‘Dunkirk’ VFX producer – Mike Chambers – In Conversation

Hi Film Folk,

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is released today internationally and the Film Doctor team were lucky enough to sit down with one of the British director’s key collaborators for an In Conversation.

Mike Chambers is an A-list VFX Producer who has Chaired the Visual Effects Society (VES) for the last three years and worked on hit films such as The Day After Tomorrow, I Am Legend, Gravity, World War Z, Alice Through the Looking Glass as well as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk.

Our chat with Mike – held on a beautiful summer’s day at Shepperton Studios as he prepped Alice Through the Looking Glass – is now available below.

Find out how he got to where he is today below!

 Mike Chambers Dunkirk movie VFX producer
Where did you grow up? Were you born into a filmmaking family or a wild horse in the filmmaking respect?

I grew up in southern California. I was actually born in Hollywood, but not to a film family, though my father worked in television a little bit when he was young. But I got interested in dramatics in high school. I’d always been a film buff and a film fan and, once I was in college and studying drama, I made the connection that I was interested in film and I wanted to pursue that. So I went to UCLA and got into their film department, but I found it was a little too large and impersonal for me. As an underclassman, it was just a bunch of lecture courses and that kind of thing.

While I was still in school I got my professional start – it was an advertisement for a part-time job at a movie studio – and I ended up working in the mailroom for Roger Corman. Then I was Roger’s personal projectionist for a while and then I started working as a PA on a number of his low-budget sci-fi horror films, which was a good introduction to the business. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I was interested in a lot of things.

I had my first exposure to visual effects when I was working for Roger. The Skotak brothers were building this large planet surface miniature out in the parking lot. I got to help them with it and I found that fascinating. I still didn’t know what I was gonna do but eventually I came back around to visual effects. It was a very busy couple of years, so after that, I went back to school and got my degree. Then my first job out of school was working for Doug Trumbull at his company called Showscan: a high speed 65mm-based system that ultimately was focused more on theme-park event ride films and things like that. It was a great format, and it was my understanding that Doug had planned to shoot all of Brainstorm with the system he developed. In the end, the film only included a few sequences shot in Showscan, but they were indeed visually striking.

Through working at Doug’s company, I got to know quite a few of the visual effects people in the Marina Del Rey community. Which included the Chandler Stages, Boss Films and Richard Edlund. I eventually ended up working for Richard at Boss sometime after that. Then I was kind of hooked on visual effects, thinking “This is great!” After that, I worked at several effects studios for a while, including Apogee Studios, before ultimately going freelance.

What was it in particular that got you hooked on visual effects?

There were a few things about it. Obviously it was focused on spectacular imagery and I hate to use the word ‘magic’ but that’s kinda what it was! This was the pre-digital era and we were still doing a lot of miniature work, matte paintings on glass, opticals and trying to make things work that way.

Working in those places, I got exposed to all of that. I was the young guy who was curious and I would talk to all the guys in all the different departments. I already seemed to be heading down a path of production but getting experience and knowledge in all those areas was critical to being able to do that. So in the early years, I met a lot of people who’ve been an influence on my career ever since.
Your first credit was on Galaxy of Terror as a production assistant. How was that?

That was one of Roger Corman’s B-pictures. It was kind of an homage or rip-off of Alien. They had recently finished Battle Beyond The Stars which was kind of their Star Wars thing and they re-used a lot of the same stuff, like the sets. It was just a low-budget…fun, odd sci-fi movie. [laughs]

How did you wind up doing that? Was that through a contact or a cold submission?

No no. For me, I’d already been working for Roger in his offices and I said “I wanna work on one of the movies.” So I got promoted to PA, it was great! [laughs]
So between 1981-1988, you were at Roger’s offices most of the time?

No, I mean I worked on 4 different movies for him in the course of about a year, because he does ‘em really fast. They shoot ‘em really quickly. After that, then I went back to school. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute to get my degree in Fine Arts studying film. A number of highlights there; got to work with George and Mike Kuchar who are kind of cult filmmakers. Worked on a movie with them called Motel Capri which is just very odd and just one of those weird things.

When I got out of school, I was living up in the Bay area and there wasn’t a lot of film work up there, particularly for an entry-level person. ILM was up there but they were about the only game in town. So I came back to Los Angeles and wanted to get going and that’s when I got hooked up with Doug’s [Trumbull] company. By the time 1988 rolled around, I had already been working at Boss Films for a couple of years.

Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard
Die Hard movie – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
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You’ve been involved in so many iconic films but with Die Hard, where and how did you come into that?

That was when I was working at Boss Films, which was Richard Edlund’s company. There were always quite a number of films going through there at any one time. So I was coordinating on Die Hard for them and that was really about the same time I was doing Big Top Pee-Wee with them also.

But yeah, Die Hard in particular is an iconic film but I don’t think we realized it at the time. Which is interesting about a lot of movies like that, you just think it’s another action movie or something but it really caught people’s imagination.
How long were you working at Boss Films before?

I was at Boss Films for probably a couple of years, I guess in total. After that, I got my first production-side job, on The Abyss.
So your role just developed into a production role?

Yeah. Yeah. Again, I started out there as a kind of PA. An assistant to one of the execs. Then I was their purchasing agent for a while, an I just tried to be of help to all of the departments. Then it was like “Ok. Here’s a movie. Why don’t you do this one?”

So it was kind of a natural progression. Until I went freelance as a producer really, that’s kind of how it was. I was working for places and you get opportunities within them.

Back in those days, not that everything was guaranteed, companies were more likely to keep people around and let them grow within as opposed to just project-to-project hires. So that was working in my favour.
In that earlier period, for anyone now who’s trying to pinball around and make a name for themselves, did you feel there was any key to getting that work? Was it recommendations, pushiness, talent, all three or anything else?

I wouldn’t say pushiness. You can’t lay back. You need to put yourself out there. Some people may think the trick is getting your foot in the door but that isn’t necessarily it. It’s once you’ve got it in there; being interested, being keen and learning everything you can about it. Even the things you aren’t directly working on but if it’s involved with that aspect of the business you are interested in, learn as much as you possibly can.

Make yourself useful and indispensable to the people that you’re working for so that they want you around and they know you are gonna be of help to them and a benefit to their project. Be reliable and work as hard as you can. That’s really it! Particularly at entry level.

Although the tasks themselves may not always seem that important, it’s absolutely a testing ground. To see how people deal with how the film business works. They’re thinking “Will they stick with it? Are they dedicated to what they are doing? Can they look ahead? Or are they getting upset at having to work more than 8 hours a day?”

People get weeded out pretty quickly in that regard. So if you’re eager, willing to learn, trying to stretch yourself and if you’re doing a good job, people will see that and you’ll move forward.
For people reading this who might not know what a visual effects producer does, can you explain what you do?

In today’s industry and the way films are made now, visual effects are obviously something that touches just about every project in some way or another. Even the small films usually have some sort of visual effects or digital work to be done. Smaller films have a limited amount of work that can be easily handled by just a producer or the editors deal with it.

So many of the biggest films now are very visual effects dependent. They’ll easily spend 20-50% of their budget on visual effects. That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of money! So they need people to manage that. Though the administrative side of that is important – keeping track of budgets, schedules, plans and all that – it’s also about putting together the right teams of people to do the work, hiring the right visual effects studios to do the work, guiding everybody through the production process and the post-production process and basically working with and communicating with all the relevant departments within the project to make sure everybody is getting what they want and our department is getting what we need from each of those people.

That’s from the DOP, to the editor, to the production designer, to production itself, to reporting to studios, to the finance people, and being aware of how the finances work.

It’s then supporting your own team and working closely with the supervisor, whose primary focus is on the creative and technical aspects of the work. It’s bringing all those people together and making sure everybody is communicating properly and getting done what they need. Shepherding the project through all the different phases of the production schedule.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros
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You have a few consultant credits as well – Gravity was one of them – what does that entail?

Yeah. Gravity is one of them. I’ve done a number of consulting jobs. For me what that is, is I’m not necessarily doing the whole project. Often, it’ll be something in development where they just want to get an idea of “Here’s our script, what kind of effects do we have to do here? What might it cost us to do it? How might we go about it? Who should we talk to?” Also, helping them do preliminary budgets and even bidding with potential companies that they might want to hire. So it’s a little more limited and it’s focused on a particular aspect of the project.

On Gravity, that was a little bit different. In that case, I was consulting for a company called Bot & Dolly. They were a commercial production house based in San Francisco that had been working with industrial robotics for camera motion control and that kind of thing. It was a little different from traditional motion control. Alfonso [Cuarón] had discovered these guys and these systems and they thought they might work really well with what they wanted do on Gravity. Bot & Dolly had never done a feature film, let alone a feature of the magnitude of Gravity!

So based on my experience with Warner Bros., they brought me in to just help them get prepared to work with a major feature production and get all their systems and equipment together and determine how they were going to work with the production.

In that case, I already had my next show lined up, so I could only commit to them for so long, but I got them up and running, got them ready to go and then they went over to England and shot with the production and then did their thing. Obviously, to some success, as the movie came out and I heard it did pretty well. [laughs]
VFX tends to be prevalent within studio environments. So when you’re talking to someone who is trying to make a VFX-laden movie independently, what advice would you give? 

Well. On any independent film, financing is always a challenge. Yet the visual effects you might want to use can be a really valuable tool to tell the story you want to tell. I would just say be very clear and prudent about what you want to use visual effects for. So that you’re selective. You really want to get the most bang for your buck getting on the screen.

I would say always try and be creative about how you can not use visual effects where you don’t really need to, to make sure you can save those visual effects dollars and efforts for things that really require it.

Visual effects are a powerful tool. You can use them very effectively or they can make you lazy too, if you just think “Ah, we can just fix it in post.” It’s a common phrase I’m sure most people have heard. While it’s great to be able to fix some things later, to rely on that is wasteful and you’ll be much more satisfied if you think about how you’re really going to use these things and to use it to its best effect.
Have there been any films that have been a particular challenge in your career? Is there one that stands out where you’ve thought “God, that was just hell!” [MC laughs] or “That was particularly smooth”?

There are different films along the course of my career that have had a particular impact on me in my career. First one was working on The Abyss with James Cameron. I was coordinating at the time. That was my first experience working completely on one large-scale film. Going on location and really seeing the project through from the beginning to the end. That was working for the production.

My experience prior had been working for a visual effects company that had a piece of the project and that’s what I was focused on. So this opened my eyes a lot and it was an incredible learning experience of how a movie is really made. It was a relatively ground-breaking film in the visual effects field.

Some are not just films but filmmakers I’ve worked with when I’ve gotten to work with them on more than one project. Roland Emmerich comes to mind, I worked on a couple of things with him. I found him to be a really good director, a very generous man and it was very hard work but a compelling experience.

Also working with Christopher Nolan, I’ve done a few films with him. Very satisfying. He’s a very creative and disciplined filmmaker. Again, they can be tough experiences with a lot of hard work but it’s really satisfying to be able to help a real visionary come up with what they want to get up on the screen and to fulfill their vision. On what were actually good movies too, something you can really be proud of.

Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
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Throughout the course of my career and visual effects, there have always been trends. Right now, we’re in the midst of a comic book trend with comic book movies. That’s what they’re making a lot of.

Sometimes, the projects aren’t necessarily the best movie or the movie you personally want to go and see, but if you can focus on what you’re doing, which is trying to create beautiful or realistic or fantastic imagery and it’s something you can be proud of in terms of that aspect of the work then it doesn’t matter what the movie is.

But it is all the sweeter when it is actually a good movie and people like it! [laughs]
For good or for bad, have there been any big defining moments or revelatory moments, possibly earlier in your career, where you’ve thought “That’s what movies/VFX are about!”? Whether on an inspirational or a technological level…

That’s a good question! That’s a tough question. [laughs] Wow. I’ll say not a particular project necessarily but I remember there was a time I was working on a project where, I’m not gonna say what it was, it seemed like a real good idea at the time. How it actually came about, it was just kind of a so-so experience and I saw a lot of laziness on the part of the filmmakers who often fell back on that “fix it in post” thing, and that’s what it became.

It was immediately followed by working on another project with someone who was really focused on what they wanted, they had great plans for some great imagery that truly helped to tell their story and bring it to life and that was inspiring.

In one moment I’m doing the dirty work, cleaning up stuff that, if people were really thinking about it, they wouldn’t be wasting their time doing, then in the next, I’m on something that was really about doing the best work you could to achieve this goal. It brings you back a little bit.

It brought back my interest in the foundation of what I was doing with my career.
So a clear focus and a vision of what it is they want is what you fundamentally need from a director or from a production team, would you say that was the key?

I guess so. Early in my career when I was just learning, you’re interested in all of it and you’re still figuring out how it all works. How does the system work? How do the people work? So you just do anything and it’s exciting. After you’ve been doing it for a while, somethings are more interesting than others. They just are.

I was at a point where I was like “Ok. This is getting less interesting because I’m just cleaning up somebody’s mess” to then going right back to what I wanted to do in the first place. I had that feeling again so that was great morale booster I guess.
Are there any recurring issues or challenges that you see coming up time and time again on films, that could be overcome? Is there something you see where you say “that would be really nice to not have that in every film”?

Oh yeah! [laughs] That does happen and sometimes it’s just a matter of the filmmaker’s taste. You’ve got to remember that you’re not making your own movie but making somebody else’s. I can give opinions and offer ideas but it’s the vision they want and that is the job. To provide them with whatever it is they are looking for.

We were talking with one director about some big environmental matte painting shot and he said “whatever you do, don’t put birds in there! I always see digital birds flying across the screen. I don’t want those!” and I was like “Great!” Obviously, he’d thought that through.

Seeing people fall back on, like you said, something that you’ve seen again and again- the great challenge is trying to do something new that people haven’t seen before and that’s getting harder and harder.

All these films are trying to do something new and bring something people haven’t seen before or just up the game and take it to the next level. Particularly in the more VFX-heavy productions. It’s driving a lot of what people want to see. It’s a great challenge.
Are there any workflow challenges that you feel could be improved? Whether it’s render times or communications or things like that…

I think that’s all happening. It just is happening. The progression of how things have changed since I started and since the digital revolution started, it’s all progressive.

The render times get faster, the tools get stronger, etc. I would love to see all that continued and get better and better. That just takes us to the next challenge and how to cross that next threshold.
Are there any other unsolved challenges that you feel the effects world still faces, not only financially but creatively? I always find fire is a difficult one to watch and to get right…

Fire is tricky! Water was traditionally very tricky but it’s getting pretty well mastered. It seems to me that, more in the animation field, truly realistic human faces, eyes, skin and that kind of animation is the next one to break. It’s pretty damn close!

Again, it has been continually improving and we’re getting real close to being able to have truly believable, photorealistic, synthetic characters. That’s the next one to really master.
What was the movie where motion capture was heavily-featured and the more gossipy international press were writing “These are gonna replace actors in the future!” Was it The Polar Express perhaps? What do you think?

Yeah probably that. Beowulf maybe. Robert Zemeckis really went down that path with his company ImageMovers. Now it’s utilized relatively regularly. It hasn’t replaced anything.

Different films require different approaches. Sometimes it’s motion capture and sometimes it’s still keyframe animation.

The biggest challenges are organic things. You talked about fire for example. Organic things and processes are definitely more challenging to tackle believably than something that’s just structural.
Then there’s foreground vs background stuff…

Background stuff is easier because it’s farther away from the eye! [laughs]
I’m guessing it’s the same thing with elemental things you see on a more regular basis as well?

Everybody is working on that though. Mastering fire or water. There’s not just one company trying to figure that out. Everybody wants to try and achieve it.

There’s a lot of technical and artistic minds working on it continually and lots of projects present opportunities to work on that.
You did Thomas and the Magic Railroad and Babe: Pig in the City, were they perhaps different challenges to your other work?

[laughs] They were.
What were the differences between those two and other ones?

Well Thomas and the Magic Railroad was being supervised by a very good friend of mine. It was not a big budget film. Definitely aimed at children. Younger children. It was interesting with all the miniatures and things they had and I’ve always liked that. I don’t get to work with them as much anymore.

The challenge on that was doing quite a bit of work with very little money. That was the trick for me there. We accomplished that. We got a lot done with a little bit of money. The movie is perfect for 2-3 year olds and that’s about it. Otherwise it doesn’t make much sense.

With Babe: Pig in the City, we were talking earlier about trends in filmmaking and that was the height of talking animals. There are a lot of talking animal pictures. The first Babe being one of the flagships in that trend. That was a pretty big project. I was interested in it and it was interesting working with George Miller who I thought was a really interesting guy. It was a fun experience. Very different from the explosions and disasters and that kind of thing. [laughs]

Thomas and the Magic Railroad
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures
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How did you overcome the low budget issue on Thomas and the Magic Railroad? Is it just as you mentioned earlier – being prudent?

Being prudent yeah. Being prudent, we obviously didn’t have the funds to go to the most expensive places out there. So the challenge was working with more affordable companies and just helping them to achieve the best they could with what we wanted with the funds that we had.

I think, within those parameters, they did a good job.

When it comes to finances and stuff like that in some ways numbers are numbers. Whether you’ve got $1 million or $100 million, you’ve got to manage it intelligently, efficiently and carefully because it’s not your own money. You can’t let your guard down there.
Is there one common quality that you’ve noticed in the big directors you’ve worked with? Something they all possess?

The qualities that are consistent between them are that they are all driven. They’re very focused on their work. It’s at times all-consuming for them but they’re really focused on what they are trying to achieve. They all have to be leaders of men and teams of people to help them achieve their vision.

That said, they are all very different personalities and very different people.

One of the things I find interesting about working in movies is the cast of characters you work with. Everyone is unique. The dynamic between groups of people like that changes with every different group of people you have. Yet somehow we all come together and still know how to make a movie and move forward and do that.

With the directors, I’ve gotten to work with a great number of different directors and the commonality is what they are striving for and the differences are in how they do it. Some more effectively than others.
What do you often see done wrong or misused in films with visual effects?

That goes back to what I was talking about originally which is using visual effects as a crutch or just to fix things and not planning, at least to some degree, what it is you want to achieve, so you get what you need to do it properly.

On many films, there is usually some shot which you cringe at or you never felt you could get it right, but sometimes it is merely driven by a creative choice the director makes. Whether you agree with it or not, that’s what he’s after so that’s what you give him.
Is there often a pressure from the studio to use visual effects perhaps when it isn’t necessarily needed just for that movie-goers’ experience?

I haven’t experienced that too much. Studios in particular realize that visual effects aren’t cheap and good work takes effort and that it’s best to use for what it is intended which is to help tell the story as opposed to just superfluous eye-candy.

That’s just from my experience and I’m sure other people have experienced something different.
What advice would you give to an aspiring VFX artist or a VFX producer? Obviously within the current climate…

In the current climate there is a great deal of competition but there are a great deal of opportunities too. Persistence in trying to achieve that but persistence without pushiness and that’s a fine balance.

Learn as much as you can. Network and try and contact as many people as you can. Get whatever experience you can. All experience is good experience in my book.

Any one experience may be hard or painful or you may not like it all but in the end once you get through it, you will have learned something from it.

I’ve been working in this business for over 30 years now and I still get to learn new things all the time. It keeps you on your toes and makes you better at what you do and it keeps it interesting.

Always be open to learn new things, always be open to new experiences, be open to new people and keep your eyes open for opportunity.

Dunkirk movie by Christopher Nolan
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
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What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer, director or a producer starting out today?

My advice as far as visual effects is just think about them as a tool in your bag of tricks and don’t be lazy about it. Don’t default to visual effects as just fixing stuff. Apply it where it needs to be applied.

You need it to tell your story and that’s what it’s about. Using it to tell your story because there is no other way to tell that story.

Every shot is a story, not even every visual effect, every shot is a story in and of itself. By all means, I love to see lots of visual effects but don’t waste them, that’s all.

With movies, when it comes down to it, it’s all about the story. It’s about telling a story that intrigues people and you should do that however the best way to tell that story is. If it is visual effects, then by all means tear it up if that’s the appropriate thing to do.

I don’t know if that’s helpful or not? [laughs]
It is! What about advice on how to stand out from the crowd and for people trying to get their projects out there?

Not being particularly a writer myself – I mean that’s got its own challenges as a career – but when it comes to storytelling or saleability, don’t just throw a bunch of visual effects in there because it sounds like a good idea.

People that are going to finance pictures know they’re expensive so again it has got to be critical to your story. If so, anything you dream up – at this point almost anything you can dream up is possible – you just think  “Is it worth doing?”

If you really think it’s worth doing, put it in there! Try and sell it. If it can’t pass that test for yourself, it’s not going to pass that test for anybody else.
So it’s a case of doing something you think is worth doing rather than doing something you don’t think is worth doing but will satisfy the people who will finance the project…

Yeah. Once you get past that threshold and are getting it made then there will be plenty of people to tell you when you need something like that.

So at first, it’s about coming up with your own vision, your own story and making it something that is interesting to other people. If you’ve got that, you’ve got a chance.
 Dunkirk movie by Christopher Nolan

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