Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell

Trevor Hogg chats with Primetime Emmy-winner Everett Burrell about his career, the visual effects industry and working for Look Effects…

Ray Harryhausen and Everett Burrell
“Growing up my dad was a musician and my mom was artist,” recalls Everett Burrell who drew and painted as a child.  “My little kids draw and paint now, and they’re only three and two.  It’s in the blood.”  A fascination with special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (Clash of the Titans) expanded into a business venture with John Vulich (Lost Boys).  “I was into creature effects and props when I was younger.  I had a company called Optic Nerve Studios where I did zombies and creatures.  I started playing with the computer in 1989 and I’ve loved it ever since.  I loved the control and flexibility but I still respect effects.  My heart is in the hands on stuff.”  The interest in the digital realm resulted in the creatures being replaced by visual effects.  “I like things that are subtle and you can’t tell the mix.  ‘How did you do that?’  That still wows me.”  Three key elements are required to be a successful visual effects supervisor.  “Being a politician, buzz words, and being confident helps the director to feel confident.  You can’t show any weakness.  Even if you’re wrong you can’t be wrong.”
Hollywood studios embracing the visual effects industry in some ways has become counterproductive.  “They rely on CGI too much.  It’s such a crutch now.”  Burrell believes, “We’re technicians not artists in their eyes but they’re a business.  It’s show business.  It’s not show art.  They want to be able to pay for a service and be done with it.  They’re like any other business like Coca-Cola or Home Depot.  It’s no skin off their back if a company goes out of business or not.  I would like to think that they have more morals than that. I’m friends with a lot of studio executives and they care very much but they answer to shareholders.  A lot of these companies are public traded companies and the shareholders aren’t buying stock because they care about visual effects companies.  They’re buying stocks to make money.   One thing no one has figured out is when you make a good movie and it makes a lot of money it’s like lightning in the bottle.  There are some directors who are tried and true, Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark), James Cameron (Avatar), and Christopher Nolan (Inception) make a lot of money and that’s why they have such carte blanche.  For the lower tier directors it’s a lot harder for them.”
“CGI has unfortunately made it too easy on the various studios,” notes Everett Burrell.  “They like it because they can change stuff.  If you shoot stuff practical once you get into the editing room they can’t change it.  If they do want to change it is going to cost them a lot of money.  CGI is a tool like anything else.  If it is used improperly it is going to suck.”  An example of digital enhancements being used properly is a blockbuster classic from Steven Spielberg.  “Look at Jurassic Park [1993] there are only 37 shots of CGI dinosaurs in that movie.  The rest are all Stan Winston [Aliens] dinosaurs.  What a great thing.  What a great mix like Hellboy [2004].  Less is more.  I rather spend more time on less shots and getting them to look great than spending a little time on a bunch of shots and making them look like video.”  As for 3D becoming as accepted as sound and colour, Burrell remarks, “Not until you get rid of the glasses is it going to be accepted as much.”

When asked on whether it is important for a visual effects supervisor to have an on-set presence during principle photography, Everett Burrell answers, “There are two schools of thought.  My school of thought is that it is important to be there to make sure that everyone is aware, ‘Don’t rely on CGI as a crutch.’ Try to make things practical and when in doubt we’ll come in and help out.  The other school of thought lately is that they can do whatever they want.  That tends to make things more expensive to the studio. The studio likes to have us there because we’re accountable for making sure that things are shot the correct way. Green screens are exposed correctly and you have crews out of the way.  You try to be conscious.  I’m almost like a watchdog. I’ll keep the stuff as real as possible and if it does need a visual effect then we all take responsibility to plan it out correctly.”  Burrell adds, “We have to be stealthy about our stuff.  I remember during the 1980s, the visual effects supervisor would stand in front of the camera and say, ‘We can’t shoot this until you do this and this.’  That is not the case anymore.”

“TV is a whole other ballgame,” observes Everett Burrell who worked on Babylon 5, Hercules, Xena, Ally McBeal, Charmed and the mini-series Dune. “Hunter S. Thompson [The Rum Diaries] has a great quote about working in television.  You should dig it up.  It’s funny.”  The famous remark by the novelist goes as follows, “The TV business is uglier than most things.  It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”  The small screen is not completely bad.  “The good thing about TV is that it is steady work.  If you get on a series that goes seven years you can raise your kids on that money.”  Burrell adds, “It’s a factory.  You have to grind it out and get it done.”

“I have much respect for Robert Rodriguez,” states Everett Burrell who collaborated with the Texan director on the graphic novel adaptation of Sin City (2005).  “He had some great lines about letting us go and doing our own thing.  We rented every film noir movie we could get our hands on.  It was a great inspirational time.  We would show him great stuff and he would say, ‘I love it.  Go for it.’  Robert was cool about letting us explore ideas.  He shoots a ton of green.  There isn’t a floor or doorknob in sight.  I wish he’d build more sets and have green screen in the background.  He does things his own way and God love him.  Robert is a big inspiration for as a filmmaker; he’s done it all.” 

Pan’s Labyrinth(2006) was a pivotal movie for Burrell.  “That was the jumping off point for my visual effects career.  Working with Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was amazing in Spain for seven months; it was his vision.  We were working hard and there were long hours on that movie.  It was a labour of love as we all weren’t getting paid much but I was single at the time so I didn’t care.  Visually it was neat to be around Guillermo’s photography because you learned a lot.  It was an amazing experience creatively for me.  I got spoiled on that so when I got hired by studios I said, ‘I miss that feeling.’”

The Mist (2007) resulted in an opportunity to work with writer-director Frank Darabont who is most widely know for another Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption (1994).  “Long hours but Frank was great,” remembers Everett Burrell.  “A lot of handheld stuff but Frank was good about being prudent.  The only thing that sucked is that there is a lot of creature effects make-up stuff that Frank cut out because he wasn’t confident about it.  I felt he should have left a little more of that in and not rely on CGI so much.  Every director falls into that trap.  You know it’s a puppet so you cut it out but if you show the audience they’ll probably go for it.”

Battle Los Angeles(2010) was a tough show because of the handheld camera approach.  “One of those examples where the director [Jonathan Liebesman] is a smart and intelligent guy, and a hard worker,” remarks Everett Burrell.  “I think Jonathan wasn’t quite sure what he wanted and it made things difficult.  He has grown up a fair bit as a filmmaker and now is doing Ninja Turtles [2014].”  Burrell was originally attached to Luna which was to star Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) and take place on the moon. “It was a Doug Liman [Fair Game] production project which had massive budget problems and never made it.”


A science fiction tale which did make it to the big screen was Prometheus (2012).  That was an amazing experience because of Ridley [Scott].  I was working for Weta at the time and I got on-set,” states Everett Burrell.  “They said, ‘Don’t talk to Ridley.  You’re not allowed to talk to him.’  I was sitting outside the video village one day and he waved me in.  I went in, and he showed me stuff and said, ‘You’re always welcomed in my trailer or tent.’  I saw Blade Runner [1982] about 50 times at the theatre.  That was a lot of fun.  Visually I loved making that movie.  I don’t think the movie makes a lick of sense but it looks great.”

Warm Bodies [2013] brought back that Pan’s Labyrinthfeeling,” states Everett Burrell.  “I was in Montreal with Jonathan Levine [50/50] and that’s a great example of a director who is a collaborator; he was responsive.  We would suggest things and Jonathan would say, ‘That’s a great idea.  Let’s go for it.’  There was no ego.  He knew what was best for the movie.  If I had a bad idea, Jonathan would say, ‘I’m not digging that.  Give me something else.’  And I’d give him another idea, and he’d say, ‘That’s great.  Let’s do that.’  The zombie romance featuring Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class), Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four) and John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons) was a box office success.  “It’s such a sweet film and the soundtrack is phenomenal.  It’s a good time.  That’s why I joined Look Effects as their senior visual effects supervisor.  I’m staff here with them in L.A. and they have offices in New York, Vancouver, Germany and here in L.A..  They’re such great people.  I’m honoured and proud to be involved with my friends.  It’s fun again for me.  That’s why I joined them.”

“I loved making movies as a kid and I love this business so much but lately the fun has been getting sucked out of it,” confides Everett Burrell.  “I don’t want to do this if it is not fun anymore.  The money is good but it is also blood money sometimes with the long hours and you miss your family.  I’ve had people say they see their kids grow up on Skype.  That’s no way to be a parent.” The enjoyment has not entirely vanished.  “There were moments in A Good Day to Die Hard [2013] where it was a lot of fun.  There’s that spark and magic to it.  I’d rather be paid to make beautiful looking shots than be a politician.”  With the bigger budget comes more studio involvement.  “I’d rather work on lower budget films.  I worked on Pan’s Labyrinth and that was only a $17 million film.  Not only was it a beautiful movie but I felt satisfied creatively.”

“My roots come from making Super 8 films with my friends and I want to get that spirit back because I miss it,” reflects Everett Burrell.  “I want to make films with my friends.  Even when I get in fights with my friends we can still be friends at the end of the day.  The film industry is full of not so nice people.  You want to go home, have a barbeque with your friends and talk about movies, and then the next day go make a movie with them.  You have the same life, ideas and loves.  A lot of times you work with people who don’t care and it’s about making money and don’t care about the projects and the history behind them.  I talk to people about Ray Harryhausen and they’ll say, ‘That’s stupid and so out dated.’  ‘Yeah it’s out dated but the spirit behind the filmmaker is what I miss, and that’s what I want to rekindle and bring back working with Look Effects.”

Many thanks to Everett Burrell for taking the time for this interview.

To learn more make sure to read Hard Work: The Making of A Good Day to Die Hard as well as visit the official website for Everett Burrell.

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

Around the Web