Flickering Myth chats with Visual Effects Producer Rachel Wheeler…
Rachel Wheeler is an independent Visual Effects Producer whose extensive career spans across the film, TV, advertising and theme park industries. She has produced on multiple feature films over the past thirteen years, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Gravity, Avatar and the Academy Award Winning Happy Feet, which won the Oscar for best animated feature. In total Rachel has worked on four Academy Award winning films during her impressive career, and she has worked with some of the largest and most respected film studios, directors and supervisors in the world.
With such an impressive resume, Producer Rachel Wheeler is highly sought after in Hollywood. It was exciting to sit down with her to chat all things VFX and how she came to add her own digital wizardry to the Harry Potter universe with a fantastic beast!
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Your resume is ridiculous! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started in the world of VFX?
Well, it’s been a long, interesting journey to get to where I am today – I actually trained as a sound recordist originally and had my first work experience on the cult classic Xena Warrior Princess series. However, I eventually moved into production which is more at the forefront of filmmaking. The dynamic, people-orientated environment of production really played better to my strengths for overseeing teams, and problem-solving on a larger scale. My first break into VFX came when I was approached about a technical production role working on a little-known penguin movie being made in Australia. I don’t think we could have ever comprehended just how successful the film Happy Feet would end up being, but this amazing film gave me an incredible intro to our industry.
TIME magazine has named Happy Feet as one of the 25 All-Time Best Animated Films. What was is like working on such an iconic film?
It was a truly unforgettable experience for sure! Happy Feet is still to this day the largest animated film ever produced in Australia, and it was a very technically and creatively challenging project with many long hours over several years to make it all happen. It was all absolutely worth it however to see how our film has continued to be so trail-blazing and popular over the years. I feel honored to have learnt my craft and so much about filmmaking, and the technology behind it, from some of the greatest minds our industry has ever known. Building on what I learnt on Happy Feet I’ve gone on the lead teams on many successful projects from Harry Potter and Bond films to space adventure Gravity. I’m grateful to have had such an iconic film as Happy Feet as my first CGI (computer-generated) film, it gave me an extraordinary foundation which many can only dream of!
Happy Feet was truly a cinematic achievement. How long did it take to make and how many people worked on it with you?
The film took over four years to make which is pretty standard for a film of this scale, I came on halfway through production and we were already a crew of several hundred at that time. In the end we were a huge team of over 500 people. CGI was still a relatively small industry in Australia, so top talent from around the world came to join us Down Under to make the film possible. The lunch canteen was a bit of an international expo in the end, and it was really an honor working alongside the absolute best selected from across the globe.
What was your role and contribution on this film?
I was the R&D (research and development) coordinator, responsible for overseeing the technology teams whose cutting-edge software made the film possible. Every aspect of the movie from stunning snowstorms, baby penguin fur to wild seal chases, huge dance scenes and spectacular skies was achieved through a ground-breaking mix of technology and techniques. We used software Maya and Softimage’s XSI for all our CGI models, XSI for rigging and animation and Maya for effects and lighting. We also invented a huge amount of software and ground-breaking technology for the film as, due to the scale and its uniqueness of the film, we had a great deal of technical challenges which no one had ever previously encountered.
What were some of your highlights working on the film?
Definitely one of my best experiences on the film was getting to work directly with our gifted director George Miller, who directed all the Mad Max films I’d grown up watching. George is a brilliant filmmaker and it was amazing watching him in action. He was always so collaborative and wanted his entire team to be involved in the evolution of the film. I’ll never forget how he made a point of knowing and remembering as many of the crew names as possible, which is an incredible feat given we were over 500 people at one point! My most memorable moment, without a doubt, was when we won the Academy award for the film.
I’ve worked on other films which have won Oscars since, but director George really shared this moment with us. It was such a passion project for us all, and there were many happy feet, smiles and hearts that day!
Congratulations – amazing! I am super keen to know about one of my personal favorite franchises, Harry Potter. What was your role on Fantastic Beasts, and what contributions did you make on in the film?
I was the visual effects producer for Method Studios on the film. As producer I oversaw the production of multiple CGI shots including our stunning recreations of 1920’s New York, ground-breaking wizard teleportations, several worlds within a magical suitcase owned by Eddie Redmayne’s character Newt Scamander, and even one of the fantastic beasts.
It must have been an amazing being responsible for a fantastic beast, for which the film is named – tell us more about this creature you helped create!
The team at Warner Bros. approached myself and my supervisor team about a new creature which the talented J.K. Rowling had written into the movie’s screenplay – a glowing tentacled creature, described to us as being a cross between a dust mite and a squid. As the creature is a baby which Newt bottle-feeds in the film, our brief was to come up with a creature that was both “cute but also ugly”, definitely a fun but challenging task!
We referenced tons of photos of luminescent sea creatures and also dust mites and went through multiple iterations to get the right look that Warner Bros were after. Myself and my supervisor team then tasked multiple artists work over several months to create the fully digital 3D creature, which was integrated into live action shots of Eddie Redmayne holding a glowing pillow. As the creature has translucent skin and is glowing from within, we could see every single part of him, so we had to create multiple layers of luminescent internal organs- even the milk he’s being bottle-fed can be seen moving through his body if you look closely.
I called him Mar-mite at our studio as he’s a mite of the sea (‘mar’ in Spanish) which kind of stuck, although he also appears later as a “Shrimp Creature”. It was awesome to see him not only on the big screen but also later go down in Wizarding World lore when he was featured in the Art of Fantastic Beasts book. I think he ended up pretty darn cute (and ugly) but then maybe I’m a little biased!
WOW. That is beyond cool! Did you have any other exciting, creative challenges on the film?
We sure did! During the film we were asked to reimagine an iconic CGI effect for the “disparate” spell, which appeared over the years in all the Harry Potter films when wizards magically teleport in and out of scenes. This was a really interesting challenge as Warner Bros. wanted it to keep the feel of the original effect while using more of the latest techniques and software to add a more dynamic 3D look to this original effect. It was also challenging as this spell effect is very well-known to Potter fans. We knew we had to come up with an effect which was a homage to the original spell, but still took it to another level. We assembled and led a talented team of artists who through a combination of sophisticated software were able to design an intricate, rhythmic particulate effect with a whirlpool, corkscrew pattern. The end result was a cutting-edge dimensional effect which changes and moves fluidly and looks amazing from whichever angle you view it. This new spell effect was actually so key that all the VFX studios where asked to design versions, before ours picked as the winning effect by Warner Bros. We’re proud of our literally spell-binding addition to the wizarding world!
Aside from Happy Feet and Fantastic Beasts you also worked on a number of other huge box office successes like Gravity. Can you tell us a bit about working on this epic picture?
On Gravity I was a line producer responsible for both previsualization and motion capture teams. My teams created digital versions of all the elements from the film so that our brilliant director Alfonso Cuarón could plan every aspect of his shots and so we could capture the movements from the actors. When you think of the sheer amount of CG required for a story set in an impossible to film environment, like space, you can understand the important role my teams of digital artists had to play. Actually in many scenes almost everything in them was created in a computer, apart from Sandra Bullocks and George Clooney faces! As so much of the film was CGI quite a few of us came on to the film a long time before anything was even shot, less common with live action films where VFX is usually more involved at the end. It was often exhilarating to work alongside the genius Cuarón and his creative and technical dream-team as we conceptualized the film from its early days, surrounded by amazing space station models and spacesuits.
With so many major blockbuster movies under your belt already, where do you see yourself and the industry going in the next 10 years?
In recent times I’ve been meeting a lot of creative contemporaries in the Hollywood film community so I feel some awesome collaborations are on the horizon. There’s still so many stories to tell and incredible technology for us to harness to bring everything we do to the next level. One area that fascinates me is the virtual and augmented reality revolution happening in our industry. There’s been a lot of money invested in exploring this new technology for use in multiple entertainment mediums. The world-leading studios I’ve been working with are doing some of the best virtual and augmented work out there, mainly because we’ve traditionally been the ones most adept and experienced in finding advanced solutions in a digital environment. I’d love to one day not only bring award-winning digital fantasy worlds to the screens, but also have my audiences be able to immerse and interact with-in them. That’s some exciting, ground-breaking stuff right there!
What advice can you give for people who were wanting to break into the VFX industry?
When I first started my career on Happy Feet there weren’t many specific courses or degrees for animation, particularly where I grew up Down Under. This has changed in recent years and there are now lots of amazing animation schools around the world which will give budding animation crew members training in all aspects of VFX and feature animation production. I’d also recommend getting as involved in our community -there’s a lot of online forums as well as our industry technology expos which we all attend. Siggragh is a particularly excellent yearly conference held mainly in the US. It has fantastic courses, meet and greets, and lectures from our inspirational industry leaders, as well as hiring booths for a lot of leading studios who are happy to discuss future and current job opportunities. We’re a very inclusive industry. There’s lots of brilliant movies still to be made together and it’s exciting to be able to guide and support our next generation of fellow filmmakers!
Thank you, Rachel, for your time. It has been an absolutely fascinating time talking to you. We look forward to seeing your name in the credits of many a Hollywood blockbuster yet to come.