Behind the Title: Weta Digital VFX supervisor Erik Winquist

NAME: Erik Winquist

COMPANY: Wellington, New Zealand’s Weta Digital

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We’re currently a collection of about 1,600 ridiculously talented artists and developers down at the bottom of the world who have created some the most memorable digital characters and visual effects for film over the last couple of decades. We’re named after a giant New Zealand bug.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Visual Effects Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Making the director and studio happy without making my crew unhappy. Ensuring that everybody on the shoot has the same goal in mind for a shot before the cameras start rolling is one way to help accomplish both of those goals. Using the strengths and good ideas of everybody on your team is another.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
The amount of problem solving that is required. Every show is completely different from the last. We’re often asked to do something and don’t know how we’re going to accomplish it at the outset. That’s where it’s incredibly important to have a crew full of insanely brilliant people you can bash ideas around with.

HOW DID YOU START YOUR CAREER IN VFX?
I went to school for it. After graduating from the Ringling College of Art and Design with a degree in computer animation, I eventually landed a job as an assistant animator at Pacific Data Images (PDI). The job title was a little misleading, because although my degree was fairly character animation-centric, the first thing I was asked to do at PDI was morphing. I found that I really enjoyed working on the 2D side of things, and that sent me down a path that ultimately got me hired as a compositor at Weta on The Lord of the Rings.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN VFX?
I was hired by PDI in 1998, so I guess that means 20 years now. (Whoa.)

HOW HAS THE VFX INDUSTRY CHANGED IN THE TIME YOU’VE BEEN WORKING? WHAT’S BEEN GOOD? WHAT’S BEEN BAD?
Oh, there’s just been so much great stuff. We’re able to make images now that are completely indistinguishable from reality. Thanks to massive technology advancements over the years, interactivity for artists has gotten way better. We’re sculpting incredible amounts of detail into our models, painting them with giga-pixels worth of texture information, scrubbing our animation in realtime, using hardware-accelerated engines to light our scenes, rendering them with physically-based renderers and compositing with deep images and a 3D workspace.

Of course, all of these efficiency gains get gobbled up pretty quickly by the ever-expanding vision of the directors we work for!

The industry’s technology advancements and flexibility have also perhaps had some downsides. Studios demand increasingly shorter post schedules, prep time is reduced, shots can be less planned out because so much can be decided in post. When the brief is constantly shifting, it’s difficult to deliver the quality that everyone wants. And when the quality isn’t there, suddenly the Internet starts clamoring that “CGI is ruining movies!”

But, when a great idea — planned well by a decisive director and executed brilliantly by a visual effects team working in concert with all of the other departments — the movie magic that results is just amazing. And that’s why we’re all here doing what we do.

DID A PARTICULAR FILM INSPIRE YOU ALONG THIS PATH IN ENTERTAINMENT?
There were some films I saw very early on that left a lasting impression: Clash of the Titans, The Empire Strikes Back. Later inspiration came in high school with the TV spots that Pixar was doing prior to Toy Story, and the early computer graphics work that Disney Feature Animation was employing in their films of the early ‘90s.

But the big ones that really set me off around this time were ILM’s work on Jurassic Park, and films like Jim Cameron’s The Abyss and Terminator 2. That’s why it was a particular kick to find myself on set with Jim on Avatar.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Dailies. When I challenge an artist to bring their best, and they come up with an idea that completely surprises me; that is way better than what I had imagined or asked for. Those moments are gold. Dailies is pretty much the only chance I have to see a shot for the first time like an audience member gets to, so I pay a lot of attention to my reaction to that very first impression.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Getting a shot ripped from our hands by those pesky deadlines before every little thing is perfect. And scheduling meetings. Though, the latter is critically important to make sure that the former doesn’t happen.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
There was a time when I was in grade school where I thought I might like to go into sound effects, which is a really interesting what-if scenario for me to think about. But these days, if I were to hang up my VFX hat, I imagine I would end up doing something photography-related. It’s been a passion for a very long time.

Rampage

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I supervised Weta’s work on Rampage, starring Dwayne Johnson and a very large albino gorilla. Prior to that was War for the Planet of the Apes, Spectral and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT/S THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
We had a lot of fun working on Rampage, and I think audiences had a ton of fun watching it. I’m quite proud of what we achieved with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But I’m also really fond of what our crew turned out for the Netflix film Spectral. That project gave us the opportunity to explore some VFX-heavy sci-fi imagery and was a really interesting challenge.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE DAY TO DAY?
Most of my day revolves around reviewing work and communicating with my production team and the crew, so it’s our in-house review software, Photoshop and e-mail. But I’m constantly jumping in and out of Maya, and always have a Nuke session open for one thing or another. I’m also never without my camera and am constantly shooting reference photos or video, and have been known to initiate impromptu element shoots at a moment’s notice.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION NOW?
Everywhere. It’s why I always have my camera in my bag.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Scuba diving and sea kayaking are two hobbies that get me out in the water, though that happens far less than I would like. My wife and I recently bought a small rural place north of Wellington. I’ve found going up there doing “farm stuff” on the weekend is a great way to re-calibrate.


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