Meet the Visual Effects Artists Behind ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘Westworld’

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Photo Source: PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

From the secretive android labs of HBO’s “Westworld” to 1960s Paris in Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” visual effects play a crucial role in building the believable—in-budget—world viewers see on the screen. And as the founder and VFX supervisor of Chicken Bone VFX, John Renzulli’s role in doing just that has been immense, if not obvious. (According to Renzulli, that’s exactly the mark of great visual effects: “seamlessly integrated and completely invisible to the viewer.”)

With the Oct. 23 release of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Renzulli spoke with Backstage about what it takes to be the person behind the team who brings dreamy chess sequences and robot horses to life, how he hires his team, and all the ways VFX is integrated into a production.

For someone new to the industry, describe what VFX is/what a VFX team does.
VFX historically is the process of creating or enhancing an effect that is otherwise impractical to shoot in a production environment. The majority of VFX these days is done digitally by combining practical and digital elements to create a unified whole composition. This could be anything from removing objects or people in a scene to adding any number of things to enhance or replace what is in the photography. The teams are built for and around the type of effect needing to be achieved.

How did you get into visual effects? What was your first production job? How did you work your way up? What kind of training did you need?
I got into visual effects when I realized that photography can be manipulated to give the illusion that a person is in a place that they are, in fact, not! Visual effects are not only digital, some are just very simple camera tricks that have been used for a century to create an illusion.

I learned first what photography was and studied media and film broadly in my college career. I have always had a knack for visual arts and computer adeptness and got exposure to a plethora of software during that time. After college, I moved to Los Angeles and took an internship with a small VFX company after doing a couple of years of training on my own with classes from Black Box, Pixel Corps, and anything I could get my hands on. The internship quickly turned into a job and progressed through the ranks of assistant to junior to mid-level to senior artist. Ultimately, my love for visual effects, a small opportunity, some digital skills, and a willingness to learn opened the door for my future success.

In as much detail as possible, walk us through what a day in the life of a VFX team looks like on “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Westworld.”
Before and after VFX from "The Queen's Gambit"VFX teams vary in size depending on the scope of a project. They can consist of two or thousands of artists. For “The Queens Gambit,” we had more than 60 artists touch the project at some point. We were brought in early to do some concept work to create alignment with the creatives, after which we started to assemble the team.

We are typically involved during the writing phase to help gauge the feasibility of the writers’ vision and break down the script to define the scope of what needs to be done per shot/scene. VFX producers turn these breakdowns into budgets that are meticulously calculated.

Simultaneously, the concept team helps the creatives conceptualize visuals by providing samples or interpretations of their ideas to further our alignment and conversation. The VFX supervisors then collaborate on set with the production team to ensure the effect photography is shot in a way that serves the creative goals of production while also being useable for our [post-production] team. This often involves shooting multiple takes during principal photography, 2nd unit element photography, or even non-production shoots done by the VFX team. While this is happening, there is often a fair amount of previs and asset prep being done in the background that can be used to inform how VFX shooting is done or not done.

Once it gets through editorial and spotted for VFX, we are then presented with the takes to really get post going. The artists’ teams are built by this point and we go into full VFX production. The paint artists prep photographic plates (shots) by removing unwanted items while roto artists cut out objects and people from a scene to create a convincing composition. The 3D team finishes the photorealistic assets and adds them to a virtual scene with a virtual camera and animation, then lights and renders them into layers. The compositors then assemble these layers into shots and render their 2D composites. These composites are iterated on and approved by the supervisor(s) before going out for approval or client review. Wash, rinse, repeat.

How do you hire your team?
We hire artists based on their skill sets and diversity of skills. Some artists need to be highly versatile, while others would be laser-beam-focused on a refined skill. Each artist needs to be able to operate in a team and communicate well. That’s the baseline.

On top of that, we look for talent that will fit our culture which is built on honesty, attentiveness, and independence. Given that the team is largely virtual—and has always been—it’s very important we have the right talent in place. Frequently, our team is sourced from referrals from current and previous employees.

What kind of training/education would you recommend someone have if they want to pursue a career in VFX?
It certainly does not hurt to take courses that are specifically designed to understand VFX workflows, skillsets, and software. That said, VFX artists come from everywhere and a great many backgrounds. Being interested [and] willing to learn is fundamental and can create opportunities independently of specific education.

What advice would you give an aspiring VFX artist that you wish you had when you were first starting?
Listen more than you speak, learn your craft intimately, and don’t consider setback as outright failures. Failure is only a state of mind so just keep at it and find the likeminded.

What are some of your favorite moments of great VFX? 
I still love “Jurassic Park” and “The Abyss.” They were such pivotal films for me in my trajectory as a filmmaker. They changed the trajectory of VFX and set the bar high for great storytelling that is specifically facilitated by VFX.

In your opinion, what’s the hallmark of great VFX?
Regardless of background, great VFX is when a team speaks the same or similar creative language, thereby producing exquisite results through their collaboration and trade skills. The result speaks for itself if the visual effects facilitate and do not distract from the creator’s story. Some of the greatest stories around have very few VFX however these few are so seamlessly integrated and completely invisible to the viewer that they remain immersed. For me, that is the pinnacle of VFX in storytelling.

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!