Interview with Special Effects Coordinator Donnie Dean (Emmy Winner – American Horror Story)

A special effects coordinator is an individual who works on a television or film set creating special effects. The supervisor generally is the department head who defers to the film’s director and/or producers, and who is in charge of the entire special effects team. Special effects include anything that is manual or mechanically manipulated (also called “practical effects” or in camera effects). This may include the use of mechanized props, special effects makeup, props, scenery, scale models, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects: creating physical wind, rain, fog, snow, clouds etc.

Interview with Donnie Dean: 

Matthew Toffolo: “10 Cloverfield Lane” is set to hit the theatres this week. Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? How was your experience working on the film?

Donnie Dean: Unfortunately we’re bound to confidentiality before a film comes out in theaters. I can say we didn’t know until everyone else in the world that it was to be 10 Cloverfield. It was called Valencia up until then and no one knew it was related to Cloverfield at all.

PHOTO: Effects in the film “10 Cloverfield Lane”

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Matthew: Explain the process of being a Special Effects Foreman and Coordinator. What is your job description?

Donnie: To become a Special Effects foreman a person must demonstrate a certain level of competence and management experience. This is gained through years of learning the trade and being mentored by people who have been in the industry for some time, some of them for several decades. When you start in the business, you must earn the respect and trust of these professionals. Once you have that they will generally teach you anything you are willing to put in the effort to learn. Its all about attitude and persistence.

My current job description is Operations Coordinator for Spectrum FX. I’m responsible for the day to day operations for whatever films or television shows we are working on. Usually I’ll take on different roles depending on what the projects require, from “consulting” with the SPFX Coordinator who is running the project to acting as SPFX Coordinator or Foreman personally. The job requires knowledge of budgets, schedules, and most importantly how the Effects on the show are to be done and when. About eighty percent of the time I copy Matt Kutcher (FX Supervisor) on emails and/or photos and videos of the planned Effects for his input or approval. He has almost 3 decades of experience so his input is extremely valuable.

Matthew: You were the Special Effects Coordinator on the landmark TV series “True Detective”. How was your set experience? During the production did you and the crew know you were doing something special?

Donnie: True Detectives brings back memories of sweating buckets in the sauna that is New Orleans in the summer. Carey Fukunaga is very specific about what he wants to see, which helps in planning the Effects on a show. This was the first show in which we filmed the whole season as if it were one huge feature, so keeping up with the schedule was a bit of a challenge. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are both really strong actors, watching them perform in person was really amazing.

I would say it’s very difficult to judge how “special” a film is when you’re actually creating it. They all feel special in various ways sometimes only because you work so closely with so many really great people, and it can be sad to see all the heart that goes into a film like “Beautiful Creatures” or “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” and then it doesn’t really see success in theaters.

PHOTO: Matthew McConaughey in True Detective Season 1:

truedetectiveseason1.jpg

Matthew: You’ve worked on over 50 productions in the last 8 years alone. That’s amazing. Do you have a favorite experience?

Donnie: The final episode of American Horror Story: Coven was one of my favorites. We had to perform virtually every effect from the entire season in one night of shooting. The biggest moment for us was the tracking shot of Emma Roberts in the bathtub when the camera comes in and you see the fireplace light, then the bubbles fill the tub, and with a wave of her hand the candles on the floor light spontaneously. There was no VFX required in that shot, although it took 3 takes to get the timing right. Between the time it takes to ignite a fireplace and the bubbles filling a tub alone its a very difficult thing to provide cues. The call goes to the technicians ear (because he can’t see the set) then there is a delay to his hand moving the valves, and then the time for the propane to travel to the ignition source. There is a similar process for every mechanical effect. The whole crew cheered on the last one, they had seen the process as we developed these effects over the 6 months we filmed, on that last day it took literally 8 technicians on set to accomplish everything. Making a candle light on its own is an “impossible” practical effect to achieve all by itself, if its ever been done we don’t know of the instance but we did it over and over throughout the season. It was just a perfect end to that show.

PHOTO: American Horror Story: Coven. Emma Roberts bathtub scene: 

americanhorrorcoven

Matthew: What job have you performed on set that you’re most proud of? Your crowning achievement to date?

Donnie: The job I’m most proud of is without a doubt the Emmy Award for American Horror Story: Freak Show. We spent a lot of time on so many details that showed up but are not so obviously Practical Effects. From the tents moving a little because they are supposed to be outside instead of inside a stage to spending days on the display tanks for the “freaks” to be in for the museum, it’s the little things things no one really recognizes as Practical Effects that help a set come to life.

I can’t really say it is “my” achievement however, as much as it was an achievement for everyone who has ever trained me or worked with me from day one. More than anyone, I think it reflects on Matt who has mentored me personally for the last seven years, being available every single day 24/7 on both a personal and professional level.

Matthew: You have also done some Stunt Driving too. How does one become a stunt driver?

Donnie: To become a real stunt driver requires time, training, and experience. I’ve worked with quite a few and am far from being a “professional stunt driver” by definition. I managed to get into it on True Detectives because we constructed a driving module on top of the car. As the actors were inside performing the car was driven from outside the vehicle, we constructed the “driving pod” and I was familiar with its operation so it was an easy step into driving the car.

Matthew: What do the Special Effects team look for in their director?

Donnie: The more details a director provides, the better. I think the same is true with all departments. For us the more interactive and approachable the director is, the easier it is to achieve the desired effect. As a matter of process we do demonstrations of the more specific effects to be used in a show and rely on the director’s feedback to make changes.

Matthew: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

Donnie: It’s hard to name one specifically, I’ve watched The Fifth Element so many times I know each frame, and the same with Tombstone. It would have to be a tie between those two.

Matthew: What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry in special effects?

Donnie: The first thing is to find a mentor or a group to work with, you go in humble and you just do what is asked. Nobody really cares how cool you are or what you “know how to do”. You do what is asked and you do it to the very best of your ability every time.

It’s the same as for any industry. You have to really enjoy what you do, so much so that you don’t care about the money. You really have to give yourself over to it just like a Doctor in Medical School, it has to become the most important thing for a while. You don’t know what day that moment will come when you get the call and everything has to go on hold because it’s your opportunity. We work 12-14 hour days 5-6 days per week, you won’t even know what day of the week it is, much less if its a birthday or anniversary, and NO ONE understands why from your “real life”. You can’t RSVP to anything…well you can but you might have to cancel. There are a LOT of people who think they want to work in film in general, but its not for everyone.

If it is for you, then you show up every day, and show up on days you’re not getting paid, somewhere, anywhere there is a person who can teach you. You do jobs to demonstrate what you can do, if you are asked to sweep you smile and sweep better than any person ever could. If you’re asked to dig a hole its the neatest hold ever dug with the dirt that came out of it is on a tarp all nice and neat. You always say yes with a smile even if its fake. Once that door is open you never walk back out of it unless you’re sure you don’t care if you’re there or not. Because right outside is another guy like me that can’t wait to get in there and nail that door shut because he wants it worse than you, and if it takes 6 months of sweeping a shop or cleaning trailers for free, and doing other side jobs just to survive and be present, then that’s what he’ll do. The money and success will come if the passion and persistence are there.

One of my favorite quotes is from Will Smith to the point of “other people may have more talent and skill than you, but there is no excuse for anyone to outwork you.”

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.
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