Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Nick Davis

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor Nick Davis…

“It was more by accident that I fell into that side of the industry,” states British Visual Effects Supervisor Nick Davis when discussing his career choice which he made two decades ago. “It was a great place where you can learn all aspects of filmmaking and it was cutting edge. We were changing the way the films were being made and thought about; I still think that’s true today.” The son of a doctor, who had youthful dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, headed to America during the late 1980s. “When I started working very few companies were doing anything digitally; it was all done on optical printers, models and miniatures.” Then along came the digital revolution. “Hollywood went from having four to five companies to hundreds of companies around the world. We’ve seen the whole change of movement of the industry from being completely Los Angeles-centric to London, Vancouver, Australia, and New Zealand.” The attitude of the Hollywood studios toward visual effects has changed. “All those years ago we were the poor cousins. We’d walk up to the set with our camera and they’d be, ‘Who are they? What do they want?’ Now there are entire departments dedicated to visual and digital effects, and our budgets have become in many respects the largest single line items in the movie; we have risen up to being one of the key parts of the filmmaking process.”

“You have to be prepared to move, adapt, and change as the industry does,” believes Nick Davis. “It’s not going to stand still and therefore you can’t. You can’t be too rigid and dogmatic in your principles and beliefs. You have to be prepared to listen, change and always learn. Sometimes when you think you’ve seen, heard, and known it all, those are the times when you’re most likely to fail.” There many different aspects to being a visual effects supervisor; the job requires an understanding of technology and filmmaking as well as the ability to deal with studios, producers, directors, and cinematographers. “I was inspired by things like Aliens [1986]; I thought that was a fantastic action-sci-fi movie. I would say that James Cameron has been very inspiration to me, especially some of his earlier work. The second Terminator [1991] was a groundbreaking moment in digital effects.

“The first movie I that worked on was a Sam Raimi movie called Darkman [1990],” recalls Nick Davis who began to earn film credits such as with the action-thriller Under Siege (1992) starring Steven Seagal (Above the Law) and Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men). “That was a fun movie. I remember being on a sound stage shooting the submarine in a dry for wet motion-control model shoot as the riots came sweeping up through Los Angeles; suddenly our boss came in and said, ‘It’s time to leave. The rioters have past us and are up on Sunset Boulevard.’” Davis has fond memories of The Fugitive (1993), in particular, the train crash sequence. “That was the last non-digital effect movie I worked on. It was trying to get the photo-reality of the rear projection plates blended with the foreground. It was that last time it was ever done well. We had some great plates, built beautiful miniatures, and blended them all together to put Harrison Ford [Cowboys & Aliens] right into that train crash. Even though people were beginning to do digital effects that year we produced a fantastic sequence that people have talked about for a long time.” Unfortunately, Fearless (1993) helmed by Peter Weir did not have the same commercial appeal. “It was a great movie but sadly never quite did anything at the box office. It was the whole way Peter went about dealing with the plane crash and how he wanted to inspire us as filmmakers; he used to play Classical music on the set to inspire the mood.

“John Dykstra was the main supervisor,” recalls Nick Davis who was involved in the production of Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997). “When I got involved we had 30 visual effects houses working on those movies, just an insane amount of visual effects houses on one project. Those were crazy days. Batman Forever with Jim Carrey [The Truman Show] was a great movie. It was a really fun movie and made a lot of money. Maybe the last one a got a bit camp and a bit silly with Arnold Schwarzenegger [True Lies].” A decade later, Davis returned to Gotham City and received an Oscar nomination for The Dark Knight (2008). “Chris Nolan is a great modern director who deserves all the accolades he gets because he knows what he wants and there’s not a frame, a pixel or cross dissolve that doesn’t have his name all over it. The challenge on that was completely making photo-realistic effects and pulling away from anything that was remotely stylistic or filmic or being done for all the wrong reasons.” He explains, “We had a lot of effects on the show. The whole end sequence, the Prewitt building was digital. There were a lot of the shots of the Batmobile and Batbike were CG. We recreated the whole sections of the city and blended seamlessly between those and the live-action; we did the whole thing in IMAX. We had to do it all in 8K resolution. It was a huge challenge.”

“It was a fun franchise,” states Nick Davis who teamed with Christopher Columbus to make Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). “You were doing wonderful cutting edge work on these great books.” Davis was recruited for the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). “Tim [Burton] is a wonderful person, a good friend, and so creative.” Burton was very much involved in the prep work. “He got where we were coming from. I had a very good relationship with his editor. You don’t really need to sit in there with him. He got it. It was a seamless process working with Tim.” The native of Britain explored the world of ancient Greece with Wolfgang Petersen in Troy (2004). “That was probably one of my most fun filming experiences of all-time.” The subject matter would be revisited. “It was after Dark Knight that Warner Bros. came along with the Clash franchise.” He observes, “Troy was so much more based around the human side of Greek mythology and Clash is based around the fantastical side, the creatures and the monsters.”

“Production Design is an entire job in itself,” replies Nick Davis when asked whether the responsibilities of production designers will merge with those of visual effects supervisors. “You have to cover every single aspect of design, look and feel of the movie; whereas our job is very much about designing effects and sequences. I always think they’ll be two distinctly different jobs. Purely because somebody needs to design a movie and artistically keep their eye on every single aspect of that; it’s too much to ask them to then be in charge of designing sequences, creatures, and effects.” As for directing, Davis remarks, “I would love to. I’m a second unit director on Wrath of the Titans [2012] and I have directed a movie in the past [The Survivor, 1998], and definitely hope to do it again one day. Every movie has new challenges and skill sets required so it keeps me passionate about what I’m doing.”

Many thanks to Nick Davis for taking the time for this interview. For more of his insights read Hell Unleashed: The Making of Wrath of the Titans.

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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.