Tom McLean talks to noted vfx supervisors Eric Brevig, Dean Wright, Stefen Fangmeier, Colin Strause and Rpin Suwannath to find out how they made the leap to directing features.
As visual effects become more sophisticated and an integral element of the moviemaking craft, more and more visual effects supervisors are getting their shot at directing.
However, while making the transition from one job to another is not always easy, there is great satisfaction in fulfilling the dream of directing a film, despite the pitfalls.
"I think visual effects prepared me for all the technical and production related issues of the movie," says Eric Brevig, who directed the recently released Journey to the Center of the Earth after more than 20 years of working in visual effects. "The area that was very new to me was dealing with the studio, navigating all the sort of creative helpers that I have. That's a completely different skill set."
That's a common statement among vfx and previs supervisors turned directors, with their comments revealing the essential truth that no matter how great a supervisor you are, studios are always going to hire directors for their own reasons.
But it's not one that's impossible to learn or overcome. One of the advantages vfx supervisors have in the studio system is contact with high-level execs that few other potential directors have.
"When you step into the visual effects world, you get invited into the creative world very, very closely," offers Dean Wright, who is in pre-production on his first directing gig: Kingdom Come, for Grape Colors. "You do make suggestions, and you throw out ideas about story beats and you're part of that process from early on."
Wright suggests that such connections landed him the job after having supervised the visual effects supervisor on the first two Narnia films and as visual effects producer on the last two The Lord of the Rings pictures. Wright says he was hired as a visual effects consultant Kingdom Come, which he found difficult because the film had no director providing a vision for him to follow. So he created his own and impressed the studio enough that they asked him to create a short presentation reel in previs. When that again clicked with the company's vision of how they saw the project, Wright was offered the job.
It also worked out that way for Stefen Fangmeier, who expressed his desire to direct to Fox execs while finishing the vfx for Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World for ILM. "When they had their monthly meeting where they sit around and talk about the new scripts that they have, someone just spoke up in the meeting and said: 'Stefen is interested in directing. Why don't you give this to him to have a look at it?'" says Fangmeier, who went on to direct the 2006 release Eragon for the studio. "I was very fortunate to have some people to speak for me and put my name up for it."
The role of vfx supervisors also is one of the few that touches on the making of a movie at almost every step in the process of making it. On effects-heavy pics, the vfx department gets going in the pre-production stage, supervisors are now fixtures on set and often direct a second unit team, and they often are the ones putting the final touches on a film before it's released. That makes them technically qualified to step into the director's chair, though many vfx supervisors do find themselves facing a steep learning curve in other areas.
But perhaps the most significant reason studios turn to vfx producers as directors is that they believe an expert can make an effects-heavy movie for less money.
"On some movies where the director doesn't know anything about visual effects it can literally cost a film 20 % of its budget or 10 % of its budget because of their ignorance," says Colin Strause, who co-directed with his brother Greg the movie Alien vs. Predator: Requiem for Fox, delivering the film on time and under the studio-mandated budget of $40 million. "If you're doing a big effects movie, sometimes if you know effects, you can become a way better director of it."
For example, Strause says if he knew he could make a shot in the film work with rotoscoping, he could skip the process of having to set up a greenscreen shot that as a vfx supervisor he might insist on doing just to cover his bases in case the director changed his mind about the shot. "It made the shoot so much faster," he says. "We didn't get tied down with a lot of stuff."
They also are often looking for a first-time director who will not have the experience, prestige or support to not toe the studio's line. "Studios are looking to hire someone but they want to be completely actively involved in everything that happens and a new director, vfx supervisor or not, comes in at a great disadvantage," says Brevig.
Figuring what to fight for with the studio and how hard to fight was another learning experience. "There are a lot of things we wish we would have fought harder on," Strause adds. "You don't know where to draw the line in the sand."
That's a lesson that Rpin Suwannath is learning even in the earliest stages of directing his first film -- an adaptation of the 1969 science fiction novel The Lotus Caves for Walden Media. Suwannath, who most recently worked in previs on both Narnia films as well as Superman Returns, says so far it's been a challenge to reconcile making a movie that he would want to see and the film the studio wants to make.
"I think what's really important is knowing the audience. Sometimes, you have to remember who you're making the movie for," Suwannath offers. "I understand the studio notes, but I don't think they all make for a better movie that I would want to see."
Getting the job of directing a film, however, is not nearly as difficult as pulling it off, and most who've done both jobs say that there's a steep learning curve in dealing with other parts of the directing craft. "I have always watched directors, watched them work, sitting in their directors chairs, and I've always felt, 'Wow, this has got to be the single most demanding spot to be on a movie set because you have all these choices you have to make,'" says Fangmeier, who upon accepting the job had to start shooting the film within a few months in a foreign country with a cast that included actors who had never performed on camera before.
Fangmeier adds that he had to learn often the hard way not to take anything for granted. For example, he was used to working within the well-developed pipeline that had been built up over many years at ILM and found that for this project he could not rely upon. "It was a harsh surprise for me to not have the structure of that, and certainly on my next project I would certainly put all that structure in place (in advance)," he stresses.
As such, preparation is extremely important, as is a good producing partner you can rely on to handle some of these tasks. "It's important to have that partner because otherwise I have to say that -- compared to my experience as a visual effects supervisor at ILM, where I always had a great relationship with the director and all -- directing Eragon was probably professionally my loneliest experience ever."
There were many positives to the job, including working with writers and actors. Fangmeier says he especially came to like working with actors, while Brevig counters that it was important to him to learn as much as he could about what actors do.
"Probably the biggest shortcoming someone coming from a technical background has is treating actors like props," Brevig contends. "I took an acting class. I read every book I could. By the time I act got on the set with the actors, they knew that I was not the tech guy any more."
Trust not just from actors but also from everyone on the crew is another issue. Strause says he and his brother in retrospect should have been more diligent about making sure people were doing what they were supposed to. "On your first movie, you get thrown to the wolves a bit," Strause admits. "You have to learn if I trust this person and this person lets me down, then on the next movie, I have to be militant about checking this."
Wright, who is currently in pre-production on Kingdom Come and plans to shoot the film next year, says he's enjoying the challenge of finding and hiring the right people to work on the film. "I'm a great believer in letting people be creative and letting them try things, and then you guide them rather than you tell them specifically how to do everything," he says. "I've always tried to hire really smart and talented people and let them do their jobs."
There's no avoiding the fact that the pressure of making a big-budget, effects-driven movie is high and -- given that that's exactly the sort of film a vfx supervisor is likely to be asked to direct -- brings with it dangers that even the best supervisors will find it hard to avoid. "As much as I'm incredibly fortunate to get that opportunity, I would probably say to anybody else to probably start with something a little bit smaller," says Fangmeier, who recently supervised Wanted and has several projects in development and hopes to direct his second movie next year. "It's never easy to make those things, but the more moving parts there are and the more elements to it, the harder it is to really have a vision and hang on to it and get it right."
Hanging onto his vision is exactly what Wright plans to do and he looks forward to the challenge. "I hope I do what I always said I would do, which is focus on the story and make sure that that works completely for the movie and then create this whole visual unique visual language to bring it to life so you create a really memorable movie for everyone," he says. "It'll be real journey for me and I can't wait to hire my own visual effects supervisor."
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.