Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Hal Couzens

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisor Hal Couzens about turning cities into guns and creating grey aliens…

“At first thought no, I would have thought more academic,” reflects Hal Couzens as to whether he comes from an artistic family.  “Now that I think about it there were several very good writers in the family [his father and brother] and that is artistic and certainly creative.”  The chosen profession was initially accidental for the graduate of University of the Witwatersrand located in Johannesburg, South Africa.  “I got into visual effects as a visual effects producer and then it became clear that it was possible for me to become a visual effects supervisor.”  Great visual effects assist the narrative of a movie.  “I love visual effects that dazzle, surprise, and startle their reality, and also those that slip by barely noticed while the story is driven forward. For example, Fight Club’s [1999] impossible camera moves and some of the photographic work; they’re extraordinary in helping to tell a story. They were visually appealing and ground-breaking at the time.”  Couzens believes, “You can’t tell the story of Apollo 13 [1995] without a rocket getting launched.  I like those [types of visual effects].  The face replacement work in Social Network [2010] I never spotted it.  The only time I knew about it was when the movie was nominated for an Oscar.  It was great work.  It didn’t take me out.  They needed to do that and they did.”  To be a successful visual effects supervisor one needs to be organized, well prepared, creative, diplomatic and decisive.  “Often directors and producers come up with radical solutions to situations that the film finds itself in.  You need to have your answers ready and be willing to stick your neck out.”

“Visual effects are essential and as a result they’re getting an increased level of scrutiny by the budget point of view and the details,” observes Hal Couzens.    “That’s not a bad thing.  Sometimes you want to be able to do the work with the director and producer without the studio being involved with that level.  On some shows they almost want to deny having done any visual effects potentially for marketing reasons. There are times they will want to play up the visual effects for marketing.  Overall studios love visual effects as they allow previous untellable stories to be told at increasingly smaller costs. Visual effects are also something that can be marketed and exploited.  The studios are embracing visual effects wholeheartedly.”  Couzens remarks, “It is more difficult to be seamless or invisible with live-action naturalistic work than stylized work.  Stylized work allows for things to be a lot more forgiving with the viewer.  You can get crazy things to happen and not worry as much about how they are composited. What is really difficult is making an entirely computer generated shot look real if you don’t even have a basic starting point. You want to create a sunset forest scene filled with monkeys you’re better to film the sunset forest and add monkeys into it than it would be to create the forest, sunset, and monkeys all together.”

   

“I got into the business in 1994,” notes Hal Couzens as he contemplates the biggest changes which have occurred in the visual effects industry.  “There were three things that altered it.  One was camera tracking was a notable improvement [courtesy of the First Gulf War].  Two.  The vastly improved digitization of film which is the ability to emulate what film looks like digitally.   The third was the wide spread usage of high resolution digital intermediate.  We began to do things in film the same way that commercials and music videos did in the 1990s.”   Early in his career, Couzens was part of a controversial British comedy spoof of a current affairs show called Brass Eye [Channel 4, 1997, 2001].  “The visual effects were ridiculous because we were doing the effects to support the contrivances of the writing.  I wouldn’t call any of it ground-breaking.  There was a part about crime in the various parts of England and we created this aerial shot where it looked like the city of Manchester was in the shape of a gun.  There’s another one where a prison is so corrupt that it had its own airport.”  Creating visual effects for a television series can be a grind.  “That show we did as a favour for Chris Morris and did at a commercial facility.  We had a bit of time.  We had a long list of things we needed to get through over a period of months.  When there was downtime we would jump in and do it.”

 

“On Paul [2011] I was a visual effects producer and an additional on-set supervisor for Working Title Films and Double Negative,” states Hal Couzens.  “A lot of the work was to create a super believable naturalistic four foot two grey alien; having him fitted into what was basically a road movie.  There are over 500 shots of Paul requiring extreme detail to technical and artistic considerations.  It was requiring the material in the right way on-set, to make sure a good performance of the actors with the digital character, managing a large team of animators, and interacting with the director and producers.”  Couzens was also involved with Shaun of the Dead (2004).  “What a fun film.  I had to work with Edgar Wright [The World’s End] and actors Simon Pegg [Star Trek Into Darkness] and Nick Frost [Snow White and the Huntsman].  What I can say about this film is that you should always try to shoot practical elements for visual effects as much as you can because watermelons make great exploding heads.”

“I supervised that whole show,” states Hal Couzens when discussing Doomsday [2008] which involved creating CG helicopters, castles, wall extensions and miniature bus explosion.  “We had to do a lot of work to turn modern day London and Glasgow into dystopian ghost cities.”  La vie en rose [2007] which won Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) an Oscar required some period setting visual effects work.  “This was the first show I did where I wasn’t the facility supervisor.  I worked directly for the production.  All we needed in that show to do was to give Marion Cotilard [who was portraying French singer Édith Piaf] Harrison, New York the way it was in the 1930s and 1940s.  That was a lot of research and creation in the removal of modern inaccurisms and putting in a lot of crowd replication where we had 200 extras and needed a 1000.”  The World Trade Center [2006] had to improvise when it came to depicting the events of 9/11.  “The film only had permission to film around Ground Zero.  I managed the texturing and photographing of the surrounding buildings so Double Negative could recreate it digitially.  Similarly I production managed the visual effects unit in New York and Los Angeles for that show.”

Hal Couzens was involved with an ill-fated project called Heaven and Earth.  “It was a film lost in the credit crunch.  I wish that IMDb would have it removed forever.  It’s so sad that film is based on a true story that’s probably never going to be told.”  Couzens contributed to the blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy by Christopher Nolan.  “Batman Begins [2005] I was working for the Double Negative support team. We were supporting Paul Franklin [Inception] from Double Negative and Janek Sirrs [The Avengers] and Dan Glass [Cloud Atlas] from Warner Bros. We did all of the work in London, the UK and also Chicago.  Our job was to create a digital city so we took about a million and half pictures of skyscrapers and streets in Chicago.  We managed all of that so that the team at Double Negative could build it digitally.  I also supervised the miniature shoot of the monorail collapse.”  Previs needed to be created for The Dark Knight Rises (2012).  “I worked as a bidding producer.  I produced the previs for the show for Double Negative of the prologue and some of The Bat flying around New York.”

Having a VFX supervisor present during the principle photography is an essential to ensure that the visual effects match the vision of the filmmaker.  “I personally would not want to do the post-production unless I had been on-set,” remarks Hal Couzens.  “There’s an ownership to it that you were there.  You know exactly what went into it.  You can understand far better what the director wants if you’re there together trying to achieve something in the story.  You’ve also been involved with the edit and follow that through and entre the true the post-production period of finishing the shot.  Not only were you there to have seen what it looked like from a lighting point of view but you have the relationship with the director so [it improves] your ability to communicate what he wants through the team you are leading or are getting to do the work.”  Government tax credits will continue to play a large part of where visual effects companies will locate their facilities.  “There’s a shift from West to East which is going to carry on which result in overall low prices.  Visual effects will eventually unionize so that will make it a bit more expensive in the Western world.  There isn’t a lot of recognition for the intellectual property with visual effects and that is sad.  A lot of other departments are recognized for that and visual effects aren’t really, that should change.”

Upon being questioned about the future of 3D, Hal Couzens replies, “I don’t think it is going to become as accepted as a cinematic tool like colour and sound. I’m hoping that it is a precursor to a different cinematic experience.”  The VFX supervisor who is based in the UK envisions the technology evolving into a virtual reality or holographic cinematic experience.   Couzens is currently part of cinematic adaptation of Winter’s Tale (2013) by novelist Mark Helprin which revolves around a thief, a dying girl and a flying white horse; the fantasy stars Colin Farrell (Dead Man Down), Will Smith (After Earth), and Russell Crowe (Man of Steel). “I’m not allowed to say much but what I will say is that the script Akiva Goldsman [A Beautiful Mind] has written is just about as good as scripts get.  As per the book it is based in 1916 and present day New York so we had to do a lot of environment enhancements.  Aside from that, the film is based in magical realism.  So from there I would say that there are going to be a lot of surprises amongst the ordinary and every day.”

Many thanks to Hal Couzens for taking the time for this interview and be sure to visit his blog Dr Lobsters Guide to Equalibrium in the Innerverse.

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