Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Interview with... Juan-Luis Sanchez

My next interview has been a long time in the making, purely because the interviewee is so incredibly busy with his work.
Of course I'm talking about Visual Effects whiz Juan-Luis Sanchez.
Juan-Luis has had a hand in such films as Harry Potter, Nightmare On Elm Street, and even Star Wars.
So I hope you enjoy this very insightful interview with Juan-Luis Sanchez.

1. How does someone come to work in the Visual Effects Department for a movie studio? What credentials do you require?

In my case I came from studying Physics and then completing a Computer Science Masters. From there I started out in the Pipeline group at Rhythm & Hues Studios (http://www.rhythm.com/). Nowadays many people come through established Visual Effects and Computer Animation courses at large universities/colleges. When I began my career these courses had only just started, and people came from many different backgrounds; architecture, fine art, film studies, theatre, photography, computer science.

As for credentials, well, the fact that people want to do this work and pursue it avidly might be considered enough credentials :). No, you need a mix of artistry and craft - all VFX work requires some amount of those two things. Depending on the role the focus may be on one or the other. There's no single university course or certificate that can demonstrate that someone has those things, you need to see what they've done on their own time, where their passions are, see examples of their work and talk to them about the things that motivate them. Nowadays people with an interest in VFX can make their own movies and do their own very high quality effects work on their home laptop and demonstrate their interest and ability that way. At the end of the day it's about the image that makes it onto the screen.

2. What has been your favourite project to work on so far, and why?

It's a tough one to answer because I've chosen every project because I wanted to work on it for some reason, regardless of whether it turned out to be a good movie in the end or not. The one that I had the best time on however, for a host of reasons, would probably be Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

3. What did you do you on The Dark Knight?

I was involved in the early stages of post production, helping with the environment work building Gotham City out of Chicago. Unfortunately I wasn't able to take that work into actual shot production, I moved back to the USA before that happened.

4. What difference is there, visually, between the original and 2010 remake of Nightmare On Elm Street?

If you look at the original film it has a simpler visual style, even though there are very surreal images and sequences in there. It was a very low-budget horror film and that translated to the shooting style. Wes Craven had some very interesting ideas and tone that he wanted to convey and he did that with a few striking images and moments that everyone remembers. The newer film, although still relatively low-budget by todays standards, is a much slicker affair, directed by someone who came from the advertising and music video world, so it has a much more style-conscious look.

As far as Freddy is concerned, there was a desire to take his make-up design away from the monstrous 'Pizza-face' that he had become known for in the classic films, and try to establish a different identity for him, more based on what might happen to a real burn victim. It was an interesting choice but perhaps it caused less fear and more pity in the audience, which doesn't make him a threatening figure.

5. What’s it like on the Harry Potter movies?

I worked on The Chamber of Secrets (2) and The Order of The Phoenix (5), and I saw both The Philosopher's Stone (1) and The Prizoner of Azkaban (3) while they were in production. They were all very different films, mainly because the directors of the films changed a lot in the first few years, and the technology advanced a lot. You can see the effects in the first few films don't look as good as those later on, and in part it was a process of discovery for everyone involved. Still, they were relatively straightforward because the production team on the studio side changed very little over the period the films were made, so there was consistency about the look and tone that they were going for, and they were very well organised productions. With that much money riding on everything, they wanted to make sure everything ran as smoothly as possible.

The first few were exciting, because it was all new. Everyone wanted to see what a Quidditch match would look like, or the Dementors, or Hogwarts itself. For instance, when ILM worked on the Quidditch match in Chamber of Secrets, there was a desire to improve on what was done before. I think that's part of it too, many different people all over the world have worked on these films over the years, and there's been a desire, a friendly competition as it were, to improve on whatever came before it. It's rare that you get to re-work characters and situations to try out new approaches both technical and artistic, every few years, to see how things have improved.

From a personal level, I got to appear as a Quidditch official as an extra in Chamber of Secrets, we shot some elements on bluescreen at ILM, so that was a lot of fun. I would have liked to have worked on The Deathly Hallows but I couldn't get to the UK (where just about all the effects have been done for the past 4 or 5 films) in time for it to happen.

6. Do the Harry Potter novels restrict you in any way?

By the time the shots have made it to me as an artist, all the crucial decisions have been made as far as how much to follow the books or not. It's a bigger question than just the VFX, the Harry Potter films have been sort of 'moving picture books' in some ways, unable to truly represent all the details, characters and plot lines of the books. But any attempt to re-tell or re-structure those stories to make more sense in a compressed movie time-frame would have met with great resistance from the main audience - all the kids who knew the books inside and out. So for better or worse the films follow the books very faithfully sometimes skipping over large bits of exposition or events knowing that the audience will have been filling in the blanks from their own readings of the books.
I worked on Dobby and his dirty pillowcase for The Chamber of Secrets and I found the book very helpful to read Dobby's description and how he wore the pillowcase, it helped me understand it better from the perspective of his character and what it meant to him. Personally, when there has been a book on which a film is based that I've worked on, I've liked having it to refer to for inspiration.

7. Mystery Men was a distinct look and style. What was it like to work on this movie?

We're going back a while now, not too many people want to talk about Mystery Men, lol. It was a non-super superheroes film (like Kick-Ass or others) made before people were ready for that kind of story. Still, it has a small cult following. I was just starting out as an VFX artist when I worked on it, and I did a number of bits and pieces for it. I think it was somewhat frustrating at the time as there didn't seem to be a clear focus of what to do or where we were heading with the film, but I remember it fondly now, a learning experience. I haven't seen the film in years.

8. What has been your most talked-about work?

Probably Yoda, in Episodes II and III. I set up his digital clothing, and was one part of a large team of people involved in making him a digital character. We were making Yoda a CG character for the first time and there was a lot of desire to do it right, to fully evoke the Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back, but do things that the character could not have possibly done as a puppet. To that end we got to meet Frank Oz and hear his detailed thoughts about the character, and we studied every piece of footage, every photograph, every outtake that we could find of the pre-digital Yoda, to make sure that anything we did was in keeping with that, involving lots of discussions about his character and how he would approach this or that. As a child I never thought I'd get to be paid to talk about Yoda! Whatever people thought about the final fight scene with Count Dooku, it was so satisfying to take him to a place that he had never been before, and feel that we managed to pull it off. I did his clothes for the shot in Episode II where he pulls back his robe and takes out the lightsabre before confronting Count Dooku, and the camera swings around him western-movie style, and that was a thrill. I still get excited to see that shot when I happen across it on TV or something.

Wow! Thank you so very much Juan-Luis!
I hope you got a kick out of reading that, because I saw did!

Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Until next time!