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”

10cloverfieldlane.jpg

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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Interview with Special Effects Supervisor Daniel Acon (Zoolander 2, Gangs of New York, Passion of the Christ)

A special effects supervisor (also referred to as a special effects coordinator or SFX Supervisor) is an individual who works on a film set creating special effect. 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.

What a great pleasure it was to chat with the extremely talented SFX Supervisor Daniel Acon. What talked about his career, being Italian and American, and having the honor of blowing up the orange Lamborghini in Mission Impossible III!

Matthew Toffolo: Explain the process of being a Special Effects Supervisor/Coordinator. You get hired on a film – what happens next? Do you break down the script with the director and/or producer and figure out what effects are needed on a given scene? 

Daniel Acon: The production journey of a SFX supervisor usually starts by being contacted by the production company. I am given the script by the producer with whom I will discuss the production goals and guidelines for the feature. The director will then tell me the specifics for special effects of many shots and we will discuss on how to do them.

Once having gathered all the preliminary information and broken down the script I  meet with the production designer and take on board all his input, now the script must be broken down in a cost budget. The budget will be presented to the producers and then we will have a final budget meeting where the costs are to be set.

Matthew: Are you also in charge of breaking down the special effects budget and hiring the crew needed for your department?

Daniel: One must firstly work a breakdown. It is essential for me to do a script breakdown as supervisor I have to submit a Special Effects breakdown and budget. The budget must reflect all costs for the movie, from the preparation to filming and the wrap. Crew, fabrication, materials, equipment rental, transport and the list goes on and on, all these costs must be calculated.

Matthew: You were born in Italy, parents were American, and you mainly do most of your work for Hollywood productions in Italy. Do you consider yourself being an American or Italian first? 

Daniel: I consider myself both Italian and American, it is also a great mix for my work being a very American minded practical thinker and on the other half working with very creative and innovative Italian special effects crews.

Matthew: You’ve had the pleasure to work with some top directors: Spike Lee. Martin Scorsese. JJ Abrams. Ron Howard. Woody Allen. Ridley Scott. Wes Anderson. Francis Ford Coppola (your first film). That’s quite this list. Is there a director that stands out for you in terms of your working relationship with them? 

Daniel: Every director has a specific vision for their project and gets quite involved with our department, it has been a pleasure to work with all of them. I think that the directors who

Got mostly involved in our work have been Mel Gibson, Wes Anderson and very much on my last one, Zoolander 2 with Ben Stiller.

PHOTO: Daniel Acon rigging the cross on the Passion with Mel Gison behind him:

daniel_acon-special-effects.jpg

Matthew: You’ve worked as a Special Effects Coordinator on over 25 films. What has been your favorite working experience so far? 

Daniel: I was so fortunate to have worked on so many films that I have all enjoyed. The Stallone movies were amazing first Cliffhanger shot in the Dolomites for 5 months going to set in the morning on a Huey chopper and dropped off on the mountain tops and not far after Daulight where we had to rebuild half of New York including building in full scale the Hudson tunnel and having to flood it with hot water since we were shooting in winter. Said that Gangs of New York was the most rewarding and fantastic show I have done, so much work but all worth it.

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

Daniel: I am a very big Fellini fan but I can re-watch any Scorsese or Tarantino movie for ever.

Matthew: How is your safety record on set? Any unfortunate major injuries?

Daniel: Safety is paramount on set, I can gladly say for me and all my crews that we have never experienced any unfortunate experiences. When working with explosives, steam, fire, heavy mechanics and hydraulics one must be vigilant and highly trained. There are moments when one can be rushed to get the shot but safety is first,

Matthew: I chatted with 1st Assistant Director Mathew Dunne about Mission Impossible III, a film you also worked on. He mentioned the stunt driving scenes being some of the hardest scenes he’s ever worked on. What are your experiences doing those scenes in Italy and adding your special effects to the shots? 

Daniel: On Mission Impossible lll we had the delightful task of blowing up that beautiful orange Lamborghini. I must say that has become a culty classic.

PHOTO: On set shot when the Lamborghini blows up: daniel_acon_blow_up.jpg

Matthew: Do you have a special effects mentor? 

Daniel: I must say that I have had the great opportunity to work with so many amazing people but one of the greats was Joe Lombardi a real gentle man and special effects giant of the times when CGI was not invented, he signed movies like the Godfather 1 & 2 and Apocalypse Now.

Matthew: What is the future of special effects in film? 

Daniel:  I think that practical special effects will always be required for many situations in movies but there is a fast growing technology which allows many practical fx to be recreated in post production by the visual effects team. From explosions to squibs, there are many

visuals that now can replace to a good degree our practical fx. There will always be challenges but also innovations with new technologies, practical special effects are developing with them and are always sharing more with visual effects.

Matthew: What advice do you have for people currently in high school or university who would like to work in special effects for Hollywood productions? 

Daniel: The best advice would be to have as much training as possible, in knowing what equipment, technologies and materials are out there. Trying to be always innovative and have some visual effects knowledge. Obviously, the best school is the set, many times it is good to start on small productions where you learn the ropes. The main thing in this business is to get your foot in the door and with a lot of hard work build your way up. It is a learning experience that never ends.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ART of ART DIRECTION and PRODUCTION DESIGN in the movies.

ART DIRECTING
FILMMAKING NOTES

Production Design – the domain of the art director – is the visual art and craft of cinematic storytelling. The most important job that no one outside teh industry knows about

The art director renders the screenplay in visual metaphors, a color palette, architectural and period specifics, location designs and sets. It also coordinates the costumes, makeup and hairstyles. They create a cohesive pictorial scheme that directly informs and supports the story and its point of view

SETTINGS ARE NOT MERELY BACKDROPS FOR THE ACTION, BUT SYMBOLIC EXTENSIONS OF THE THEME AND CHARACTERIZATIONS

REAL ISN’T ALWAYS BEST FOR THE FILM; CREATING A WORLD WITH ITS OWN INNER LOGIC AND TRUTH IS.

FINDING THE LOOK OF THE FILM
-The looks of a film comes out of the content and the director’s conception of the story.
-A working metaphor, a specific psychological, atmospheric and emotional image of what you want to visually project
-What emotional impact does the story have?
-How does the environment of the narrative reflect the character?

-What is the psychological nature of the story?
-How can the atmosphere of the architecture and physicality of the settings contribute to telling the story visually?
-What is the art director’s attitude toward the story?
-What is the art director’s point of view?
THE PRODUCTION DESIGNER’S VISUALIZATION TEAM

THE ART DEPARTMENT
-Nucleus of the Art Department staff consists of the art director, set designer, set decorator and property master followed by a support staff.
-Support staff includes the buyer, construction coordinator, construction crew, production illustrator, scenic artist, set dresser, greensman, draftsman, location manager, painters, carpenter and location scout.

Art Director
-Runs the show during production
-Responsible for dealing with vendors and the logistics of getting materials to and from the set
Set Designer
-Responsible for designing and supervising the construction of sets
-Drafts blueprints based on concepts, descriptions or drawings and then oversees construction of the set

Set Decoration
-Begins after the set has been built or after a real location has been selected
-The set consists of the walls, floor, ceiling, windows, doorways and doors
-The decoration includes rugs, furniture, wall hangings and window treatments
-Make a list of what decor elements are necessary for each location in the script
-They include paint, wallpaper, floor coverings, furniture, paintings, photographs, books, magazines, newpapers, appliances and audio-visual equipment.

Props
-Items handled by the Actors are designated as props
-They are gathered, designed or purchased by the PROPERTY MASTER who is responsible for their placement and care during the shooting phase of a film

Hair and Makeup
-The hair crew researches, creates and administers the proper hairstyles for the characters, story, place and time period to serve the director’s point of view
-The on-set hairdresser is invaluable to cut, style, color, set and maintain the hairstyles
-Wigs, hairpieces and hair extensions can transform an actor into a character
-Make sure the actors are willing to change their hair before hiring them
-The makeup artist on a movie must understand how the tools of foundation, rouge, lipstick and eyeliner will read on film
-Makeup and hair impact the look and personality of the character and help establish period, mood and atmosphere.-The script will indicate specific props necessary for the story and representation of the characters
-Every visual element should complement, support and develop the cinematic narrative and fit into the overall design plan
-The Property Master includes items that will give the film distinction

Special Effects
-Digital technology has made a tremendous impact on production desinging.
-CGI is employed for budgetary and logistical reasons. To created impossible shots and to augment, change and enhance

Constuction Coordinator
-Responsible for the building of sets, follows the working drawings drafting of the art department and supervises the construction crew
-The set is built around the idea that cameras will be shot around it so therefore wild walls can be moved around for a specific shot

Construction Crew
-The construction crew is made up of many artisans
-Carpenters and painters are the key to a great set

Location Scout/Manager
-Searches for the places indicated in the script
-Takes still photos and shoots video to aid in the search process
-Once location is selected, a deal is struck with the owner or managers of the property

Costume Designer
-Creates or selects the clothing to be worn by the actors
-Color and texture concept will be established and agreed with the Production Designer and Director
-Most Art Directors will let the Costume Designers work from their own inspiration based on their interpretation of the story and characters
-Different Actors will look good in certain costumes

Scenic Artist
-Art department specialist who creates all painted backgrounds, prop paintings, signage, any illustrative material, magazine covers, book jackets and murals indicated by the story

Production Illustrators
-Artists who pain or draw a conception of the Production Designers ideas for a set
-A full color description of sets and character’s look can sell a film

Draftsman
-Makes technical drawings that detail a plan to build a set
-LIke drafting for architecture

Set Dresser
-Works under the supervision of the set decorator and is responsible for laying the decor on set
-Have a great sense of style

The Production Designer supervises the entire design team. Art and commerce go hand in hand in moviemaking; A Production Designer must carefully plan and budget so the film gets the look it deserves
-The blueprint for the production process included detailed information concerning use of the camera, the physical action and dialog
-The Production Designer breaks down the script into individual components determining the days in the shooting schedule each scene and each shot is to be photographed

The Pschological Nature of Production Design
-Environments can have a metaphysical impact on how the audience perceives the story and the characters
-How do you want the viewer to feel?
-The atmospheric qualities of the sets, location and environments are essential in establishing a mood and projecting an emotional feeling about the world surrounding the film
-Takes an idea and translates it visually to communicate or comment upon the themes of the story
-A visual metaphor may act on the subconscious level, presenting subtle layers of poetic imagery that can impart ideas, concepts and significance in the narrative

RESEARCHING
The art director must be specific and precise in a number of areas:
-Authenticity
-Emotional truth of the story and the characters, through the environment
-Interpreting the director’s intent
-Details and details within details
-Ask what is needed for each scene
RESEARCHING IS A TIME FOR DISCOVERY

An art director should have a romance with color

One should never seek to recreate a period – One should attempt to reinvent it.
-Christopher Hobbs (Production Designer Gothic, Visual Effects Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)