Chris Townsend has worked on more than two dozen feature films, from Star Wars to Captain Marvel, as a digital effects artist, computer graphics artist, and visual effects supervisor. Most recently, Chris served as the visual effects supervisor for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, one of the highest-grossing films of the summer and one of my favorite films of the year so far. I got the chance to talk with Chris about his work on Guardians and his career as a visual effects supervisor.
You didn’t work on the first Guardians, but you have worked on a number of films now for Marvel Studios. What’s your favorite part about working on these films? Would you consider yourself a fan of these films?
I’m a huge fan of the films. I think from a creative and visual effects point of view, they’re some of the funnest stuff out there. It allows me personally, and our team, to work in an incredible sandbox at an incredibly high level. It’s just great fun, and I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people out there when it comes to the job that I do. I think the type of movie that they are allows incredible creativity and also variety — they all belong in what’s called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the reality is that every film stands on its own and each one is quite unique, and I think that the fun of it is being able to play at such a high level. Kevin Feige, who’s the president of Marvel Studios, and Victoria Alonso, and everybody at Marvel, they’re just incredible fans of great films, and they want to make great films, and they’re passionate about it, so yeah, it’s great fun.
What is the relationship between a director and a visual effects supervisor like yourself typically like, and how did working with James Gunn on this film compare to other directors you’ve worked with before?
James was fantastic to work with. He knows what he wants. He knows the characters incredibly well — obviously, he wrote them. He knows the story he wants to tell, so he understands from a narrative point of view what he wants, but he’s also a visual storyteller — he really understands image and music. He’s also a great collaborator. I think one of the things I loved most about working with him was that he did he have a point of view at all times, but he was also open to ideas. As a visual effects supervisor, I’m very fortunate to be one of the people that come on at the very beginning, in pre-production, and I’m on right until the end of it through delivering the final film that goes out theatrically — I’m involved in all aspects of it visually, so I work very closely with the director, and it has to be a symbiotic relationship, and I think with James, that was actually the case. It was a blast to make the film. It was so much fun, and I hope that is seen on screen.
I would assume that the bulk of your work is done in post-production, but what is your involvement prior to that? Are you on set every day?
We’re one of the first people brought onto a film, so once the director’s been brought on, it’s very soon after that. These films are very reliant on visual effects, and so we play an incredibly important role in how a film is made and how it looks, obviously, at the end, so have to go in at the beginning to start figuring out how to plan what we need in order to create the images in post-production. We’re brought on in the early days to start working on it and to start looking at the script to start figuring out how we can do this, and then that helps to decide how you actually shoot the scene. I’m on set every day, working with the whole crew and trying to make sure we get what we need for post [production]. When we get into post, we’ll look at a first cut and then start dividing the work up to various visual effects companies, and we’ll actually be doing that process while we’re shooting, so it’s an ongoing process throughout the entire film, from beginning to end.
It seems like visual effects technology is constantly improving, and the bar just keeps getting raised. Is there anything in the film that you don’t think could have been achieved visually, say, five or six years ago?
I think this film is more evolutionary than revolutionary in terms of the visual effects. One of the main characters, Rocket [Raccoon], for instance, I think is an improvement on the one in the first film. You always try to raise the bar, as you said. There are worlds, virtual worlds, that have to be created in a way that people can believe they’re real. There’s a huge amount of work that we do in post-production that you probably don’t realize — set recreations, fixes on make-up and costumes and things — additions and alterations that help you believe it’s all there, but in reality, it’s not. There’s a lot of stuff that we do that people don’t notice. In terms of things that couldn’t have been done five years ago, I think it’s just a matter of constantly trying to raise the bar.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in visual effects and do what you do?
Think twice about it, because it’s an incredibly challenging job in terms of hours, but have a passion for filmmaking, and if you really love it, go for it. It’s a matter of practice and taking time, doing things over and over and over again — looking at the world and really understanding how the world works visually and taking note of that, and how you use that in your work in visual effects or in art or painting or photography — just playing with things visually, whether it’s making your own film on an iPhone or whether it’s painting or sketching or photographing or whatever it may be. If you want to be an animator, then, you know, go to movement classes, act, dance, perform — understand the physiology of the human body and performance. It’s really a matter of looking at the real world out there and trying to be inspired by everything and taking note of it and taking time to practice your art form.
Thank you to Chris for taking the time to do this interview and to the folks at Marvel Studios for making it happen!
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will be available digitally on August 8 and on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD on August 22.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes