Constructing new realities: A look behind the scenes with digital effects artist Guy Williams

Mississippi native Guy Williams is working with world-renowned directors, attending the Oscars and overseeing visual effects production on some of the world’s biggest movies.

“I tell my kids that the world is full of people who will tell you what the problem is, but there are very few people who will tell you what the problem is and then offer a solution for it. This applies to any job—if you want to go far, be the guy who offers up the solution, not the problem.”- Guy Williams

How did you land the visual effects supervisor gig with Weta Digital in New Zealand?
There’s a trade magazine called Cinefex. I applied for a little one-inch article in the magazine to come out and work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which nobody had heard of, at a very small company called Weta, which nobody had heard of. I got a response within 10 minutes, which blew me away. I came out here (in 1999) and four years later, we were sitting on top of the Rings trilogy.

What do you miss about being in Mississippi?
I miss the laid-back lifestyle and how nice people are. Being halfway across the world now, I definitely miss my family.

Of all the scenes and movies you’ve worked on, which are your favorites?
My favorite scene that I worked on was the whole end battle in Iron Man 3. It was really challenging and fun, and I was very pleased with the result. My favorite project that I’ve worked on was Avatar. Jim (James Cameron) is an incredibly talented filmmaker. He’s a very creative, very smart man. I learned so much from him on that project. Being able to watch and work with him and see how he tackles creative problems was insanely rewarding.

For you, which film(s) were especially challenging to work on and why?
Iron Man 3 was the most challenging. I did close to the same difficulty and same amount of work in Iron Man 3 in about four months that we did on Avatar over two years. What made it specifically challenging was just the time. The amount of time we get to work on films has been going down year after year because budgets are getting tighter, so they try to reduce the schedules. That one was really hard because we had to do so much high-quality work without any time to fall back on.

What made Avatar challenging was that it was the first movie of its kind. It was the first movie where 80 percent of the movie was digital. Jim wasn’t trying to make a feature-animated movie; he didn’t want it to look like anything other than photo-real. He wanted you to believe that what you were seeing had been shot somewhere. So, the volume of work made it hard, but also the fact that it had to be just as convincing as the best computer graphics you’ve ever done. (It was a) Level 10 difficulty that had to be nailed perfectly.

Describe what it’s been like to work with Peter Jackson and other renowned directors and producers.
In the beginning, it was a little intimidating. I had to catch myself (from saying things) like ‘Oh my god, I just came out of a meeting with Steven Spielberg!’ It’s just the most surreal thing in the world, and your heart’s a-flutter when you’re in the room. But now, I have no qualms about walking up or going into a meeting and talking with these guys; it’s just business. Peter is a very down-to-earth guy. Jim is so friendly and so engaging. Ang Lee is the nicest guy in the world. These guys aren’t about pomp and circumstance. They’re the easiest people in the world to talk to, especially if you’re talking about the work. They’re passionate about the work and if you’re intrigued and passionate about it, too, then you can connect instantly on the quality of it.

What do you enjoy or what is most rewarding about your work?
I love the idea that I can take something that doesn’t exist and create an image of it as if it did. For a kid who drew while growing up, I came up with ideas and put them on paper, and I could kind of see what it is, but it didn’t look real; it looked like a drawing. Now, to create a video of that thing driving around or walking around or flying around, is like uncaging your creativity and allowing your creativity to exist in the real world with you. I just absolutely love that; I love creating something from nothing. As a supervisor, I don’t do that as much anymore, but what I get now out of it is I get to watch other people do that. They get to surprise me. I have a notion of what it needs to be, but I give them a task and they may come back a couple of days later and show me something that I had never hoped for. They’ve taken it in a direction I didn’t expect them to go, and that really floors me. I just love watching passionate, talented people do their job.

Tell me about your Oscars experiences.
It is as surreal as it sounds. Incredibly fun. I’ve been to the last two Oscars in Los Angeles, and the show itself is just amazing. When you get nominated for an Oscar, you get to go to the Oscar luncheon, which was my favorite single event. It’s about two or three weeks before the show, and the only people invited to it are the board of governors for the academy and all the nominees and their partners. Seating is arranged, but they structure it in such a way that you don’t sit at a table with anybody else that worked on your film or who is in your field.

Every table has an actor, director, producer, visual effects person, sound person and lighting person, so you get this interesting mix and can talk with people you haven’t met or worked with before. They take a big picture of everyone together, which takes 20 or 30 minutes to get everybody up onto the risers because they call you up one at a time. The first time I went, I sat next to Joaquin Phoenix, and he was pretty cool. As cool as the actors are, it’s actually sometimes more interesting to talk to the sound guy or to the producer. They’re all these creative people that you’re dealing with, and it’s really interesting. My big claim to fame was two years ago when I stood on the risers next to Anne Hathaway. I joked with my wife that if Anne were to come up to me and say that she wanted to run away with me, I’d have to go with her. Anne was very magnanimous and very sociable. She was like the nicest person in the world.

Would you say getting to attend the Oscars twice has been one of the proudest moments in your career?
Totally, totally. It was a little bit sad in both situations because both years had really unique, outstanding movies, and everybody who was the frontrunner had 5:1 odds to lose kind of thing. So in some ways, it was sad because we knew we didn’t stand a chance of winning, but it was cool in that I could go to all these award ceremonies and luncheons and dinners and not ever have to worry about having to say anything [laughs].

How does it feel to know that people are watching these blockbuster movies with visual effects that you had a hand in creating?
It’s hard to say. Any project I work on, I lose objectivity towards. After a certain point, I can’t the see the movie as a movie anymore; I see it as a construction of parts.

I’ve always been a huge fan of movies. The thing that’s changed for me is that the more I work on movies, the more I understand the various layers that go into making them. When I moved to L.A., I had a pre-conceived notion in my head of what it meant to make a movie. I thought all you do was write a script, get the studio to give you money, get the cameras and actors, shoot the script in order, go back and put all the pieces together, and then you’re done.

The more I worked at it, the more I realized it’s not quite that simple. The movie-making process is such a complex process. You shoot the movie however it makes sense to schedule-wise, so you might shoot the ending first and the middle last. You might shoot a five-hour long movie, only to cut it down to two hours because three hours of what you shot just doesn’t work. It’s all about trying to find something out of all these pieces. When I got to Hollywood, I realized it is such a black magic art of trying to get these things to work that I was amazed that movies ever got made.

Now, I can go watch a movie and just be floored at all the pieces that have come together because as much as I like enjoying the movie, I enjoy the craft of making a movie. I enjoy watching how a director tells a story, the subtleties that they use. With all these directors with whom I’ve worked, every single pixel, every single moment goes to the greater good. The amount of detail they put into it, the amount of focus, it’s just inspiring. They all bring something to their films that the viewer never understands was brought to them, but at the same time, the viewer appreciates the result better not knowing why.

What advice would you offer to someone who may be interested in pursuing a career in the film industry, especially a job like yours that involves doing visual effects?
This industry is incredibly hard to get into. I was lucky to get a job offer. The advice I would give is to be passionate and make sure that passion comes across not just in the way you interact with people that you’re trying to get a job with, but also in the imagery that you’re showing them. Your creativity needs to just bleed off the image. They need to be able to tell that regardless of how unpolished you are technically, you have that little spark that’s going to separate you from the crowd. That, and don’t give up. Don’t accept the first couple of failures as indicative of how it’s always going to be. Always assume that you’re going to get another chance and keep marching forward.

An internship is the best way to go when it comes to getting your foot in the door, but there’s also a new opportunity out there. You can buy your own software now, and you can get it for a lot less than you used to or you can get a student license for free. There are a lot of people who are using Vimeo. The best way to get your name out there is to do amazing computer-animated shorts and then market yourself on those. Make opportunities for yourself. If you show people that you can be creative, they’ll overlook the lack of polish or the tools that you use, and they’ll give you better tools in the future.

About Guy Williams

Hometown: Greenwood, Mississippi

Current city: Wellington, New Zealand

Education: Mississippi State (1988-1994) Switched from aerospace engineering to commercial art to general liberal arts (emphasis on computer graphics) Left MSU to work at Boss Films

Work Experience: 20+ years’ experience
Specialty: Photo-real effects and creatures for live action film
• Boss Film Studios—Marina Del Rey, California
• Warner Digital Studios—Burbank, California
• Rhythm & Hues Studios—Los Angeles, California
• Rainmaker Entertainment, Inc.—Los Angeles, California
• Cinesite VFX Ltd.—Hollywood
• Pacific Title/Mirage—Burbank, California

Besides the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which films have you worked on while at Weta Digital? A variety of films. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, X-Men: First Class, The Adventures of Tintin, Gulliver’s Travels, The A-Team, Avatar, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Eragon, X-Men: The Last Stand, King Kong, I, Robot

 WON

 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films

2013

Saturn Award for Best Special Effects
The Avengers (2012)
Shared award with:
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White and Dan Sudick

Visual Effects Society

2005

Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in a Live Action Motion Picture (for Kong)
King Kong (2005)
Shared award with:
Andy Serkis, Christian Rivers and Atsushi Sato

NOMINATED

2014

Academy Awards
Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Iron Man 3 (2013)

Shared nomination with: Christopher Townsend, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick

2013

Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects
The Avengers (2012)

Shared nomination with:
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White and Dan Sudick

BAFTA Film Award

2014

Best Special Visual Effects
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Shared nomination with:
Bryan Grill, Christopher Townsend and Dan Sudick

2013

Best Special Visual Effects
The Avengers (2012)
Shared nomination with:
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White and Dan Sudick

Visual Effects Society

2014

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Feature Motion Picture
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Shared nomination with: Christopher Townsend, Mark G. Soper and Bryan Grill

2013

Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Feature Motion Picture
The Avengers (2012)
Shared nomination with: Susan Pickett, Janek Sirrs and Jeff White

2010

Outstanding Created Environment in a Feature Motion Picture (for the Willow Glade)
Avatar (2009)
Shared nomination with: Thelvin Cabezas, Miae Kang and Daniel Macarin

TOP IMAGE ROTATION: Two scenes from the movie Avatar, © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Two scenes from the movie Iron Man 3, © 2013 Marvel Studios. All rights reserved. Photo of Guy Williams by Iva Lenard, Weta Digital.

Edited by Sasha Steinberg