District 9, the much-anticipated and extraordinarily well-reviewed sci-fi film that hits the big screen today, has been a fascinating exercise in intrigue.
As months of hints coalesced into what we know about the film now – that it’s not a resuscitated Halo, as some fans had speculated, but a feature-length adaptation of director and VFS 3D Animation & Visual Effects graduate Neill Blomkamp‘s short film Alive In Joburg – the excitement kicked into gear almost instantly.
The teaser and first theatrical trailer, combined with the film’s talked-about presence at Comic Con in July, turned the buzz into a roar. The big media outlets immediately caught on, and all of the film’s earliest reviews were glowing: Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly… The list goes on. With almost every review comes even more praise.
Vancouver Film School’s connections to District 9 are many. Beginning with director Blomkamp and his co-writer, Terri Tatchell (a Writing for Film & Television graduate), the film’s VFS roots run deeper than on any other major motion picture.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the film’s visual effects, which feature the work of 40 VFS graduates. Local studio Image Engine worked on the majority of the 600 or so shots, while Vancouver’s The Embassy and Zoic, along with Weta Digital, did the rest. Many see District 9 as a milestone for visual effects in Vancouver – an announcement of sorts: we’re here, and we can play with the big boys.
“I Didn’t Think You Guys Were Capable of That”
Image Engine Visual Effects Executive Producer Shawn Walsh is a VFS grad who has witnessed the rapid growth of the local industry firsthand. After graduating from VFS, he worked as a character animator, then switched focuses. “I worked as a colour and lighting technical director on The Matrix Revolutions at ESC Entertainment,” he says.
“Coincidentally, [VFS Head of Animation & Visual Effects] Alastair Macleod was also working at ESC! That was a watershed experience for me. The Matrix sequels had an incredible crew that I was so humbled to be associated with.”
After Revolutions, Walsh worked on several features in England, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. After a while abroad, he returned to Vancouver and joined Image Engine, charged with establishing a film division within the company. That ultimately led to his current role heading up the VFX team, along with a slew of credits like 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Incredible Hulk, and Watchmen.
When Image Engine earned the contract to complete over 300 shots for District 9, the crew doubled in size, drawing on international talent as well as a large pool of Vancouver freelance talent, including many VFSers.
“The amount of work, the quality required, and the particular nature of the work – characters – was something that many people in visual effects said Vancouver wasn’t ready for… yet,” Walsh says. “Well, I am happy to have proved them wrong! The characters, and I call them that on purpose, because they are more than creatures in this film, have a nuanced and detailed performance that is absolutely essential to the film’s success.”
District 9‘s scope and relatively low budget of approximately $40 million meant challenges – lots of challenges. “It was clear that this film was going to take an effort and reach that simply had not happened in Vancouver before,” Walsh explains.
The positive response from critics and film-goers isn’t lost on him.
“Nearly everyone who sees the visual effects work says, ‘I didn’t think you guys were capable of that,’ which just goes to illustrate in fact how important it is that District 9 is seen as a coming-of-age film for the Vancouver visual effects community as a whole and Image Engine in particular.”
A Vancouver Film School Reunion
“The funny thing with the Vancouver industry is you often don’t realize how many people working here went to VFS at some point,” says Visual Effects Technical Director James McPhail, a 2007 VFS graduate and part-time instructor. “On District 9, I was working with a half-dozen or so grads that were at VFS at the same time as myself, but Image Engine has people working there who were in the very first classes 10 or so years back.”
Walsh is one of the old-timers. “To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it until quite close to the end of the production. But it is amazing. Our Creature Supervisor, James Stewart, was in the class ahead of me at VFS… Now that’s going back a while! 1996! James, [Lighting Lead] Rob Bourgeault, and I all knew each other from our formative time at VFS and we all had major roles on District 9 at Image Engine.”
Veteran compositor Geeta Basantani is a VFS 3D grad and also served as an instructor in the program for more than three years. That made her first day at Image Engine, surrounded by former students, a reunion of sorts. “I was very overwhelmed and very proud of them for doing so well,” she says. “We were all excited and hugging each other. As a teacher, I was always trying to be motivating and friendly with them, so the whole project and celebrations after the project was finished were a great sharing experience that I will treasure all my life.”
Modeler Jelmer Boskma was recovering from minor surgery when the call from Image Engine first came. He had to turn it down, but was fortunate enough to get a second chance later in the production. “I knew some of my friends, [VFS grad and Creature Texture Painter] Julianna Kolakis and Marco Menco, had been on the film for a while, and I wanted to work with them, so signed on to the project.”
“When you think of the fact that both the director as well as the VFX executive producer of District 9 are both VFS 3D grads… It made me realize that I probably attended the right school.”
And then came the crunch, and Image Engine felt even more familiar to those alumni. “It was a lot like VFS,” says Matchmove Artist Jacob Miller. “But if you can believe it, even more demanding and longer hours.”
Inside Image Engine
We recently sat down with Shawn Walsh and a few of the other key visual effects crew at Image Engine to talk about District 9, Vancouver’s burgeoning VFX scene, and working with fellow VFSers. Check it out, then read on for lots more from Walsh and the rest of the team:
A New Breed of Sci-Fi, A New Kind of Challenge
“There were challenges everywhere, and sometimes they looked pretty impossible to conquer,” says grad and Compositor Veronica Marino. “I remember the look of the aliens, from the skin to their clothes and assets, and the final texture work took forever to be finalized. There were months and months of insane look development work.”
It all came down to realizing Blomkamp’s vision. “The biggest challenge for us on District 9 was simply following through with Neill’s direction, which was rich, detailed, and inspiring,” Walsh explains. “All aspects of the production, from R&D through to supervision, led us towards achieving Neill’s goals. However, it has to be said again and again that Neill was a tremendous ally in achieving that challenge.”
For the visual effects team, there were pros and cons to District 9‘s gritty, verité style.
“When working on a shot that is handheld, let alone an entire film, sometimes it can actually make your job easier, as details in the footage get lost with motion blur,” says Miller. “However, one task that only ever gets harder with jerky and fast camera moves is matchmoving.”
“Every detail had to be accounted for,” Marino says, and indeed, the work needed to reflect the detail of a squalid world that had been deteriorating for some 20 years, when the aliens first landed – right down to the clothes on their backs.
“Modeling hero-res clothes turned out to be one of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever been set to,” says Boskma. “Taking something as simple as a jacket and trying to make it look real was insane, especially because it has to hold up in extreme close-ups.”
“To quote my supervisor, James Stewart, ‘It separates the men from the boys.’ He wasn’t kidding!”
As an Effects TD, McPhail’s job was to create details to integrate the aliens into their decidedly lived-in environment. “The strangest shot was making an alien pee on a wall – it was certainly the most unusual fluid simulation that I have done.”
Paul Copeland is a Visual Effects Artist who worked on District 9 a stone’s throw from Image Engine, at “boutique shop” The Embassy – with whom Blomkamp has a longstanding connection. District 9 was a challenge for that team, too. “Since we usually handle commercials, working on a project like District 9 with more than 100 shots was something new,” he says. “Even the work we did on Iron Man was not nearly as many shots.”
Back at Image Engine, Matchmove Artist Samson Wong (a graduate of both 3D and Foundation Visual Art & Design at VFS) agrees that their team faced challenges – but as with any tough-job-done-well, the rewards speak for themselves. “Working on District 9 is just like hiking: it takes a lot of time and effort climbing up, but once you’re on the peak of the mountain, you see so many things that you’re not able to see in a traditional Hollywood movie.”
A Little Industry Advice
“One thing I have noticed in the new generation of artists coming out of VFS is how quickly they learn,” Walsh says.
When he looks at his fresh-faced crew, he can’t help but reflect on how their experience differs from his. “When I arrived at VFS, I had barely touched a computer,” he says. “Nowadays, students are just so much more familiar with software and how it works.”
That’s not to say new hires don’t have something to learn from their veteran supervisors and peers. “We do have to teach new people a lot about the ‘old-school’ tried and true concepts that make visual effects truly convincing. Regardless of the tools available, those things don’t change and they take a long time to learn.”
District 9 could well become one of those films: not just technically proficient, but a master class in combining visual effects with capital-S Story, augmenting a thought-provoking tale without getting in the way.
“The most important thing for me is how well the visual effects are used in support of the story,” Walsh says. “Neill’s film is impossible to imagine without visual effects, and yet it is their complete seamlessness and integration in the environment of District 9 that makes them work. They should be ‘in your face’, yet they are not. They are somehow reserved.”
For the aspiring animator or visual effects artist, District 9 is a 112-minute lesson in the craft. And for those looking to break into the industry, Walsh has some advice of his own.
“For students, I always say ‘simpler is better’. Make a killer effect that is dead-simple to achieve and shows someone like me, who assesses many, many artists, that you have the basics down. There’s always a bigger, brighter, flashier thing out there… but you’ve got to get your foot in the door first!”
“I’m Still Excited”
District 9 is one of those projects that creates enthusiasm everywhere, even for bleary-eyed visual effects artists who have been working on it for months. From the very beginning, the film’s pedigree had the team charged up. “I was super stoked when I heard that Peter Jackson was producing District 9,” says Lighting TD Dominic Cheung. “I’m a great fan of his work, and although he didn’t direct it, his influence is definitely reflected in the film.”
Copeland knew Blomkamp’s work already. “I’ve worked on some of his commercials and one of his short films in the past,” he explains. “I knew District 9 was going to be something unique. I’m also a science fiction fan, so working on an original science fiction movie was a treat.”
“I really liked the variety of effects work that I got to do, as well as the look of the film overall,” elaborates McPhail. “The effects aren’t the star of the show. Instead, they’re there to help tell the story.”
As the film finally hits theatres, the team’s excitement is palpable. “Every day that I had to get up and go to work was exciting for me,” Marino says. “Just the thought of what this movie could be and how big it would be was the most exciting part of the whole project! And I’m still excited just thinking that I was contributing to it!”
The hype machine’s been working overtime on District 9. The difference is it isn’t just smoke and mirrors – everyone likes it, from fanboys to the mainstream media to industry pros. The praise is near-universal.
“Someone told me the other day that District 9 is the Slumdog Millionaire of visual effects,” says Walsh. And now all there is to do is sit back and see whether the film’s quality translates into audiences… and who knows, maybe even awards.
“I cannot thank our talented and dedicated crew enough. They are truly an imaginative and hard-working bunch! When we started working on this film, more than a year and a half ago, we simply could not have imagined that Sony Pictures Entertainment would be so enthusiastic and back this film with a tremendous marketing campaign.”
“I feel like Neill is getting back everything he put into this film and that’s a great feeling.”
Every hardworking and talented artist quoted in this story is a VFS grad – and they’re only a few. A more complete list of alumni whose work can be seen in District 9 includes:
Neill Blomkamp (Graduated 1998) – Director & Co-Writer
Shawn Walsh (1997) – Visual Effects Executive Producer
Terri Tatchell (Writing, 2001) – Co-Writer
Christopher Ahrens (2006) – Lighting Artist
Geeta Basantani (2001) – Senior Compositor
Peter Benson (1999) – Motion Capture Actor
Jelmer Boskma (2006) – Modeler
Robert Bourgeault (1997) – Lighting Lead
Freddy Chavez (2005) – Visual Effects Compositor
Dominic Cheung (2005) – Lighting Technical Director
Paul Copeland (2005) – Visual Effects Artist
Anthony Di Ninno (2006) – Animator
Ian Fenton (2001) – Compositor
Brian Harder (2000) – Creature Rigger
Nathaniel Holroyd (Film, 2007) – VFX Coordinator
Bernhard Huber (2006) – Effects Animator
Brett Ineson (1996) – Motion Capture Supervisor
Steve Johnston (2006) – Render Wrangler
Patrick Kalyn (2001) – Animator
Bernhard Kimbacher (2007) – Visual Effects Data Coordinator & Compositor
Julianna Kolakis (2006) – Creature Texture Painter
Veronica Marino (2006) – Compositor
Adam Marisett (2005) – Visual Effects Artist
James McPhail (2007) – Visual Effects Technical Director
Nikolai Michaleski (1997) – Compositor
Jacob Miller (2006) – Matchmove Artist
Francisco Moncayo Moreno (2007) – Digital Effects Artist
Brendon Morfitt (2004) – Digital Artist
Fernando Pazos (1996) – Animator
Dan Prentice (2004) – CG Artist
Mike Rhone (1999) – Visual Effects Artist
Cesar Rodriguez Bautista (2006) – Digital Paint & Roto Artist
Cynthia Rodriguez del Castillo (2007) – Digital Paint and Roto Artist
Marc Roth (1997) – Visual Effects Artist
Ben Burden Smith (1999) – Motion Capture First AD
Derek Stevenson (1998) – Matchmove Lead
James Stewart (1997) – Creature Supervisor
Richard Sur (2006) – Lighting Technical Director
Anna Tonrungroj (2008) – Digital Compositor
Grant Wilson (Film, 1991) – Animator
Joey Wilson (2005) – Modeler/Texturer
Samson Wong (2007, also completed Foundation Visual Art & Design) – Matchmove Artist
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