3D Artist

Q&A with Star Wars: The Last Jedi VFX supervisor: Mike Mulholland

News & Features
Carrie Mok

The VFX supervisor tells all about the tools used on The Force Awakens and working with JJ Abrams

Q&A with Star Wars: The Last Jedi VFX supervisor: Mike Mulholland

Mike Mulholland hasn’t been in Bournemouth in two decades but he returned, triumphantly last October, to the British town where he had spent his formative university years now as a visual effects supervisor for ILM London and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We met Mulholland at BFX Festival just after he gave a presentation on the digital effects used in The Force Awakens, alongside supervising art director Kevin Jenkins, to a jam-packed auditorium of inspired students.

3D Artist: Can you tell us about your professional background?
Mike Mulholland: So I did the Bournemouth Computer Animation and Visualisation course back in the late Nineties, and that was a mix of doing CG and short films, with courses in coding, shot design and film theory. That gave me a whole mix of tools to use during my career. When I first graduated I went into computer games, I did games for a couple of years. Working in a company called Psygnosis, and then I moved into visual effects. I started at Cinesite back in 1999 and during that era the VFX work in London was much smaller than it was now. The visual effects companies didn’t really do that much film if any at all. It was mostly the commercials or TV specials in that kind of era, Framestore had just done Walking With Dinosaurs and other special Hallmark films for the American TV specials which needed effects. That was what everyone was doing around around about the time when I started. Then a year or so in, the film projects started coming in a bit more, like the first Tomb Raider and the Harry Potter franchise came along.

One of the first things I did work on when I first started was Band of Brothers, which I worked on at Cinesite, which was a great opportunity.

I went to work in San Francisco back in 2001, I worked at a company which was doing the sequels to the Matrix Films so I got to travel to San Francisco and work on both Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions for a couple of years which was a fantastic experience, seeing a different part of the world plus different approaches to the films. I came back to the UK and joined Framestore, I was at Framestore for ten years.

When I first started at Cinesite, I was pretty much a generalist because people didn’t have specific roles at that time. You just did a bit of everything and you were given a shot to do and you were given the whole thing. As I progressed, I started to specialise in creature rigging, character setup, bit of lighting, bit of shading and all throughout always doing a little bit of pipeline and coding, so I’d be able to solve a lot of the technical problems that we were being faced with, and coming up with, per show, solutions to whatever had to be sold.

By the time I came back to the UK, I went back to Framestore and was employed as a rigger for the first year. Then I kind of moved into a mixture of lighting and pipeline role, worked on films such as X-Men 3, and quite quickly I moved into CG supervisor role. The CG supervisor would look after pretty much all the technical aspects of how a film is being put together again, so you’re in charge of all the assets which are being built but also how they are being built, all the technology and the code and the approach to the films. I kinda moved into CG supervision and worked on a number of films. For Prince Caspian for example, we were rebuilding Aslan the lion which was quite a big technical challenge at the time because it was one of the big fur jobs that was done in London. Also worked on Where The Wild Things Are, Australia, then did some work on Gravity – I was one of the CG supes on the show. It was such a big show we had multiple CG supes on it and I took care of migrating Framestore’s pipeline into a new set of tools which could cope with that film because it was such a big ask.

Then I did shows such as Warhorse as a CG supe. Then I began to move into VFX supervision, when you get into that role you’re responsible for both all the CG and also the compositing, so basically all the departments – having final say on the images and presenting those to the client, I moved into that doing films such as 47 Ronin and Jupiter Ascending. Then ILM set up in London two years ago, through some of the contacts that I had who were involved in the initial setup of ILM I started talking to them and there was an opportunity there to join them as a VFX supervisor.

So I moved to ILM and the first project we did as a company was Avengers: Age of Ultron. We initially set up the company around that and we were recruiting people to work on that show and we worked with San Francisco and working on various parts of the show, we did half of the Hulk buster sequence and then numerous pieces of the third act, the end battle, was done in London.

That was a great opportunity and a fascinating introduction to ILM. You’re moving companies so you’re learning a completely new toolset, plus people you’re working with have all come together from different companies, because it’s a new startup essentially, so it was a really fascinating time. Then when Avengers came to an end, I had an opportunity to move to Episode VII as the ILM supervisor for the postproduction. Our creative director of ILM, Ben Morris, he was kind of the main architect in setting up the company, he was working on Episode VII as a VFX supervisor alongside Roger Guyatt. Ben got the offer of being overall supervisor on Episode VIII, when that kicked in, he had to stop working on VII so I was able to move in and take over the work on VII. I spent about six months executing the shots, finishing off any of the dev work, the build work and going through the shot execution side of it all. We delivered VII in November 2015 and I’ve been at work on future Lucasfilm projects since then – which I’m not allowed to talk about!

Q&A with Star Wars: The Last Jedi VFX supervisor: Mike Mulholland

3DA: What drew you back to London?
MM: It was mainly a family thing actually. I was over in San Fran with my wife and we had our first child over there. It was great fun, we had a fantastic time out there but it was hard to have a child in a different country so we made the decision to come back – both our parents as well were getting old and needed a bit more attention. It was family reasons to come back, I really enjoyed my time in San Fran, I loved it out there.

3DA: You specialised in creature rigging when you first started?
MM: Rigging has always been a very interesting part of the process, because you are designing a way of creating something for an animator to interface with and control. It always appeals to me to create tools or things which people can use to do work for animation. If I was creating a rig, it would be for an animator to animate with, if I was creating some tools, it would be for somebody to do shot creation. I’ve always enjoyed making things for other people so. I find the rigging an interesting mix of the technical and the artistic sides of it all, it’s quite a complicated process sometimes, designing how the creature works and managing that – it was a good mixture of different sides of my toolset.

3DA: Would you say you’re more of a technical artist than a creative artist then?
MM: It’s changed over the years to be honest – I do a bit of both. I’ve gone from technical to, in my role as VFX supe, it’s much more the artistic side. Looking and talking about the images – I feel comfortable in doing both, I feel I need an outlet for both sides of it, so I’ll usually find something to do technical as well as the technical.

3DA: You spoke about Unified shaders and MARI in the presentation…
MM: You have the unified shader, which define how the [shaders] work… I want to go in and assess texture artists’ work and look at their work in Mari and comment on it – knowing that when a lighter picks it up it’s going to look the same, or that we can move it between renders that we go and take this into PRMan and render it, or we can look at the same thing in Arnold and it will look the same because we’re using a unified shader.

3DA: I guess it enables a lot more consistency in your assets then.
MM: We want to move our assets between departments, between companies, or between divisions of a company so it’s very useful for us. For example, we might be doing a VR project and if we’re working with a unified shader, it might be possible to translate the materials we’ve got to a VR project for example, because it’s got these defined structures and defined ways of doing them. Perhaps not all packages have all options implemented, but as long as there is a core set you can get a good approximation at least between the two.

Have you noticed a massive increase in efficiency thanks to the shaders?
I think Moore’s Law is that computers will get faster, problem is the scenes and what we’re trying to render gets more complicated with every project. I’d say yes, if you took an asset from three or four years ago and rendered it again, the render would be faster – the shaders would be faster but that is accounted for in the complexity of what we’re trying to achieve – textures, material, shaders, it can all get more complicated and just the scene complexity increases. I wish it got faster but it doesn’t! It just gets more complicated!

Q&A with Star Wars: The Last Jedi VFX supervisor: Mike Mulholland

3DA: In the presentation you also mention taking archived material and matte paintings from the original trilogy – how long did it take?
MM: The archives are in San Francisco at the Skywalker Ranch – it just depends on the material you want and some of the models, for example we were continuously looking at the older physical models – be it Star Destroyers or X-wings. The tools we’ve got available to us now means we can take the photos and take them into photogrammetry, and give ourselves a 3D representation for those. We’ll use that as a reference because we’ll always do a completely fresh build but it’s a great way of being able to take that reference and processing it into 3D very quickly and being able to match what we’re doing. We’ll use the same techniques for onset props, anything we’re trying to rebuild we’ll take into Photoscan or other photogrammetry tools to make sure we’ve got a good line-up, even if we’re only using it to solve cameras and being able to do an AB against our CG version and the practical thing.

In terms of things like the matte painting, which Kevin was talking about, we won’t be directly using that. It’s more you want to study and get a sense of the aesthetic and what was the language of the world we are reproducing. There’s details and colour queues and there’s all sorts of things you can look at, it’s all about – a massive part of it is shot composition too just in terms of how things were framed, because in those days if they were doing matte paintings on glass for example, it would be set up in a certain way or only a portion of it was live action and matte painting for the rest of it. It’s fascinating to look at that and see how we can produce similar effects in our matte paintings, as well as we will wholesale and find, there’ll be elements and pieces… let’s take that item and reproduce it, it gives everything a good grounding in some of the legacy work.

Q&A with Star Wars: The Last Jedi VFX supervisor: Mike Mulholland

3DA: How was it working with JJ?
MM: JJ is very imaginative, he is continuously exploring the ideas in the design stages or the edit, I wouldn’t say he comes with a definitive answer of what he wants from the get-go but he keeps it open and explores avenues, never wants to be locked into anything. It was a very dynamic experience with JJ, he’s a fantastic director and I think he gets amazing results from everybody. But he also likes to keep everything open and his options on table.

3DA: Can you describe a typical team that you might supervise on The Force Awakens?
MM: Teams always change in scale as you’re working, if you’re at the start of a show you might have a small group. If I take a snapshot towards the end of Episode VII – well all disciplines will be represented. Do you want pure numbers?

3DA: If you can! If you can remember…
MM: I’m going to make them up! So there was 120 people just in the London studio, worldwide there were many more. That number is probably an aggregate so it would have changed depending on which disciplines would be in effect at any one time. It would be like six people in the layout department, six people in modelling, but we’ve got so many departments now, we’ve got a lot of people involved! Usually the biggest departments are the compositing departments, where I think we got up to 32 towards the end of the project. That’s not a vast number for a big franchise show. It’s worth remembering that London was only doing a small section of the film, so. You know, we’ve worked on shows with double that number easily.

The studio as a whole, so far ILM London has been growing the last couple of years and will have multiple films going through it at once. The only time I’ve been there where we’ve only had one film was the initial film we did which was Avengers but then it’s expanded form there. It’s quite common for any facility in London to be working on six, seven, eight films at once. Currently we’ve got four in production right now, maybe five, and the teams will move depending on where each project is in its delivery schedule. For example, Doctor Strange delivered [in October 2016], then we have Rogue One delivering in November 2016. Crew will move between shows to get through the final crunch to deliver. Part of the work that goes on behind the scenes at a visual effects studio is to make sure that the shows are balancing out to keep everybody going on.

Q&A with Star Wars: The Last Jedi VFX supervisor: Mike Mulholland

3DA: You mentioned Mari and PRman, what other software and tools were used on The Force Awakens?
MM: Animation happens in Maya, modelling will happen in whatever package the modeller wants to work in. We have people working in Maya, ZBrush, Modo… The lighting happens in Katana, rendering in RenderMan, FX guys use Houdini, compositor use Nuke and then we have a couple of teams in layout and creature dev who work with our custom tools. The creature devs do half their work in Maya when working in rigs, then do half their work in proprietary tools when they’re running skin, cloth simulations, corrective shapes and stuff like that.

3DA: What’s the ratio between proprietary and off the shelf?
MM: It’s mostly off the shelf apart from those two areas, but we do have our core pipeline – how the show works is that it’s all proprietary, proprietary code and then it’s moving in and out of off the shelf software. I’d say it’s more than other London facilities but that’s a sign of the fact that ILM’s history – it’s a very long running company. When they started off doing CG, there weren’t any off the shelf tools so there’s been a lot of innovation in that area.