Interview with Jan Heinze

At this year’s SIGGRAPH Asia, Animators in Singapore had the privilege of meeting Jan Heinze (Executive Producer, PIXOMONDO), who shared his views and vision on the visual effects industry.

1. To begin, what led you to pursue a career in visual effects? 

My background is in design and I started work at PIXOMONDO about 11 years ago. Back then, we were primarily working on events media and advertisements, so we were pretty much a small design house. 

Over time, however, we extended our work towards 3D animation and visual effects for TV and movies. In 2005, we started working on our first big feature The Red Baron. Compared to most American productions, you could say this was a small-scale German movie, but the success of the project proved to be a significant milestone for our foray into high-end visual effects, with more challenging projects arriving at our doorstep.

2. What were the challenges faced and how did you deal with them?

One thing I really love about my work is the diversity of challenges. Many people assume it’s all about technology, but it must be emphasized this industry is first of all a ‘people business’ and my job is to make sure everyone can contribute to the success of a project.  Challenges can come from design and storytelling questions, new technologies, client requests or from within the team.

3. You are currently overseeing Operations at PIXOMONDO China. How do you establish a balance between commercial interests and creative endeavour? 

When we’re working on a film, the main goal is to realize the director’s vision. The director, producers and audience are essentially our clients. Within our teams we take steps to divide responsibilities for creative and economic success. This happens mostly between the visual effects supervisor and the producer. I think it is great to see these two positions having a constant “fight” in achieving a common goal: A successful project. 

The competition in the industry has intensified and many companies struggle to survive on low margins, while doing work of greater complexity. Managing a compromise between the director’s vision, our own creative expectations and the budget is extremely challenging but if successful, very rewarding as well. In that sense, if we get to work on interesting projects and make our clients happy to the point where they want to work with us again, that would be our commercial and creative dividends.


Reconstructing the train station

4. You wrote in your blog that you enjoy working in a story-telling ‘oriented’ industry, could you elaborate more on that?

A story-telling oriented industry is simply an environment where we’re using our resources to realise a narrative. It calls for passion and creative input, and attracts exactly the kind of people I want to work with.  

I wrote this sentence in a rather ironic fashion. Some projects we were working on used visual effects to create a spectacle to captivate viewers. Unfortunately, there is the tendency to sacrifice the narrative. With contemporary consumers exposed to almost everything, we see more film-makers going back to their roots, to focus on character development and story. They use visual effects to support storytelling and that’s a positive step. Visual effects enable filmmakers to tell every imaginable story, but they are certainly no substitute for a lack of it.

5. Now that you are based in China, do you observe any difference in the way ‘visual effects’ is produced in the West and Asia in general? We can also discuss stylistic differences between different Asian countries, for that matter.

Visual effects for motion pictures are a relatively new business in China, whereas the US market is quite saturated. For the latter, it’s not uncommon to find productions costing up to 200 million USD and taking up to 50% of the approved budget. Given that visual effects have a substantial stake in ensuring the success of these huge investments, directors have grown accustomed to integrating them into their projects and would not hesitate to procure our services during the initial phases of production. 

In Asia, however, the use of visual effects is still often perceived as a footnote (i.e. an add-on that occurs during post-production), so the challenge here is to foster a better appreciation of visual effects which will eventually allow us to work at a more international level in this region, even if budgets do not (yet) compare with the US.

6. And do you think Asia will be a promising location for the VISUAL EFFECTS industry. If so, why?

Absolutely, and one can see this through the ambition to create grand spectacular films. Chinese films will have to keep moving in that direction to stay competitive in the international market, so a serious interest in visual effects is to be expected.

7. On that note, perhaps you can share with us the rationale behind PIXOMONDO’s global expansion, and how the company differentiates itself from its competitors?

Most visual effects companies have two or maybe three big studios across the world. We have 14 this year. The idea is to combine the more intimate environment of boutique size studios—with  around 70 artists each—and the capacity of a large studio by working as one big virtualized facility with 24 hour production around the globe. All locations benefit from the network, but are also independent and not subjected to nuances of one market. 

With such a business model, we can explore future markets and avoid the up- and down-sizing in one location after the next big project. So although we are expanding fast, we believe in continuous development of teams. One other important factor for us is talent. We believe there is great talent all around the globe. Having access to great artists around the globe does not merely afford us a competitive advantage but also gives our employees opportunities to work on more exciting projects without leaving their home, families and friends.


Shot breakdown of the dream sequence

8. I’m sure you’ve met consumers who claim a particular film is all ‘effects and no story’. What are your thoughts on that? How can VISUAL EFFECTS contribute to a compelling and enjoyable story?

Hugo, a film we worked on, comes to mind. One can see how visual effects are weaved together with the storyline, as opposed to compensating for a lack of the latter. For example, in the scenes of 1930s Paris, the train station and the automaton are extremely important components of the plot and played a very crucial role in bringing the story to life. 

Visual Effects can contribute to a story, by creating a believable setting and making the impossible possible. There are multiple possibilities because the creation of visual effects is essentially a practice of suspending disbelief in the audience. Personally, I will enjoy the film if visual effects can contribute in such a way to the story and would refrain from going to the theatre, if the story is not up to par.

9. Finally, let’s look into the techniques behind visual effects. How has the technology evolved over the years?

The industry has experienced dramatic technological change in recent years that has led us, as visual effects managers, to build tools and processes to manage every shot, plate, asset and effect to deliver the highest quality work at the lowest possible margin. 

The direction of the industry is to broaden the scope of these visual effects tools and processes as the adoption of digital filmmaking blurs the line between pre-production, production and post-production. 

10. More significantly, have new technologies created new modes of visualization (i.e. seeing/understanding the work). If so, how?

Ultimately, technological change has had the most measurable impact on production management and our direct involvement in the process. New techniques such as pre-visualisation allow us to trace the development of the film’s production at an early stage and actively shape its course. This marks a huge improvement from the days when the result was not visible on film until much later.

Siggraph Asia 2012

SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) is an annual conference on computer graphics convened by the ACM SIGGRAPH organization since 1974.

Both a conference and a trade exhibition, SIGGRAPH Asia attracts the most respected technical and creative people from all over the world. See, meet, and interact with the international computer graphics and interactive techniques community and witness the astounding advancements of computer graphics technologies, where stellar ideas blend with boundless artistry.