VFX From Both Sides of the Brain

Mark Stetson traded a career as an industrial designer for a gig creating effects for motion pictures, first for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later for such iconic classics as Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. Now wrapping up work on Superman Returns, Stetson talks about Bob Abel, right brain/left brain thinking, and how to make a superhero fly.
What was the transition like between industrial design and visual effects?
I was a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena when I saw Star Wars, and it was quite a moment of epiphany. It looked more interesting than what I was doing, and yet at that time the visual effects companies were recruiting industrial designers for their problem-solving skills and modeling capabilities. Making the switch, I had to unlearn a lot about precision and accuracy and learn a lot about art and finish.
Who have your influences been?
I can’t help but look to both Doug Trumbull and Richard Edlund as setting me out on my path. I worked for about nine years for the company that began as the remnants of Doug Trumbull’s old company Future General. I ran the model shop from Blade Runner on, and then Richard Edlund took over and it became Boss Films. Bob Abel was also very inspirational to me – he gave me opportunities that were important in my career. I also really like [sculptor Constantin] Brancusi. I like his forms.
What was it like to switch from hands-on to digital tools?
When I had my own company, Stetson Visual Services, many of our clients were big digital companies like Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues. In model work, of course, you’re involved with early planning. I found myself doing a lot of shot-design problem-solving – what elements will be models, matte paintings digital shots. I left Boss Film before it became digital, but the visual effects components I did learn and use gave me a foundation for the understanding of the job. I made an evolutionary shift to incorporate digital tools.
What aspect of VFX creation do you find to be the most artistically satisfying?
I still like shot design. What I enjoy the most is integrating and extending the vision in terms of production design and cinematography. Working on Superman Returns with production designer Guy Dyas and cinematographer Tom Sigel – they have these ideas and visions that are expressed in illustration or in their photographic tests, but you can only build so much on a set or shoot so much with the camera. Everyone wants it to be more and there’s no physical way to do it. That’s where I pick up the ball and run.
What were the challenges in doing the effects for Superman Returns?
First, tradition – making sure that we have a movie that is true to the tradition of the iconic Superman. Two, this is a movie where there’s an awful lot of Superman flying around. He flies by every means available, from huge hydraulic gimbal rigs to digital doubles and even having Superman standing on a box of green screen. It’s good to keep a lot of tricks available so you can find the best solution to the problem. If he were always a digital character, it would be wrong.
How did you create Metropolis?
We did shoot plates in New York just before the snows hit, in early November. Metropolis will be based on New York, just the way the Superman movie was. Like that movie, most of this was shot out of country, so Sydney [Australia] also doubles for Metropolis. But we worked hard to try to incorporate an integrated design of Metropolis throughout the scenes. Only a few streets in Sydney look like New York City at all, and those were pretty heavily extended. The key to me performing my job is to have it look like one city.
Did you draw solutions from work on past features? Were new solutions created?
Every movie has its own spirit, and this movie has a very good one. I don‘t feel like I’m drawing from Lord of the Rings or Peter Pan or anything else I’ve worked on. Those were all experiences that prepared me for this, and this movie prepares me for what follows.
What’s the cutting edge of visual effects today? What effects in movies have you seen recently that you really were impressed by?
I’m the kind of guy that likes to apply tools to solve shot problems rather than invent new tools. I’m not interested in coming up with the latest, coolest thing. For me, it’s more about making the images work. I really liked the effects in Batman Begins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I also really liked Downfall – and I don’t think there were any effects in it at all.
Is the creation of VFX a right-brain or left-brain endeavor?
Yes. It’s both. It’s everything. Industrial design is a bridge between art and technology and so is filmmaking as a whole – wrestling with technology to create art and, in particular, visual effects.