What makes a good visual story? Nigel Sumner of visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (Star Wars: Rogue One, A Perfect Storm and Transformers) tells us more
"I'm sure by now you can see I'm a complete nerd," joked Nigel Sumner as he talked to a crowd at Apple Orchard Road last Sunday. The special effects guru from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) Singapore was giving a talk titled 'Photo Lab: Creating a Star Wars Story' to film and technology buffs in celebration of Force Friday. As part of his talk, the Singapore-based Brit — decked in a tee depicting a Stormtrooper with a surfboard — compiled photos and stills of what made up his childhood as a Gen X kid: Airfix and Mechano constructor kits and films such as Spartacus (1960), Ben Hur (1959) and Clash of the Titans (1981).
The '80s were a great time in movies, and it was also when the first home computer was introduced. But it wasn't until Sumner caught Jurassic Park (1993) that he knew what he wanted to do with his life. Seeing dinosaurs living and breathing on screen in the Steven Spielberg epic moved Sumner to work in computer graphics and animation, first in the commercial division of ILM (a subsidiary of Disney) and then moving on to films, with A Perfect Storm (2000) being his first. Headquarted in ILM, the visual effects company has studios in London and Vancouver. The Singapore branch, located in Fusionopolis, opened in 2006, working on films such as the Transformers series, Iron Man (2008), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009), Rango (2011), Marvel's The Avengers (2012) and Pacific Rim (2013).
Sumner has been part of ILM for just over 18 years and has been based in Singapore since 2007. From growing up in Southern England with a television that only showed three channels to digitally recreating a character such as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One (2016), he's come a long way. For Rogue One (which is essentially a prequel to the franchise), ILM Singapore was tasked to bring back Tarkin, who was originally played by the late actor, Peter Cushing. The filmmakers cast actor Guy Henry with a similar build and stature — but to convince the audiences, ILM stepped in with a digital re-creation. It's part of what Sumner does, to create a sense of reality or elements that are not practically possible for the filmmakers.
With his new role as creative director of the studio, Sumner oversees all the work coming in, which includes another Star Wars project, the unnamed movie about Han Solo. Before ILM Singapore starts on its production this week, we check in with Sumner behind the scenes.
On how his arts background — coupled with his bachelor in computer animation — aids his storytelling process today: "When I was in college, it was about teaching you how to learn and how to teach yourself. From the traditional art forms, renaissance to cave paintings, all of the techniques that they've learned in crafting compositions apply directly to storytelling, which applies to film and special effects. We create things that aid the storytelling process. And all the traditional storytelling techniques from art to fine art to sculpture translate into what we do on a daily basis."
On dealing with rejection from directors and producers: "We all get rejected. I cry a lot. Ultimately we're a service company and we provide a creative option. James Cameron is one of the most extremely knowledgeable people in both filmmaking and special effects. He played a big part of ILM's history with The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991). He's very savvy on what you can and cannot do with visual effects, so if you suggest to someone like that a solution that isn't going to work, he'll be the first to tell you 'no'. But he might also engage you in a solution that could work. The best experiences come when you're working creatively with the directors both contributing to the process and understanding what they want."
On the movie and scene that marked the creative milestone of his career: "Rogue One, absolutely. Tarkin was hugely challenging — not just to create a digital human, but to recreate a well-known actor and nuances and specifics of their character and personality. It's one of the most challenging problems we ever tried to tackle, and there's still improvement that we can do."
With Rogue One having huge ties to the original Star Wars story, how did you balance the history that we saw and then updating it again? "We benefited from being surrounded by super fans. 90% of the artists grew up living and breathing Star Wars. We had the benefit of going up to the archives. It's a very large space where iconic pieces of memorabilia are kept. So we could go there and photograph and take as much reference and see original models. Obviously the target was to reproduce one-for-one to get faithfully close to the original as possible. That was just one aspect of it. There's a language of Star Wars both thematically and design-wise and we wanted to tie that in as well.
On what makes a good visual story: Clarity. [A good visual story] has a lot of nuance, [where] you guide the eye in the frame. Sometimes you only have a few frames in the story — where do you want the audience to look at? Where do you want their eye to go? What is the message of the emotional impact of the single moment that you're looking at? There are a lot of factors that bounce into that: Composition, contrast, light, focus. That's where we come in, use these small details to help the director tell the story and guide the eye."