind the actors won't be there. Instead, there will be a giant lake. All these trees on the left side will be office buildings about 20 or 30 stories tall. In front of the railroad tracks we'll have a four lane freeway.’ I'd say, ‘Renny, something in the shot needs to be real. Couldn't we shoot in front of a lake?’ He'd say, ‘You can do it.’ Over his loudspeaker system he would say, ‘If anybody has seen anything in the shot that they do not like, don't worry about it because Jeff Okun will fix it.’ That just freezes your heart. I learned not to panic and that I could do anything, given enough time and money.”

Okun's next big break came when he was offered the visual effects coordinating job for Tomorrow Never Dies. He would be the first American to handle the visual effects for a Bond film. At about the same time, he got a call from Barry Levinson to work on Sphere. Deciding he needed to do a “serious” picture over another action movie, and knowing there would always be another Bond film, Okun took the Levinson film. “How did I know it would turn out to be a terrible movie?”

CAREER TIPS

* “Take a drawing class because they make you look at real life and see how a shadow falls; the effects of light on a curved surface or reflected light … Then, when you're putting a shot together, you realize what you need to see to sell the illusion.”Jeffrey Okun

After repeatedly turning down the invitation to work with Renny Harlin again on Deep Blue Sea, Okun was “blackmailed” into taking the job. “It was the first film where I got to create CG co-stars [the sharks].” He went on to work on Delivering Milo, directed by Nick Castle, who had also directed The Last Starfighter, Okun's first feature. Red Planet, Death to Smoochy, and the pilot for the television series Birds of Prey followed. Okun is currently at work on The Last Samurai.

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