If you’ve ever wondered how blockbusters get to look so good, it’s down to the work of people like Eugénie von Tunzelmann who make ground-breaking visual effects.
Her background in engineering and computer science has paved her way to working for Double Negative, one of the world’s leading visual effects companies.
Double Negative have provided some of the magic for films such as Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (Part 1), Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and Inception. We spoke to Eugénie to find out more.
Can you explain what Double Negative does?
Double Negative is a visual effects company. We make visual effects for the film industry. I think we're currently the biggest visual effects provider for film in Europe...we've been around for about 12 years now, working on various Hollywood movies.
Can you tell us what exactly you do?
I’m a research and development technical director, which means that I mix artistic work with programming work and develop tools for use in film. So, most of the time my area is called ‘effects’ which covers anything that moves under the forces of physics, like fire, smoke, water...that sort of thing. I work on producing those. At the moment I’m working in ‘crowds’ so I’m writing some ‘tool sets’ to create a vast number of creatures.
Most people probably wouldn’t associate films and film-making with physics...
That's right, most people when they think of visual effects think about things like CGI creatures, which are obviously a big part of what we do, but there’s also the whole area of explosions and water. We have to model their whole physical properties so that we can reproduce them.
Can you tell us what you studied at university that led to such a cool job?
I went to Oxford University and studied engineering and computing science... I have a Masters in that.
What A Level subjects did you take?
I did maths, further maths, physics and chemistry.
How did you manage to land the job at Double Negative?
I wanted to work in visual effects at a very young age. I saw Ghostbusters when I was about three and films like Jurassic Park and Terminator when I was 10 or 11-years-old. I fell in love with the industry, thought it was absolutely fascinating and I really wanted to work in it. That was the reason why I chose an engineering and computing science degree. I thought engineering was a great way to combine design with science.
The computing science part was chosen as I wanted to become a programmer as well. I felt that the course would lead naturally into the industry, which it did. I ended up doing my Masters in visual effects because the university I went to had a department that was providing software to the visual effects industry. I worked with them when I did my Masters so I came into it naturally from that.
Can you talk us through the kind of involvement you have on a film project?
Usually what happens is that I’m on a film for about a year. For example on Hellboy II , I was concentrating on fire. So, the first thing I would do is study the physical phenomenon in the real world. I studied real fire, reading papers on why it is the shape that it is and understanding the dynamics. Then, we'd start modelling that inside the computer.
Then, I'd have to look at how we can then break those forces of physics in a selective way to do whatever we needed to do. So, if the fire had to put on a performance - if it had to form into a shape that wouldn’t happen in the real world - we would find out how to relax and bend those forces of physics to allow that to happen and control that artistically. The most important thing is that we can make something beautiful, something the Director likes the look of. So, generally within a few months of doing that kind of development work, we’d start to put it into the real film using our tools.
So you need to understand the rules before you can break them?
Exactly. It's always a combination of modelling real life and allowing a certain amount of artistic direction. If you didn’t model real life you wouldn’t have things that looked real at all.
Is there a particular film you are proud to have worked on?
Certainly Hellboy II, where I did the fire. There was a character called Liz who can set herself on fire and there was a character called Johann who was made of ectoplasm. This was visualised as dry ice, a sort of smoke...I was very proud of how that turned out. More recently than that, I worked on Prince of Persia. I was involved with the end sequence which turned out pretty spectacular.
Hellboy II - Image Courtesy of Universal Home Entertainment
What sort of working environment do you have at Double Negative?
Overall it’s very committed and passionate. I’d say that the vast majority of people in the industry grew up loving film, that's why they made it in the industry. People really care about the final product and sometimes will work extra hours to make things extra beautiful. It’s wonderful that we're all so passionate.
It’s a mix of hard graft, dark office computer work and the glamour side of it. Relatively frequently, we go to work on set which means you do meet the actors and meet the Director...very often you develop a close working relationship with the Director of the film.
Does the film team ever make particularly peculiar requests?
On Hellboy they asked us to do a tooth fairy coughing up ectoplasm. I remember getting that shot brief and thinking ‘how can you imagine how this would look?’
Are there many women working in the industry?
There was one film I worked on where we had six programmers on the show and five of them were female. I was quite surprised but it does happen. It's wonderful to have women come into technical roles and I absolutely recommend it.
Have you thought about what direction you’d like your career to go in next?
One of the things I loved the most at school, in spite of the fact that I studied sciences, was drama and theatre. One of the things I really enjoy is having a working relationship with the Director. So far I’ve ‘sort of’ known them but I’ve not had the situation where I felt like I am one of their contacts, one of the people they trust the most when they come into the company. So I think that’s one of the things I would like to develop.