An Interview With Image Engine's Shawn Walsh

What first attracted you to the world of creature creation in filmmaking?

Generally speaking, when you develop the capability to create complex creatures or characters using computer graphics it means you are drawn to a sophisticated processes that yields stunning performances which are simply not possible to achieve otherwise. You're drawn to how these creations can change the prospects for filmmakers. For our team at Image Engine, this comes fundamentally from films such as Jurassic Park. It broke this ground!

I can remember always loving animation when I was younger, but when I saw Jurassic and Toy Story I knew where I wanted to take my fine arts background; computer graphics!

When first presented with a project concept what is your initial creative process?

As executive producer, when I jump into a project for Image Engine I look at what stage the filmmakers are in. Are they writing the script, or already in editorial? Have they finished shooting? Are they planning?

Once I know this aspect I focus on the shooting plan, and how the filmmakers are planning to capture the live action portion of the film. This has a big effect on how we approach the visual effects methodology. Understanding the camera style and editorial approach also has a massive influence on our choices.

We then focus on how our work integrates with those things and add value to the filmmaking process without impeding it.

As we move further and further away from traditional physical creature creation to digital, is there a method you prefer over the other?

I find it interesting these days to work with special effects supervisors like Cameron Waldbauer, who really understand there is no other process but the digital process. As a result, our collaboration is about how practical special effects work can help enable the visual effects result – which together we acknowledge is the only result.

Establishing this connection allows you to focus on what will be captured in camera to enable a visual effects process that creates awesome results. The visual sophistication of today’s audience plays a crucial role – people recognise when effects don’t feel quite right, even if they don’t know exactly why. This melding together of disparate elements in a seamless way becomes paramount, and that is something that digital processes can perfect.

How do you decide how much of a film or series will be digitally created and how much will be actual physical models and props?

This is oriented around the director’s overall vision for the film and how visual effects plays into that vision. For example, in Chappie the role of physical models was essential in the design of the robots and their roles inanimate props throughout the film – but when it comes to bringing the titular character to life; that was an entirely digital process.

The level of performance and articulation required in the character’s choreography exceeds anything created practically. That being said, the digital performance in Chappie is highly derivative of Sharlto Copley’s performance. Playing Chappie, Sharlto was wearing a grey reference suit – which is how practical work helped shape the character’s performance.

Ultimately, these decisions come back to what is possible in camera when taking into account the director’s vision. For example, when you’re creating the ice wall in Game of Thrones it’s obviously something that’s far too vast to capture on camera. It immediately becomes a visual effects task.

When working on a film, what keeps you up at night the most?

Time! Schedules are always a concern – much more than the creative brief or financing. It comes down to when we will have all the data needed to execute our work. It also depends when we will achieve creative buy-in from clients, and when we receive the inevitable email that says there’s more work than planned on the way. It comes down to when will we know how much time we have left to do our work.

When will we achieve creative buy-in from the clients? When will we receive the inevitable email that says there’s more work than planned on the way? When will we know how much time we have left to do our work? These are the kinds of things that literally wake me up thinking.

As an executive producer, you are responsible for giving your teams the best possible chance to complete their work with as little time crunch pressure as possible. So, you’re always looking for ways to get ahead of schedule challenges.

What part of the creature creation process do you enjoy the most?

Depending on the film we’re working on and the filmmakers design process, there is an initial phase where the ideas surrounding a creature aren’t quite solved. Bringing creative solutions to the table at this time is really what our team excels in. Sometimes as an executive producer I am heavily involved in helping guide our team towards results that achieve the client’s vision. It’s a super fun aspect of my role.

Skipping to the end, it’s exciting to see how a great brief and fabulous execution can bring the illustration to life!

Has there ever been a project where the requirements or vision of the director/producer was simply impossible at the time? If so, what is your approach to that sort of situation and how do you find a solution?

All the time! But, normally this is more of a function of time than anything else. Being a part of the solution we work really hard to never give up. We always having a solution to suggest – even if it means more finance, or a different solution than the filmmakers were originally thinking. Often the filmmakers are under so much stress themselves, they’re really only looking for some empathy, and someone to say “hey, have you thought about this or that… This is easier and faster to create?”

With Game of Thrones moving into its seventh season, what has your personal creative evolution been like working on this series? What lessons have you learned and how has it shaped your approach to your craft?

Image Engine has taken on an increasing level of complexity on Game of Thrones. This year we have done some truly spectacular work. One of the amazing lessons working with production visual effects supervisor, Joe Bauer, and production visual effects producer, Steve Kullback, is just how important it is to plan and stick to a schedule.

Game of Thrones is essentially a massive hours long film – so the idea you can’t over cook things and you need to final episodes like they’re reels in a film is a fascinating process. Many films stall out, or lose momentum. Game of Thrones never does and this is a testament to Joe and Steve sticking to the plan and eeking out the very best from it.

What are your theories on how the cinematic world will continue to evolve and what place do you see artists such as yourself holding in the future?

Primarily I think the cinematic world is going to change to meet the ever growing transformation of audiences worldwide – particularly being dominated by Asia, especially China. The creative leadership that the widening world of visual effects needs is in short supply. Finding a group like Image Engine that can handle a broad range of demands creatively, but also managerially, is really important to our future. For example, we have a relationship with the Japanese creative power house Square-Enix now as we collaborated on the film “Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV” (2016) and that project tested our creative capabilities across time zones, languages, cultures. It was amazing to see how well our crew responded to that challenge/ I expect Image Engine to maintain a very open posture towards working in Asia.

Do you have any advice for artists interested in pursuing a career in creature creation?

Sure - you’ve got to love it. Visual effects is a wonderful occupation that allows you to stretch yourself professionally as an artist, technician and collaborator. There is no such thing as a free lunch as they say. You’ve got to earn it. There’s dedication, patience and trust that you have to develop in the process – it’s key to surviving creatively in a deadline driven industry. Be open to feedback and guidance from your peers about what you’re naturally good at – what your true skills are and try to focus on making those things as good as they can be.

And, lastly, do you have any additional parting words you would like our audience to read?

Yeah. Remember that the visual effects industry is a people industry. It’s driven by highly skilled professionals who pour their hearts into creating stunning imagery – visible and invisible – that audiences have come to take for granted these days. Far too often the industry has given people the impression that everything is done by a computer. As the great Gareth Edwards said at SXSW 2017, “no one says that a script was computer generated”. While the tools may have changed over time and are highly sophisticated and reliant on computing – it’s the people driving them that are the beating heart behind the work that I’d like everyone to think of when they see the credits roll.

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As Visual Effects Executive Producer, Shawn’s expertise lies in the crucial areas of creative production, maintaining the company’s excellent client relations and producing winning bids.

Originating as a 3D character animator in 1996, Shawn brings many years experience in the visual effects and animation industry, including several years abroad where he honed his skills as a Senior Lighting Technical Director and Compositor at Rhythm and Hues, The Moving Picture Company and ESC Entertainment. During this time his credits include The Matrix: Revolutions, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

He joined Image Engine in 2005 and has since built up an impressive roster of credits including The Incredible Hulk, District 9, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,White House Down and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In 2012/2013, he managed the multi-vendor production of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium as the Visual Effects Producer for the production. Shawn has most recently executive produced the visual effects for Image Engine’s contribution to Chappie, Jurassic World, The Revenant, Deadpool, Independence Day: Resurgence and Power Rangers.

Shawn plays an instrumental role in leading new business opportunities in feature film, developing new production methodologies and managing the global marketing of Image Engine. Shawn has had a crucial role in securing projects from a diverse range of clientele including 20th Century Fox Film Corp., Marvel Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures, Lionsgate Entertainment and Media Rights Capital.

Since Image Engine’s merger with Cinesite, Shawn has taken on the role of General Manager of Image Engine. Shawn also sits on the Board of Directors for DigiBC.

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For more information on Image Engine visit http://image-engine.com/.

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