Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer

Trevor Hogg chats with Bill Westenhofer about his career and the art of making visual effects...

“My grandmother painted but that’s about it,” replies Bill Westenhofer when asked whether he came from an artistic family.  “I started drawing and painting.  I would make flip books in second grade and sell them to double my milk money.  I was into animation at the time.  At first I wanted to be a Disney animator; that was my initial thought but I’m growing up on the East Coast and approaching college age I had to think practically.  ‘You don’t have a connection out there.  It doesn’t seem real.’  I still wanted to do it but at that time I began playing with computers a bit.   It was my art teacher who suggested that I should try graphics out.  I enjoyed that.  I thought, ‘Maybe I should be a programmer?’  When I went to undergraduate it was a Computer Engineering degree.  I kept taking art courses on the side.  I kept that side alive and whenever I could I would take a graphics class. When I graduated from there I took a job as a software engineer at an aerospace company. While I was working there I decided to go to graduate school.  I hadn’t completely given up.  “I’m going to try a Masters in Computer Science and take some independent study classes.’  I lucked out that there was a burgeoning computer graphics group there.  Some of the guys had gone onto Pixar and ILM.  It was a cool time.  We fostered each other and learned a lot of the science of making the images we needed to make. Ultimately, it was going to this conference called SIGGRAPH [Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques] which happens every year that all of the effects houses recruit from.  I was down in Florida in 1994. I stuck my resume up on a board.  I got called by Pauline Ts’o and a couple of other people from the company, and talked my way into a job.  That’s how I got into effects.  As far as being an effects supervisor I started working as a technical director at Rhythm and Hues; I’m lighting shots and a little bit of animation.  Little by little I began to go to commercial shoots and being on-set.  I talked to Charlie Gibson who is one of the owners and the supervisor on Babe [1995] and told him how I enjoyed the set work; he helped me to go farther.  It was finally when Babe 2 [1998] came around they needed someone to go down to Australia to oversee our work and they asked me. That’s how I got started.”

As for what makes a great visual effect, Bill Westenhofer believes, “It has to be something that looks seamless and is transporting.  I don’t want to see extra effects.  I still look back at the first Jurassic Park [1993] as a high watermark.  It was something that you had never seen before.  To see dinosaurs walking around was an awesome moment.  It’s a new experience you have never seen before. The first Star Wars [1977] movie was another big moment of mine.”   Creativity is the key to becoming a successful visual effects supervisor.  “You are not a technician on the set,” says Westenhofer who led the Academy Award and BAFTA nominated VFX team for Life of Pi (2012).  “The director is going to want your input.  Even someone who is extremely hands on will want someone who can bring something else to the table; they want to describe what they want to have happen and for you to bring that plus 50 per cent more. That’s important.  I tell guys who are starting at Rhythm and Hues it’s important that you convey confidence even at times you may not be.  When you’re working on something that is going to take a year to produce it is critical that the team involved trusts you.  It can’t be groundless confidence.  You have to know that you’re going to be able to pull it off in the end.  You never want them to doubt even if you’re thinking at the tank wondering, ‘How I’m going to blend this water together?’  I don’t want Ang [Lee] to be preoccupied worrying about that.  I want that to be rested in my hands.  With him I want to project an air of confidence.  That is important.  Communication skills are critical.  You’re talking to a huge team and may have to convey the term ‘melancholy clouds’ to them.”

“The studios are looking at visual effects as a commodity and that’s a shame,” states Bill Westenhofer who is proud of the visual effects work in Life of Pi which features a digital ocean and animals.  “With this picture it is not like someone said, ‘We’re going to fill water in the tank and throw up some skies.’  The visual effects were as much of the art of the final film as anything else.  The budgets keep shrinking and the demands keep getting more and more.  We’re approaching the breaking point.”  Post-production schedules have become tighter.  “It used to be you could show a rough animation, get that approved, get the milestone timed off, and show the studio that you’re making progress.  There are studio executives who say that they can’t judge anything until it’s finished.  How do you deal with that when you have to spend a lot of time and effort creating something to get to that point only to have it tossed out because the people who are reviewing the work do not have the ability to judge things in progress?   They’ll ask for something and expect it to be turned around the next day no matter what the complexity or the challenge is.” Contemplating the future evolution of the visual effects industry, Westenhofer observes, “We are going to keep increasing the realism level. The question of subsidies and how that pans out is going to determine quite a bit of it.  Right now companies are moving personnel and facilities to where they can get a subsidy.  Quite often even if your number is less than someone from another company with a subsidy they won’t come to talk to you.  They want that box checked where the subsidies are coming from.  The way it is trending now you’re going to see more labour being done in countries or other states which are subsidizing work; they’ll be moving there. Supervising positions will probably stay in Los Angeles or wherever the post-production work is taking place.”

The interaction of the animals with the humans stands out to Bill Westenhofer in The Golden Compass (2007) which made him an Oscar winner; he is also proud of Academy Award nominated work in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) – in particular, the crowds in the battle sequence in the end that required multiple types of combat and different fighting styles.  “The fish and figuring out how to deal with water for the first time,” recalls the Oscar winner of his time spent on Waterworld (1995) while Babe: Pig in City sparks admiration for the man behind the camera.  “Fine attention to detail by George Miller and I appreciated his vision. George would shoot a take until he thought an audience member would appreciate it.”  The pig paved the way for a project starring a mouse.  “On Babe we had a lot of problems with animals with longer fur and on Stuart Little [1999] we were able to make that work.”  Unlike Cats & Dogs (2001) no 3D hair needed to be created for a time travel thriller.  “I thought the film and the story were great.  Visual effects movies tend not always be the best movie movies.  One of the great things about Life of Pi is that I really like the movie. Frequency [2000] was that way too.  It was a quality film that was good to work with.”  In regards to what causes a film to be nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars, Westenhofer remarks, “You never know what is in the eyes of the Academy.  Someone once described it as the Academy likes the thing you can put on the wall.  They love art.  They love something that looks pretty over something that is technically great.  When you think about it the visual effects branch comes up with the nominees and then it is up to the Academy at large; the vast majority aren’t fairly technically savvy with the effort that is required to make something so it will come down to what looks pretty or the visual effects that contributes most to the telling of the story or the appearance of the film.”   As for what follows Life of Pi, Westenhofer chuckles, “The next project is a ‘Honey Do List’.  I went with my wife to see the movie and she said, ‘That’s great.  Now the garage needs to be worked on.’”

Many thanks to Bill Westenhofer for taking the time for this interview.

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