Mastering the art of animation

JOHN HARVEY

It is not unusual for people seeing Table Mountain for the first time to remark on its beauty, but when these comments are made by a man whose very job it is to perfect the “wow factor” in Hollywood blockbusters, you begin to appreciate just how iconic the landmark is.

Shahin Toosi is one of the world’s leading compositors, a profession that involves putting the final touches on the computer generated imagery (CGI) that is so essential to film production today. His resumé includes some of the most ground-breaking visual effects (VFX) work ever to hit the big screen, including The Dark Knight, X-Men 3, Children of Men, The Dark Knight Rises, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Godzilla.

Mr Toosi was one of the overseas panelists who attended the fifth annual Cape Town International Animation Festival, held at the River Club in Observatory and Labia Theatre in the City Bowl last week.

For the first time in its history, the event was sold out in advance, with animators and members of the public flocking to the respective venues in droves.

Speaking to the Tatler on the sidelines of the festival, Mr Toosi, Iranian by birth but a British citizen since the age of nine, lifted the lid on this fascinating part of the industry.

“Having spent my earlier years in Iran, I obviously was barred from seeing American films, but was always fascinated by the superhero comics. To me, they were always surreal, completely different from the culture I was in. That stayed with me when my family emigrated to London.

“I originally wanted to be an animator, but then one day I was sitting in my room listening to the Foo Fighters, and watched a video of this guy explaining how you could change the entire mood of a scene using different lighting materials. I immediately looked at that and said that’s what I want to do.”

Although Mr Toosi’s determination to pursue this career path was never in any doubt, he soon discovered the industry was an exceptionally hard one to break into.

“I tried to get a job in VFX. I sent my CV everywhere. I just kept going. Eventually, I managed to get a job as a runner, making coffee and running erands. My opportunity eventually came on the movie Flyboys (starring James Franco and Martin Henderson). When they had filmed the scenes, they didn’t realise that the lens had dirt on it. They asked around, and I said I would take on cleaning it up.

“I spent weeks painting (the process of using digital techniques to rid images of imperfections) frames. They liked what I did, so that was really my start.”

From that point the work came flooding in, including briefs to work on The Dark Knight and Scott Pilgrim, which he counts among the most “fun” projects he has worked on.

“Christian Bale (as Batman) was a really interesting guy to work with. In Scott Pilgrim, we had a challenge. There’s the scene where Gideon has to kill Scott, and we couldn’t work out out how he was going to do this. So what we did was to go off and play all kinds of video games for weeks – Mortal Kombat, Call of Duty, you name it – to get some inspiration. Eventually we did some mish-mashing of everything we had played to create the scene.”

He said Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan was facinating to work with, as he liked to include a lot of subliminal imagery in his films.

“As a compositor, you sometimes work directly with the director, and sometimes with other people in the production unit. It really depends on the project.”

It was clear Mr Toosi was enjoying his time in Cape Town, and repeatedly referenced Table Mountain’s potential as a CGI location.

“You are always trying to derive emotion from the audience. When I arrived in Cape Town, the mountain was lit up in brilliant sunlight. If you look at it now as we sit here, it looks moody and mysterious with all the cloud around it. You ask yourself, ‘What is it hiding behind that cloud?’ That’s what I try to do with the images, playing with volumes and bleeding of light. That tells the story.”

His enthusiasm for the city extended to the young animators attending the festival.

“This is a country hungry for animation, and it seems they (local animators) are really going for it. It’s really great to see, because in this industry you have to be hungry.”

Festival director Dianne Makings said organisers were “overwhelmed” with the response they had received from the public.

“It is our goal to be the African representative for animation in the world, and we just want to thank our sponsors, the media and everyone here for helping us to reach that goal,” she said.