5 Minutes with… Neil Huxley
Neil Huxley spent his youth playing video games with the likes of Frank Miller, Dave McKean and Dave Gibbons. If you’re into your comic books, we’re sure you’ll agree this is pretty cool. If you’re not… just… trust us. Plugged into gaming and graphic novels from a young age, Neil has gone on to combine these twin passions with another love: filmmaking.
Over the years, he’s worked on James Cameron’s groundbreaking VFX-fest Avatar, Zack Snyder’s movie version of the graphic novel Watchmen, and in-game cinematics for videogames like Lara Croft: Rise of the Tomb Raider. He’s directed game trailers for blockbusters like Transformers and historical adventure Assassin’s Creed. He can whip up CG fantasy lands and loves playing with new toys to help actors immerse themselves within them (the current favourite is VR, which helps actors experience a 360 pre-vis of the virtual set).
But there’s another side to Neil. His promo for November's UFC bout between notorious fighters Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm and his upcoming documentary about the London boxer Jimmy Flint, Portrait of an Assassin, reveal a live action director who’s all about the carnal, visceral emotions of life. A former bouncer, he’s not one to flinch from brutal realism if his films call for it.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Neil just as he joins B-Reel Films’ UK roster to have a good ol’ geek out. Enjoy!
LBB> You’ve recently signed with B-Reel Films – how did that partnership come about and what was it about the team that appealed to you?
NH> Margo Mars reached out through a mutual friend and asked if I had UK representation, which I didn’t. Margo is amazing, and her reputation in this business is phenomenal as people that I work with in LA were singing her praises before I had even met her. She worked with the amazing EP/VP of commercials for Mothership Tiffani Manabat to make this happen, so I have both these incredible women to thank.
B-Reel Films is a truly multi-discipline international production company that has transcended the mould of the traditional production model. They were one of the first to truly pioneer and work this way. Their work is superb. That plus Margo and it was a no brainer. The future is very exciting.
LBB> How did you first get into VFX and film? What was it that drew you to that world?
NH> I’ve loved movies since my younger brother and I would obsess over John Carpenter films as kids. Films, video games and comics were and still are perfect escapism for me. If done right, VFX blends the real and the surreal to create worlds that we can live inside, worlds that we can escape to. As a teenager I did work experience at Jim Henson’s creature shop but a lot of the guys there could see the CGI tidal wave coming, and told me to learn computer software instead of practical FX, and get into the industry that way. So I did. One company led to another and here I am. I’m so happy that practical FX never died and it is almost having a renaissance these days. There is a place for practical FX and CG, and a smart director knows when to use what, when the budget allows.
LBB> I was really intrigued to read your bio – your dad conserved frames and was also a bouncer, your mum did ‘top secret’ work for the UK government… Do you think that has influenced you in any way in your creativity or career?
NH> Ha – yes. I also worked the door in Australia with my Irish mate Malcolm, who I boxed with out there too. Growing up in south London exposes one to these things. Violence was a part of growing up. I hated school because I was a nerd, other boys would rip up my artwork which was hard for me to understand but I think that gave me the drive to push and get out of there. I held a Francis Bacon painting in my hands at the age of 12 and would hang out at the Tate surrounded by art. Dad would carve beautiful reliefs for his frames by day and by night would be standing on the door of the Crypt in Deptford. My father has that intense creative side, he is an amazing artist in his own right – so is my brother – and being built like a brick shithouse helps when you are breaking up fights in nightclubs. My dad is a softie but get on his wrong side and he goes off like Slaine in a 2000ad comic book.
I never really knew what mum did because she couldn’t talk about it. I know it was on the news that someone left a list of important government employees’ names in a briefcase on a train and my mum’s name was on that list. It was like something out of a Mission Impossible film. I think it all probably informs my work on a subconscious level for sure.
LBB> You’ve done a lot of work with the games industry, notably on trailers for games like Assassin’s Creed and Mad Max… Are you a big gamer yourself? Is it an area that you tried to get into or did you just happen to end up doing lots of stuff with the games industry due to your mix of skills?
NH> I love video games and remember playing the arcade machines with my brother as a kid down the south coast of the UK at Broadstairs and Margate. My Gran would hold my brother up as we played Gauntlet. Then the console generation came along, it’s what nerdy kids like me did, and I still play them. My brother wrote Arkham Knight so that was the last thing I played and it was bloody great. It was by chance that I was at Digital Domain that I got a chance to work on a Ghost Recon CG trailer. Several game trailers later and I signed with Mothership.
LBB> What are your all-time favourite games, and are there any interesting recent titles that have caught your eye?
NH> All time favourite games? That’s like asking me what my favourite films are! Ha! Gauntlet, Double Dragon, Shinobi, R-Type, Altered Beast would have to be up there as there is such nostalgia for me in ‘80s arcades. When my brother and I walk into arcades nowadays it’s like we are instantly 10 again, giggling and getting lost in the pixels.
Recently, I played Lucky’s Tale and Eve Valkyrie on the Oculus Rift, and it literally blew my mind. The possibilities of where games and film are going in the next 10-20 years is going to be the stuff of science fiction. We will be wearing advanced Haptic suits and never leaving the house! :D
LBB> Which of these big trailers were the most interesting to work on and why?
NH> I think my UFC promos have been some of the most interesting as its marking an exciting transition into live action for me, which has happened over the last 14 months. With the video game trailers I’ve always worked with actors, they are just in performance capture suits. Now I am working in live action those same skills apply.
LBB> A well as directing trailers for video games, you also do in-game cinematics. How does the creative and production process for these segments differ from, say, a VFX-heavy or CG animated commercial project or trailer?
NH> Well the schedules are longer for a start. For Rise of the Tomb Raider I think we shot for 20 days which is getting close to a feature film shooting schedule. The actual shoots themselves are almost identical and the same with the VCAM (virtual camera) lensing. On the back end you get real time results once you plug this data into a game engine. With pre-rendered it takes a few weeks to take the CG from grey shaded post-vis to nice clean photo-feel CG.
LBB> And what, if anything, can the ad industry learn from video games in terms of interactive storytelling?
NH> I think non-linear storytelling is a massive draw for me in whatever medium. Taking risks, putting a new, fresh and exciting spin on old ideas.
LBB> A lot of work involves blending live action and CGI worlds. What’s the key to helping actors really get in the headspace they need to and getting the performance you want from them when they’re shooting against green screen?
NH> It’s about tapping into that 10 year old imagination again, running around your grandparents backyard with a pair of cut down living room curtains as a cape.
We also have great toys these days to immerse actors. For a Nintendo spot I did last year we immersed the kid actors in between takes using a VR headset where we had the pre-vis playing in a 360 environment so the actors had accurate eye lines and scale cues for their performances. Very similar tech that Jon Favreau used at Digital Domain for Disney’s Jungle Book.
LBB> What about shooting more naturalistic, non-VFX-heavy films – is that something that appeals to you?
NH> Absolutely it does. My Rousey vs Holm ‘Revolution’ promo was exactly that. No VFX whatsoever. Just pure live action storytelling. I love film. I want to make films whether they have VFX or not.
LBB> You’ve worked on some massive movies, notably Avatar which was really game-changing when it came out in terms of completely pushing the boundaries of building CGI worlds, motion capture and of course 3D cinema. How did you get involved in the project? And what are your memories of working on it? And was there a sense at the time that you were working on something really special?
NH> I became involved through a friend who had his own VFX company called Frantic Films. They had zero HUD design work on their reel so they used my work from a movie called Gamer to secure the work on Avatar. We all knew it was going to be huge when the studio invited us to a screening of 10 minutes of completed footage about three months before the delivery.
It was a smart move on their part as it got us all excited to finish it. The lights went up and we all looked at each other, jaws dropped. Working with James Cameron was a bucket list event for me. We hung out briefly at the cast and crew screening, he asked me what I thought, I told him it was amazing, to which he replied, “Fuck yeah it is!”. He is a true visionary and a big creative hero of mine ever since seeing Terminator at a very young (too young!) age.
LBB> Another biggie was Watchmen, where you were the art director. The film draws heavily from Dave Gibbon’s artwork and framing – as an art director are there specific pressures and challenges involved in taking another artist’s much-loved vision and translating it to the big screen? How do you remain faithful to the original while bringing something fresh and vibrant?
NH> Watchmen, alongside Dark Knight Returns and Elektra Assassin, was one of the graphic novels that changed my life as a kid. One of my best mates, Mike Lake, is thanked alongside Neil Gaiman in the opening pages of Watchmen. I used to live across the street from Mike when I was a teenager. Mike owned Forbidden Planet, so growing up I used to hang out and play video games with all these comic creators like Frank Miller, Simon Bisley, Dave McKean, Kevin O’Neal, Bill Sinkiewicz and Dave Gibbons. This stuff is in my DNA. The title sequence was all Zack’s [Snyder, Watchmen director] idea and it was his gift to the fans. I was fortunate enough to help design it with him.
LBB> You’re also working on a film about the boxer Jimmy Flint. What was it about him that appealed to you? Is it a documentary or fictional film and how far along the production process are you?
NH> Jimmy is a force of nature. There is no one else like him. His story is fascinating. We all know the stories about the fighters that made it, the champions, but I think the most interesting stories are with the guys that didn’t. What happens to you when you can’t box anymore? That’s not something you can just switch off.
But this is more than just a film about boxing. It deals with contrasts of intense violence and love. Themes of identity and re-invention, unfulfilled potential and shattered dreams. But I think above all else this is a story about a man, who after no matter what, never gives up and will not be content leaving this life without making his mark. Some would argue he has already made one, but for Jimmy it’s not enough. We have more to shoot, but it will be finished hopefully at the end of this year all being well.