Back in April, during an event at NAB, Autodesk presented its 2019 Flame Award to Duncan Malcolm. This Flame artist and director of 2D at Glassworks VFX in London is being celebrated for his 20-plus years of artistic achievements.
Malcolm has been working in production and post for 33 years. At Glassworks, he works closely with the studio’s CG artists to seamlessly blend CG photoreal assets and real-world environments for high-end commercial clients. Alongside his work in commercials, Malcolm has worked closely with the creators of the television series Black Mirror on look development and compositing for the award-winning Netflix series, including the critically acclaimed Bandersnatch interactive episode.
Let’s find out more about Malcolm’s beginnings, and the path that led him to Glassworks. And you can check out his showreel here.
You have a rich history in this industry. How did you get started working in VFX?
I started straight out of school at 15 years old at TVP, a small production company in Scotland that made corporate films and crewed for visiting broadcast companies. It was very small so I got involved in everything — camera work, location sound, sound design, edit and even made the VHS dubs, 8mm cine film transfers and designed the tape covers. So I learned a lot by getting on and doing it. It was before the Internet was prevalent, so you couldn’t just Google it back then; it really was trial and error.
TVP are still based in Aberdeen and still doing incredible work with a tiny crew. I often tell people in London about their feature film Sawney Bean, which they self-funded and made with a complete crew of five in their “spare time” and for all that, is completely inspirational.
I then became an offline and online editor at Picardy Television, which was at the time the biggest and most creative edit house in Scotland. It was there that I started using Quantel’s Editbox. I was focused on the offline but also started to incorporate more sophisticated VFX into the online work. Around 1998 I made quite an abrupt move to London, I think as a reaction to my dad’s death. Back then the London industry didn’t really accept that one person could be good at more than one part of the filmmaking process, so I decided to focus on the VFX string on my bow.
I freelanced through Soho Editors as an Editbox artist in London and Denmark until I was offered the creative director/lead compositor position at Saatchi’s in-house company, Triangle. This is where I first met the Flame, and together we spent many a long day and night together making commercials and music videos.
I think my first big lead Flame job was Craig David’s Walking Away for Max and Dania. Apart from a few relatively simple commercials I hadn’t truly put the toolset to the test by then. It was quite frankly my personal VFX version of a baptism by fire. I barely left the room for weeks but felt more inspired (and tired) by the end.
Flame became my best VFX friend and my work grew in complexity. Eventually I was offered a position by Joce Capper and Bill McNamara at Rushes and spent quite a few years there working on a fair mixture of commercials and music videos.
How did you find your way to Glassworks?
Around 14 years ago, Hector Macleod offered me a Flame operator position at Glassworks. I jumped at that chance, and since then we have been building on Glassworks’ reputation for seamless VFX and innovative techniques. It’s been fun times, but also very interesting to watch the growth of our industry and the changes in expectations in projects. Even more interesting to me is that, even though on large projects we still effectively specialize, the industry in London and worldwide is much more accepting of the multi-skilled approach to filmmaking. Finally, the world is beginning to embrace the principles I first learned 33 years ago at TVP.
For the Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror, how did your creative process on this episode differ from other TV projects, and did you use Flame any differently as a result?
I should mention that Bandersnatch has been nominated for a few BAFTAs (best single drama, best editing and best special, visual and graphic effect) so everyone involved are massively excited about that.
I really like working with House of Tomorrow on the Black Mirror films, but I especially loved working on Bandersnatch with producer Russell McLean and director David Slade. It really felt like we were involved in something fresh and new. Nobody knew for sure how the audience was going to watch and engage with such a complex story told in the interactive format. This made it impossible to make any of the normal assumptions. For VFX the goal was the same as normal: to realize director David Slade’s vision and, in the process, make every shot as engaging as possible. But the fact that it didn’t play out in a single linear timeline meant that every single decision had to be considered from this new point of view.
When did you get involved in the project?
I was involved in the very early stages of Bandersnatch, helping with ideas for the viewer’s interactive choice points. These tests were more basic editorial and content tests. I shot our head of production Duncan Buxton acting out parts of the script and cut decision-point sequences to illustrate ways the choices could work. I used Flame as an offline, basic online and audio editing tool for these. Almost every stage in the VFX planning went through some look developed in Flame.
For the environmental work we used traditional matte painting techniques and some clever CG techniques in places, but on a lot of it, I used the Flame to build and paint concept layouts. The pre-shoot the Trellick concept work in fact carried through to the final shots. The moment the mirror cracks was completely built in Flame using some pictures of west London vandalism I came across by accident on the way back from a Bandersnatch preproduction meeting.
The “through the mirror” sequences were shot with 3x-synced ARRI 65 cameras and the footage was unwrapped and used to re-project onto a 3D Stefan [the show’s young programmer] to make his reflection whilst he emerged from the mirror. The VFX requirements on this section of the shoot schedule were quite significant, so on set we had to be confident of the technique used and very quick to react to changes. Since rebuilding his reflection would take many weeks, I built versions of all the shots in Flame. These were used by editor Tony Kearns to find a pace for the sequence, and this fed into our CG artists who were building the reflection.
There were all sorts of Flame tools used to look-develop and finish this show. It really was my complete VFX supervisor companion throughout.
Can you talk about your Mr-benn.com initiative and how that came about?
Mr-benn.com is an art site I set up to exhibit and sell some of what I refer to as ‘the other art” created by people who work in the film and television industry. A portion from every sale is donated to plasticpollutioncoalition.org. It raises awareness about and fights plastic pollution, which is something worth standing behind.
I talked with so many friends and colleagues, talented in their own work fields, who had such an Insatiable appetite for creating that even after the grueling schedules of film projects had beaten them, they still had more to create and show. Their “other” is an amazing mixture of photography, found art, land art, fractals, infrared photography and digital design. It all could be — and often is — exhibited separately on generic art sites without much importance put on the creators’ cinematic achievements. Mr-benn is about the achievement in both their day jobs their “other art” together. It’s starting to get talked about; I hope people like what they see and help support a good cause.
How has your use of Flame changed or evolved over the past 20 years? Are there any particular features that have been added that make your job easier?
Flame has changed greatly since I started with it. I think the addition of the timeline was a particular game-changer, and it’s difficult to remember what it was like without 16-bit float capabilities. On terms of recent changes, the color management has made color workflow much easier. To be fair, every update makes something a little easier.
What other tools are in your arsenal?
I have the demo of almost every type of 3D and 2D package on my laptop, but I haven’t made enough time to master any of them apart from Flame, a little Nuke and Photoshop. I do rely on my Canon DSLR a lot, and I grade stills with Lightroom.
Was there a particular film that motivated you to work in VFX?
Not one in particular. There have been some that along the way have impressed me. I’m thinking District 9 as I type, but there have been a few with a similar effect on me.
What inspires your work?
I take an interest in a lot of everyday things, what the world looks and moves like. Not enough to be an expert in anything, but enough to understand (on a basic level) how it could be recreated. I’m certainly not very clever, just interested enough to spend proper time to find solutions.
The other part is that I seem to have is a gene that makes me feel really bad if I let people down. So I keep going until a problem shot is better, or I hit an immovable delivery date. I’d have done okay in any service industry really.
Any tips for young people starting out?
I see a direct link between exceptional creativity in VFX work to how deeply curious people are in the real world, with all of its incredible qualities. A good place to start is getting interested in what the real world actually looks like through a real lens. Take your own pictures, as it makes you understand relationship between lens and objects.
Start your own projects, and make sure they’re ambitious. Work out how to make them amazing. Then show these as an example of what you can do. Don’t show roto for rotos sake. Once you get a job, don’t get complacent and think you’ve made it. The next step in a career isn’t automatic. It only happens with added effort.