• CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    4 February 2010, by Barbara Robertson

    Meet the Artist It's a long way from Jungle Book and Bambi to total destruction, but you never know where a childhood fascination might lead. For Volker Engel, co-producer and visual effects supervisor for 2012,' it led to art, animation, and, in a chance of fate, to director Roland Emmerich.
    Engel, who grew up in Bremerhaven, a seaside town in northern Germany, received an early introduction into filmmaking fundamentals. His father, who worked on ships, and his mother, who worked in a pharmacy, gave him a toy film projector when he was about six years old. Twenty-six years later, he won a visual effects Oscar for his work on Independence Day.

    "It played two minute short films, mostly from Disney, in a loop," he says of that childhood toy. "But the amazing thing was that I could project single frames. I would go up on our staircase and project the films onto a big wide wall. I could stop it, run it backwards, go slowly, or run it forward." Which he did, over and over until, at this extremely young age, he understood how Disney artists made films.

    When he was 15, Engel entered his first film, a stop motion animation starring toy cars that raced through a desert, in the 'up-and-coming' International Film Festival (u-a-c) in Hanover, Germany. He didn't win a prize, but at 16, he took second place in that festival with a hand-drawn animation. "It was an adventure story about a kid who steals a spaceship," he says. Today, he's one of the mentors for the festival winners.

    Engel knew he wanted to continue making films after secondary school, but it was difficult. "It was 1984," he says. "I wanted to get into moviemaking and visual effects, but there was almost nothing in Germany." He visited schools in nearby Bremen and Hamburg and found his answer.

    The teachers in those schools told him to study with Professor Ade, who taught animation at the Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart. "I drove 800 kilometers to talk to him and show him my films," Engel says. "I still had to participate in a whole day of testing and standing in front of a group of professors, but in the end the films got me into the Academy."

    A third film launched his career. Well, to be precise, the trailer for a third film. With teenage ambition overriding common sense, Engel decided he wanted to create a feature-length sci-fi film on Super 8 by himself. Three years later, he realized he'd never finish the film by the time he finished school. Instead, he decided to do a trailer and a documentary about making the trailer.

    "I had to film myself," he says. "It was narcissistic, but I couldn't find anyone in my circle of friends to share my passion. After two hours of watching me painting mattes on cels for multiple exposures of spaceships on star backgrounds, they thought I was nuts." At the end, though, the 'nut' had a 15-minute documentary with firecracker explosions and spaceship miniatures that helped him land a job, his first, as special effects supervisor, at age 23, for Roland Emmerich's film
    Moon 44.

    "Roland took it home and watched it with his dad," Engel says. "He told me about seeing a specific part where I cut 500 pieces of a metal wire that had to be exactly one centimeter long, and then glued them together to create a structure.
    He said, 'I watched you cutting apart those 500 pieces and knew you were insane enough to work with us.'"
    As it happened, Emmerich's office was in front of the bus stop Engel had been using to go to school for a year and a half. He learned that after going to a movie with Oliver Scholl, who had done some concept drawings for the film. "I was the classic poor student," Engel says. "I didn't have a car. So, Oliver said he would drive me home to the room I rented. When we got there, he said, 'This is amazing. You live just around the corner from Roland's office. You should call him.'" And Engel did.

    Emmerich invited him to stop by and he stayed for four hours. "We just hit it off," Engel says. He gave Emmerich the documentary he'd made of the making of the trailer for the film he didn't finish.

    Engel was in his third semester of school, but with Professor Ade's help, he convinced the school to let him take a leave of absence. On the job, he worked with five model makers, none professional, but all people who loved making models. "Roland was an amazing leader," Engel says. "He was always there with us, figuring things out, testing things.
    He loved to do this stuff himself." After building rocks, skyscraper towers and other models, Emmerich gave him a raise. A few months later Engel was doing camera tests and supervising, working 16 hours a day.
    "I just loved it," he says. "I loved every minute of it."

    And the work paid off, more than in money.

    "One day we were sitting on a little bench in the studio and brainstorming about what they could call me title-wise," Engel says. "Roland said, 'I guess we'll just call you a special effects supervisor.' And that's how I got my first supervisor credit. It's always the same. Someone opens the door a little bit for you and then it's always up to you what you do with that." Many of the people who worked on the crew of Moon 44 went on to work on Never Ending Story, Part 2, and Engel wanted to join them. But, Emmerich wouldn't recommend him.

    "I was totally miffed," Engel says. "Roland said, "I want you to finish your studies. I don't want to be responsible for you becoming a cab driver.'"
    Engel talked Emmerich into recommending him anyway, but then decided to go back to school after all. And then, just as he was about to finish, Emmerich called and invited him to work in Los Angeles on a sequence with miniatures for Universal Soldier. It wasn't a great experience.

    "I was in the southeastern part of Glendale near a car dump," Engel says.
    "It was pretty bad. Roland was away prepping the shoot, so I was alone except for two other guys who were not very interested in film."

    Rather than staying in LA, Engel raced back to Germany, finished his studies and received his degree. When Professor Ade launched the now famous Filmakademie, he invited Engel and 12 other students to become the first animation class and before long, Engel became a kind of production manager for the school, teaching and organizing the animation department.

    "It was amazing," he says. "The school had a greenscreen studio and all this equipment. Four or five SGI machines with Alias software, the finest equipment. I decided it would be fun to stay for a while."

    And that's where he met Marc Weigert, now his partner in their production company, Uncharted Territory. The two eventual partners worked together for the first time while Weigert was a student at the Filmakademie. When Weigert moved to Los Angeles, though, Engel stayed at the Filmakademie.

    "I didn't want to go to Los Angeles," Engel says. "But after three years, I realized I couldn't learn anything more here, so I resigned. Two weeks later, Roland called. He said, 'We're planning a movie which is a bit like a modern version of War of the Worlds. It's called Independence Day."

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  • Volker packed a suitcase, recruited some students to work with him on the film, and hired Weigert as a project manager. Engel and Douglas Smith became co-visual effects supervisors, and both won Oscars. "It was a 70-million dollar Hollywood production," Engel says. "I had never done something at that scale before. But the thing with Roland is that he puts trust in you, and once you feel that someone puts trust in you, you feel you can do the impossible."

    In the end, Smith and Engel supervised 325 people who created 400 effects shots, most of which involved miniatures. And then, from Independence Day, Engel moved on to supervise the visual effects, many of which were CG, for Emmerich's next film, Godzilla."I was 32," Engel says. "There were 400 or 500 people involved, and I was the sole visual effects supervisor. But it was all cool.
    I felt safe with Roland because I knew him so well."

    By then, Weigert had started his own visual effects company, and after Engel finished 'Godzilla,' the two artists decided to work together. "The idea was to have a production company to develop our own movies or co-produce, as it turned out later," Engel says. "Not to be a visual effects facility."

    On both Godzilla and Independence Day, the main visual effects unit was in the same area as editorial, near to where the director worked in post-production. "That's something we do to this day, " Engel says. "In film school, I had to learn teamwork, and the biggest deal with teamwork is communication. So, we don't do projects where the main vfx unit is more than 100 feet away from editorial and from the director. That's what we did on 2012."

    With their new company Uncharted Territory, Engel and Weigert had worked on the film Coronado and the TV miniseries' Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (also known as Curse of the Ring, and Ring of the Nibelungs) and The Triangle.

    "For Coronado, we co-wrote the screenplay with the director, organized the financing and the shoot in Mexico, and organized the post production," Engel says. "We really produced the movie from beginning to end."

    For Dark Kingdom, the two acted as visual effects supervisors and co-producer; for The Triangle, they were visual effects supervisors and producers. For both productions, Engel and Weigert hired people as they needed them in effect, creating a visual effects 'studio' solely for the project and then disbanding it and selling the equipment when finished. "For The Triangle, we did 800 visual effects shots with a team of 30 artists in a post-production time of three months," Engel says. So, the concept worked, but they wanted to create their own projects. They began working with a screenwriter.

    "Just as we were about to start preproduction, Roland invited me to dinner," Engel says. "He told me about 2012, and that he wanted me and Marc onboard as co-producers on the $200 million movie."

    That left the partners thinking about whether to pursue their own small movie, which Weigert would direct and Engel would produce, or get onboard for 2012. "We had spent eight months on screenplay development," Engel says. "The film was our baby and we loved it and we had a financing company onboard. But after one second, we decided on 2012."

    Engel and Weigert located Uncharted Territory on Sony Pictures' lot, near the edit bay where Emmerich would cut the film.
    They bought machines, hired artists, and, using software Weigert developed, became the hub through which all the visual effects shots flowed. Their own Uncharted Territory created the frantic limousine ride through Los Angeles as an earthquake strikes. The supe's hired some thirteen other studios to create the rest.

    "That's the fascinating point about this profession," he says. "My goal always lies in storytelling, but don't expect anything from us with just three people in a room having a discussion. There will always be some visual element to the films we do."

    So, is life is good for Engel? "It's wonderful," he says. "I couldn't come up with anything that would make me happier."
    "In the beginning, we knew we would need other companies, so we were able to hire five or six main houses and then several boutique shops with people we knew," Engel says. "It was great. I calculated that half the movie, one hour and seventeen minutes, is visual effects. And these are some of the most difficult shots to create in visual effects. The earthquake sequences, the particle work, the water. I was amazed by what our artists achieved."

    The film has already received two nominations for best visual effects for the Critics Choice Award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Satellite Award.

    As is their practice, Engel and Weigert disbanded the crew at Uncharted Territory at the end of 2012 production, and have already begun thinking about the new group of artists they'll need in Germany for Emmerich's next film, Anonymous, set in Shakespearean England.

    "It's as far away from 2012 as you can imagine," Engel says. "We'll create 16th century London, 100% realistic, with slow establishing shots."

    After that? Perhaps, the entrepreneurial visual effects artists and businessmen can get back to their personal project, Raising Phoenix. It's story about a small furry creature, unlike 2012 or Anonymous."We loved the movie E.T.," Engel says. "We want to do something in that vein. A completely different story, but with that sense of wonder."

    up-and-coming Film Festival
    Uncharted Territory
    Volker Engel on IMDB

    Meet the Artist

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