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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!