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:

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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: 

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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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Interview with Stunt Performer/Actress Kayla Adams (Deadpool, Oblivion)

It was fun to chat with Kayla Adams, a definite artist on the rise. She gives us the insight on being a female stunt performer on Hollywood productions and moving to working as an actress (who can also do her own stunts!)

Go to www.kaylaadams.co and follow her on twitter @sugarKAYne

kayla_photo.jpgMatthew Toffolo: Oblivion was your first credited film? Quite the introduction: working on a large budget Hollywood film. How did you get initially hired to work on that film? How was the Tom Cruise experience?

Kayla Adams: Oblivion was my first experience on a feature film. I had booked commercials prior to Oblivion, but this was my first time working on a feature for the run of the show. I was like a sponge, soaking everything up. Initially I was hired as the Stunt Department Assistant which provided me with so much inside knowledge of the filmmaking process. As the project went on, the Stunt Coordinators, Robert Alonzo and Joe Box, knew I was very athletic and trained in acting so they threw me into a stunt performing spot that I was physically capable doing. It was a week in New Orleans in an old, leaky, basically condemned power plant. We had to shut down one day due to flooding! And that’s how I got my SAG card! Working with Tom is like being greatly inspired and challenged all at once. His level of dedication, professionalism and creativity is infectious and can only drive you to be the same. The film sets are some of the tightest run sets I’ve worked on, simply because efficiency is the only option when working with Tom. Outside of all the work, he’s truly a kind, welcoming man. Each time I’ve seen him since Oblivion he always welcomes me with a big hug and expresses genuine interest in you. I hope for the day to work on set as an actor with Tom.

PHOTO: Kayla with Tom Cruise, and Stunt Coordinator Robert Alonzo:

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Matthew: How did you get into the stunt game? Did you take an extensive course(s)? How much time do you spend weekly working on your craft?

Kayla: I got into stunts through Oblivion. I grew up doing gymnastics, so strength and flexibility has been in my body since I was a kid. I didn’t pursue stunts as much as I pursued acting; However sometimes the universe gives you a path that you don’t plan for. I train in Martial Arts with Richard Alonzo who is a 3rd degree black belt and is an amazing teacher. Since my last stunt performing gig on Deadpool I have decided to pour my energies back into acting. Trying to excel in stunts and acting is nearly impossible as both crafts require a large amount time. That’s not to say I don’t stay physically fit and prepared for stunt roles, I just don’t actively pursue it as much anymore.

Matthew: As of this interview, the film “Deadpool” is out in theaters. The first blockbuster of 2016. How was that experience? Was it a hush-hush set?

Kayla: Deadpool. That was one heck of an experience. I am so grateful to be apart of that project. There was so many moments when I had to hold back laughter between the banter with TJ Miller and Ryan Reynolds characters. The bar fight scene where I played the waitress, Kelly, was one of those moments. TJ kept improving new lines and I was trying my hardest not to crack up each time. Working with the director, Tim Miller, and the writers, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, was an honour. They are so talented and dedicated to their work, yet stay so humble and make coming to work each day a pleasure.

Again, I worked on it for the run of the show so the amount of time and passion put into this film was huge. Being apart of the cast and crew for that many months developments a bond and comfortability that you just don’t get when you walk on as a day player. The set etiquette with privacy and keeping things quiet was similar to many big budget films I’ve worked on. However there was one particular paparazzi that continually followed us around snapping photos of Ryan in the red suit. But I hate to break it to the paps, it was most likely our stunt double in the same suit!

PHOTO: Kayla on set on Deadpool:

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Matthew: You are also an actor (without the stunts). Is acting where you see your future in Hollywood?

Kayla:  I can say a line or two 😉 Yes acting is definitely where my future is. I just finished shooting a feature film called HEX where I play a character who is a super talented skydiver about to stumble into a stream of bad luck. Keep your eyes open for that project! Over the past few years, my passion and love for the craft and the business has really developed and become my main focus.

Matthew: What’s it like being a female in the “boys” club of the stunt performers on set?

Kayla: Haha…well… Speaking only for myself, I love it! I’m a bit of a tomboy myself so it can be fun hanging out with a bunch of guys all day. I think sometimes they are shocked when they hear me crack jokes with them, but in reality I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the best stunt performers in the business and they are all very respectful and kind hearted people. I am lucky to be apart of the boys club 🙂

Matthew: We are seeing a lot more female driven action/thriller films being produced in Hollywood. One would assume that is good for you because they obviously need female stunt performers. Is the future bright for female stunt performers like yourself?

Kayla: There’s a bright future for myself being the Female lead in these action thriller films! That would be my dream role. I love strong, badass female characters with heart. And the bonus is I could do most of my own stunts. Thats if the studio lets me 😉

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

Kayla: It tends to vary depending on what I’m feeling at that time in my life. The movies I gravitate towards generally mirror something I’m going through or needing to see. Generally speaking, I love the film “It’s Complicated” with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.

Matthew: “The Woods” is another film you worked on that is also coming out in 2016. Can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect? What was your role on that film?

Kayla: The Woods was a super creepy set! They built the cabin inside a sound stage and it felt so real. The stunt coordinator, Loyd Bateman, called me in to double the lead actress. It was a sequence in the cabin and involved a lot of blood! I don’t think I can say much else, other than IT’S GOING TO BE SCARY!!

Matthew: Have you had any minor or major injuries working as a stunt performer?

Kayla: Thankfully no.

Matthew: What’s the biggest high risk stunt you’ve performed to date?

Kayla: Oddly enough, some of the smallest stunts can become high risk. Not to minimize the risk of any stunt at any level, but there is always a large amount of risk involved. I haven’t had to perform something where I felt it was out of my ability that could be deemed as “high risk.” I’ve been selective with that as acting is my main focus now and that plays a huge part when taking stunt jobs.

Matthew: Do you have a stunt that you love to perform in a movie that you haven’t performed yet?

Kayla: DRIVING/CAR CHASE SEQUENCE!

PHOTO: Kayla performing Stunts on set:

kayla_stunts

 

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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 Festival 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.

Interview with Stunt Performer James Cox (Star Wars VII, The Dark Knight Rise)

A stunt performer, often referred to as a stuntman or daredevil, is someone who performs dangerous stunts for the Film and TV industry.

James Cox has worked on over 40 productions as a stunt performer in just the last 6 years of his young career. He’s been a part of the most popular and iconic films and TV shows too, including: Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Downton Abbey, Wrath of the Titans, The Impossible, Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, World War Z, Spectre and of course Star Wars: Episode VII.

I was thrilled to be able to ask him a few questions about his job and career.

Matthew Toffolo: First off, we need to talk about Star Wars as you were a part of what is going to be the most popular movie of all-time. What was your role in “The Force Awakens”? How many days did you work on set? Did you have to sign a confidentiality agreement after you left set? 

James Cox: I was fortunate enough to join the Star Wars stunt team after finishing work on Avengers: Age of Ultron in late 2014. Its well known that security on the set of The Force Awakens was unprecedented but rightly so, the film was so highly anticipated that any leak from the set would have undoubtably ruined elements of the story that the whole crew were working to keep top secret.

Matthew: Have you suffered a lot of injuries doing stunts? If so, what has been your worst injury?

James:  To date I’ve not had any serious accidents; thats not to say we all don’t get bashed up pretty regularly, in fact thats actually part of the fun.  You can’t really fall down stairs, jump through glass, get hit by cars or get set on fire without getting bruised, cut or a little bit burnt here and there.  I’ve had friends badly injured, one recently, that was involved in a very serious accident on set which was featured in a lot of media outlets, she ( Olivia Jackson) is now starting out on the long road to recovery [ There’s a fund currently running to help Olivia in her recovery. Go to https://www.gofundme.com/UNITED49 ] As an industry we definitely need to learn the benefits of learning from failure.
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Matthew: How did you get into the stunt performer game? Was there extensive training involved? 

James: I was planning to go to university and it was while on a year out to work and earn some money that I decided to follow a childhood ambition and trying to become a stunt performer.  The JISC stunt register is the world most well established body of professional stunt performers and the training is definitely extensive, ranging from Marital arts, scuba diving, gymnastics, rock climbing, horse riding, rally driving to trampolining.  Needless to say I didn’t end up going to university and after training for 4 years in six different discipline I qualified and joined the elite ranks of the British Stunt Register.

Matthew: What type of skills do you have as a stunt performer? 

James: There are a number of sporting disciplines which you need to complete to qualify for the JISC Stunt Register but there are also number of elements which I believe are essential to become a solid stunt performer; including having a good sense of timing, a professional attitude, a commitment to working as a team player and the ability to learn and adapt quickly….even changing your physical performance from one take to the next.  The skills you learn to qualify for the Register don’t necessarily make you a good performer but they do give you the very best starting point.

James: Physically, working on Edge of Tomorrow (Which was named All You Need Is Kill during shooting) was very hard work.  For the main beach landing battle sequence we wore 40kg-50kg ‘exo suits’ which looked like mechanised exoskeleton suits, they were designed to look like they would assist the soldiers to run, jump and fight at superhuman ability, the reality was they were a combination of metal, plastic, nuts, bolts and cable ties which the stunt team had to make look like they were effortlessly wearing to fight the alien invaders. To make matters worse we were fighting on a bombed beach…imagine playing tag on sand dunes while giving someone a piggyback!

As for emotionally, I’m not too sure.  Each job has its own set of challenges and finding yourself in unnatural or uncomfortable situations without letting your natural instincts get in the way of your performance is definitely a challenge of the job. On Wrath of the Titans  (2011) a few of us were buried face down (in what was essentially a grave) with a small breathing tube which was removed a few minutes before “action” was called. We had to burst out from the ground and ambush an attacking army of monsters, those minutes lying there, sightless, soundless and unable to move would be a lot of peoples idea of a living hell.  I’ve definitely found myself in a number of situations where I’ve thought to myself “…well, this is pretty surreal”
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Matthew: I see that you worked on Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show and don’t remember many stunts. Can you tell us what you did on the show? 

James: haha yeah thats right, I was on an episode of Downton.  You’d be surprised at the number of stunt performers required for tv shows/films which you wouldn’t think of as having much action. Downton Abbey was actually one of my first jobs, I was used as a stunt double for the actor Thomas Howes, in the 2nd series his character had gone to fight in World War One and I doubled him for a sequence where he got blown up by a shell.  I also performed various stunts as British and Germany soldiers, getting shot and blown up.

Matthew: What do you look for in a solid stunt performer partner? 

James: Me personally, I definitely enjoy working with someone who I feel has good timing, without it, you could be the very best athlete in the world but if you can’t hit that mark, when your told too then you’re never going to get it right.  Often that means adapting to changing timings on the fly. For example: if an actor has totally changed the timing of a fight routine, because they feel it is right to take an ‘acting beat’ then its up to you to adapt to that and be there when they need you to be…not the other way round!  Of course it almost goes without saying that you definitely need to trust your fellow performer. One huge advantage to the training needed for the stunt register is that no matter your background, we can trust that newly qualified performers can work under pressure have a high level of physical ability.
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Matthew: Do you have a stunt performer mentor? 

James: Not a mentor as such, but there are definitely certain performers which I aspire to be like. Working as a stunt performers is an ever changing job so I most admire the stunt men and women that can learn and adapt to new skills quickly.

Matthew: How was working on The Dark Knight Rises? Another movie that was very “hush-hush” during filming?

James: It was another massive tick on my wish list for a number of reasons – while I only did a small amount of work on The Dark Knight it was amazing to see director Christopher Nolan at work, as well as the high calibre actors which appear in the Batman series.  The stunt coordinator and stunt team on the Dark Knight were also a collection of some of the worlds best stunt men and women so it was a huge opportunity for me to learn.
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Matthew: What movie, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life? 

James: As a kid I watched a re-watched Jurassic Park so many times that I would dream about being on the Island myself! I don’t get a lot of time to re-watch films but most recently I’ve seen Ex Machina a few times (I also read the original script which is very different from the final screenplay, but brilliant none the less!)

Matthew: Do you have a stunt performer or director that you’d love to work with? 

James: There are a couple of well known directors which I’d love to see working in person.  Tarantino and Spielberg are legends and it would be great to work for them, for obvious reasons.  Fortunatley I’m soon to begin to work on the new project of director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and with Brick being one of my favourite films I’m very excited to work with him. To date I’ve been luck enough to work under some incredible directors (Danny Boyle was definitely a highlight!) but I’m always interested to work for anyone, they can all have such different ways to go about achieving the same goals its always fascinating.
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Matthew: What is the main difference when working on a television show like Game of Thrones in comparison to a big studio film like Skyfall and Star Wars?

James: Normally the biggest two elements are budget and time. Films usually have a lot more of both, I say normally because your example of Game of Thrones is actually one of the exceptions to the rule, GoT actually operates a bit more like 3 films than a small tv series; shot simultaneously across multiples countries and with a huge budget its much more like a film than a tv series.

As a stunt performer there are a couple of differences but the standard of performer is the same – you’ll get the same stuntmen/stuntwomen working on a small tv show and the biggest film from one week to the next.
On films we often get more time to prep a stunt or stunt sequence and there might be more elements involved, fire explosions, pneumatic ratchets, air-rams etc where are with tv, you might (not always) only have that day to prepare for a stunt.

Often films employ a full time team of stunt performers to work on the full duration of the film whereas tv will normally employ performers specifically for one sequence where the work could be a few weeks, or even just one day.

Matthew: Where do you see the future of green-screen stunt performing in the motion pictures? 

James: Great question!  As a performer I can only give my personal opinion and perhaps coordinators would give you a different answer but I feel that while clearly there are huge advances being made in CGI there will still be a place for physical performers.  I feel that for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, people are experts at detecting unnatural movements from CGI characters – we spend our whole life observing other humans walking, running, maybe falling over, we know how our own bodies work in the real world and until CGI can get the very smallest nuances of human physical movement past the brains detection system I think people will always react badly to seeing ‘CGI stunt performers.’ (See the uncanny valley hypothesis)  Secondly, people like to know that someone really did do a stunt.  In fact, as you can see from some of the media coverage given to Mission Impossible and The Force Awakens a lot of attention was given to the fact that real people were standing on real sets and this extends to real stunts.  One of the selling points of the hugely successful Bond franchise is that the stunts are real and there is minimal CGI, the same goes for the recent Mad Max: Fury Road film which is currently nominated for a massive 10 Oscars….none for best stunt co-ordinator, but thats a discussion for another interview…!
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For fund raising efforts for the injured Stunt Performer Olivia Jackson, go to https://www.gofundme.com/UNITED49

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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.