Female Filmmaker Friday: A conversation with VFX artist Davi Stein

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May 11, 2018

Welcome to Female Filmmaker Friday, a new series from SYFY FANGRRLS devoted to celebrating women in film in all of their various roles—both in front of and behind the camera! This week, we spoke to VFX artist Davi Stein, who has worked on some of the biggest genre films around, from The Dark Knight to The Matrix Revolutions.

Every time you see a movie, you're probably witnessing some visual effects in action, be they intense fight sequences in a Marvel movie, aliens attacking humans in sci-fi, or even something as simple as the smoke from a cigarette in a drama. VFX has become as integral a part of the filmmaking process as costume, sound, and other creative aspects of production, but it is an industry still dominated by men.

At last year's Visual Effects Society Awards, Marvel's Victoria Alonso said as she collected the Visionary Award, “Tonight there were 476 of you nominated. Forty-three of which are women. We can do better.”

One of the women doing better is Davi Stein, who has a career spanning over 15 years, working on movies like The Dark Knight, The Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Now she's inspiring more women to take up the craft and is passing on her profound knowledge to students by teaching them the art of VFX, game art, and animation at Escape Studios, part of Pearson College in London, as Head of Compositing (2D). Compositing is the combining of visual elements from separate sources into single images, which makes it look like all those elements are part of the same scene— from the smoke surrounding Batman as he walks down an alley to even the removal of a mustache (hey, Superman!).

FANGRRLS sat down with Stein to discuss her career, what it's like working on tentpole movies, and what she sees as the future of VFX in pop culture.

How did you get into the VFX business?

When I started, there weren't many schools at all that were teaching this, and it was more just early computer graphics. I was a photography major from the States, so I studied in New York and I knew I wanted to get into film somehow. I first thought it was going to be through cinematography, and I did continue photography, but then I started to explore editing and filmmaking. At the time there were lots of women in film editing, where they were physically cutting up and splicing the film, so I started to look into that and learn about the other visual aspects, like visual effects and the post-production side of things, so as I continued I basically learned on the job.

Was it difficult for you as a woman to get into it at that time?

I went through the early positions back then, but it was a bit different for women. I was able to learn as a receptionist, sitting, reading manuals, but I had a lot of mentors who were able to teach me a lot of the technical side as well as the physical side of all the different software. I wish I had the options that students at Escape Studios at Pearson College have now, because it's not easy software to learn.

When you're hired for a job, how long does it usually take until completion?

There's quite a long pipeline of different aspects of the industry. And something like Game of Thrones would be quite different to, say, The Dark Knight. Obviously, their quality would be extremely high on Game of Thrones, but as an artist, a TV show's big hero shots would take about a week if you're lucky, for the 2D or 3D department. On a movie, as a compositor, you might be working on several different shots at the same time as part of the same sequence, so 10 or 15 shots, and I'd probably be working on them for about three, four months. Obviously, TV shows like Game of Thrones want the same quality, but they don't have the same sort of time or budget.

Davi worked on Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.)

Speaking of The Dark Knight, what was that experience like?

Oh, it was amazing. The team that I worked with on some of the IMAX plates [the actual footage that was shot], for us compositors, the level of detail that has to be achieved is unbelievable. I remember the first time they got the team together and they brought us to the IMAX in London, and they showed us the opening sequence that didn't have any visual effects at this point, and it was shot with this massive IMAX camera. The minute the first image came up we gasped, because we realized how much detail there was in the image compared to your average camera. Even though there were long hours and it sometimes felt like watching paint dry, because I'm looking at it constantly, but by the end and seeing it in IMAX resolution it was like, wow.

Did you work directly with Christopher Nolan?

He's very involved. He has a very close relationship with Double Negative (the VFX company), but with the sheer number of artists working on a project like this, I didn't see him necessarily. 

Is there a particular movie or scene in a movie that you've worked on that you're most proud of?

It's hard to pick out one. I think for me and my career I think The Matrix 2 and 3, and I did more work on 3, but I loved the first Matrix. That's what convinced me to get into visual effects. We were all very passionate and dedicated to making it look as cool as possible. The Zion sequence from the third Matrix, the big kind of final battle at the end, it was a lot of fun, and so many different elements. There was map painting, there were miniatures for particular parts that we had to integrate with the CGI, there were green screens, there was almost every single kind of task as a compositor that we could challenge.

There's talk of a Matrix reboot — what could they possibly do to outdo the original franchise?

These days, VFX companies are pushing the boundaries both visually and technically, so I think that's going to be a really big challenge. They've done the bullet time (dodging bullets in slow motion), but I think it's going to be pretty challenging to top Doctor Strange, because you've got the folding cities and all that. It's the ideas and the storyline that's going to drive it, and hopefully the technology can keep up with it in that sense. I'd love to be a part of it if I could!

Are there any movies that you weren't impressed with VFX-wise?

The first Transformers film was cool, it's a lot of fun and all that stuff. It's not my kind of film, but I did see it. But there was so much happening, and that's one of the film critics' views, that there is so much visually going on. How do you get the viewer to follow the story and look at what they are supposed to look at?

What was the first movie you worked on?

Legally, I probably can't say! But I had to remove some bags from a person and they were crying a lot in a scene, and I had to put some tears back on so it was actually pretty difficult! 

It's interesting, because you don't think much about basic things like that that VFX plays a part in.

That's probably one of the reasons why I pursued compositing, because a large part of it is about what they call "invisible effects." Some of that is set extensions, some of that is removing bags or adding more beauty enhancements, or things like that for commercials, but even if it's big stuff like The Matrix, big visual films, I've not done my job properly if they don't believe that the smoke physically coming around the character is real.

You also worked on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. What was that like?

Harry Potter was really my introduction to working with visual effects in London. I came on towards the end of the project and the sequence that I was on was the Hall of Prophecies, and that was a lot of fun. It was much harder than it looks, because the designing of the prophecy was very difficult, it went through a lot of iterations. People on my team were constantly going through "look dev" [look development]. They were kind of deciding how visual or apparent the actual face swarming inside the sphere in the close-up shots were versus the other types of shots where they are running down the halls. Because it's such a small element of the final shot, it's really about giving each of those prophecies a life of their own.

Do your students go straight into the industry after they graduate?

Most of my students, if not all, work in the industry. I've had some that have finished the short course and gone on to work on Inception, at appropriate levels, but they're in the industry. Others have gone to work on Interstellar, Gravity, as well as at Framestore.

What's the future for VFX?

Obviously, a lot of people are talking about VR and machine learning, but much more talk is on augmented reality (AR). That's where you're seeing your environment, your living room, table, and floor, but superimposed are the different images. VR game is a big thing, and that's going to continue, but I think the experiences that people are wanting to do, even though it's still quite expensive, is to have that full tactile sense. You've got the goggles on, but you can physically touch a rock or the floor and get that very haptic response.

So Ready Player One's OASIS is the future?

Probably!