VFX Supervisor Oliver Winwood on how he got into visual effects and his career at MPC

Tell us about working at MPC; what are their values, and what is the culture like?

I’ve been at MPC for over 17 years and they have always done a lot to support me, it’s hard for me at this stage to imagine working anywhere else. Over the last two years there has been a real effort to be more open, with the introduction of Town Halls, not just from MPC but our parent company Technicolor as well.

What’s the best thing about working there?

The scope and range of projects is bigger than it has ever been, especially with the boom in streaming services, and MPC caters to the whole range. So if you desire, you can be part of a huge film project for Disney which is heavily workflow and pipeline dependent, or a large episodic series such as The Wheel of Time, which I recently completed. Or you can work on smaller projects that require people to be extremely creative with how they work and use their time. While between projects, I recently helped out on a show where I had to complete all elements of a shot including creating all the assets, FX, lookdev and lighting – it was really fun. Summers are great too when we have an ice cream machine in our Sky Bar.

What have you been working on recently?

My most recent project was The Wheel of Time, working as CG Supervisor for episodes 1 to 6 and VFX Supervisor for episodes 7 and 8. Prior to that I was VFX Supervisor on The Third Day which was a six-part series on HBO and Sky.

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

It’s a multitude of things really, I’ll start with the cliché of growing up watching Star Wars, but it’s also a general love of film. Studying fine art through school and being into computers, visual effects is an amazing blend of the creative and technical.

Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?

I think this part may get quite long! I focused on art and design through school, then went to university and studied graphic design. At the end of my degree, I knew that graphic design wasn’t what I wanted to be doing and wished that I had pursued something in film. At the time I was fascinated with title sequences so I considered a Masters in screen design, but didn’t want another year at university.

That led me to Escape Studios, where I did their Maya Comprehensive course. I stayed on at Escape for a couple of months working as a classroom assistant while building a reel, then started sending that out to companies. I figured that they would be getting a lot of reels so decided to turn the short that I had done into a comic strip, something that they would see upon opening my CV. From there Cinesite offered me a job as a 3D Technical Assistant off the back of the initiative I had taken to get noticed.

I spent eight months at Cinesite before moving to MPC as a Data and Render Wrangler in 2005. Shortly after I started I was made Assistant Digital Resource Manager, helping to run and plan the render farm and data management. Then I somehow convinced a then small-time Producer, Christian Roberton and VFX Supervisor Nicolas Aithadi, both working on 10,000 BC, to give me some shots as an FX TD. I had originally wanted to get into Assets, but upon seeing FX I knew that was for me despite not having any experience. They gave me a chance, and shortly after I moved into FX full time. Within two years I was given my first lead role on Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows part 1. I later moved to FX Supervisor for The Jungle Book, then CG Supervisor for The Lion King. At the start of 2020 I was invited to join the newly formed MPC Episodic by Tom Williams, then the pandemic hit and due to a series of events found myself taking on the role of VFX Supervisor.

What are the main responsibilities of your job role?

My responsibilities change during a project. In the early stages it’s a lot of planning and bidding on shots, primarily just myself and the Producer. Then it moves to identifying build requirements and workflows for both assets and shots, before moving into shot production. During this stage you become a conduit between the clients and the artists, so it’s a lot of meetings and building relationships. Communication is the key aspect of my job, ensuring the artists are properly briefed, receive feedback and have clear direction, then presenting that work to the client to fulfill their vision.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

This varies, but it boils down to meetings, whether that is planning the show with production and the senior creative team, or in meetings reviewing work with artists and the client. I do still find myself getting pulled into shot work more than I should. It’s something I do miss now I’m supervising, so I like to jump in when I can, whether that is doing some FX work which was my bread and butter, or helping with an asset, concepting a look or working on a comp.

What do you need to be good at in your job?

A good understanding of art, composition and film, as well as attention to detail. Solid understanding of the technology and the process of creating a shot from start to finish as well as the limitations of that technology. Most of all though it’s communication, bringing people together as a team and getting the best out of each and every artist.

What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?

I don’t think I ever saw myself becoming a supervisor. In some ways that was a natural progression and always looking to see what the next step was. I generally found it was time to move to the next step when whatever I was doing didn’t scare me anymore. I remember before I became a CG Supervisor, I was working as an FX Supervisor and nothing phased me, I was confident that I could find a solution to any given problem. It might sound strange but having that little element of fearing the unknown excites me and drives me forward.

What are the benefits of learning lots of different disciplines? What would you say to someone who is set on specialising early on in their career?

There is nothing wrong with specialising and sometimes in order to get the best you need a specialist. However if you are going to specialise you need to be aware of the entire process to construct a shot, how are the decisions that you are making impacting artists downstream from you. If you’re an FX artist and delivering your work straight to comp, are you giving them enough control in your secondary passes to allow them to do their job?

What’s the most challenging part of your role?

The most challenging part of my role has to be time management. It’s never been one of my strongest skills and with supervision you have a lot on your plate.

What’s the most rewarding part?

The most rewarding part for me has always been getting to sit down and enjoy the end result. It puts things into perspective and makes the hard work worthwhile. It would also be the amazing and diverse range of people that I get to meet and work with. They contribute to teaching me so much about not just my job but being human and caring for each other.

What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?

VFX where nobody knows they’re looking at VFX is always satisfying, however my favorites are the ones where you have to create a bespoke effect, creature or environment that doesn’t exist in the real world.

What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?

I would say the most significant change has happened over the last two years during the pandemic. We’ve gone from having very tight security restrictions around the content we work on, to the point that if you want to work on a high profile project it has to be done at a studio in an office. Those restrictions are still there but had to adapt in order to keep the industry alive and as a result work from home has become a reality. It’s certainly given me a much better life work balance as I’m not currently required to be in the office five days a week, which with a close to three-hour commute per day, buys me a lot of time back and has given me a better work-life balance.

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

There are far too many people to list here, but it includes producers, supervisors, artists of all levels, you have something to learn from everyone.

What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?

My answer is going to say a lot more about the stage I am in my life, having two young children, but a couple spring to mind: Encanto on Disney+ and Sing 2 which I saw in the cinema with my family. I thoroughly enjoyed both, so much about them was excellent, from the flow of the story, to the way it was shot and the music obviously helped make it as well. It was difficult to fault either of them from a pure enjoyment level.

What project are you most proud of?

It would probably be Guardians of the Galaxy, the large battle above Xandar at the end of the film was a huge undertaking and required a lot of development and planning. Between Crowd and FX we developed a rule-based system for how the ships interacted and shot at each other that also populated the tracer fire and explosions. That was a hard project but also a lot of fun.

What do you miss about being in a less senior role?

I miss the days when you just kind of want to be left alone, sitting in the corner with your headphones on working away on your shot, there is a peacefulness to becoming fully engrossed in a task. As you become more senior you are liaising with people a lot more on a daily basis, which is great, but it’s harder to find those peaceful moments.

What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?

I don’t believe the skills required now will change much in the future, as too much emphasis can be put on the “computer generated” aspect of what we do in visual effects as learning a piece of software is arguably the easy bit. Prior to working on Alien Covenant I had almost exclusively worked in Maya. We had the flashback sequence come in where David the android releases a pathogen killing a city full of engineers, with growths bursting out of their bodies, so I learnt Houdini on the job in order to complete those FX. It was the experience of working with physics simulations, motion, the composition of an image, that allowed me to do that. I would say it’s pretty typical to be able to adapt to different software, which I guess is a skill within itself.

The primary skills are really fundamentals: understanding composition, colour, timing, these are things that some people are naturals at, while others it can take a little longer to learn. Otherwise like any industry it’s the soft skills which I see is the next question. Whatever you’re doing, you are working with human beings. Each one is different and has different needs. Effectively communicating and understanding people as individuals, respecting them as individuals and supporting them, ultimately leads you to getting the best out of everyone.

What sort of soft skills are valuable in VFX?

There aren’t any soft skills that aren’t valuable in visual effects and this really depends on how far you want to progress. On a base level it’s communication as you need to be able to understand a brief and communicate your work back to your lead or supervisor.

What strategies do you have for coping with the pressure of your work?

This really is a tough one, as creative industries can be extremely hard as the people in them have a lot of passion for what they do. As a result, we often put pressure on ourselves as we’re our own worst critics. For me having my first child really put things into perspective, as they gave me a newfound purpose that I didn’t have previously. My advice isn’t to go and have children, it’s to remember that work isn’t the most important thing that you have in your life. Try and find balance as best you can and separate the two as best you can.

What’s your advice to artists for creating a killer showreel?

Don’t rely heavily on music, the images should speak for themselves. Be mindful of the length, if it’s more than a couple of minutes there is a good chance it won’t get watched to the end. With that in mind only pick your best work. Be clear on exactly what it is you have done in a shot if others have worked on it. Remember your audience are professionals, so don’t spend too long on long transition breakdowns in an attempt to pad out the reel.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Like most people in Visual Effects, someone starting out probably has a passion for what they want to do. As a result, they can find themselves giving a little too much at times or feeling out of their depth. If you’re struggling or concerned about the timeframe for the task you’ve been given then speak to your lead or supervisor; don’t work late and suffer in silence. We’re really very nice people and are here to support you and help you find the best solution to getting your shot done.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.