10 Questions to Director & VFX Designer Neil Huxley

Neil Huxley has worked as a VFX designer and an art director in a number of motion pictures, with the most notable examples being Avatar and The Watchmen.

Neil Huxley interview

Lately he has been involved in directing trailers for video games, such as Transformers: The Fall of Cybertron, and his independent feature documentary about a retired East London boxer Jimmy Flint.

Yoke asked him 10 questions about his career, projects and inspiration.

1. How did you get into VFX design?
Well, I started as a Junior Flame Op at Digital Pictures Iloura and after doing that for a few months got the opportunity to pitch on Salem’s Lot title sequence, which really was the first combination of design and VFX that I undertook. It was a lot of fun and put me in touch with some people in Hollywood that liked what I did.

2. In your work as a VFX designer and art director, where did you draw inspiration from?
Aside from the obvious directors and film makers, like Carpenter, Cameron, Cronenberg and Kurosawa, etc. I always try to look beyond the mediums that I work in.

My father was a frame conservator at Tate Gallery London by day (and was a nightclub bouncer by night). My environment was shaped by the arts both classical and contemporary. I love artists like Peter Saville, Bill Henson, Auguste Rodin, William Blake, Francis Bacon, Phil Hale, Jan Tschichold and Saul Bass.

Music is also a big source of inspiration for me from 80’s synth like Depeche Mode to films scores by Tangerine Dream to classical music by Arvo Part.

Neil Huxley in studio

3. How much creative freedom do you get in your work?
It really depends on the project. Some projects allow more freedom than others. Some I literally am executing someone else’s ideas (which can be great if they are cool ideas!).

The more creative freedom has come in more recent years for me, but that has also come with added pressure, which is just par for the course really.

4. What advice do you have for design students who want to get into VFX design?
It’s a cliché and I find myself repeating this a lot, but it’s all about hard work and drive.

How badly do you want it? Apply yourself, build a killer reel, apply to companies you would love to work for and you will get a foot in the door.

Back when I was a student, there was no real way to connect artists that inspired you that worked in the field I wanted to – nowadays you can reach out and interact with artists you admire, which is really great. I do it all the time.

5. You are currently directing performance capture for in-game cinematics for ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’. Was the jump from VFX design to directing easy?
It definitely wasn’t easy. I mean I always knew I wanted to direct but I really wanted to get a grasp on the technical side of things first.

VFX Design for me was a means to an end. It was the path I took. I really have only been directing for three years and I have done about 16 spots, which isn’t a bad work rate. I feel like I am just finding my voice with directing.

6. Has your background in design benefited your directing career?
Absolutely yes. It gives you a good grounding for the basics like framing and composition, colour and typography. All of this feeds consciously or sub-consciously into what I do now.

7. You directed the trailer for Activision’s ‘Transformers: The Fall of Cybertron’. The trailer went viral and was recognised at the VGA Awards. What was your creative approach for this trailer?
We really wrote that one in-house with some direction from High Moon. They had a wish list of robots they wanted to feature and they wanted Optimus carrying a badly injured Bumblebee, the rest was up to us to a certain extent.

I am a big fan of those Gen1 Transformer designs – they hold a lot of nostalgia because fans my age all played with those toys when we were kids. ‘Emotional robots’ really was at the core of that piece. Brothers in arms.

We wanted it to be really epic in scale. We kept asking ourselves how do we get the audience to care about these guys. It was all about them striking key poses, almost theatre in a way, because they had no real faces to emote with.

Designing those shots went back to Terminator for me, robots back lit by fire, glowing red eyes. Then finding that track ‘The Humbling River’ by Puscifer really was the masterstroke by the guys at High Moon. It gives you goose bumps. I still love that cinematic very much.

Transformers Fall of Cybertron trailer

8. You also directed the recent Assassin’s Greed trailer, ‘Make History’, which combined live action and CGI. Can you tell us how you go about motion capture sessions and how this trailer was different to the regular, pure CGI trailers?
Motion capture or Performance Capture (PCAP) is guys in mocap suits and headcams in our capture volume. Our sets are low poly realtime rendered. We capture our desired performance. The data is then cleaned up with a first pass, headcam footage is then mapped onto the head geo for what’s called Kabuki, which helps with virtual camera (VCAM) shoots.

The vcam is a lightweight camera with the ability to toggle through lenses, dolly, crane all in virtual space using joysticks on the camera, much like a game controller.

I then shoot the chosen performances, with Kabuki faces, much the same as you would shoot on a real set except I can repeat the exact same performance again and again until I am happy with my camera.

Live action you try and get as much of that in camera as possible with costume, make up, sets etc. There is less you have to imagine as it’s all in front of you as opposed to mocap, where you are standing in a white volume.

Live action takes way bigger crews. You are lighting and capturing plates in camera. You better be sure of what you are capturing, because to change live action footage is costly and sometimes impossible on a commercial schedule.

I do love both approaches and am enjoying getting the chance to do more live action these days.

9. Which one of your projects has been the most interesting to work on and why?
I just shot a big live action promo for the UFC for the Aldo vs. McGregor fight in July that looks like a movie trailer.

They are such a great brand to work for and it was so much fun. It was a tough 18-hour shoot, but the footage we got looks spectacular. The team did an amazing job.

Definitely the highlight of this year so far and one of my favorite projects to date.

10. You lived in Melbourne for six years and worked at Digital Pictures Iloura. You will now be returning to Melbourne to speak at agIdeas. What are you looking forward to most on your trip?
It’s been a few years since I’ve been back here and I miss Melbourne. My friends, the food, the bars, the culture, it’s one of the best cities in the world if you ask me. I lived here for six years and I literally had to rip myself out of this place and move countries to LA and you always leave a part of yourself behind when you do that, I think.

I look forward to agIdeas, of course, and sharing my experiences with other people and meeting everyone there. I think Castaway at ACMI is going to be a lot of fun too – I love talking about movies and especially about the ones that have shaped the director in me.

I also had a ritual for many years – eating eggs in purgatory at Zappas on Bank St. I land at 5am and I will be going there as soon as it opens!

Neil is appearing at agIdeas International Design Forum on Thursday, 14 May.

About agIdeas International Design Forum
In 2015, agIdeas International Design Forum will celebrate 25 years of design innovation, providing access to leading designers from across the globe in a one-day event to be held as part of the Design Matters Melbourne International Design Week, on Thursday, 14 May 2015.

Held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, the annual design Forum will bring together 13 high-profile speakers, each handpicked by esteemed Australian designer, Ken Cato AO, to share their experiences, tips and insights behind their ideas and inspirations.

For more info on the event, visit the official website.