If you’d read the credits of 1995’s Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins, you’d have seen a 3D animator and CGI modeler named Scott Stokdyk.
From digital beginnings, Stokdyk is very comfortable with digital effects, and in an era of filmmaking more reliant on CGI than ever before, he’s right at home. The 43-year-old has worked his way up to CG supervisor, digital effects supervisor and his current title of VFX supervisor for a roll-call of Hollywood tentpole blockbusters like The Fifth Element, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, Stuart Little and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.
His most recent gig was on Oz the Great and Powerful, and in a CG-heavy environment many people have been surprised about how much in-camera effects were used. For a digital native it’s a brave new world to conquer, but Stokdyk’s very comfortable in it, as he told Moviehole.net from Los Angeles.
What exactly does a VFX supervisor do?
I have to wear a lot of different hats as a VFX Supervisor because first and foremost, I’m working for the director. I basically have to help Sam get his vision on the screen.
But at the same time I’m leading a group of 500 artists who need constant direction, so I have to work on a very small level with a small group of creative people like the editor, the producers and the director, then work with a very broad group as well.
How does it affect the films you work on when most of your experience is in digital effects?
If you look back 20, 30, 40 years ago there’s a long lineage of visual effects that are optical and camera based, and I feel like I’ve come through a layered generation of visual effect supervisors who’ve worked through computer graphics.
I’ve been exposed to really great visual effects supervisors who have come from the more optical camera area like Ken Ralston so I’m definitely a student of those techniques even though now I tend to use more digital techniques.
Is there much room left in Hollywood for VFX people who aren’t digital natives?
I definitely think so, people get very creative about how they do non-digital effects nowadays. But a lot of the pioneers from the optical camera days have embraced digital techniques as well, so there’s definitely a continuum of choices and techniques going on.
There can be a backlash against CGI heavy films. How do you avoid that?
I’m extremely conscious of that. It’s just unavoidable in some cases where you just can’t shoot things. I’ll give you a perfect example, the China Girl in Oz. We went with the idea of having a marionette artist on set so while we’re filming we have this puppet China Girl marionette in the scene for interaction and lighting reference. Then when we were in post-production looking at this footage, there was a lot of debate about how much we could use of the real puppet.
So we did tests, there’s a whole sequences in the movie where we painted out wires and just studied it and asked ourselves ‘can this live on its own with today’s sensibilities?’ But what we found out is the tricks kind of revealed themselves, you could see exactly what it was. It didn’t look anything other than a marionette with the strings painted out. So we made the choice that if we went with CG we’d have complete control over the performance and it gave us more flexibility.
Is it true there are a lot more practical effects in Oz the Great and Powerful than most people expect?
We definitely tried to use something real when we could. We made the decision earlier on to shoot completely on stage instead of any location work, so a savvy viewer knows that if you’re seeing a visual image inside a stage it’s pretty obvious it’s CG. But we did try and blur the lines as much as we could between a practical set and our CG extensions.
How much do you get involved in what the computer people are doing, having done it yourself?
I have enough trust in my team to let them do their own thing and make decisions on techniques and execution. I try to focus my input more on the creative than the execution.
Any envy about the directors making all the creative decisions and having all the control while you just have to do what they say?
Control’s kind of an illusion in our collaborative film making process. I don’t feel like I have a lot of control in what I do but I’m still able to influence things. Directors have the ultimate influence but there are forces that are out the director’s control too. I’m definitely very happy with doing visual effects.