Meet Wonder Woman VFX Producer Laurence Berkani

For this edition of GUMworks, we talked to visual effects (VFX, as it’s known in the trade) producer Laurence Berkani. She is a Montreal-based powerhouse who has worked in visual effects since the days of morphing in the 1990s. One of her most recent films has just been released : Wonder Woman.

 

Berkani has overseen VFX for film and television projects as varied as Discovery Channel documentaries, animated kids’ movies, and big-budget action films. And as if that wasn’t enough, she also has a successful food truck business.

 

We called up Berkani to discuss the ins and outs of making special effects magic.

GUM: How did you first get interested in visual effects?

Laurence Berkani: I started in film, and branched out to VFX. It happened organically. I was working back then in a small studio where we used to do music videos and commercials. The owner of the company was very tech-savvy. That was back in 1994, so there was not any school to learn VFX. 

VFX were just starting, and because this guy was kind of a geek and he knew the software – he learned on his own – he would teach us at night and on weekends to do VFX, and we would always put some in the commercials and music videos we were producing. So it’s not like something happened in my life that made me chase that. It just kind of happened.

GUM: What were you doing in the film world before that?

LB: I started like everybody in production, as a P.A./runner type of person. Within a year, I was production manager on commercials and music videos, and I did that for three years. Then the company became known for the VFX work we were doing – morphing and things like that. So some producers that I had worked with on commercials were working now in television, and they were looking to open a VFX studio. They came to recruit me and see if I wanted to be production manager on the VFX side. 

They wanted somebody that knew live action, because they were working on a huge TV series that was all shot in Montreal, and we were going to be working really closely with that production house. So I got hired to do VFX work, and that’s when I decided to just basically be VFX. I was there for two years on different television and movies, and a lot of documentaries as well. After that, my career was set. By that time, I was line producing. 

The second company I went to was in Asia. I worked there for a little over a year. After that, when I came back, I worked in film and television as a VFX producer. I’ve been doing VFX producing for sixteen years.


GUM: I was going to ask about Asia and Eastern Europe. It seems like so much visual effects work for Hollywood films is being outsourced there now. What was it like to see that happen?

LB: I saw it from the embryo stage, because I went to Asia in 2001. I guess you could say the owner of the company was a visionary. The man I was working for was an American who got married to a Filipina lady, and she goes, you should open a studio in the Philippines. It was the fall of the 2D [traditional animation] world. Nobody wanted to do 2D anymore – everybody was into the 3D thing. All those Disney movies were done in 3D now. The Philippines already housed one of the biggest studios for in-between animation. A lot of the the in-between work for 2D animation was done there, so they had a lot of artists.

They opened the shop, and for an entire year, they were training these people from 2D to 3D, so they could learn the software and create 3D animation visual effects. Unfortunately, the owner passed, and we shut down the company. 

I’m still in contact with a lot of these people. Many of them are now working for big companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal, Australia, the UK. These were pioneers in our field. Whether you were in the Philippines, India, or Montreal, if you had access to computers and you learned how to use the tools, you were going to be successful. 

We’re lucky we have tax credits in Quebec, because I’m not sure we would be able to survive as an industry if it wasn’t for the government giving them out, especially not to compete with these emerging countries. So many big studios are opening up franchises around the world. You have more for your money there. The infrastructure, support staff, everything is cheaper in these countries. 

I’m a producer, so I like numbers. For a while, the artists overseas weren’t on the level that we expect for our movies, but now these people have five, ten years’ experience, so it’s not the same ballgame. Try to be a Filipino or an Indian person, even with five, ten years’ experience, trying to find a job in North America or Europe or Australia, it’s going to take you many resumés to send out, until we’re literally out of people to hire. The industry is still growing. Just the company that I’m at right now probably has 100 seats to fill, and there’s not enough artists. So when you receive resumés from all around the world, you have to look at them and see if the artists have the capacity to come here and try their art.

 

Because every single movie now has visual effects, and because the industry is growing and companies are fighting for artists, people are going to come here to work, as opposed to us sending work to other countries. But eventually, there will be more work shipped to India or China, because they will have the talent. They will be successful in delivering visual effects with the standard that America expects, but they’ll do it over there. Right now, that’s still not the case.

GUM: Can you talk about how ubiquitous visual effects are? It seems like they’re in movies even when they’re not obvious, like dramas and comedies.

LB: Alien and Wonder Woman come with VFX shot lists of literally 1:1. Every single shot of the movie is going to be VFX. But as you mentioned, there’s not one movie that doesn’t resort to VFX. It’s just a reality. 

Sometimes it’s an insert from a laptop or a phone, or we shot in Canada and it was pretty cold, and then when people are breathing, you can see fog coming out of their mouths because it’s still cold, and we need to remove that. It’s a reality when we’re shooting that these things happen.

I’ve seen shots where it’s supposed to be snowing, and then it didn’t snow. We had to put digital snow. It was February, and the client was sure there was going to be snow here, because every year there’s snow. But the week they come to shoot, there’s none. So we had to add that back in. 

I mean, I have removed panties, I have added panties, I have removed nipples, added a bra on – you would never know. From slimming of a waist to boob enlargement, you name it. Things you see on screen that do not call for VFX, there’s one or two VFX shots there. 

Sometimes people are on set and they shoot in front of a green screen. We could go by the ocean or we could go on a skyscraper to see landscapes, but it’s much safer and much quicker to just shoot in a studio on a green screen and a wind machine and pretend we’re outside. We comp it, and you’ll never know the actress was not there. 

Studios are resorting to these solutions because we’ve been doing VFX for more than 20 years, so we know how to do it. The margin of error is slim to none. I tell you it’s going to be this amount of money, it’s going to be that amount of money. Now every DP knows how to shoot and light a green screen. Whereas, if you go on set on a beach day with an actress, everything is possible. It’s just money clocking every minute. Shooting in a studio with green screen isn’t like that. It’s much, much easier when planning.

GUM: If you’re watching movies you haven’t worked on, can you tell where the effects are?

LB: To be honest, five years ago I could tell every single effect being done. But today, the film I’m working on, where I’m looking at a fresh render of our superhero, and there’s the real one and there’s a fake one, I cannot tell the difference. I know that the right one is the CG one, and the left one is the actress. But if you’re looking at them, they’re identical. There’s no way my eyes could see it. 

When the effects are not well-done, I’ll spot them right away. Maybe you won’t, but I will. But if the effects are the standard and quality that these movies from Fox and Warner Brothers and Disney come out with, you can’t tell. We’re there now. I remember ten years ago when we saw the first CG models and the first characters that looked real, we were like, “Wow, it looks so good,” but we still could tell. Now it’s really, really hard. 

If you look at Superman vs. Batman and all these movies, the actors, they act. But every time they are in an action scene, everything’s redone. You can never tell. You would think it’s the actor, and maybe they did green screen, or that the evil monster is for sure CG, but you would assume that the character is the character. But often they’re not. They’re just literally CG double replacements. I mean, when you act and you scream, you’re not always looking so great. With a CG model, we control everything. Often it’s like, “Yeah, she’s gonna look better if we replace her.” So we end up replacing her.

GUM: While you’re doing all this, you have a second career as a food truck operator. How do you balance those things?

LB: I guess I’m a workaholic. I’m single, I have no kids. I need to have babies and wives and mistresses in my everyday life – that’s what I like to call these things. 

I used to be involved in roller derby, and I met my business partner there. We had this idea that Montreal was missing a local place where all the queers and the hipsters and the dirty people could hang out. We wanted to open a bar like that, really just for fun. It was very successful for three years. And out of that bar came the first food truck because the city of Montreal lifted the ban on food trucks that had been here for over 30 years. So when we saw that the city was looking for food trucks, we just went ahead and got one. The food truck was up and running two months after we got our permit. It was this quick. Eventually, it was a more profitable business, and a lot less headaches – and hangovers – to operate a food truck as opposed to a bar. We decided to sell the bar and buy a second food truck, and now we have a third one. 

Obviously have partners in those ventures. One of them is my right hand man. We’ve been working together for fifteen years, and we’re also best friends. We owned the bar together, and we own the trucks together. We don’t operate them full-time. 

I like to get my hands dirty. So I just build the truck with my partner. But once the truck is out on the street, then I let my other two partners work full time on the truck. One is more management, and one is the chef in the kitchen. We try to meet quarterly, and I try not to micromanage them. We’re on our third truck now and I think ideally we’d like to have a fourth one next year. 

GUM: What qualities do you like in a studio? What does it have to have for you to feel comfortable?

LB: Our business is a lot about people. It comes down to the level of comfort. It doesn’t take long for me to meet somebody and know right away whether it’s going to click or not – as a client, friends, relationship, whatever. If I’m going to take your vision and put it to film, we need to see eye to eye. We need to have the same language.

GUM: Of all the effects you’ve overseen, what’s the one thing you look at and you’re like, I can’t believe I did that?

LB: I think Wonder Woman is great. I’m proud of her. I like her as a feminist icon. I totally identify with her. I’m a woman, and my VFX supervisor on the film is a woman. I’ve never worked with a female VFX supervisor. It’s the first movie to be directed by a woman that has a budget of over $100 million. It’s going to be a huge thing.

Melanie De Groot van Embden: Urban Escape

From New York to San Francisco, live a journey through abandoned America.

What does a cooling tower look like from above? How do you climb New York's bridges? How does a city decay? Where are America's nuclear missile silos hidden? These are the questions that David de Rueda and Melanie de Groot van Embden decided to answer on a three-month road trip through the United States. Far from museum crowds, they went to visit abandoned power plants, hotels, prisons, churches and construction sites and asked American adventurers about their most well-kept urban jungle secrets.

 

Urban Escape is a documentary born from a photographer’s and a journalist’s desire to share their passion for exploration and adventure. The film is made up of encounters with urban explorers from the top of the Queensborough Bridge to the military cemetery of San Francisco Bay. In their van, David and Melanie reach New York, Detroit, Nashville, Denver and San Francisco, inviting us to take a fresh look at our modern environment and discover a thrilling way of life.

With Steve Duncan, Detroit Unseen, Ed Serecky, Kurt, Micah Whatley, Andrew Bisset, Ashley Simoneaux, Stephen Freskos and Scott Haefner.

Music by Edgar Noon.

From the Artist: 

 

 

"I am more of a video journalist. I research, film, and edit news stories for the french television in New York. I did one movie and several music videos. In the future, my ambition is to make more personal documentaries about the world around me. I am working on it."  

Female pioneer:

Nellie Bly.

 

"Nellie Bly, was meant to be maid but she didn't listen to anybody. When she started as a journalist in the 18th century, she probably had to face a lot of criticism, from her family, from other journalists, basically from everyone. She must have been not only very talented but very visionary. I like the idea that she made a breakthrough in a very sexist world such as journalism and helps me believe that there is no rules. One can do whatever they want to do. She has taken a lot of risks but they have been rewarded. I kind of like her style too, wearing a 19th century dress with a bottle of whisky hidden under it...

At a time when men were ruling the journalism world, Nellie Bly only listened to her own determination. She was hired by Pulitzer's NY World and sent undercover to a mad house, which was horrible at the time. Out of this experience came out the book, 10 days in a madhouse, she was a pioneer in investigative journalism. She is the most bold, inspiring, romantic journalist that I can think of."

We look forward to share an excerpt of Melanie's documentary Urban Escape at the GUM Director's Showcase at Whitney Houston Biennial 2017 on March 28th at Roxy Cinemas Tribeca. The artist will be attending the Q&A.

 

 

Meet Director: Dania Bdeir

Dania Bdeir is a Lebanese writer & director with an intense love/hate relationship with Lebanon which is her biggest heartache and sincerest inspiration.

Bdeir was born in Canada, where her parents traveled to escape the Lebanese civil war. After the war, they moved back to Beirut, where Bdeir received her Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut. In 2016, Bdeir received her MFA in writing and directing from Tisch School of the Arts.

Here a sneak peak from her short film IN WHITE

The film premiered at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival and continues to hit the festival circuit. In White was selected by Spike Lee to receive a production grant. In White will serve as a proof of concept for Bdeir's first feature film which she is currently in development for.

Her film, Meshkal (English title: Kaleidoscope), has traveled to film festivals in France, Morocco, Pakistan, Mexico, Czech Republic, India and many more. It has won awards including "Award of Excellence" at the 2014 Canada International film festival and "Golden Palm" at the 2014 Mexico International Film Festival.

 

Dania's short film Kaleidoscope will be screened at the upcoming GUM Director's Showcase curated by Assal Ghawami at Roxy Cinemas Tribeca. The showcase is part of the Whitney Houston Biennial 2017- the all-female artshow by artist Finley Christine.

 

DANIA's PIONEER:

Randa Bdeir.

"I have a distinct memory of telling my mother a story one day. As I excitedly went on and on, I saw her attention drift away. When I called her out on it, Instead of reassuring me that she was listening, my mother told me that I'm the one who lost her attention and that I should work on my elevator pitch. I was 9 years old at the time.

And that is my mother: a woman who never accepted anything less than the best and who made sure I never took anything for granted. Although it wasn't always easy growing up with such high standards, I realize now that a lot of who I am, I owe to her.

A firm believer that one can do everything in life, she's always lead by example.

A mother to 4 daughters, an award winning banker and an elegant socialite, constantly dealing with problems & wars as they arise in the tumultuous setting of Beirut, she is the definition of a superwoman and she inspires me every day."

 

Randa Bdeir is the Assistant General Manager and the head of the Electronic Banking & Card Services at Bank Audi in Lebanon.

Since she joined the Bank in 2004, Bdeir grew its card business to rank 1st in Lebanon, and 8th among MENA credit card issuers.  

Prior to joining Bank Audi, Bdeir was the Marketing and Business Development Director at Fransabank for 11 years. Among her accomplishments in that period are pioneering the introduction of the card-issuing business in the Lebanese and Syrian markets in 1994 and inventing the internet card in 1997, for which she received numerous awards.

Bdeir became the first Arab woman to be a member of the Board of Directors of MasterCard Worldwide for the Middle East & Africa region, and in 2008 was ranked among the top 70 Arab women by Sayidati magazine. She was also elected as a “MasterCard Champion” for contributing considerably to MasterCard’s business growth.

 

 

 

Dania's soulful perspective on the world is much needed in times like this and we hope to see much more from this extremely talented filmmaker! 

 

GUM Director's Showcase at WHITNEY HOUSTON BIENNIAL 2017

DIRECTOR: THATI PEELE

Thati Peele is a South African statistician turned film director. Her short films ‘LERATO’ premiered at SXSW, travelled to over 15 film festivals and won her Best Director at the New York Fusion Film Festival. She is a Spike Lee Grant recipient and recently finished an internship at Universal Studios. Thati is in pre-production of her N.Y.U. thesis film ‘The Extraterrestrial Tales’ a proof of concept for her first feature 'Proxima' a sci-fi comedy about a group of young people saving the world for all the wrong reasons.

 

THATI'S INSPIRATION

"Charlote Maxeke has been a significant presence in my adult life. In 1905 this former schoolteacher became the first black South African woman to obtain a bachelor’s degree. The obstacle of extreme poverty aside, this era was the dawn of oppressive apartheid laws that denied people of colour their rights and any tools for social mobility. In moments of difficulty in my cinematic journey, I think upon her as we have walked a similar path. This formidable woman rejected notions of racial inferiority and patriarchy to further her education in the USA; something then unheard of for any person of colour, male or female. Charlotte Maxeke’s experience and determination led her to form a South African women’s movement that was integral to our nation’s unification. I surely would not be here were it not for her courage and foresight. She is a constant inspiration and a well from which I frequently draw strength."


Charlotte Maxeke was born on 7 April 1847 in Fort Beaufort in Cape Town. She finished primary school early and her parents moved to Kimberly where Maxeke completed her secondary school. Maxeke then travelled to Wilberforce University in Ohio, USA on a church scholarship. Here she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree becoming the first black South African woman to do so. Upon her return to South Africa, Maxeke took up teaching and took part in political activities in the African National Congress (ANC). She co-founded the Bantu Women’s League of South Africa, later renamed the ANC Women’s League. Maxeke died on 16 October 1939.  Johannesburg Hospital has been renamed the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in honor of her contribution to the freedom struggle.