This article series, to be posted once a month, will focus on one person in the Film or Television industry who’s name might not jump out at you right away, but you’ve definitely been influenced by their work. This month, we’re talking to Visual Effects Guru, and Creative Director of Red Giant Software's Magic Bullet product line, Stu Maschwitz.
You might not know the name, but Stu Maschwitz is the creative mind behind Red Giant Software’s flagship plug-in, Magic Bullet Looks (well, the whole Magic Bullet product line, to be precise), which is one of the best color grading plug-ins on the market today. But software development is not Stu’s thing. He comes from a visual effects background that had him working on the restoration of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, over one hundred shots in Episode One: The Phantom Menace, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man’s Chest and Iron Man. He started his own visual effects company with co-workers from ILM, and has seen the tidal wave the visual effects industry is going through first hand. But how did he get his start?
KPM: Tell me about how you got your start in the industry.
SM: Well, I went to film school at Cal Arts, the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, California, and there was a strong connection there between the graduating animation class, and what would eventually become PIXAR. It was such a tumultuous time, it was right around the time of Jurassic Park, and so by the time I graduated there had been a few folks close to me including teachers and fellow students who had made their way up to ILM and I knew that I wanted to be in the visual effects industry, I didn’t necessarily think that my first job out of film school was going to be at Industrial Light and Magic but that’s how it worked out. They were just so desperate to crew up for all the big movies coming up that they were willing to hire even me.
KPM: As you mentioned, your first job out of Cal Arts was at ILM. Tell me about your time there, and what you did.
SM: Yeah, I was there from the Jumanji, Casper, Mission Impossible 1 time through to working on Star Wars Episode One and even Galaxy Quest was the last show that I worked on there, so it was about four years, so in a way it kind of corresponded to a graduate studies program. I kind of looked at it that way, after the fact. Learned a lot, and got exposed to a lot of amazing filmmakers, and was there for a really interesting and tumultuous period of time in the visual effects industry, where it was going in the direction of….I can’t remember how many shots Casper had in it, but maybe it was in the hundreds, and that was considered ridiculously huge and then, of course, by the time I left, there was Star Wars Episode One that had 2000 shots in it, and now that kind of standard for just about any movie, even one that’s not a science fiction epic. So, it was a really interesting piece of history to be a part of there.
KPM: I'm a huge Star Wars fan, and you worked on the Special Editions of Episodes 4-6. What was your role in the VFX process.
It’s such an interesting thing, right, because I was about 4-5 years old when the first Star Wars came out, and was immediately, not just a fan of it, but it really just blew a hole into my life, and I kind of decided at a young age that whatever that was that I just experienced, I wanted to be a part of it. So I get to ILM, and they have codenames for all their shows, but it was kind of “pre-internet” and before where you really had to be concerned about crazy super security on a show. So the code name for the Special Edition of Star Wars was “New Hope”, and I thought “I know what that is!”, I saw it kind of float by on the dailies reel one day. That was the first hint that I got that they were doing these Special Editions. So when the opportunity came along to work on them, of course, I just had to say yes. It just seemed like this is my opportunity do something I always wanted to do. Even though I got to work on a sequence that nobody wanted to work on, the scene where Jabba gets his tail stepped on. When I came to that scene, it had already been worked on quite a bit. A lot of the hard work had already been done including painting out the original actor in his furry wardrobe, who had been……i don’t know if he was standing in for Jabba the Hutt, or if he was really meant to appear on screen as Jabba the Hutt. No one would give us a straight answer about that. At any rate, we were going to replace him with this computer generated Jabba. We had this dilemma of what were we going to do with Harrison Ford when he steps around behind the other actor. Of course, what George Lucas figured out to do, was to have him step on his tail. I got to spend a good 3-4 weeks with a Terry Gilliam cut out version of Harrison Ford, made of pieces of the original footage, animating him by hand, to appear to step on Jabba the Hutt’s tail.
KPM: You also worked on Episode 1, The Phantom Menace and were a sequence supervisor and development lead. What did that entail?
SM: Well, what happened after my time on New Hope, my next project was working on Mission Impossible, the first one, working with John Knoll and while he was supervising our work on the scene with the helicopter gets drawn into the chunnel, John was also at the same time redoing the space battle from Episode 4 on his beige Mac in his office, in his off hours. Whenever I would go up there to talk to him, I would beg him to show me whatever he was working on, cause it just seemed like he was having so much fun, and being so creative with these “off the shelf” tools. So, those conversations led him to conscript me to leading his “Rebel Mac” unit. And we worked on a number of shows including Star Trek : First Contact and Men in Black, and when the time came around to work on Episode 1, John put the Rebel Mac unit in charge of doing pretty much most of the CGI space battle sequences. There was still a lot of miniature work going on for the space stations and other large scale space “stuff”, but we did all the flying space fighters and all the crazy space battle stuff that make up the last third of the film. So I directly supervised, I can’t remember exactly how many shots, but I think it was just over 100, all run through our Rebel Mac pipeline which was compositing in After Effects, doing all the rendering and animation in Electric Image, and it was a lot of fun! Really interesting, fun challenge and such a cool opportunity to be flying ships for Star Wars, and the Rebel Mac unit was located in the same building as the model shop, so we made it our mission in life to honor and respect and try to live in the image of the work that the model shop was doing on the film and had done on the previous films. We really tried to look at ourselves as an extension of the model shop work, and not as a computer graphics unit. We saw ourselves as a “Spaceship Unit” that happened to be using computers.
KPM: You co-founded “The Orphanage”, a VFX company based in LA and San Fran. Tell me how it came about and what your roll there was?
SM: The big thing for me was that when I was at ILM I found a nice handful of people who had the similar mentality that I did, which was that their visual effects work was an extension of their overall aspirations as filmmakers. And to me, that was always the thing, I loved effects but I came to realize that I didn’t love them for their own sake. Visual effects are filmmaking with all the knobs turned up. Really all filmmaking is visual effects. Even just intercutting between two sides of a conversation that were shot at different times is essentially kind of a magic trick. You’re fooling people into thinking that two people talking at a park, when really their conversations may have been filmed hours, or even days apart. So the whole magic trick of immersing people in a story that is made of cobbled together bits and pieces, to me, I don’t see any difference between the simplest kind of filmmaking and the most complex visual effect. And the other people who I met at ILM who were like that were John Rothbart and Scott Stewart. We all got to talking, and decided that we wanted to leave and start The Orphanage. Giving credit where credit was due, we just wanted to build what we saw George Lucas enjoying for himself. Here was a guy who had his own production company, and under his own roof he had a visual effects company that was capable of bringing his wildest dreams to life. We wanted exactly that for ourselves. We wanted to create stories of our own, and then have a wonderful crew of people who we trusted and worked with every day, to bring them to life.
KPM: At The Orphanage, many different movies passed across your computer screens from Harry Potter to Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest to Iron Man. Is there one that stands out to you as the one you are most proud that you worked on?
SM: I have a couple. Personally I was thrilled to work on Sin City. It was such a formative thing, reading those graphic novels, especially while at film school, studying Frank Miller’s composition and his storytelling esthetic. As far as our best work though, it’s really hard to say “best”, but some of the work I’m most proud of is that we did all of the work for what I think is a cool and important film. It’s a Korean movie called “The Host”, directed by Bong Joon-ho. He’s probably one of the most talented directors in the world, and everyone will see that when his film Snowpiercer comes out. If you have a chance to see any of his movies, they are all brilliant. “The Host” was such a weird and wacky movie, and I got to go to Korea and meet with him. I didn’t actually supervise the work, but it was privilege to meet him and get to know him, and get a little inside the head of one of the top two directors in South Korea. I’m a huge fan of South Korean cinema, I think they’re really doing amazing stuff over there. So to create his creature for this film and to create a creature that's the size of a bus, and would appear in really long shots that mostly took place in broad daylight, was a huge accomplishment for our little company.
KPM: Currently you are the Creative Director for the Magic Bullet product line at Red Giant Software. What exactly does the “CD” do?
SM: In my case, it’s a fancy sounding title for the guy who designed, originally, the Magic Bullet Looks software and Colorista and Mojo and that kind of stuff. My job at Red Giant, is to not have a job at Red Giant. My job at Red Giant is to be a filmmaker, and to keep doing what I’ve always done, and to keep doing this odd habit that I have. Which is I go out and try to make a film, I get frustrated by the tools, and I can’t help but try to either design or build the tools myself to solve the problem that I have. After I finish the film I look around and think that there are other people who would like to get their hands on the same tools. That is just a repeating pattern for me that I can’t shake. Even though I do build them for myself, I do get a lot of satisfaction out of the challenge of building them for other people as well. That started from the very early days of the availability of DV cameras. I did a short film way back in the day called “The Last Birthday Card”, shot in NTSC, interlaced DV before the days of 24p, and the original Magic Bullet was a system I designed to convert that 60i video to 24p. So, the relationship I have with Red Giant just keeps that alive. They expect me to keep making my films, doing cool stuff, getting frustrated and filling up my notebooks with ideas for solutions to problems I encounter, and if they like them, they build them. It’s a really productive and wonderful relationship that I really enjoy. It’s fun to describe it in that way, that I just bump into problems and solve them, but I just really enjoy the craft of making software. One thing I realized with the legacy of being a filmmaker who went to an animation school, was that I looked at other filmmakers who are also Cal Arts graduates, people like Tim Burton, and I saw a pattern in the great directors who emerged out of that school. Because they were forced to tell their stories by drawing every frame by hand, they developed a great sense of simplicity and of only including the stuff that matters most, because they had to draw every frame. So if it wasn’t helping to tell the story, they removed it. That simplification process is what makes certain animated characters indelible. That’s why our kids light up when they see Mickey Mouse, even though who knows if they’ve ever seen a Mickey Mouse anything before. It’s just the simplicity of his shape, it’s just magnetic. It relates to storytelling, it relates to framing and composing your shots in live action, and it relates to software design as well. There’s such a movement across the world of software right now on simplicity, and removing unnecessary stuff, and I find it a daily challenge, and a really fun puzzle to solve.
Magic Bullet Looks – Adobe After Effects 2014
KPM: Which plug-in companies out there get you excited as a visual effects creator?
SM: I’m just going to go ahead and say Video Copilot. They’re the one for me. I love what they do. What I really love is that they’re bringing a lot of creativity and “filmmaker energy” to what they’re doing. It gets a little frustrating because I feel like whether it’s other plug-ins out there inspired by one another, or at times I feel like I see some plug-ins out there that are “more than just inspired” by the ones I’ve done for Red Giant. It seems to get to be a bit of an echo chamber out there with some of the plug-ins, but I never feel like that with anything created by Video Copilot. I always feel like they have unique and really cool creative ideas, and when I look at the stuff they build, I feel Andrew Kramer’s filmmaker personality coming through in the software they make, and it was really cool to do something with him in the Red Giant Film “Run Like Hell”.
KPM: Well, let’s talk a little about Red Giant Films and Run Like Hell. How did that come about?
SM: I can’t claim any credit to have been the one to realize that that video game needed to be made into a movie. That goes to the producer Adrian Askarieh. He has a history of getting involved in video game adaptations, and I think he saw with that game an opportunity to jump on a recognizable name that was really a cult classic game that had, at its core, a really simple world and idea that could be freely adapted. So in his words the screenplay that he developed with screenwriter Max Adams is not really based on, but is in fact “inspired by”, the game. It’s a pretty loose association. I mean as you can see from the short that I wrote based on Max’s future screenplay, it’s almost like a romantic comedy that explodes into an action adventure movie, and that’s pulled right from the pages of the feature screenplay. So the way the project came to me was that Adrian is friends with my agent, my agent sent me the script and said you gotta read this, it’s pretty amazing. I read it, and thought “How are you going to make this raunchy, “Judd Apatow” style comedy movie, with a full-on alien invasion?” This is the kind of movie I’d love to see, but nobody ever makes. I met with Adrian, and he said “This is the kind of movie we’d all love to see, but nobody ever makes it!”, and I thought “Okay, well he knows he’s crazy, so let’s try to do it!”. What he wanted from me was a combination of a sensibility of interest and emotional storytelling, and just the ability to pull it off, in terms of the amount of effects, and the epic scale it would require. So we agreed in that early conversation, that we would need to put a video together to show the world the tone of the piece. Luckily for me, Red Giant was having such a great time doing the films they had already done with Seth Worley directing, and they were very politely and patiently waiting for me to come to them with an idea for my own, and I got Red Giant and Adrian together and said “Would you guys like to collaborate together and make this Run Like Hell teaser short?” and they all thought that would be a great idea. I was very lucky that that “collision” worked out to be mutually beneficial for everyone.
KPM: Well, I can’t talk to you about your career in visual effects and your love of the industry without asking you about what you think of the state of the VFX industry today.
SM: I wish I had something really interesting or compelling to say, but the state of the visual effects industry is bad. It’s no secret that The Orphanage went bankrupt. It was bad in 2009 when that happened, and it’s worse now. It really bums me out. A lot of my dear friends are either getting real creative about how they make a living, sort of in areas that are peripheral to the VFX industry, or they have moved to London, which is the last location where film subsidies seem to be alive and well. We saw Pixar close down their Vancouver office, we’ve seen folks shutting down their Mumbai or even Albuquerque offices, and I’ve chased that same work. I spend three months in Vancouver working on a movie, as well as three months in Albuquerque working on a movie there, but that’s nothing compared to a seasoned visual effects artist who picks up and moves their entire family to a new location, chasing work, only to have to do it again when the subsidies take the work somewhere else. I wish I knew what the solution was. Something is going to break. It’s a scary situation.
I'm glad that of all the people that I've been interviewing, Stu's talk is posted first. Stu has done what most people dream of. He's survived the crazy ocean of the visual effects business, and he has taken his knowledge and experience, and by working with Red Giant Software, he's created tools that will help both amateur and professional filmmakers solve the same problems that he's run into in the fiield, with a few clicks of the mouse. To find out what Stu's up to now, you can check out his blog at www.prolost.com, or follow him on Twitter @5tu
Kevin P McAuliffe is a Senior Editor at Extreme Reach, in Toronto, Canada. You can send him an e-mail at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @kpmcauliffe.