SFX guru Matt Wallin delights in the dazzling images he creates for movies but remains loyal to the value of story.
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An Image from the movie The Watchmen
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Image of Matt Wallin
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Image from the move King Kong
Like many creative types, Matt Wallin dresses down. Standing in the communication arts department at Virginia Commonwealth University recently, he wore jeans, an open-collar blue shirt and Converse tennis shoes. He looked like a prototypical bright-eyed grad student—but Wallin in fact teaches two- and three-dimensional computer animation and visual effects at the university, and also happens to be a highly accomplished cinematic special-effects (SFX) expert.
After graduating in 1992 with a degree in cinema from San Francisco State University, Wallin spent seven years with Industrial Light and Magic, the pioneering George Lucas-owned effects firm. There, he worked on the movies Twister and The Mummy, among others. After that came brief stints at two California-based SFX houses, ESC Entertainment and Tippett Studio, where he was a digital compositor for several flashy Hollywood films, including Constantine, Hellboy and the Matrix sequels. In 2005 he spent a few grueling months in Wellington, New Zealand, working as a digital artist on Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and then in 2007 did a stint at Sony Imageworks, helping to inject some digital dazzle into I Am Legend and Beowulf. Wallin spent the summer of 2008 in Vancouver as the compositing sequence supervisor for the much ballyhooed Warner Bros.’ Watchmen, another superhero spectacle, based on an Alan Moore graphic novel.
Those were all fairly short but intense work projects. What has occupied more of Wallin’s time than anything over the last decade is the surrealistic, five-film, art-house Cremaster Cycle made by avant-garde artist Matthew Barney. Wallin spent several years in New York working as visual effects supervisor on three of the Cremaster films—an experience that turned the effects specialist into a filmmaker himself. He’s now close to wrapping up the final edit of his documentary on the Cremaster Cycle, titled I Die Daily. It’s been a 10-year project.
Wallin, age 39, has put edgy urban living behind him. He lives on a farm in Keswick with his wife, Chrissy Baucom, a painter who grew up in Loudoun County, and their 5-year-old son, Thor—“like the god of thunder,” explains Wallin. He commutes twice a week to Richmond for his VCU gig and spent a few minutes of his school time recently speaking with Virginia Living. Excerpts:
How have special effects changed the movie business?
It depends on who you ask. In my opinion, they’ve changed it for the better in many ways. [For example,] digital effects enable filmmakers to make movies like The Dark Knight, which has been a huge, huge success. It relied heavily on special effects, but the story was still paramount to the project. I think digital effects and special effects are most effective when functioning in the service of the story. Cinema is a narrative art form. It’s about telling stories, and when special effects can help tell a story—make it grand or historical—that’s what’s important to me. That’s not to say that absurd blowouts with mind-boggling effects, like Speed Racer, a high concept that’s all digital, don’t have their place. They are eye candy.
Of the movies that are heavily dependent on digital effects, which do you most admire?
I’d say anything that’s come out of Pixar. They have [produced] some of the greatest achievements in animation and in the look of digital graphics—they’re really at the cutting edge, creating images that are powerful, and they tell incredible stories. And they do it all in-house—keep it all within their own brain trust. There are other great effects films, too, such as Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe. It was really a spectacular story, with spectacular effects that augment the story.
How did you get a job at Industrial Light and Magic?
I was fortunate. Right before I graduated from San Francisco State, I applied for an internship at ILM. I didn’t get it but applied again the following fall, before I graduated. I got it, and at the time they were working on the first Jurassic Park . I didn’t get a credit on that movie, but I was there while they were doing it and remember seeing some of that stuff for the first time—the first photorealistic effects ever done. That internship led to a job, and I was there for almost seven years. While I was there, I got to work on Twister, which was a terrible movie but a great effects film in the sense that it was the first real project that relied on particle simulation—[recreating] the way a tornado acts rather than just animating it by hand. That was a really exciting project. We used to joke that watching Twister was like watching porn—you were just waiting for the next sex scene, the next tornado to strike.
Did you see much of George Lucas?
For the most part he was really hands-off. He’d invested a lot of money in the company and was always keen on what was happening [at ILM]. He was involved, but not heavily. While he does have his detractors, especially with the last few Star Wars movies, he’s certainly helped to create a lot of jobs. I don’t know him well enough to really say, but I suspect he’s a guy with a really good heart.
Why did you start working with Matthew Barney?
By , Matthew had made two films in the Cremaster Cycle. While I was at ILM, a friend of mine asked me to go watch those movies, which were being shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I didn’t want to go; my friend dragged me, and they showed Cremaster 4 and Cremaster 1, which were actually the first two. I was totally hooked.
The first one was shot on the Isle of Mann and was only 40 minutes long. It had motorcycles racing around … there was this character that Matthew played that was a sort of goat man. It was so strange and so weird, but it had a very ambitious visual style, very little dialogue, powerful metaphors. I had studied some experimental film and was totally excited about it. Afterward, my friend said, “C’mon, let’s get out of here.” But I stuck around and watched the second one, too.
After seeing those films, which had some simple computer graphics, I surreptitiously went into the ILM copy room, got some letterhead and drafted a letter to Barney. I said that I’d seen his films, told him what my experience was seeing them, and said something to the effect that ILM has computer effects capabilities second only to NASA, and that if he ever wanted to use those technologies in any of his films, I could help him out. I was basically offering up these [ILM] services, which I’m sure was a total no-no!
Two weeks after I sent the letter, he called me. He’d just gotten back from Budapest, where he was shooting Cremaster 5. He’d just shot this sequence with Ursula Andress as the star of this opera, and he wanted to know if I could put ice in the Danube River. I said, “OK, I’ll see what I can do.” I actually got permission to work on the project [at ILM] after hours, even though nobody at ILM knew who Matt Barney was at the time—I didn’t really know who he was. I got some of my pals together, we put ice on the Danube, finished the project, and I thought, “That was really cool.” I sent him a note totaling up what the cost could have been—very high—and at the bottom wrote “no charge.” And it developed into this relationship where I was doing more and more work with him.
And so now you’ve made this documentary on the Cremaster Cycle?
I’d always been a big fan of documentaries, and thought, “Wow, Matt’s so crazy, so different … that personality.” I asked him, “What would you think if I made a documentary?” He said I knew everyone—I’d been working with the crew for years. So I just started shooting footage [and ended up with more than 200 hours]. It was just me with a camera and a satellite microphone. I’m now in the final stages of finishing it, trying to raise the last bit of money. It will be about 90 minutes in length, maybe 80.
Explain the title, I Die Daily.
It’s part of the language of the Cremaster Cycle—five films, sculpture, photography. Dying daily is about this notion of total commitment—giving yourself as an artist. It definitely resonates with me.
A metaphor for the creative process?
Yes. Giving yourself over completely to the process—this thing that may be larger than you, on every level—and being totally committed to it. You are not embarrassed or concerned about success or failure.
How was the experience of working on King Kong?
It was by far the biggest and most complicated movie I’ve ever worked on. I was one of about 500 people on the digital crew. There were some really great people there—some men and women I’d worked with at ILM who were at Weta Digital [director Peter Jackson’s digital effects firm]. I worked 110 hours a week, seven days a week, for about three months without a day off. It was an amazing test. Peter Jackson is like a big kid—super-talented, a really neat guy. He, Lucas, Barney and others share a certain quality—they have the ability to manage people and also a childlike enthusiasm for taking on these massive projects.
You worked on Watchmen, which got a lot of publicity. What did you think of it?
It’s difficult for me to be objective about a film that I’ve worked on, but it was fun to watch. I think the effects served the story well. I hear they are creating an even longer cut of the film for DVD release later this year, if you can imagine that. I think it would have functioned better as an HBO-esque mini-series rather than a feature film.
One thing about it that was fun: I snuck a small “Easter egg” into the film in a scene where Silk Spectre puts on the Night Owl’s goggles. In the HUD [heads-up display], there are some letters across the bottom of the screen that resemble an egg. They’re my initials “MRW”—they are the bottom-right-corner button. It’s not an Easter egg that anyone but me and anyone I told about it would notice. My favorite part of the film had to be the opening title sequence, which was done by another company, where we see the back-story of the Watchmen’s alternate universe told in a kind of slow motion. It was quite beautiful and effective.
How did you get to Keswick? For some reason, it’s hard to imagine a digital effects guy living in horse country.
Working on King Kong was really difficult, psychologically—to work that hard for that long. I was happy to do it, but there were times toward the end when I said, “I’ll never do this again.” It was hard. I have a 5-year-old, and I didn’t want to be one of those dads who’s a workaholic and never has time to coach his kid’s ball team or play soccer in the back yard. Teaching has afforded me the chance to have more time to pursue my own projects, hopefully to be a better father, and also has restored my excitement in computer graphics and animation. It’s been invigorating for me at VCU—really fun. Maybe once in a while, every other summer, there may be a movie project that [appeals], and I can leave for a while and not burn out.
What I’d really like to do at some point is start a digital effects, Pixar-like company in Virginia. I see all these really talented people who are graduating, but they have to leave the state to get a job. It’s really a shame, because a lot of them would like to stay here—they love it here. If the conditions were right, I would love to start a company and draw upon the talent pool in this state.