|CGSociety :: Artist Profile|
4 February 2010, by Barbara Robertson
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
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
"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
"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."