• Digging the Invisible.
    Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Breakspear’s career path bends him toward virtual environments.

    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    19th May 2009, by Barbara Robertson

    When Mark Breakspear, visual effects supervisor at Rainmaker UK finished work on the film “Da Vinci Code,” he took a bold step. Because “Da Vinci Code” director Ron Howard couldn’t film inside San Sulpice church in Paris, Rainmaker had created a three-dimensional, photorealistic digital version of that church and of other locations difficult or impossible to access.

    Breakspear calculated that the filmmakers would undergo the same or worse restrictions if they were to film author Dan Brown’s prequel “Angels and Demons.” So, he read the book, determined where he thought the main locations would be, went to Rome, and photographed the interiors even though the studio hadn’t landed the job.

    He did this because he was afraid that after ‘Da Vinci Code’ released, the church would realize the production could use still photographs to fake locations the church had put off limits for filming.

    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.

    “I wanted to be one step ahead,” he says. “I didn’t know exactly where they would shoot,” he says, “but I knew if we took some pictures now, we would be able to recreate the locations from scratch using the photographs as base plates. I thought that even if we weren’t awarded the work, the images might be useful to Angus [Bickerton, overall vfx supervisor] who is such a great guy.”

    Breakspear sat on those images for a year and a half until Bickerton and visual effects producer Barrie Hemsley made the rounds as they considered which studios to hire for ‘Angels and Demons.’ “We showed them what we’d been up to and how far we’d progressed our technology to do environmental builds,” Breakspear says. “They awarded us two big sequences, including an end sequence.”

    As luck would have it, though, the early images didn’t help in production. “The camera we used four years ago is such an ancient relic,” he says. "I wouldn’t even take pictures at home with it.” This time, using Canon EOS cameras equipped with eight gigabyte flash cards, they shot approximately 10,000 photographs at 21 megapixel resolution. The studio, now CIS Vancouver, projected those photos onto 3D models in Lightwave and Maya to help expand sets and build for two churches in Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria and Santa Maria del Popolo, and St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

    The initiative and patient determination that Breakspear brought to this project is nothing new. Even as a child growing up in Long Hanborough, a village in the Cotswolds near Oxfordshire, England, he thought forward. You might trace the beginning of his career in visual effects to the day this son of an equipment rental owner and choir director was driving with his parents through the idyllic English countryside and spotted, by pure chance, an enormous model of a worm’s head. And then, on another day, a volcano. After that, a palm tree. And, seeing these things, Mark wanting to know more.


    The anachronistic bits that popped up in the landscape, the family discovered, belonged to Oxford Scientific Films (OSF), which had been founded by Gerald Thompson, an Oxford lecturer and pioneer of cinematic microphotography, and five others, including Peter Parks. Parks, known particularly for his natural history cinematography, later won two technical Academy Awards and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award (an Oscar) for his technical achievements and pioneering work. The group had planted their studio in a quarter acre of Thompson’s garden.

    Breakspear’s parents, seeing his excitement, encouraged the young boy to try to find work at OSF, and he did try. “I wrote saying I’d do whatever they wanted,” he says. “But, I always got a letter back saying, ‘You’re completely inexperienced. Thank you, but no.’ They were very polite. Every time I got a letter back, it inspired me to write another. I wrote maybe 50 or 100 letters.”

    The letter-writing began when he was 12 and continued until he was 18 and about to leave for University – Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. “I was always into art,” he says, “and always had a good memory for things I see. And even though my parents didn’t understand it, they provided great support. My dad bought me a drawing board for Christmas and a Commodore 64 that I learned to program. They’d say, ‘Let us know what you need.’”

    But, seeing his disappointment with the constant rejection from OSF, they suggested that he stop the letter writing and look for something else. “So I tried one more time,” he says. “I wrote and said, ‘This is my final letter. I’m about to go to University to study graphic design. I would love to work with you guys. I know you always say no. But this time, have a cup of tea on me and let me know.’ And, I included a tea bag.”

    The next day, Breakspear received a big parcel with a one kilo bag of sugar and another rejection letter, the sugar to sweeten this last rejection. “Well, that’s it,” he thought. On the following day, he got a second letter asking if he had received the joke and inviting him in for an interview.

    “They asked me to come on weekends when I wasn’t in school,” he says. “They said they weren’t going to pay me and I said, ‘No problem. I’ve waited six years for this.’”

    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
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  • 'TROPIC THUNDER' © 2008 DreamWorks LLC. All Rights Reserved.
    'TROPIC THUNDER' © 2008 DreamWorks LLC. All Rights Reserved.
    'TROPIC THUNDER' © 2008 DreamWorks LLC. All Rights Reserved.

    For the first six months at OSF, he worked as a runner. He made tea. He swept the floors. And, best of all, he sometimes assisted a camera crew that was shooting visual effects. When one of the assistants left, they promoted him.

    “I was paid 50 pounds a day, which made me the richest student in the world, because the days were a minimum of 12 hours,” he says. The weekend work financed his degree and when he graduated, helped him land a job.

    “They had started shooting commercials [at OSF] using their high speed, time-lapse techniques – a baby diaper absorbing blue liquid, for example,” he says. “As a production assistant, I got to go with the producer to Framestore or The Mill on weekends and saw the Flame, Inferno and Henry systems.”

    So at school, when a class opened that included work on Quantel’s Henry system, he signed up. “There were only 10 people in the class, but at the end of it, I had many job offers,” he says.

    One offer was from Quantel. He took that job and traveled around the world training people to use the Henry. But on a stop in Los Angeles, after working at a studio training people for a week, he received a new offer – to work at that studio. The studio was Digital Muse.

    “I packed up everything in my village in England and moved to LA,” he says. “The first show I worked on was ‘Bay Watch.’ I called my Dad and told him I’d made it to the big time. I look back on that call with some embarrassment now.”


    He also worked as a compositor on ‘Hercules,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ ‘Xena,’ ‘X Files,’ ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,’ and many other television series until, eventually, he joined Rainmaker and moved his wife and children to Vancouver. “Rainmaker has grown into an amazing company, now called CIS-Vancouver, and has really started to find its stride in features,” he says.

    And Breakspear has become a visual effects supervisor. “I was a compositor for 10 years,” he says. “Eventually, someone says, ‘We need you on set,’ and then you can become a supervisor.”

    He had created his first visual effect, though, while still in college. “My grandmother lived next door to Patrick Moore, the astronomer who presents ‘The Sky at Night’ on the BBC, and … I was such a nerdy kid … he let me use his telescopes in his garden for 11 years. So, when I did my degree, I asked Patrick to do a virtual environment of ‘The Sky at Night.’” Breakspear had Moore walk around a virtual Jupiter holding a comet in his hand that flies out and smashes into Jupiter. “He was such a gentleman,” Breakspear says of Moore.

    'Blades of Glory' © 2007. DreamWorks LLC. All Rights Reserved. Images courtesy of Rainmaker.
    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.

    The experiences he had at college and working in the industry since have made Breakspear very opinionated when it comes to advising students interested in a visual effects career. “I recommend that they have a degree,” he says. “That they steer clear of any course that’s a six-month or 12-month visual effects course. You’ll never learn what you need to learn.”

    Moreover, he believes schools should screen applicants. When a local school called and asked him to teach a visual effects course, he refused after asking a few questions about their policies. “I asked if they selected their candidates, or if it’s first come, first served – if someone with no talent or portfolio could take the course,” he says. “I told them if I worked there I would change the course to three years and would be selective. Otherwise, I think they’re just wasting kids’ money.”

    He explains: “When you do a degree, normally you do pure experimentation the first year, apply what you learn in the second year, and in the third year, you show what you can do. I can teach people how to do visual effects, but I can’t teach color theory, composition theory. I want students to make their mistakes in art school, to come out of school ready to take on a significant role. Otherwise, they’ll only be roto artists or 3D tracking people, which is fine, but to progress beyond that, they need design skills.”

    For his part, he’s practicing his design skills making invisible art. “I like all effects, but my skill set leads me to make spaces that are supposed to feel real – visual effects that enhance a story and mimic something happening in the real world but you can’t film there. I would jump at the chance to create ancient Rome or early New York because I could pick on reality to tell me how it should look and feel.”

    When he began work on “Angels and Demons,” he sent his CG and 2D leads to the churches in Rome just to experience the spaces. “I told them to spend ten minutes just sitting and listening,” he says. “What does it smell like there? Close your eyes and listen. If sound echoes, that tells you something about the environment.”


    Does that mean we won’t see him leading visual effects efforts on fantasy films? “I’m sure there’s room in my world for the fantastic theatrical effects, but right now, I’m totally digging making something real,” he says with a laugh. A laugh, because he’s spent the morning digging ditches for his garden. The master gardener has planted a vineyard and grows all the family’s organic vegetables.

    “Even when I’m in my garden, I’m learning about visual effects,” he says. “The side of a ditch caves in and I think that’s good material for an avalanche. It takes a certain skill to do in-your-face visual effects, but I’m a big fan of people watching a movie and then saying to me, ‘You worked for a year and a half on that? I didn’t see any effects.”

    It might seem like a long way from giant worm heads growing out of gardens in Oxfordshire to photorealistic, three-dimensional virtual interiors of ancient churches in Rome, but the lessons learned in one garden have made the other environments possible. “They’d come to work and learn they had to mount a camera onto a dragonfly,” he says of OSF. “Someone would say, ‘That’s impossible.’ And the response would be, ‘Brilliant. Let’s try it.’ If you can inspire someone to think that way when they’re young, then everything after that should come naturally.”

    Related links:
    Mark Breakspear
    CIS Vancouver
    Angels and Demons site
    Angels and Demons IMDB
    Tropic Thunder site
    Tropic Thunder IMDB
    Blades of Glory site
    Blades of Glory IMDB

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    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
    'Angels and Demons' © C 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: CIS Vancouver.
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