5 Minutes With… Stuart Robinson
When Stuart Robinson left school at the age of 16 his first taste of computing came in the form of a sprawling behemoth of a machine that took up a whole basement. Since then his career trajectory has mirrored the acceleration of technology. Just as processors have shrunk and computer-generated imagery has evolved from clunky green pixels and rudimentary polygons and photo-real characters and landscapes, Robinson has found himself moving from the realm of ‘ones’ and ‘zeroes’ to the rather more creative land of visual effects. While he may have started his career banished to the basement, Robinson now works with a new generation of confident, tech-minded creatives and artistically-inclined technicians. This year Stuart moved from London to New York to head up Method Studios’ Big Apple office, where he has been working hard on the big screen interpretation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Robinson to talk technology, creativity, and why the best visual effects are the ones you never see.
LBB> Where did you start out?
My first job was at a company called IBCA (international banking and credit analysis) in the mid-1980s. That was in The City of London. I worked in their computer department, which consisted of two guys called Stephen Pickford and David Prout. They were tie-dye t-shirt-wearing hippies who had dropped out of Oxford and Cambridge universities respectively, but were pure geniuses who knew everything about computers. They gave me the best training you could ever get. Four years working with these guys and I came out a completely different kid. I had flunked my O-Levels but they still took me on at the age of 16. By the time I was ready to go travelling with my mates to Australia at the age of 20, I really felt like I knew a lot about computers. It was an education that will last with me for ever, and the best education I could have ever had. I’m still in touch with them today.
LBB> They must be proud of you to see how far you’ve come since you were a fresh-faced 16-year-old!
SR> It’s funny isn’t it? Dave was the head of the department and I never thought that he would ever not work in computers but he’s working in marketing in Thailand now. One thing I would say is that it’s never too late to change what you do.
LBB> What led you to move from computing to visual effects?
SR> I think it was luck actually. I had been travelling with eight of my best school mates - we got up to all sorts – and when I came back from Australia (22 years old), I went to work for another computer company. They offered support services to companies that didn’t want to run their own internal IT services. One of the companies we supported was DMB&B (D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles), a company that doesn’t really exist anymore. They had a below-the-line marketing and sales promotion company called IMP in Knightsbridge, and I got posted there. That was my first foray into advertising. It was about 1992. I had been working in The City, working with numbers and stockbrokers and I couldn’t believe that this advertising world existed - I loved it.
The company was quite forward thinking. They had started to consider building a small network of computers that would be able to work in 3D images. I think we blew up millions of hard drives and processors while we tried to build up the system. I was there for three years. While I was trying to help them set up these 3D machines, I was beginning to realise that there was a connection and that something was forming in the creative world that would have a huge role for technology.
In 1995 I saw an advert in the Guardian Media section from FrameStore that said ‘computer bloke wanted’. I looked at FrameStore’s typeface and I thought ‘god, that looks like a good company, I wonder what they do’. I rang them up and got an interview. When they told me what they did I thought ‘oh yeah, I really want to do this’. Sharon Reid, who was the managing director at the time, offered me a job – and the rest is history, as they say.
I just see it as a fortunate sequence of events that I just slipped into. I think there were moments when I realised that I was trying to make something happen but I was never such an organised person that knew what t that ‘something’ was, I just enjoyed being there at the time. It’s only when you look back that you realise you were following a certain path.
LBB> And you’re now at Method Studios in New York. How have you found the cultural differences between working in London and New York?
SR> That’s one of the interesting things, really. The scripts are good. The creative across the whole world has got very good these days. While London is still brilliant at churning out good creative there are great scripts coming out of America. There are lots of good directors out here too. But culturally it’s a very different country. Even the language, though they say it’s the same, it’s different and it can create barriers; small barriers but it still very different.
LBB> Does that cultural difference result in differences in the working culture or the things you’re asked to do?
SR> Not really, but it seems that everyone’s roles are a lot more clearly defined over here and there’s definitely a sense of pride in whatever anyone does, which is really nice to see. I’m not saying that that doesn’t happen anywhere else, but it’s very obvious that people are very proud to be working here, no matter what role they have.
There are huge cultural differences but as an Englishman coming here people do accept you very openly. They might make fun of the way you talk, but they do respect the English for our heritage in visual effects and advertising. They all know the big English commercials and respect English VFX houses. The Mill, Framestore and MPC are all doing incredibly well out here. It’s interesting to be working for an American company whose competing against the same companies that I’m used to compete against back home.
LBB> Since coming to Method, what projects have you worked on that have been particularly exciting?
SR> There’ve been a couple actually. There’s one that I’m dying to tell you about – but can’t! We’ve also just finished Cloud Atlas, which has just come out in the cinema here in the States. We were the lead VFX house on Cloud Atlas and Dan Glass, our vice president, was also the lead VFX supervisor on the whole film. That’s our big thing at Method at the moment.
It’s a brilliant book. It’s quite a tough read and when I got to the end of it I was very impressed with the way he ties it up and it all comes together in literally the last paragraph.
LBB> That’s another big difference between London and New York – it seems to be a lot more common for post houses to work across both features and commercials. How is that experience?
SR> It’s brilliant. It’s so nice to know you’ve got a team and a pipeline that can manage both. One minute I’ll get an email about a feature and the next I’ll get one about a commercial. It’s nice to have a to-do list that is such a mix. We’ve just been awarded a job called Non Stop, which stars Liam Neeson. It’s shooting in New York. Posting, editing, everything is happening here in NYC, which means they can take real advantage of the cities tax incentives. We’re really excited to be working on it. It’s an exciting time and I’m amazed how busy it is here at Method.
LBB> Have you had the chance to visit any of Method’s other offices?
SR> I’ve been out to LA a couple of times. If we’ve got a job that’s shooting over there I’ll often fly out to see how it’s going on set with our VFX supervisors. We often collaborate with LA, Chicago, we’re working with London on a project for Lady Gaga.
The London office has got an incredibly talented concept and design team. Each office has its own particular strength and when we’re putting concepts together and designing bits and pieces for features or commercials or, in this case, music video, we can brief the London team and they’ll work on concept design for us. The time difference really works in our favour because by the time we arrive, they’ve already had a whole morning working on something and they’re dying to get on the phone and talk to us. Then when they leave work we’ve got a whole afternoon to review it. We’re also working with Method in Sydney on a commercial at the moment. The director’s in Sydney are creating the VFX supervising and we’re doing the post because the agency is over here.
LBB> Before you got into post, you started off working in computing and have seen how the possibilities of visual effects have evolved. How does that sort of background lend itself to working and visualising a creative project, such as Cloud Atlas?
SR> It’s interesting because if you’ve got a very technical background and you read something like Cloud Atlas it makes so much sense. You can really see what David Mitchell is talking about and it helps you visualise the pages of the book.
In the case of Cloud Atlas it also helped that we had a very technical VFX supervisor, in the form of Dan Glass. He read the book and could build visual perceptions of what he thought the world was going to look like. I think that understanding helps people visualise written and verbal ideas better. I think that comes from a mix of technology and artistry.
The same goes for the Lady Gaga project. The director is a wonderful photographer called Stephen Klein, who is a very visual person. When he talks to us, he’s looking for ideas that can be achieved within the constraints of technology. When you’ve got a team that’s worked on such high-end technology, in such a creative environment, for so long, they can go beyond straightforward creative solutions. Rather than saying ‘we can create a mechanical soldier and it would look like this’, they can say ‘if you shoot something this way, we can achieve this sort of effect in post’. It’s a beautiful blend between creativity and technology. There’s still a big part of me that’s a geek who thinks in zeroes and ones, but I like being able to evangelise about what we do in a language that is more useful to VFX artists, directors and producers.
LBB> And on the other hand, younger directors and creative coming up have that technological vocabulary.
SR> There are a lot of very well established directors who are very talented with visual effects. However, you’ve got these directors coming up who have the ability to tell a story but also have the skills to do the visual effects themselves - only to a degree, of course. They couldn’t work on an entire commercial because they just don’t have the capacity, but they understand the digital tasks they’re setting the post houses.
LBB> And as a result have you noticed if that collaboration process has become easier from your point of view?
SR> You get less frustration between the director and the VFX artist now - something I used to notice back in the earlier days. People would say ‘why do you need a day to make that small change?’… I think a lot of the time directors are more appreciative of what’s being carried out for them and there’s more patience. It’s not just directors – agencies also seem to be a lot more clued up these days.
I think that whilst people did originally think that the price of technology coming down would result in post houses having to close, that hasn’t really been the case. Directors can do things in their back rooms but they only really do the tests. They don’t want to open a post house. It’s still a very specific and complicated industry that’s very well respected.
LBB> That’s an interesting point – because there has been a bit of doom and gloom over the last few years. Do you think people have moved past that?
SR> A more positive way of looking at the price of technology coming down is that people can expand and take on bigger, more ambitious projects. You can put a 100-man team on a job for the same price that you could have used to open one flame suite back in the mid-90s.
LBB> Plus the upcoming generation of VFX artists and post wizards coming to you have more skills because they’ve been able to hone their craft in their bedrooms and have somewhere to play around first.
SR> Exactly – you can buy off-the-shelf software packages that will do 75 per cent of what you can do in Flame. You can’t do it as quickly and you can’t work on such high-resolution imagery but you can perfect your skills.
Ben Wheatley, a director I worked with at Tomboy films – he’s someone who is now shooting feature films back-to-back these days. He always had this great approach to visual effects where he developed little tricks in camera. He would then take his footage back to his bedroom and work on it in After Effects. It was really simple, very funny visual effects that he would use to make people laugh and now he’s an incredibly successful director. He would have always been, but he helped force the issue by having the skills to create the visual effects, as he wanted them.
LBB> Being someone who is so immersed in post and visual effects, does that knowledge ruins or enhance your enjoyment of movies?
SR> (laughs) Anyone who knows me knows that I can switch off from anything very easily. If I go to see a film I’m a ten year old boy with my eyes wide open. Only if the visual effects are visible do I ever not appreciate them. VFX are at their best, when you just don’t notice them. You can come out a film that could have been packed with effects, and you won’t know about them. Even in a live action drama, someone will have changed the colour of a sign or created a matte painting in the background that you don’t notice – I love work like that. People take such pride in that sort of work because it’s all there for the enjoyment of the audience. Every moment that passes without someone noticing an effect means that people are doing their jobs right.
I do occasionally think about my work and the visual effects when I watch a film but only when I make myself concentrate on them.
LBB> Outside of visual effects what sort of thing are you into?
SR> I’ve got this boyhood passion for BMX bikes. You might not know, but I wrote a book on the history of BMX bikes with Gavin Lucas from Creative Review and Intercity. I take my son to nursery every day - he’s only four, but he’s a 1970s DK Ripper. BMX-ing is a big passion, as is skateboarding – I’m hugely into skateboarding – and surfing. The rest of the time I spend knocking about with my boys educating them, making sure they grow up to be Spurs fans, living well and enjoying life.
I was really lucky that when I was growing up my dad introduced me to… everything. Literally. One weekend we would go up a mountain, the next weekend we went sailing in a small dinghy, the following weekend, I’d be standing in the middle of November morning, in my swimming trunks, with a polystyrene surfboard in my hand. As a kid it’s great to be exposed to so much. When you grow up, you realise the importance of those years. So now, every weekend is about getting out to the countryside… it’s good for you, especially when you’re spending a week in a VFX studio.