In Conversation: Mark Christiansen (VFX – Beast of the Southern Wild, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End)

Hi Film folk,

The Film Doctor Team have another delicious In Conversation treat for you!

This time we talked to accomplished VFX Supervisor and author of ‘VFX Compositing in After Effects’ – Mark Christiansen (Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Day After Tomorrow, Beasts of the Southern Wild).


Film Doctor - Mark Christiansen


Your CV pretty much reads as ‘WOW’ (Spy Kids, The Day After Tomorrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Avatar, Beasts of the Southern Wild) but let’s go back in time. Where and when did your journey begin? How did you get into the magical world of film?

The journey began with an internship my final year of college at Disney Imagineering. This was the first lesson in how it’s who you know combined with how you represent yourself that counts. Incredibly, I ended up as a production assistant at ILM in the Jurassic Park era.

I loved ILM but I was on the wrong side of the business at that time; a career in production was not for me, I wanted to be a creative leader and innovator, so LucasArts (the sister interactive/games division) was a better fit.

I learned a lot there but came to find it a bit unsophisticated for what I do best. It was my pals who left ILM and founded the Orphanage who opened the door to working on A-list Hollywood movies.


How did you progress both technically and professionally as a filmmaker? Film School? Work placement? Luck? Tenacity?

Luck and enthusiasm. It was easy in those days to get started simply by being a) technical, b) artistic and c) enthusiastic. We were all learning on the job at that time.


For those reading that are, say, writers or composers or entry level directors/producers with a limited understanding of what VFX and compositing is, can you please explain roughly what  goes on and what effect it achieves?

Sure. Without compositing, a shot that combines elements from disparate sources is not believable as a shot. The compositor is often the last to touch a shot before it is made final. So, the compositor composites, which is to say combines elements together, to compose the shot—to make it sing.


And what does VFX Supervising entail exactly??

A film shoot is made up of a team of experts. The VFX supervisor works most closely with the DP and director to ascertain that the way the shot is being planned and executed will allow their vision for the shot to be completed in post.


Where’s a good place to start if you’re looking to get involved in the VFX world?

These days, the schools are doing a good job of training people to work in this business, but you can still get started just by banding together with other talented people, or even just obsessively running shots on your own like Gareth Edwards started. It really helps to collaborate with people who are smarter than you are, and who have developed a keen critical eye.


Film Doctor - The Day After Tomorrow


What programmes were around when you started? What were the major differences in VFX, compositing etc back then?

It’s kind of amazing that my whole career hasn’t strayed too far from After Effects. The 3D packages we used in those times are mostly gone or completely unrelated to what they were at that time, whereas After Effects has the same code base that it began with around the time my career started. Sure, I’ve used Shake and later Nuke, but After Effects is where I do my problem solving, and that has been the case that entire time, more or less.

Everything used to be a lot more cumbersome. Exabyte drives, teeny storage devices, crashy systems.


How did you become involved in such large scale productions?

Sheer luck! I got drafted by people who turned out to be in the inner circle, and all of them were based in my hometown of San Francisco. I worked with the same people on some not-so-prestigious jobs, but it was their tenacity in going after the big fish that made my opportunities possible. And Beasts of the Southern Wild was utterly unplanned fortune; they needed a supervisor from San Francisco on short notice, and someone from the relatively small network here reached out to me.


What was the workflow like on those? How does the direction trickle down?? Is it more stressful the bigger the project, or less?

Small projects are more stressful. They are less well planned and you’re much more exposed, and you have to deal directly with the client. At minimum, you need a good cop and a bad cop, the creative who says yes to all the good client ideas and the producer who reminds everyone about time and budget constraints.

On the other hand, I never worked such long hours as I did on movies like Spy Kids 3D and Day After Tomorrow. There was no fudging on deadlines, and there would be days where the render network was failing so badly it was as if we didn’t even start work until 4 or 5 pm, but we still had to get takes in for the following morning.


Do you think California is more or less mandatory for getting to be involved in big projects?? If not, where else is a good place to head?

Sigh, I think “anywhere but California” is becoming more of a rule now, and the bay area in particular is only still going because of the tremendous inertial force generated by ILM, Pixar, PDI-Dreamworks, Tippett. London is ruling it right now, a lot of my former colleagues are there or Vancouver, and of course there is New Zealand for anyone wanting to be there working with WETA.

Film Doctor - Mark Christiansen

GUEST QUESTION from a fan: “With so many big effects studios collapsing due to low income (Rhythm & Hues comes to mind), while working on incredibly profitable blockbusters, do you see a paradigm shift for visual effects coming in the next five years? Do you feel that major motions pictures are still a target worth aiming for in our modern age of crowdfunding and indie success? Where do you look to as the model for where the industry should be headed?”

There is just tremendous stress on the industry right now. It’s incredible to me that work at the level of Captain America Winter Soldier is happening with a couple of dozen facilities being played against one another. VFX is the biggest line item on many budgets, and the studios hate that, but in fact facilities are uniformly a zero margin business. The only possible ray of hope is for there to be more than 6 clients (the six major Hollywood studios), so you see a different story outside of features.


When you’re hiring, what do you look for most in someone? Personal qualities, CV and reel-wise??

Personal impression and recommendation from someone I trust counts for me more than portfolio.


What are your two cents  on the current situation with the way ‘the industry’ treats VFX artists etc?

The VFX business is barely a business. It should be as healthy as web development, bio sciences, and other businesses that combine creativity and technology, but only in areas where there is an entrepreneurial model for VFX is it possible to avoid exploitative work practices.


Film Doctor - Beasts Of Southern Wild poster


You’ve set up – an online learning company that offers professional video tutorials in Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, Final Cut Pro, amongst many other things. What gave you the idea and what more can you tell us about it? How did it come about?

I have done work with; had I set it up I could now have a net worth in the many, many millions.


With all of this to manage, what does the future hold? What are you looking to expand upon? Anything we should know about? Do you have any upcoming film projects you’re slaving away on?

I’ve been more focused on training, marketing and user experience (interactive). We raised $300k last year for our Cinefex Classic collection for the iPad and are looking to move forward with that. The project gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to design and market an app.


What advice would you give to any director, producer, writer or VFX artist starting out (or in the middle of their journey and feeling frustrated/like they’re getting nowhere)??


As far as getting nowhere, it’s like weight training, if you want to really build up, you need to lift beyond what you perceive to be your limit to kind of shock your body into changing and developing. Getting in over your head with people who know what they are doing and are willing to work with you will teach you your craft faster than anything else.


Visit Mark’s website here.


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