Skip to main content

Al Magliochetti - Interview

It takes a village, so they say, and the entertainment industry is no different. From actors to directors, producers, writers, visual effects, FX, and casting agencies, they all have an important part to play in the creation of your favourite television show or movie.

Today, my twisted troglodytes, I am going to talk to one of the villagers, Al Magliochetti. Al is a visual effects guru extraordinaire, who's magical work has appeared in many movies from The Addams Family to Star Trek VI and a plethora in between.

Al is a visual effects genius with over 30 years experience. That's 210 in Hollywood years, minions. So keep reading to find out what makes a great visual effects artist tick!

Lili's Lair: What was the defining moment when you knew that visual effects, and film making was what you wanted to do?

AM: The defining moment happened when I was about seven years old. My dad was messing around with his 8mm camera just to finish off the roll of film and shot footage of me playing on the swings in our yard. He had me swing a bit as he filmed, then he stopped the camera and told me to give the empty swing a push and get out of the way as he began filming again. When we got the film back from processing I was astounded to see myself actually disappear from the shot, very similarly to the tricks they used in the TV show “Bewitched.” It was a simple jump-cut, as I later learned the technique was called, but it made me realize that Hollywood-style effects could be created at home with minimal equipment. Oddly enough the very first visual effects created in the late 1800s used the exact same technique and were discovered by accident.

Lili's Lair: What exactly does a visual effects person do?

AM: To my way of thinking, a visual effects person’s job is to artificially create a shot that is impractical to shoot conventionally, for any number of reasons, and make it appear perfectly natural so that it seamlessly fits into the film’s narrative without being distracting or obvious. If a shot is too dangerous to safely accomplish with live actors, or if it’s too expensive to orchestrate, or in some cases if it’s just physically impossible to do, an effect will be designed to be integrated into the live action sequences to fill in those gaps. As everyone knows, most of the work is done on computers these days, from building models to compositing various layers into a single shot, but while the digital tools are modern the strategies and methods go back to the very beginnings of film. We just have the security of an UNDO button now when we screw up. ☺

Lili's Lair: How long does it generally take to complete the visual effects process on a movie?

AM: That’s a tricky question to answer as all films are different. A film with a handful of shots can be handled by one person in a week or two but a project with wall-to-wall CGI like a Star Wars or superhero movie can have a visual effects crew of hundreds or thousands of people and can easily take a solid year, if not more. There’s a reason those kinds of films cost $150 million dollars – there’s a lot of work in there.

Lili's Lair: What was your favourite visual effects project to work on and why?

AM: It’s a toss up between The Addams Family and Star Trek VI. Addams was one of the first jobs I had when I moved to LA and I kind of took over most of the Thing shots myself as the VFX facility I was working at was really snowed under doing the bird attack scenes and twinning shots for The Dark Half, which got to be a lot more complicated than originally thought. Star Trek VI was my first time supervising on set in Los Angeles and working with Nicholas Meyer was a total dream come true for me. My work on that show was primarily creating phasers and transporter beams but I wound up getting transferred up to the main VFX facility at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic in Northern CA, which was a big deal for me as I’d only been in California for a few months at that point and suddenly I was invited to work at the best facility on the planet.

Lili's Lair: How do you feel visual effects in the film industry has changed from when you began, and do you think it is for the better?

AM: There was no CGI at all when I began my first professional jobs and as it took over the effects end of the industry it really became a double-edged sword. On the one hand it made putting the shots together a lot easier as you could actually see what you’re doing every step of the way, as opposed to building a shot in a printer with multiple exposures and not knowing what you have until it comes back from the lab the next day. There were many sleepless nights during those times as any tiny, unnoticed error would easily ruin a full day’s work. That being said, CGI has made filmmakers a lot lazier and less focused on their work as they know they can always fiddle with the footage later rather than just taking the time to shoot it properly to begin with. Consequently there’s quite a bit of janitorial work done in post production which could be anything from painting out a cowlick that might be sticking out of an actor’s hair (because heaven forbid they’d just take the time to comb it down on the set) or even painting out a generator truck in the shot that they didn’t feel like moving. And while that kind of work does pay well, it’s not very satisfying in the long run since it’s hardly creative in any way and is completely unappreciated by just about everybody. Unfortunately it’s gone to ridiculous extremes as filmmakers now believe they can shoot ANY mistake they want and it can somehow be magically be cleaned up on computers later on for no time and no money. I literally had a job cross my desk last year where the director filmed two children with these hideous oversized fright wigs on them (the excuse being they were the only wigs he could find to make the kids look like siblings) in an action scene where a house was on fire and debris was raining down all around them . . and he somehow believed it would be an easy fix to digitally trim down the hair on both of their heads into normal haircuts during the several dozen shots in this action scene. In that case he learned his lesson the hard way and to my knowledge that film was never completed. The problem is that CGI has now become the whole toolbox, rather than just a part of the process, since it allows producers and directors to tweak a shot over and over with minimal improvement in quality, if any (which we lovingly refer to as “pixel-fucking.”) In the days of creating visual effects optically, the overage costs piled up pretty quickly so revisions were kept to a minimum. But today’s producers expect to be able to use as many man-hours as they want to get a shot “perfect” from their perspective and it makes a job bid very difficult to calculate since producers now expect the additional expenses to come out of the VFX company’s profit rather than their own pocket – which is why many effects facilities have gone bankrupt in recent years.

Lili's Lair: What are your hopes for the future of the visual effects industry?

AM: First of all, I would like the work to come home. Currently VFX work is farmed out all over the world, primarily to countries where the workers are paid $60 per week and there’s no way any domestic company can compete with that rate. Mind you, the per shot charges aren’t much less than they are in the USA which means the bulk of the money goes to the executives rather than to the people who perform the actual work, which obviously isn’t fair to anyone. And unfortunately since the visual effects departments are the only facet of the film industry without any union representation whatsoever there’s very little that can be done about it at this point in time. So I’m hoping that situation will change drastically as the effects are usually what draws an audience to a film these days – far more than story or starpower – which is evidenced by almost every film trailer featuring almost nothing but VFX shots. And unlike practically every other creative department VFX artists accrue no residuals for their work whatsoever. The artists are paid a flat weekly or hourly rate, for the most part, and receive no percentages for future usage of their work unlike directors, producers, writers, editors, etc. And unless an artist is on staff at a good sized facility, the chances are that he has no pension, health or medical benefits either, and in my opinion all of that needs to be altered to take care of the artists who actually create this work since both studios and producers reap quite a bit of financial compensation for that creativity. I would also hope the industry focuses more on creativity and less on cleanup work from less-than-efficient film crews and, even further, I would like to see the focus of the film itself to be placed more on story and characters rather than pretty pictures. While VFX can and does enhance the imagery in films so that every shot can be a picture postcard it ultimately is soulless if there’s no emotional content behind them.

Lili's Lair: Have your career goals altered since the time you began your career in the film industry, and if so how?

AM: My career goal was always to be a writer-director and I got into visual effects originally to make my own films stand out and be a bit more flashy than my competitors. Having successfully transitioned from traditional visual effects to full CGI and getting a fair amount of accolades for my work, I feel I’ve gone as far with that side of the industry as I can and truly want to concentrate more on the storytelling side of film from this point on.

Lili's Lair: What would you like the future to hold for Al Magliochetti?

AM: Hopefully the opportunity to create some memorable films for people to enjoy. I guess we’ll see how that goes ☺