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.