As many TV and film productions are grappling with new social distancing guidelines and reassessing working with extras for crowd scenes, New York Film Academy Cinematography instructor for NYFA’s Los Angeles campus, Mark Sawicki, says VFX is here to help.
Sawicki is a Clio-winning VFX and opticals artist, who has worked on incredible titles from The Dark Knight Rises and Bullet to the Head, to Tropic Thunder, 3:10 to Yuma and X-Men, among several others. Recently featured in Deadline, Sawicki shared how productions will increasingly begin to look to VFX to solve the challenging situations for making safer productions and creating scenes with crowds where multiple extras on set are typically needed.
Courtesy of Mark Sawicki
Using examples from titles like Casanova, Dracula,Gladiator,Pan Am, the Lord of The Rings trilogy, and more, Sawicki explains different VFX and even practical effects that can make movie magic for keeping sets safer. He also elaborated that background actors are still integral to filmmaking, but safety will need to take precedent. “I think background actors are very important. You know, this is a moving target as we’re adapting.”
Sawicki is the co-author with Juniko Moody of the recently released book Filming the Fantastic With Virtual Technology: Filmmaking on the Digital Backlot. Like his interview with Deadline explains, Sawicki and Moody outline some of the most ambitious evolutions in digital effects in filmmaking andthe new and exciting developments in digital cinematography with their new book, ultimately providing solutions for how VFX can help solve many of the challenges arising as crews look to return to work on COVID-safe sets.
To read the full article on Deadline, click here. Sawicki’s book has recently been released and is now available on Amazon and Kindle.
Our award-winning faculty and instructors continue to shine in both the classroom and the professional arena. Recently, New York Film Academy Los Angeles Co-Chair of Animation and VFX, Matt Galuppo, and ace faculty member, Matt Sheehan, recently created a refugee awareness video for the Ad Council.
Galuppo’s company produced the beautiful PSA that is both touching and timely in this time of derisiveness. One can truly appreciate the trials and suffering of our fellow humanity around the globe. Sheehan is featured in the PSA as one of the people chosen to engage in the “experience” of being a refugee.
Meanwhile, NYFA LA Chair of Animation, Mark Sawicki, contributed matte painting work to the award-winning documentary “Inside the Garbage of the World” directed by Phillipe and Maxine Carillo. His work depicts hundreds of dead whales on the sea shore as a premonition of the ecological catastrophe that awaits if the issue of plastic pollution in our ocean is not addressed.
The film is now available on Amazon Prime and will be distributed by Dreamscape to universities and public libraries. The film will also be translated into foreign languages and distributed internationally by Journeyman pictures.
One of the more enticing aspects of the New York Film Academy is its belief that our instructors should not only be well versed in their crafts, but also strongly established in their respective fields. As a testament to this commitment, we focus on the New York Film Academy Los Angeles 3D Animation and Visual Effects Chair, Mark Sawicki.
After attending USC film school, Mr. Sawicki entered the film industry as a lab technician at Cinema Research Corp., where he worked on the original Superman film. He later began working as a cameraman for Roger Corman’s New World Studios on low budget sci-fi pictures such as Escape from New York. From there, he went on to shooting effects and creating award-winning animation for commercials, rock videos and 3D features including Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th Part 3.
In 1986, he became the matte photographer for Illusion Arts, working under visual effects masters Albert Whitlock, Syd Dutton, and Bill Taylor. During this period, while working on mainstream films, Mr. Sawicki became an instructor for Kodak’s Cineon system (a landmark digital film compositing system). After a 10-year stint of compositing matte paintings at Illusion Arts, for such projects as Cape Fear, The Birdcage and Star Trek IV, he became a co-supervisor for Area 51 on Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon.
Mr. Sawicki was later the head effects camera supervisor and digital colorist for Custom Film Effects, contributing to films such as Gangs of New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,Tropic Thunder, and The Dark Knight Rises.
As to reaffirming his remarkable insight into the field of animation and visual effects, Mr. Sawicki has authored three DVD’s on the art of clay animation and a documentary entitled Twilight Camerman, which focuses on the craft of optical printing available from firstlightvideo.com. He is also the author of the book “Filming the Fantastic: A Guide to Visual Effects Cinematography,” published by Focal Press.
And to top it all off, Mr. Sawicki frequently performs as an actor in independent films. Indeed, an incredible career that carries with it a lifetime of knowledge and hands-on experience that can be passed on to his students.
“Whenever possible, I will take pictures of professional green screen set-ups and share them in the classroom,” says Mr. Sawicki. “This is extremely helpful in giving the students an up to the minute, real-world exploration of what is happening in the industry today.”
His involvement with the school’s animation and visual effects students is not only valuable to NYFA, but also to himself. “Teaching at NYFA has been a rewarding experience for me as I am able to address an international community with different insights and attitudes. The one commonality among them all is the love of movies and the desire to work hard toward their goals. It has been a pleasure to see them blossom and grow to be artists in the field.”
His advice to students graduating from his program, with the intention on working in the field, is to build up an impressive reel and resume that can only be created by working with a small team or as a vendor on independent films and TV commercials. Graduates should expect to work on projects that may not be particularly glamorous, but getting even the most mundane animation job will keep animators focused and allow them to build credits and move up the ladder.
As a professional who embraces most aspects of the entertainment industry, Mr. Sawicki recently wrote a feature screenplay called Call Center, which he describes as a comedy comparable to Mike Judge’s Office Space. He also has a short film in the works that he hopes will bring interest to the script.
One thing is for sure, Mr. Sawicki’s hard work and dedication to both his career and his students is extraordinary. There is no doubt that under the tutelage of Mr. Sawicki, NYFA’s 3D Animation and Visual Effects department will continue to grow as one of the most demanding schools for aspiring animators and visual effects experts.
New York Film Academy students in Los Angeles had a glimpse into the new dimensions of filmmaking with a screening of Interstellar and the subsequent presentation by VFX supervisor and Oscar winner Ian Hunter, co-owner of New Deal studios. The film event was reminiscent of Star Wars screenings in the 70s with a line stretching out down the long hall in front of the NYFA Theater and around the corner!
After the screening, Ian gave a brilliant PowerPoint presentation giving a rare behind-the-scenes look at the making of the epic film. He related that the models were built at a massive 1/5 scale and shot with high resolution Vista Vision film cameras running at 72 frames per second to create the majestic imagery. Miniature explosions, rotating rigs, special light sources and tons of in camera VFX work were the primary techniques. Only one green screen shot was used in the entire film.
NYFA LA Chair Mark Sawicki with VFX Oscar Winner Ian Hunter
At the end of Ian’s presentation, chair of animation Mark Sawicki spoke with him to reflect on the modern shooting methodology used for the tentpole picture. Ian shared that unlike many productions, the pre viz of the film was used as a starting point and not a locked down template. Director Christopher Nolan, in his wisdom, knew that the final models photographed in real light would give rise to different and better ideas spring boarded from the pre viz. As a result, shots were not shot to the frame but as full takes, as if shooting live action, giving editing options later on. The process points out the proper use of pre viz as a starting point, thereby allowing the iterative filmmaking process to continue yielding happy accidents and lightning in a bottle. Mr. Hunter shared that pictures done in the 90s such as From the Earth to the Moon had 10% miniature and 90% digital effects, whereas Insterstellar reversed the equation with 90% of the imagery executed with real world miniatures to a stunning effect.
At this time Mark pointed out Ian’s groundbreaking involvement as a director in the new immersive cinema experience of Cinema VR where audiences witness the photoplay in a full 360 degree panorama. This new miracle of the screen is tantamount to adding to the cinema language itself. Ian made note that while takes are much longer when using this process, cuts are possible and sound cues and other techniques can be used to direct the audience’s attention. Mark could not think of a better person than Ian to take on and develop this exciting new art form. Ian’s film Kaiju Fury was shown at Sundance’s new frontier category launching the spectacular screen spectacle.
Thank you, Mr. Hunter, for shedding light on your process and guiding us to the next dimension of movie making!
NYFA LA Chair of Animation Mark Sawicki with Ian Hunter
New York Film Academy Los AngelesMFA Acting, BFA Acting, BFA Filmmaking and a mixture of other students had a special treat on November 4th when James Karen, a prolific stage and screen performer with over 200 feature film credits, graced our stage. Mark Sawicki, chair of the animation department, invited Karen to speak and had the pleasure and challenge of interviewing this amazing actor who has worked steadily in the industry for an incredible seven decades. The evening began with a screening of a Buster Keaton short Cops, a silent film directed by Keaton in 1922. The screening of a Keaton film may seem out of place except for the fact that James was a close friend of the legendary filmmaker, and played alongside of him as a stage actor in the 50’s. This made the event so special, as the students were able to span the years from silent cinema on up to today. James told of how Buster started by being a child actor thrown about the stage in his youth in a “rough” act. James said Buster worked every day of his life and enjoyed every moment, even though the MGM student wasted this great talent by forcing the actor to perform in the highly regimented studio system as a contract player. Karen shared that the documentary, Buster Keaton: A hard act to follow by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, was an excellent snapshot of Keaton’s astounding career. James related that he wished he could have worked in the early silent era as performances were universal and creativity flourished.
The second screening was the Zombie comedy classic Return of the Living Dead, starring James Karen and directed by Dan O’Bannon. At the conclusion of the film, James spoke of his career and his Broadway debut alongside Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. From there, Karen became a longtime stage actor throughout the 50’s and began his film career in 1965 in the low budget film Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. James went on to act in many landmark films such as Poltergeist, Wall Street, The Pursuit of Happyness and many others.
Animation Chair, Mark Sawicki with actor, James Karen
He related his experience working on the zombie film saying that much of the film was ad lib and the film was first performed in rehearsal in linear form as a stage play. As a stage play, both seasoned and first time actors in the film worked with the director and learned and memorized their emotional states throughout the script, so that when scenes were shot out of sequence the performances held together perfectly.
By the end of the evening, questions were turned over to the audience and James gladly shared insights into working with Brando, surviving the business and encouraging young actors to persevere — and first and foremost to get experience on the stage.
We’d like to thank James for spanning the ages and giving us a great sense of continuity and understanding of the craft — reaching back to the silent era that started it all.
New York Film Academy Los Angeles recently screened Martin Scorsese’s remake of the classic film Cape Fear. The guests for the event were master matte painter Syd Dutton, who was responsible for creating the stunning settings throughout the film including the iconic shot of De Niro leaving prison. This image left such an indelible sense memory for movie goers that it was parodied in a Simpson’s episode where Side Show Bob leaves prison. Our other guest was visual effects supervisor Bill Taylor, who oversaw the trick camerawork on the picture. By happenstance, the moderator was our co-chair of animation Mark Sawicki, who had worked with Syd and Bill on the picture and was responsible for shooting the final composites of the matte paintings.
The conversation started with insights into the prison shot. Bill said that the shot was originally designed for De Niro, playing “Max Cady”, to walk below the frame but Scorsese wanted him to walk directly into the camera. A special ramp was built that allowed the actor to do just that. Mark shared that the last few frames of the shot cut from the film showed De Niro (always in character) apparently licking the lens. Because of the compositional change, the shot became much more complex, involving hand drawn silhouettes of the actor allowing him to appear in front of the painting. Mark recalled that the shot took eight hours to execute, with a fan blowing on the camera motor that had to run at extremely slow speed to prevent it from burning out.
Syd said that the older studio system allowed for tremendous care and planning to create the seamless shots that appear in the film. One thing he shared with the current generation of matte painters is to always remember that the Earth only has one sun and one horizon line. Adhering to these facts is essential to create a believable and realistic painting.
Bill related that lighting De Niro on fire was accomplished by a stunt double. The principal actor pretended to be on fire with nothing more than interactive light hitting the set. At a later date, a stunt double dressed in black against a black background, was set on fire and photographed. The stuntman mimicked De Niro’s performance and the footage of the animated flames were then composited over De Niro.
In closing, Bill shared the value of control and advocated that shooting the real thing as much as is possible, limits variables and allows the image to remain based in reality.
Thanks Syd and Bill for sharing a master’s approach for creating seamless visual effects shots in a classic film!
NYFA Instructor Mark Sawicki (left) with Bill Taylor and Syd Dutton.
Our student friends from “down under” had a real Los Angeles experience this past week, as Co-Chair of Animation Mark Sawicki gave a lecture on the use of stop motion in fantasy films. Mark screened excerpts from the works of Willis O’Brien such as Lost World 1925 and King Kong 1932. Mark then went on to show the work of Ray Harryhausen, who set the stage for many of the modern fantasy films we see today like Mighty Joe Young (1949) and Jason of the Argonauts (1963). The talk concluded with the amazing fight sequence from Dragonslayer (1981) which showcased the technique of go-motion that allowed the blurring of motion with stop motion puppets all before the advent of CGI dinosaurs in Spielberg’s modern classic, Jurassic Park.
What made the lecture all the more memorable was that concurrent with the talk, Mark held an “Ani-jam,” where each student had 5 minutes to animate an object before passing it on to the next student to take over the sequence. In this way, the students not only learned the history of stop motion but experienced the process as well by doing it. The animation was all the more special as they used the Australian software Stopmotionpro, famous for its use on the Wallace and Gromit animated films.
Both Mark and the students had a ton of fun and turned out several seconds of animation in a very short time. After the event, it was off to Universal Studios for our guests to share another New York Film Academy adventure!
To celebrate the Oscar winning work of the ground breaking film Gravity, Co-Chair of the Animation Department at NYFA Los Angeles, Mark Sawicki was invited to give a lecture on Space Effects used throughout cinema history. Mark started with a fond look back at a 1950’s Ray Harryhausen picture 20 million Miles to Earth and outlined rear projection methodology. The next exploration were effects techniques used in the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey that is still an undisputed milestone in space recreation. Made in the 60s, Kubrick’s masterpiece made clever use of sets, wire work, mirrors and miniatures, along with pioneering motion control techniques. From here Mark skipped forward to Apollo 13, where actual weightlessness was filmed, and then on to From the Earth to the Moon where Mark himself had a roll as Co-Effects Supervisor. Mark outlined how Earth to Moon made use of both miniatures and computer graphics. In conclusion, Mark explained how the amazing effects used in Gravity were based on the tried and true techniques of the past, but executed with current digital precision.
As a special treat, Mark put the students in the drivers seat on the second day by walking them through the step by step process of how one can take clip art from the Internet and create a realistic animation using the same ideas executed in 2001, except with the ease and access of Photoshop and After Effects.
The New York Film Academy is pleased to announce that Juniko Moody and Mark Sawicki are now Co-Chairs of the 3D Animation Department at the Los Angeles Campus.
Juniko Moody was a production 3D lighting/compositor for Disney Feature Animation and Sony Imageworks. She was also a 2D compositor for Kodak Cinesite and Warner Digital. Juniko transitioned into teaching through corporate 2D and 3D digital training for Dreamworks Feature Animation and other training facilities. Juniko holds a BA from USC Cinema and an MA from CSULA in Industrial Technology with an emphasis in instruction and has taught 3D animation, digital modeling, lighting, adult instructional presentations/course writng and was involved in curriculum design at CSULA, UCLA Extension, College of the Canyons, Westwood College and DeVry University.
Mark Sawicki is a veteran visual effects cameraman with a large body of work including The Terminator, X-Men and The Dark Knight Rises. He has taught for NYFA and UCLA Extension for several years and is a contributing faculty member of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts. Mark is the author of “Animating with Stop Motion Pro” and “Filming the Fantastic” first and second edition, both published by Focal Press.
In addition to co-chairing the 3-D Animation Department, Juniko and Mark will continue to teach animation and visual effects classes in various departments. Juniko and Mark are located at 100 East Tujunga Avenue (Brick Building).