Bob Munroe – Visual Effects Supervisor

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Bob Munroe is a vastly experienced producer, director and visual effects supervisor specialising in live-action and animated feature films.   In the mid-90s he was a founding partner of CORE Digital, a prolific studio in Toronto focusing primarily on producing visual effects and animation for some of the biggest film titles of the last 15 years.  Since 2010 he has been working independently on a wide variety of projects, including his current role directing an animated version of the Beijing Opera here in Shanghai.

I caught up with Bob at the iacc studio in Shanghai.

Are you familiar with the Beijing opera?

By name only.  It’s been inferred that I may have more artistic liberty than I thought I did, but it is a challenge.  It’s easy for me when you say ‘here’s a script and two actors, here’s the story point – now direct them’.  But you give me an opera, where I still don’t understand the subject matter or the lyrics – that’s a tougher nut to crack.

What’s appealing about being in China?

So far my career has been in Western civilization.  Even though I have worked a lot in Europe and in Mexico, the Western culture is all quite similar when you cut down to the chase.  China’s a whole different story – it’s quite unlike anything in Western civilization.  So to bring the experience I’ve had to start to execute work over here is a great opportunity

To be honest, I’m being selfish. I want to get as much back as I’m bringing in.  I’m hoping to learn more about Chinese culture, art, animation, and filmmaking because it’s going to inform my career.  The more I learn the more effective my contribution will be back.

How familiar are you with Chinese animation in terms of the history and it’s current state?

I think I’m more familiar with the current state of Chinese animation having been here a few times and visited a few studios and seen the approach. I’m still looking forward to learning more about the history and the evolution.  There are certainly some great talents coming out of this country.  It’s very exciting.

As a person who has produced animated features and shorts and benefitted from a number of Chinese expats in Canada and their talents and skills, I want to learn more about their backgrounds.

Tell us about the development and beginnings of CORE Digital.

It started in 1994.  At the time I was working on a TV series as a visual effects artist on a series called Tech War that was developed, directed, produced by and starring William Shatner – Captain Kirk in Star Trek.  Bill and I and a couple of visual effects artists who were working with us became friends during the course of Tech War– we all chatted and talked about the need for a visual effects company in Toronto.  At the time there weren’t any.  There were companies doing television commercials, and industrial videos and flying logos for TV stations but none of the companies did long format TV or feature film visual effects, and we came up with the idea of starting one.  We then very quickly got into our first couple of feature films – there was very much a need for a company like that in the mid-90s.

How did the work you were doing evolve over time?

CORE changed dramatically over time.  We started with 4 people in 1994.   The tools that we were using, although they were much more expensive than the tools are today, effectively it was the same process.  At the time we were using a program called Prisms, which evolved into Houdini.

But we started to get bigger projects, and as you start to do that and get a bigger name for yourself, and all of sudden you’re expanding in a way you didn’t expect.  The first movie we worked on was a movie called Johnnie Mnemonic, a big picture for Sony starring Keanu Reeves.  Before we even opened our doors we had the contract to work on that.

Then we moved forward into another feature film called Mimic that was directed by Guillermo Del Toro.   All of a sudden we had our first really big expansion, I think to about 20 or 25 people. But again, still doing the same kind of visual effects work.

Then in the late 90s we were approached by a production company in Toronto called D-Code and they had a new animated series that they wanted to do, but they had no idea how to produce it because it was very stylized, very unique.  It was called Angela Anaconda.  It was almost a cutout collage style of animation. They approached us about doing a test, which we did, as much to get the series financed as for us to get the job.

And then we were an animation company in addition to a visual effects company, so we opened up a division called CORE Toons and went onto to about 5 or 6 different animated series before being approached in 2002 by an old colleague of mine Steve Williams, who was also a Sheridan graduate.  Steve was going to be directing a feature film for Disney and they wanted to produce it in Toronto and talk to me about doing it at CORE.  Before I knew it we were in the middle of doing a full-animated feature for Disney to the tune of tens of millions of dollars budget.  I was the supervising producer on that.  So that then opened our CORE feature Animation division.

All along we were developing live action projects, none of which ever really got off the ground unfortunately, but developing them, optioning rights, putting money into them.  And that was part of the CORE Film Productions groups.

So the company expanded over the course of about 15 years from 4 people to 360 while we were doing The Wild.   A company like that gets a little bit unruly at times and hard to maintain and manage.  So we shut the company in 2010, and that’s when I went out on my own as an independent.

Which of those branches are most enjoyable for you personally?

I love animation and I am a huge admirer of people who are pure character animators.  John Mariella, one of my partners at CORE- that is his specialty.  He is such a brilliant character animator.

But for me personally it was visual effects, and the reason is I love being on a movie set, I love working with actors, I love working with directors, I love being a director, directing actors.  So for me the live action world plays more into my strengths.

I’m a person that needs to be out on location, I need to travel to Dublin to shoot a TV series; I need to travel to Mexico to shoot a movie. That’s part of the very fabric of my being, to have that kind of adventure in my life.

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You’ve directed a number of top actors over the years. Do any stories stand out?

One of the sweetest guys on the face of the planet is the new Superman, Henry Cavill.  I got the opportunity to direct him quite a bit in the Tudors and I’d say to him, ‘Ok, you’re really good looking, you’re a good actor, you’ve got all this money, you’ve got a great car, great girlfriend.  Why cant you be an idiot so I can hate you?!’  You get to know people like that and have fun with them.

Without naming him, there was an interesting experience that I had with a person in a production.  I had to film a scene that was thought to be unnecessary for the production, but then it was decided that it was necessary and by that time the person who had directed that episode had left the production to go into Post.  So I was asked to direct the scene. The morning that I arrived on set I was told that the actor would not come out of his trailer, because he doesn’t think his hair matched what we’d shot a couple of weeks ago so he didn’t want to go out in front of the camera and have hair that mismatched when they cut the scene together.  So I had to get the current cut of that scene on my laptop, take it into his trailer, show him the scene and effectively ‘talk him down off the ledge.’  He finally came out and did the scene.

Those kinds of little quirks working with real actors happen all the time.  They’re a very talented group of people who put everything they’ve got out in the open on camera for everybody to look at and criticize so I understand why they get a little weird.  Even in spite of that I love working with those kinds of challenges.

I thought you were going to say you went in to do his hair.

Haha, yeah, with a pair of scissors and trimmed him up and he was good. No, it was more about playing the psychiatrist.

You’ve worked on so many big name titles.  X-Men is one of the best known.

We had a bunch of different scenes in the movie.  One thing that was very memorable was the map table, where the city would grow out of those little pins.  The whole map table concept was based on those novelty items with the pushpins that make the shape of your hand or face or whatever.

It was an extremely difficult challenge because one of the things that a pin item cannot replicate is something like a bent finger with space underneath. You can’t do that with a city with something like a bridge and leave a solid, impassable layer underneath.  So how do you break the notion of a solid pin and still make it look plausible as if the table could really happen?  The programming alone to create that illusion was a huge challenge, because it had to be what’s called a Procedural Animation rather than Character Animation, meaning the animation was done by a program and not by a human being.  It was a big challenge and a successful effect for the movie.

The Cube has become a cult hit.

There were a lot of notable things about that movie.  The Cube was one of my favourite films to have worked on.  It was my first collaboration with Vincenzo Natali who was the director.  I’ve now done all of his feature films as visual effects supervisor and second unit director.

The fun thing about that was that it was a really, really low budget film.  Vincenzo and his producers came in and pitched the project and asked if CORE would give them a number.  Vincenzo was remarkably well prepared.  He had a film bible with design, storyboard, script, director’s notes and he made a great presentation.  He’s one of the most prepared directors I’ve ever seen.

I spent the weekend and evaluated it.  I think I came up with a number that, if we were to charge full rates, would’ve been about $400,000.  The problem was, it was a student film being done at a school.  I knew that they wouldn’t have the money at all. I saw that this guy was going to be a great filmmaker.  It was Canadian Film Centre, and I wanted to be associated with them.  So we decided to donate the effects.

The Monday following we called the producer, and I said ‘we want to let you know that the visual effects are very costly’.  And he goes, ‘yeah we figured that’.  Then I said ‘but you know, we’re going to give them to you for free’.  You could have heard a pin drop on the other end of the phone –it just knocked the breath out of him.  He asked why we would do it for free, I said ‘well you probably don’t have much money to pay for visual effects, do you?’ and he goes ‘no we have 10,000 bucks’, thinking that was a lot’.

Still to this day they say the reason that movie got made was because we gave the visual effects for free.   That movie was shot in a room that was barely bigger than this green screen.  It was 4 metres by 4 metres by 4 metres.  The brilliance of Vincenzo was changing gels to colour the lights so that it looked like you were traveling from one cube to the next.

How about Splice?

Splice was fantastic. It was one of my favourite films to work on creatively.  It was also directed by Vincenzo Natali.  It was a unique situation in that we were given a large amount of time in prep to work out all the technical challenges before we even got to set, which doesn’t happen very often in the film world. Typically prep isn’t as long as it should be – it’s made for production designers to design the sets and construction to build it, and director to rehearse with the actors, but they don’t give the visual effects crew prep time because its expensive.  You’ve got people who are highly paid, and there are lots of them – programming, modeling, coming up with solutions, whatever – and producers typically don’t think about that to the degree they should.

We had a great producer on Splice by the name of Steve Hoban, and Steve knows visual effects as well as any producer I’ve ever worked with.  He gave us months and months of prep so we could solve all the challenges before getting to set.  So when we got to set, shooting was fairly simple, or relatively, because it’s never easy. I got to work with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley and Delphine Chanéac who played the creature.  I got to direct her so often and she was remarkably talented.

Then I continued on in Post as Visual Effects Supervisor using companies in France, like BUF, Mac Guff and CORE in Toronto.  It was a very collaborative process and everybody did a great job. I think the evolution of the creature in the movie feels natural and I think the quality of the work across all companies that did the visual effects was pretty extraordinary.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Most of my inspiration comes from the opportunity to work with new talented people and getting excited by what that new collaboration is going to be.    That’s the emotional inspiration.

Creative inspiration comes from all sorts of strange places. I live on a piece of property in the country in Ontario and I love to garden.  And as I’m gardening in vegetable gardens and decorative gardens and being out in nature, all of sudden I get tons of creative inspiration from that.  The colours, the form, the shapes.  For me, a guy who works in animation and visual effects, and makes science fiction movies like Splice, to get creative inspiration from a flower is maybe not quite as obvious as you’d think. But nature is a great teacher.

What’s next for you?

Currently I’m working on a movie called Dolphin Tale 2, which is a sequel to Dolphin Tale for which I was Visual Effects Producer for Warner Brothers.  It was a fairly popular family film franchise with Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Junior and Ashley Judd.  I had a movie come out in America a couple of months ago called All is Lost with Robert Redford.  Again for that I was Visual Effects Supervisor. That one I shot in Mexico.  Another one I did in Mexico was Ghosts of the Pacific. One of the stars of that is Tom Felton, who was Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter.  That’s coming out sometime in 2014.  I also produced a couple of short films- one called Frost, another called The Portal that are now making the rounds in festivals.

The industry has changed greatly over the years. What advice would you offer young animators who want to enter the industry now?

It’s always been difficult. The reason is that someone is going to pay you a lot of money to do something and, if they don’t know you, if you have nothing that you can show them, they’re typically not going to want to hand over a lot of cash for you to direct or be a visual effects supervisor or a visual effects artist.

It’s about showing high level of skill, quality and passion, creating work you can use for your demo reel that is, maybe not in great quantity but of extraordinary quality.  If you’re going to be a director, you’ve got to go out and direct something now.  Make a short film. Show you can work with actors, and show that you can direct actors.  Show that you understand how a camera needs to move, or not move.

One of the greatest things about the industry that we’re in is that it’s so collaborative, especially when working with live action. You’ve got to be able to deal with a cinematographer, a production designer.  You have all these challenges and you need to be able to put that team together as a director to support your vision.  If you can show you can do that, then a producer’s going to go, ‘maybe we should give you your first feature’.

If you’re going to be a director in animation, think about things beyond the obvious. You have 3 animated characters in a short film.  As an animation director you might know what to do with the character that’s talking or doing something at that moment, but it’s as valid an exercise to spend just as much time on the characters that are doing nothing, or watching another character talk. What does that character do, when he has nothing to do?

That’s how to set up a scene.  That’s how to stage action.  That’s how to stage your storytelling.  It’s not just about the one entity that’s talking; it’s about the bigger picture.  How do you dress your sets, how do you light, how do you move your camera?  Why do you move your camera?  Because you can?  Or because you should?  So there’s all these things you have to think about to create a smaller quantity of work, but a really high quality piece.  That’ll get you hired.