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Episode 124 — Michael Wortmann — VFX Supervisor — Black Panther, Game of Thrones, Atomic Blonde
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 124! I’m speaking with Michael Wortmann, a VFX Supervisor on feature films like Atomic Blonde, Black Panther and many more. We talk about his career and being an artist, about his experience on set. We get in
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[-1:13:05] I am personally really excited because we just opened up the Live Action Series. I’m having a lot of fun with that!
[-1:12:45] I am speaking at the IAMAG Master Class in Paris, in March: http://www.iamag.co/features/iamag-master-classes-18/. If you’re in Europe, come along! You will have a great access to the speakers. This year is going to be phenomenal.
We do a meet-up with my Mentorship every year, in Paris as well. We’ll have drinks and chat.
[-1:10:51] I am putting together a Course around BRANDING. I’ve been wanted to do this for years! It goes beyond the basics. It goes into:
– How to build a name;
– How to build a niche;
– How to stand out as an artist in this industry.
I will also do my talk in Paris and a Bootcamp on that subject.
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL WORTMANN
Michael Wortmann is a VFX Supervisor. Since graduating from the Filmakademie in Wurttenberg, Germany, in 2007, Michael has pursued a truly international career by working for companies like Animal Logic in Australia, Weta Digital in New Zealand, Chimney in his native Germany and many more. His credits include large budget films like Prince of Persia, Harry Potter, X-Men: First Class, John Carter, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Atomic Blonde, and most recently, Black Panther.
In this Podcast, Michael talks about his journey of becoming a VFX Supervisor, the benefits of changing companies every few years — and the most essential skills for standing out as a VFX artist.
Michael Wortmann on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1151729/
Michael Wortmann on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelwortmann
Atomic Blonde VFX Breakdown on Chimney’s Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/231082040
Michael: Hello, my name is Michael Wortmann, I’m a VFX Supervisor. I’m from Germany, and I started my career also in Germany. I studied at the Filmakademie in Wurttenberg which has a special course in animation and special effects.
[-1:07:38] Allan: Going all the way back, when you were growing up, did you always have an interest in film? Or did that happen naturally over time?
Michael: That was really my dream job. I’m one of the many people who was inspired by Jurassic Park. Then I went to the local library and saw this book on the making of [the film]. It raised this idea that this [job] is out there. Then, the next step would be finding out how this worked.
[-1:06:58] Allan: Do you remember what that book was?
Michael: It was on the making of Jurassic Park. But it was pretty comprehensive. It covered all the Michael Lantieri creatures that have been built. But it also covered the ILM crazy dinosaur-robot device that captured the motions and all that.
[-1:06:32] Allan: That’s really cool! I just interviewed Ben Snow who did Jurassic Park 2 (www.allanmckay.com/101). I think that film is really generational. You have the Star Wars generation and the generation of Terminator and Jurassic Park. After you watched that movie, did it send you on a path of obsession of learning all this stuff?
Michael: Yes. And back then, there weren’t a lot of sources. The internet wasn’t around that much, so it wasn’t easy to get information. I got a copy of 3DS Max and kept playing around with it for 2-3 years. When school was finished, the idea was to get into [the industry]. Internships were the next logical step, so I applied at a few different companies. I remember my parents throwing in an application for Weta which existed back then. They were already working on the first Lord of the Rings movies. [My parents] wanted to travel to New Zealand so they actually planted my application which was quite cool. (When I finally worked at Weta — 12 years later — I actually found my application in their database!)
[-1:05:03] Allan: That’s so cool! Did you find doing the route of an internship pretty successful?
Michael: I just interned for 3 months and then I was already hired. There weren’t many people in visual effects back then. So if you showed some talent and good work ethic, people would just grab you on the spot. It was pretty easy to get a full-time position back then. I had pretty much no work experience. After 3 month of the internship, I was a junior artist and basically went from there. That was the entry into my career. I think I spent 1 months as an intern at Framestore. When I compare [my experience] to the experience of the interns I have around me right now, it’s much harder for them because it’s a lot more competitive. There is also more demand. It’s not as straight-forward as it used to be either.
[-1:03:45] Allan: Some people when they intern, they actually apply themselves and have a long game. There is actually a small percentage of people that make a good impression. You get some people who completely blow off an opportunity to learn.
Michael: It’s a little bit different in Germany because students are required to do an internship. And it also determines what they get paid because by law, in Germany, you have to be paid. I’ve never seen interns working for free. In Germany, you don’t get paid much but you get first hands-on on experience. After an internship, you end up having pretty cool shots on your reel. Comparing to the scheme they have in London, where they have to deal with the cutlery and the dirty dishes before they even see a computer. It’s more of an alternative education because it’s much more for the people who cannot afford a fancy university. They can get in there by working their way up. They would have to invest a couple of years before they get their hands on a shot. Whereas the interns we have here, it’s much more straight-forward to find out if they have talent. You pretty much know if they have talent after an internship and you can already hire them after their studies.
[-1:00:47] Allan: You’re right, every London based producer has horror stories of being a runner at 5:00 in the morning. You pay your dues and you earn your way into certain roles. These days, in a lot of industries, it’s more about being proactive and building relationships; rather than bidding your time until the right opportunities. Do you think it’s easier to get work these days? Obviously, there is a lot more competition, but there are more opportunities too.
Michael: There is a lot of demand. But the entry barrier is a bit higher these days. For example, I never hire interns who have no experience. I need someone who is toward the end of their studies and has already played around on their own time, and can handle the task in front of them. There is a lot of students who don’t face strict regulations when studying. That’s where you need to train people. We’re looking for people whom we don’t need to train from the ground up. There either has to be some IT background or a creative background, but there has to be substance. But we cannot start training them from nothing just because they’re interested in the industry. Unless you can take the smallest step on your own, it’s not worth diving into it.
[-57:58] Allan: What’s a good skill to really make yourself stand out? Are there any skills they would allow you to have the upper hand over everyone else, especially starting out?
Michael: It depends on the kind of company you’re trying to get into. Here at Trixter where I’m working now, we’re a bigger company so we’re all specialists. We don’t run a big generalist team. If you go to some commercial company or a boutique studio with a small number of people where generalists are working, you can have people who don’t know where it will lead them — and that’s fine. If I’m going for someone, they are good and they know what they want to be: “I want to be a compositor.” They’re not a compositor yet, but they have a clear goal where they want to go. It’s the goals that set the interest for me. But a clear goal is so important especially if you go into a bigger company. You need to focus on something.
[-56:07] Allan: If you have a goal, then you have a direction. There are so many people who either don’t know what they want to do or they want to dabble. If you have a goal in place, you can start building an action plan. When you started out, you were a Technical Director, is that right?
Michael: Yes, pretty much. I was a junior animator for some time, but I looked into visual effect right away. I did my first steps. I had already worked for 2.5 years in the industry and then I went back to study. Which was a bit unique in comparison to my classmates. I was a bit spoilt for studies because I was already training for the idea of delivering a given task, as opposed to experimenting. I was at the university half the time and then working as a freelancer. I was already working on movies. So when I graduated, I was already looking at 7 years of professional experience which is not common. That was the time I started looking [at] working abroad. A lot of people were going to work in London which is close to Germany and not a big hurdle to get to. Those were the Harry Potter days. Salaries were the same as they are today. You made good money but the cost of living was more comfortable. Not many people were looking at going to the States. Canada wasn’t really a topic back then. New Zealand was just starting out, with Weta.
[-53:33] Allan: And what year was that?
[-53:29] Allan: I noticed you worked on A Sound of Thunder.
Michael: We just worked on one sequence in a pop-up office, for a small company that disappeared after that. It was quite fun!
[-52:58] Allan: I think the main studio was out in Australia. They had like a muscle system that got the attention because of all the dinosaurs. I’ve heard mixed things about it.
Michael: I think it was a crazy one. There was also a big facility in LA that worked on it.
[-51:45] Allan: For you, what was the big break you got? What was the project that had a big shift in your career?
Michael: In Germany, we worked on smaller budgets. So everyone had to be a generalist. There were a lot of tv shows and catastrophe movies, but they had small budgets. We always had this fight to get the projects done with the fraction of the money that big studios had. That was really good training for people of my generation. We were working on big shots — without the big money or the big technology. It was great training to be inventive and take on those challenge. So when I went to Australia to work at Animal Logic on Knowing that was really cool. I would dive right in and they had a much slower pace. That was nice! I also learned to work on RenderMan and how the big studio technology would work. Changing companies every year and a half was a huge step for me: Learning new technology and new people, and new studio workflows. That really put me forward!
[-49:07] Allan: I think everyone should come from humble beginnings. Working at larger studios with larger deadlines, each person works on a little bit. Having a background [of small studios] allows you — when you do have those big budgets — to utilize it in a whole different way. I think that’s really cool. With Knowing, what kind of work did you do on that?
Michael: I worked on the aliens when they suddenly dissolve (there was a transformation with flames and debris work), a bit of Nuke and tones of debris on it.
[-47:50] Allan: Were you working with Compositor Florian Schroeder?
Michael: Yes, yes!
[-47:37] Allan: He mentioned working on that. What was your opinion working in Australia as opposed to Germany?
Michael: Well, first of all, I have to say that I really enjoyed my time in Australia. Sydney is just a brilliant place! The nice weather! We’d have football matches during our lunch breaks: Animal Logic vs Rising Sun Pictures. I already had kids by then. We went back to Germany after half a year. Australia is a great place. Animal Logic has shifted its focus toward animation, but they still do great projects! They would come up with their own technology and custom software. They’re still doing that and doing their own thing! It’s sad to see that they have moved to Vancouver. To me, they were always the big rock of visual effects in Australia. I was surprised to see them go abroad also.
[-45:45] Allan: I think it’s just a natural evolution. I think for a lot of people, it’s inevitable. Let’s play it by the game that our clients ask for. After moving to London, you worked on Prince of Persia. What kind of work did you do on that one?
Michael: I did this dream sequence with a lioness that jumps straight into the camera. Because I had so much experience with grooming before, I groomed that lion. There were some other fluid and smoke effects. I didn’t work on that for very long because my major assignment at Cinesite was Harry Potter where we spent quite a lot of time developing this really short sequence where they enter a corridor and [Harry Potter] is 7, and the ghost Voldemort rises. He was supposed to rise from sand or dust on the ground, build up and rush toward the camera. Back then stereo was about to happen. We produced shots with billions of particles, but Warner Brothers decided not to release the film in stereo. Later on, they did the conversion of the movie once the technology was more developed.
[-42:55] Allan: Working on Harry Potter, what was the experience like? You had worked in Australia and Germany, and now London. What was it like to work at Cinesite?
Michael: Cinesite was great. A good friend of mine was a VFX Sup on Harry Potter. We had a really good time! We developed a lot of stuff, not only on Harry Potter but also on Battle Los Angeles. We developed technology for Cinesite: rendering proper fluids with RenderMan, the particle shading system, bumping up the shaders. In the last Harry Potter, we worked on this huge staircase environment which was exceeding everything that would bypass their rendering. So we introduced GI for the first time in RenderMan, with photo mapping. I was jumping from project to project there. Also did a bit of John Carter. It was quite nice to work on all those projects! It was really cool to sit in the same box with the two lead programmers. So if we needed something, they could do it immediately. We were also able to help, like a S.W.A.T. team.
[-40:22] Allan: Do you think learning to code and having technical understand gives you a big boost?
Michael: This kind of thing starts to fly when you’re into it. If you’re not a technical person, it’s not worth sitting there and doing stuff you aren’t able to understand. I think there are a lot of animators who understand math and physics. But you don’t need to be a super technical guy. Yes, it’s beneficial if you have a basic understanding, but it can be anything: You can write script or you can be good at math. What I think can be really beneficial is understanding of photography. The fact that I studied at the Filmakademie where they study movies really helped me a lot. Knowing about editing or cameras or classic photography — those things are really beneficial. And it always comes back to you in a lot of things. People are so liberated with the tools these days, that the lack of knowledge about photography is much more apparent. Now the people who are more successful nowadays are the ones who know about shooting a real movie. They can make pictures look good. It’s the same craft, in a way.
[-37:48] Allan: Before 3D was about mimicking reality. Now we are at a point where the tools are doing what happens in reality. Bit by bit, you need to have an understanding how camera and lighting works. How did Weta come up?
Michael: We decided to leave London because we spent enough time there. It was hard to afford with having kids. We weren’t ready to go back to Germany. I applied at Weta and luckily they offered me a job. I was interviewed by Christoph Sprenger, the Head of VFX. I worked with him at Animal Logic before. It was a really cool time there. You hear all these stories about how great it was but how demanding. I found that it wasn’t really true. I met a lot of people who were stressed out. A lot of people who do overtime there are either greedy or bored. For me, it was a great experience. I worked my regular hours.
I started working on Tin Tin and Rise of Planet of the Apes. But I eventually got to work on X-Men: First Class. I just came from Cinesite and Weta was a big time RenderMan user. I started looking into how to render particles for water simulations. Weta had this challenging sequence with battle ships in front of Cuba. It was really cool! That shot doesn’t look too crazy, but it was okay. I started to develop this particle renderer. I was learning a lot. I could balance technical needs with creative needs quite well which was beneficial for me. It was a really great experience. I was really sad to leave. We decided to go back to Germany. I was already hired as a CG Supervisor at Pixomondo in Berlin. The VFX Supervisor dropped out and so I came to that role instead.
[-32:20] Allan: Is that where you started doing more onset supervision?
Michael: No. Pixomondo was a huge undertaking with several studios [around the world]. The guy who ran the show was in Los Angeles and they would distribute work to the other offices. They had 5 studios in Germany. They were growing way too fast! We had to do this sequence for Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The underwater stuff, lava stuff underwater. I couldn’t do anything because I wasn’t used to working with 3DS Studio Max and Fume and all those toolsets that they had. Luckily, they had plenty of skilled people. But they had 40 shots and it was insane. When I was done, I needed to change.
Then, we worked on Game of Thrones, Season 2 — and that was really harsh! We did this green sea battle explosion. That was intense. It was too late to raise your hand. Halfway through production, they came up with even more shots that we weren’t ready for. It was quite a struggle to finish it. It was an orange explosion two weeks before delivery. It’s all experiences you have and they make you stronger for the next one. We finished that and the company got hands on Star Trek. The first Star Trek movie was done completely by ILM. Someone Pixomondo managed to get their hands on some of the shots.
[-29:09] Allan: It was really impressive seeing all the stuff Pixomondo was doing on that film, globally. Which sequence were you, guys, on?
Michael: I did the whole ship attack on the head quarters. It was quite a massive sequence, also including stereo. Each of those shots were really big. It was great stuff! We had a great crew. We spent 9 months on it and we’re still proud of it!
[-24:59] Allan: Doing on-set supervision, how did it come about and what has the transition been like?
Michael: Because of the way Pixomondo was structured, the big movies would come out of LA. We started putting our hands on movies that were shot in Berlin. So we started working with the local industry. Pixomondo shut down their Berlin location and the next day was laid off. Luckily, a lot of the artists managed to stay in Berlin. After that, I was thinking about founding my own company, but then I had an offer from Chimney. Terry Gilliam was working on this film and it was Chimney’s first feature film. So they needed to recruit artists and find funding. They were starting to get into the German market. Everyone was still frightened by the Pixomondo experience.
[-21:28] Allan: Pixomondo was always pointing itself toward tax incentives. But you are still dealing with the overhead and the cost of expanding so quickly. I think it started out as a good idea.
Michael: There are two kinds of companies. There are companies that are run by big corporations and there is interest in your numbers: Are you making a profit or not? And then there are owner driven companies like Pixomondo and Chimney, and others where there is a visionary behind them. But those are good salesmen. Animal Logic is a good example. The owner knows what he is selling. A lot of companies focus on the numbers but they don’t look properly after the product. Chimney was all about how much money they were making, but it was difficult to focus on the artists, the pipeline, the good work environment. Those are the things that make studios successful.
[-18:44] Allan: Going back to your on-set experience, what was the transition like?
Michael: It was great. It’s been on smaller projects here in Germany where we could drive out and see how it worked. That has been a thing that developed at Chimney. I really enjoy those projects where I have direct contact with the director. If I had to choose between a project with a big budget and a project where I have direct access to the production, I would always favor [the second]. That’s what makes it enjoyable and it makes you feel like you’re part of the projects. That’s been a game changer.
[-16:56] Allan: You’re absolutely right. Do you think it’s vital to build relationships with as many directors as you can [because] you’re essentially able to babysit their project for them?
Michael: Ultimately, yes. That’s the best thing that can happen. There are a lot of other considerations, like producers. And then you have more independent directors. I worked on an independent film but it took them 3-4 years to get the movie done. It’s not the corner stone of my business, unfortunately.
[-14:41] Allan: Finally, do you want to talk about Atomic Blonde? What were your contributions on that?
Michael: We only onboard with this because Chimney had a deal to do all the post-production effects for the movie. I flew to Budapest in September 2015 the first time, during pre-production. Then, we started planning the movie. They didn’t have a VFX Supervisor. I was surprised. They said, “You do that on your own.” We started shooting in October. Whenever they had big visual effects on set, I would fly in. Luckily, it’s a short flight from Germany. That was a super great experience and a great lesson on how to get your stuff done. If you need something, you need to make yourself noticeable on set. It was not about being loud enough. It was about communication. No one was questioning stuff. Obviously, with the background of the story, it was funny to see German history taking place.
[-12:07] Allan: What were some of the challenges on the projects?
Michael: There were two big challenges. We couldn’t do drone shots because we don’t have flight permission near the tv tower. Early on, we decided to make it a piece of history. All the building had to be in the state of 1989. Our office was 5 minutes away from Alexanderplatz, so we could take all the angles. It was a true history piece. That shot is absolutely correct. Everything is there, including the East German cars. The second big challenge was the staircase fight. That was intense. That was one of the earliest things they’ve told us about. We started with the breakdowns written by the director. Their stunt team was amazing. One of the stunt guys was a camera operator. They trained and practiced on location. During the shoot, the editor had her laptop there and we would have to check if we could stitch it together. There were a lot of sophisticated cuts too. Once we got out of that building, the car chase started. They had to build another rig. There were several people on that car rig.
[-06:55] Allan: I think that’s what we love about this work: You never know what goes into those shots. In the end, how do you think the movie was received?
Michael: It’s a cool popcorn movie. I think it did well at the box office. I really liked the style, the non-historic take on Berlin. It’s really colorful! The prop master was also German and they got it all [right]! It was fun to see it come together. Being in touch with the editor and director, it was great to see how they were able to improve the movie. This was really productive. It’s something I would have missed out if I weren’t part of it.
[-04:41] Allan: When you hit the ground running, it’s what I really love about these experiences. Is there any social media where people can reach out to you?
Michael: I don’t have much of a presence. There is a cool breakdown on Chimney’s page. Other than that, I’m not sure.
[-03:38] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to do this!
Michael: Great, no worries!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Thank you again, Michael, for taking the time to chat!
Next week, I will be back with Chris Do, the Founder and the Creative Director of Blind, one of the leading design studios. As someone who is so impactful with his branding, Chris has a really powerful identity. It was really amazing to chat with him.
Also coming up:
– An Episode with Founder of Schoolism Bobby Chiu;
– A leading Immigration Attorney in New Zealand who works with Weta Willy Sussman;
– Jason Martin, Lead Character Artist at id Software and Doom.
Please leave a review on iTunes. Thank you!