DIGITAL VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR -

JOHN SWINNERTON

John started in June 1981 as a trainee Rostrum and Aerial Image cameraman with Hugh Gordon Ltd. Since then he has worked full time for five other companies over the past 34 years, the most recent one being at Peerless Camera Company, where he has been for the last 23 years. For 14 years he was a motion control lighting cameraman and operator, starting at Geoff Axtell and Associates, MPC and finally Peerless. These days his job covers everything from 2D composting, 3D xsi, element shooting, working on-set and as a main project visual effects supervisor.
 

John’s most credits include: ‘Prince of Persia’, ‘Edge of Darkness’, ‘King Kong’, ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘The Legend of Zorro’ amongst many others.

HISTORY:

HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY?

Since the age of six I fell in love with model animation and special effects. I was influenced by ‘King Kong’, ‘Camber Wick Green’ and ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. In 1967 I discovered the name of Ray Harryhausen and desperately tried to find any information about him. I remember a publicity photo from ‘One Million Years BC’ in a magazine called Titbits. In 1969 I stayed up and watched a TV program called ‘Cinema’ that had a half hour interview with him in his office at his home. Thirty years later having met, worked and became friends with him, I reminded him of the interview, while standing in the same room.

In 1971, on my 11th birthday, I received a Polaroid Swinger2 camera and the first photo was of the dog, the second was a split screen of the dog, making two dogs. At 14 I progressed to Standard 8mm and started animating and it was a film I made in 1976 that got me a place at West Surrey College of Art and Design on what was then, the only animation course in the country.
Having completed the course, a chance meeting with an ex-student, Glen Habgood, got me my only job interview with Hugh Gordon. I left college on the Friday and started on the Monday, working as an animation rostrum and optical effects cameraman.

 

WHAT ONE SKILL OR PERSONAL ATTRIBUTE WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE BIGGEST FACTOR AS TO WHY YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

The main skill or attribute that personally got me here today, was a ravenous thirst for technical information. I found a book when I was 12 called ‘The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography’ by Raymond T. Fielding, and once sourced from the public library, I not only read it daily, I held on to that copy till I was 18! Today the skills required for digital work change constantly as software becomes more sophisticated. In order to continue you have to keep learning.

 

STUDENTS:

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A CV/EMAIL FROM STUDENTS TRYING TO BREAK IN TO THE BUSINESS?

Students CVs above all have to be honest. A person’s greatest asset is knowing their limitations at the time. There is nothing wrong with having ambition and dreams of doing certain types of work, but the reality is opportunities are few and far between. In order to realise your dreams, you may find you have to create the situations yourself by making a film. I do find it amazing the number of students I meet who have never made a film of their own and today it is so much easier than it ever was. Working on a film and making a film are two very different experiences. Watching old films of all types can only add to understanding of the media. Only watching effects laden or driven films will stunt growth and knowledge.
 

WHAT MISTAKES DO YOU SEE STUDENTS MAKING THAT ARE COMING UP IN YOUR FIELD? EITHER IN COMMUNICATIONS OR IN THEIR WORK.

I have been told by many students that at the end of their courses they are told they are the best there is and you now know most of what is needed to get a good job in a high position. This can and has produced a lot of arrogance and bad attitude that is easily spotted and not appreciated. The reality is very different. Pulling a green or blue screen key from a perfectly lit image is one thing, from a screen that is dirty, underexposed, colour contaminated from lights, flapping in the wind is another. Another thing is, students don’t seem to look! By that I mean looking at the world surrounding them, how light and objects react to one and other, as well as being self critical of their own work and accepting criticism from others. Each shot you get to work on will have a version number usually starting at v001. By the end you may be at v068 or higher so get used to other people opinions and acting upon them.
 

INDUSTRY:

WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE AND OUTLOOK ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE INDUSTRY? ALSO, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU BEGAN AND HOW HAS THIS IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK?

The industry changes with every project. There is now NO constant. With film, you had one medium that worked all the way, from exposure, through development, to printing. Once understood, easy to work with. Today, with digital cameras, each show has a new camera, which has a new chip, which has a new format, which has a new codec, which has to be viewed in a certain way, that looks different on a Mac to a Linux PC , that is projected with a new LUT, that has a new grading cube system, that needs to be viewed with and without REC709 etc.

The industry has changed beyond recognition over the last 10 years. The new compositing software out there makes the work so much easier, however the working practises on-set can make the work even harder. For example, a blue screen shoot on film that needed to be composited on an optical printer, had to be exposed within an eighth of a stop for it to work. Today the same rule applies and when done makes post production faster and cheaper. However, time on set is often never there or allocated because they know we can fix it in post.
 

ON SET/IN YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT:

CAN YOU OFFER ANY ON SET/PRACTICAL HINTS AND TIPS?

Hurry up and wait! The working on set unwritten law. It can be a great place to gain knowledge about the working practice of other departments. It can be exciting and terrifying. As an example, I once spent all day waiting for extras to be released to me for a two hour green screen shoot. I ended up having to use a DSLR and had 30 minutes, with the producer screaming we have to be finished in 25 minutes or we pay over time to the extras. I finished in 20. When on set, be polite and you must know what you are talking about. If you are asked a question, be positive in your reply, otherwise it will be quickly recognised that you are inexperienced and lose confidence from the crew. Always look busy, make notes, read the script, understand the sides and be clear on the days shoot.
 

WHAT “DO’S AND DON’TS” WOULD YOU SUGGEST? MAYBE WORKING WITH OTHERS OR SOMETHING YOU LIKE TO DO ON SET TO MAKE THINGS EASIER?
Do listen, don’t ignore.

 

WHEN YOU ARE FIRST BROUGHT ON TO A PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS AND PROCESSES?

First thoughts on any script are what is the budget, what is the deadline and is the project possible within those constrains? Next is to try and identify all processes and problems as soon as possible.
 

ADVICE AND MISTAKES:

WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Best advice came from Bob Godfrey, the first rule of animation, is that there are no rules.

 

WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE?
Best advice I can give is to know where you are going, have a direction of where you want to end up. Hone your skills on as many topics as possible. Make a film and do as much as possible yourself. Learn to listen.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BLUNDER?
My most memorable blunder, not taking advantage of an opportunity in 1984 to direct several pop videos for a major record label. I simply did not have the confidence.

© 2018 by Paul Dudbridge. Bristol, UK

© 2018 Michael Wiese Productions
12400 Ventura Blvd., #1111
Studio City, CA 91604

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