Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton

Trevor Hogg chats with Emmy Award-nominee Angus Bickerton about the craft of visual effects, the founding of a VFX facility, and his love for reading books…

“I always wanted to be a pilot when I was younger,” admits British Visual Effects Supervisor Angus Bickerton (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). “There were reasons I couldn’t be. I bought myself a Super 8 camera and started making films with some friends. From then on I got the bug doing in camera tricks. From about the age of 14, I started to get interested in special effects and camera trickery.” The aspiring moviemaker attended the London College of Printing. “I wanted to get into films so I did a Photography and Film course. You had to make a decision at one stage. Are you going to do film or photography? It seemed like the film course at that stage was terrible so I opted for photography and then did everything I could to try to get back into film. It was a very technical course and I learned a lot about photography.” The young graduate was unable to initially to make his career ambition a reality. “When I finished that course at college, I spent a short while doing dishwashing and petro pumping. I tried to start up a little company with some fellow students to do promos and things which we were a disastrous at. In the meantime, I wrote away to anyone I vaguely knew of or saw their credit at the end of a film and tried to get a job in the industry. I was lucky that I got a break negative cutting and making them into it composites for an optical house in London.”

His work on Band of Brothers [HBO, 2001] earned Angus Bickerton two Emmy Award-nominations. “I was fortunate to be involved in that,” notes Bickerton. “Shooting those 10 episodes took as long as a feature film for me; we shot for 36 weeks. I got to work with a multitude of directors and to see a whole different way of things; the series evolved and that’s the way HBO works. They didn’t finish episode one till they’ve finished episode ten because they wanted to see that they all fed into each other. The highest quality is HBO. Underpinning everything were these real stories. The aim was to make it as realistic as possible and tell a real story. Not to be too heroic. It tapped into the style of Saving Private Ryan [1998]. I always thought if they didn’t have those bookends of the real veterans introducing and finishing the episode that the series would have never had the intensity and the drama that it did. Suddenly the stories became incredibly real.” The normal tight deadline grind of producing visual effects for episodic television was avoided. “Even though it was shot for 36 weeks we were working on the whole series for almost a year and a half. We were very lucky that we did not have a TV schedule. We had a film schedule. That’s HBO; they do film work.”

Band of Brothers first aired on television close to the 9/11 event,” recalls Angus Bickerton. “Everyone was worried that it would ruin the chance of the series because they thought no one would want to watch this drama in light of recent of events. But it in some ways contributed to the success of the series because people wanted the quiet heroism of the real stories in Band of Brothers. It became very successful. The downside to the events of 9/11 there was a huge pause in production for anything. No one wanted to travel at that time. In the UK, I was suddenly unemployed for awhile looking after my daughter. In fact, for a few months and then suddenly out of the blue came this phone call from Richard Loncraine [Firewall] who was gearing up to do The Gathering Storm [2002] for HBO. It was pretty much the only thing shooting in London at that time and he asked, ‘Would you like to do the shots on this film. I haven’t got any money. Would you do it in your attic?’ At the time there were only about six shots. I said, ‘Yes.’ Glad to do anything and set myself up in a tiny amount of space in the corner of the house with a Power Mac 9500 doing these shots which were 2D work and got the job. I was relieved because I had been unemployed.” The project led to something bigger. “It was pretty simple 2D work. I had to do the Battle of Blenheim which is a flashback in the beginning of the film when Churchill is historically inspired by his ancestors. That’s all it was going to be but as the shot count grew into 60 odd shots I realized I wouldn’t be able to do them all on my Mac so I rented a room Twickenham Studios thinking that I better have an office. I started to bring in some friends to help me out with the compositing and from that we setup a company which has become The Senate.” He adds, “I am one of the directors of The Senate. I stuck with that company for the first few months; I was literally handwriting the cheques for people. I brought people in to get things more organized. I had to hire people onto contract rather than paying them on a loading freelance basis. I was keen to maintain a freelance status so I steered away from the company and became an absentee landlord. I’ve got an interest in the company. It’s important to me to be a freelancer representing the studio’s interest so I need to hire the right companies. We did hire The Senate on Dark Shadows [2012] but only where I thought it was appropriate.”

Two directors with whom the two-time VES Award nominee has consistently worked with are Ron Howard on The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009), and Michael Apted on Rome (HBO, 2005 to 2007) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). “Ron and Mike are absolute gentlemen who have different ways of working although both like to keep moving and shooting all the time,” observes Bickerton. “They like to keep the energy up on the set. Ron has a style that he has developed along with Salvatore Totino (The Missing), his DOP, which is multiple cameras, sometimes three or four cameras. Salva has a style that allows them to keep shooting all the time. Ron likes freeform with the actors; often he’d roll from one take into the next and Salva runs with that and shoots it. They’ve developed that as a style which is interesting because Ron’s first directorial chance was when he negotiated with Roger Corman [Death Race] to appear in one of his films in return to directing another; they literally didn’t have enough film stock to shoot more than one take sometimes. Ron started out with a low budget aesthetic but has developed over the years a style where he said to me one day, ‘I know how many times I’ve been in the cutting room and realized that I missed some things.’ His style is to get a lot of material during the shoot and make sure that you cover everything. That’s not to say Ron doesn’t have a shot list everyday. When he comes in, Ron has done his homework overnight and worked out how to cover the scene. Ron has learned over the years how he’s often gone in with an intention, the sequences change, and he’s missing a cutaway; his philosophy is to get as much material to cover all of those eventualities even though he has a direction for the scene. Mike Apted is all about story; he is always well prepared, and has a tremendous energy. Mike talks first of all about the story on-set.”

Collaborating with Tim Burton on Dark Shadows required the native of Britain to adapt to the desire of the filmmaker to not to do extensive preplanning such as pre-viz and storyboarding. “With a unique talent like Burton, who is in control of the film, he’s not going to let the visual effects drive the movie,” says Angus Bickerton. “It’s a harder one to plan for but it is true that filmmakers are feeling that visual effects are clamping down on the scenes; they want flexibility for it to be able to be organic and evolve if necessary. A lot of filmmakers like the process on the stage and don’t want to preplan everything so they’re telling the actor you’ve got to move from this point in the corner of the room to here because that’s where the effect is going to be.” Bickerton admires the movies made by a fellow countryman. “The work that is done by Chris Nolan [The Prestige] is great filmmaking; to me they look like films from the early 1970s. There’s a place for visceral films and there’s a place for great films. Audiences still want great films like Inception [2010] and Dark Knight [2008], in case of the Nolan films. People like Tim Burton and Chris Nolan because they’re making good films.”

“I am constantly learning about composition,” readily admits Angus Bickerton. “I have started to develop some reasonable hard and fast rules but that is a constant fascination for me I must admit. You could do a whole book about composition because you can break rules on occasions and composition is not just always about the shot itself. It’s about how it fits into a sequence. It’s about timing within that shot. I am a big advocate of good old fashion photography. I love real photography. I am not a big fan of convoluted DI grading.” Bickerton confesses, “I look back at a lot of the stuff that I’ve done in the past and it does not age well. I would also say there are a lot of big visual effects films don’t age very well. By definition, the bigger the visual effect the more they’re pushing the frontier and within a few years time it’s outdated.” The one exception is when the visual effects are “concentrated on the story and the shot, not necessarily being invisible; that’s when things hold. Only a few films you can look back at that are over 10 years old and go, ‘That’s still cool.’”

“I’m a huge fan of 2001 [1968],” states Angus Bickerton. “I grew up with the Apollo missions and at that time space exploration was hugely exciting; we were expanding out into the universe. We were going to the Moon. Now the latest technology is about how small we can make things and it’s about the Internet. I’ve grown up with huge ideas and I love those films like 2001. But I also think it’s amazing how audiences have a strong gut sense of what works; they’re responding at this stage to a real wave of opinion that wants it to feel real in order for them to be carried along by the story. That’s why there’s a great response to things like Inception, and Christopher Nolan’s approach to superhero movies. There’s a large audience out there that wants to see fantastic visuals in superhero movies and there’s also a big movement for making a film more real.” Bickerton is impressed by the ability of Nolan to seamlessly integrate big physical effects and augment them with CG as well as incorporated photo-real effects into scenes. “I don’t think Inception, for instance, will date; that will still hold because it feels like a real film.” The veteran visual effects supervisor cites an example. “When the truck flips in Dark Knight that’s an outstanding shot because the sheer drama of it; it’s not invisible but it’s a great shot. You can still have overt great shots; they’ve got to fit into the film. With that you went, ‘Wow! I am seeing a real event here.’ It’s a different level when you’re seeing huge skyscraper buildings topple and you’re going, ‘I’m not seeing a real event. I’m not seeing something.’ It’s not tapping into what you know.”

“3D is going to stick around for awhile,” believes Angus Bickerton. “I have to be honest and nail my colours to the mast and say, ‘3D makes cinema small.’ IMAX shot correctly is a fantastic immersive experience. I find 3D cannot do a big shot. It makes me aware of the frame edge and for all of the technical reasons diminishes the experience as well. It makes the image darker and reduces the contrast range. The cinema going experience is a strain on the brain. 24 flickering images, in the case of old style cinema, is the minimum you can get away with and the brain is doing an awful lot of work to get all of those pictures together. If you hamper the bare minimum with dark images and by lowering their contrast you make the audience aware of the frame edges. It does not aid the storytelling. It may work for a short-term ride experience but if you are doing an action blockbuster maybe it’s the right thing. It certainly gets in the way of drama and storytelling.”

As for whether he can image the roles of the production designer and the visual effects supervisor merging into one job, Angus Bickerton says, “Right now they’re gearing up for Maleficent [2014] for Disney and the director is Robert Stromberg, a great matte artist in his own right who became a great digital matte artist; he has a company called Digital Backlot and has won Oscars for Art Directing work on Avatar [2009] and Alice in Wonderland [2010], and an Emmy for John Adams [HBO, 2008]. An interesting area these days is the role of the conceptual designer. In the beginning conceptual designers became production designers and now Robert Stromberg is the director of Maleficent. They’re [the studios] recognizing how important the design aspects of the film are. I’m a tremendous fan of Art Departments because it always seems to me that they are the ones who have to get things practically done in a short space of time. Visual effects are always things that people who can change but Art Departments have to make things concrete. I do see more interaction between Art Departments and visual effects. At the moment what’s happening often is Art Departments are so swamped with more practical work that they can’t always oversee every aspect of the design of a visual effect. MPC was one of the first to recognize the importance of art direction in post-production; they have a small internal Art Department which often gets used for post-production concept work.”

Stepping behind the camera and helming a movie production is a possibility for Bickerton considering his contributions to projects like Dark Shadows. “Visual effects supervisors do quite a lot of partial directing in that I oversaw the model unit so we shoot elements there. We are often sent off to go and shoot plates which are very practical. We’re often left to shoot with artists for the ghost elements for instance. I love to direct but I’m also cautious about the idea because I’ve seen what a whole new world that is and how difficult that can be. I’ve seen the stresses and strains being a director. I can do it but I’d be careful about doing it.” Bickerton openly states, “I’m a cyclical paranoid freelancer. I can’t relax. When you’re delivering the last shots it’s always an intense time. People always ask to me, ‘You want to break a now?’ I’ll say, ‘No. I’m bubbling now. I want to keep going. Give me another project. I need to keep going.’ My juices are flowing and then you stop. The paranoia starts. Where is the next projecting coming from? I’m at that stage at the moment. I’m antsy.”

“I’d loved to have done Master and Commander [2003]; that’s a great film,” says Angus Bickerton. “It has fabulous physical feeling visual effects in it and is a great adventure. I prefer and rather do things like that. I’m not being disparaging. I love big visual effects movies, a Friday night popcorn movie but I’d rather be doing things of that ilk.” The visual effects supervisor enjoys indulging in the printed word. “I read a lot of books. I don’t know if you have heard of a book called Pure. It’s a fabulous book. I’d say, ‘If anyone optioning this because if they’re making it I want to be involved.’ It’s a recent publication which is beautifully written. Anyone who makes a film of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I want to do it. If anyone ever makes film of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon I’d like to do that. Anyone who makes a film of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which was written a few years ago, that’s also by Michael Chambon, I love to do that one too. What a fantastic writer Michael Chabon is.” Bickerton would enjoy working on smaller productions, however, being associated with Hollywood directors like Ron Howard and Tim Burton has led him to be overlooked because “as a supervisor you can get tagged as doing a bigger film.”

“I’m fortunate to get lots of different types of films with different people,” reflects Angus Bickerton. “It’s my job ultimately to try to deliver for the director and the studio; that’s all I can concentrate on. I don’t think much beyond that other than trying to give the director what he wants and what the studio wants which is something they can sell. I try to do the best I can.” Bickerton states, “It’s amazing how you can see a fantastic piece of pre-viz and it doesn’t get realized for over a year; maintaining a concentration on that is quite hard sometimes. It’s important to be flexible, adapt, and give the director what he needs and wants, and not to be too proud. In the past I used to get so close to sequences that if something [editorially] changed I’d get very distraught because in my head I was trying to finesse it and get it absolutely right. I’ve learned to relax because it’s my job to contribute as much as possible but also I’m there to serve the director. I always feel I’m constantly searching to do it better.”

Many thanks to Angus Bickerton for taking the time for this interview, and for more of his insights make sure to read Blood Relations: The Making of Dark Shadows.

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