Visual-effects guru Stu Maschwitz started out at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, then went on to co-found top VFX house The Orphanage, where he has worked on films including Sin City, Spy Kids 3D, and Frank Miller’s forthcoming movie, The Spirit.
What’s the most amazing piece of visual effects that you’ve seen recently?
I just watched Blade Runner: The Final Cut in HD. Cleaned up or not, that work still shines. I’m still learning things from that movie, every time I watch it.
What first made you aware of the power of VFX?
I saw Star Wars aged five, and was completely hooked.
Who was your mentor?
I’ve had many, from Jamie Caliri to John Knoll, and most recently Frank Miller. But before them all was my dad, who taught me photography and Super 8 filmmaking.
What’s the film you wish you had worked on?
When I saw Star Wars, even at that young age, I didn’t want to be Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be the guy in the ‘making of’ shows that came on TV after Star Wars was such a hit. At five years old I wanted to work on Star Wars, and at 25 I had my chance – my name is now in the credits of the movie that inspired me to be a filmmaker.
Which of your projects are you most proud of?
I’ve just finished supervising 1,800 shots for Frank Miller’s The Spirit, and it’s definitely my best work to date. Before that it would have to be the Navy Seals spot called Footprints, which is only one shot, and barely has any effects it it.
What’s the biggest challenge for VFX houses now?
Aside from the obvious challenges we all face with short schedules and price competition, the big new creative challenge is the importance of colour correction in movies today. Every visual-effects supervisor should be learning as much as they can about the digital intermediate (DI) process and integrating it into their shot review workflow as much as possible, like The Orphanage is doing with The Bunker [the company’s offices].
Who’s the most visionary person that you’ve worked with?
When I first began at Industrial Light and Magic, I worked under Dennis Muren. I remember watching him review shots, and people would try to impress him by pointing out little technical issues with a shot that no-one had noticed yet. Invariably he’d say “If they’re looking there, we’ve lost them.” He taught me that anyone can nit-pick, but a visionary knows where to direct their efforts.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
On my first music video my producer caught me pacing nervously, and he told me to sit down whenever possible. There are times when, as a director, the only way you can help move things along is to get out of the way. He taught me to save my energy for when I’d need it.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in VFX today?
Read a book on screenwriting. You’ll never know what’s important about your effects work unless you know how the shot you’re making helps tell the story. Be the kind of VFX artist that a director would want to talk with about story. Nothing else matters.
Are there any current VFX styles or trends that you particularly appreciate or despise?
I like the style of ‘invisible’ effects favoured by the Bourne films and The Dark Knight. People say ‘invisible’ when they really mean ‘seamlessly integrated with the rest of the movie’. Shouldn’t that always be the case? Personally, I’m not interested in the pursuit of realistic CG humans. I like watching actors act, and I like an active collaboration between all disciplines of filmmaking.
What gets you up in the morning?
Coffee! I make a cappuccino every morning and it might be the only thing I put more care into than my effects work.
Stu Maschwitz’s has supervized visual effects for films from Sin City (above) to the special editions of the Star Wars films, and directed VFX-heavy commercials, including one for Ruby Tuesday (below). He’s also a prodigious blogger, the designer of Red Giant Software’s Magic Bullet Colorista colour-correction plug-in for After Effects and Final Cut Pro, and author of The DV Rebel’s Guide.
Maschwitz is currently senior visual effects supervisor and second unit director on The Spirit (above), the first film fully directed by Sin City author Frank Miller. Miller recently thanked Maschwitz in an extensive blog entry for helping him understand how to use CGI in a way that’s “elegant… or invisible”. The Spirit is based on Will Eisner’s classic comic and hits UK cinemas in February 2009.