INTERVIEW: A Sit Down With WETA Visual Effects Supervisor, Dan Lemmon

INTERVIEW: A Sit Down With WETA Visual Effects Supervisor, Dan Lemmon

CBM had a random, yet completely welcome, opportunity to interview one of the world's best visual effects supervisors in the industry—Dan Lemmon, of WETA Digital. He's responsible for bringing to life some of the most groundbreaking films of the last 20 years. Hit the jump for more!

I had the remarkable pleasure of interviewing Dan Lemmon, who is a visual effects supervisor for the world renowned special effects companyWETA Digital--out of New Zealand. You might have heard of that company? Mr. Lemmon has been working on special effects since The Fifth Element (1997) and has worked with effects teams to put together some of the most awe inspiring scenes in film for nearly 20 years. Everything from Titanic to Avatar—both of them the top two highest grossing films of all time. To the recent reboots of the Planet of the Apes films, from ‘Rise’ to ‘Dawn’. He supervised the visual effects team that brought Superman back to life in Man of Steel and has even worked on films such as Peter Jackson's reboot of King Kong; he's also supervised visual effects for films such as I, Robot, and even a horror entry with 30 Days of Night.

I even had a moment to reminisce about my time at Digital Domain, one of the companies that got his career started. And, during the interview, Mr. Lemmon dispelled the inaccurate credit he’s listed for on IMDB; that he’s not the Visual Effects Supervisor for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I naturally asked him about. Hoping for a juicy tidbit to be shared on an inside track. I’ll let his answers below give you more detail.

CBM Manny: “Evening Dan. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My Editor-In-Chief sent out an email about your interview schedule today. I instantly jumped on it, because we’ve both worked for Digital Domain.”

Dan Lemmon: “Yeah!? Oh wow, that’s great. Which Studio?”

CBM Manny: “Sadly, at the Port St. Lucie, Florida, Traditions Studio location where I moved to get a chance to work on projects like Legend of Tembo and possibly a post-production spot on Iron Man 3. But alas, that studio shutdown 6 months into my work there in 2012.”

DL: “Yeah, it’s crazy, they're still doing their thingnow that they [Digital Domain] got bought. But yeah that’s great, I loved working for them, that was a long time ago early on when I got started in this industry!”

CBM Manny: “I was looking through pictures to see if we had crossed paths, but I realized you were with WETA long before I ever walked those halls. With that in mindyour resume is crazy! From The Fifth Element to Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and eventually the next set of Avatar Movies. Can you tell us about any of the sequels for Avatar?

DL: “Well...we’re just in its very early days. We’re just in the testing phase for those projects [Avatar 2-4] we're real excited about them. Working on Avatar is amazing. Especially working with James Cameron who has such a definitive process for what he wants to develop on screen."

CBM Manny: "Lord of the Rings! What an amazing amount of work you've done on those films. Did you do any work on The Hobbit? I didn’t see your credit for those films. 

DL: "No, unfortunately, I’ve been working on Planet of the Apes and Man of Steel while they were working on The Hobbit."

We delved momentarily into his experience watching other teams working furiously toward the completion of The Hobbit Trilogy and how he felt privileged to have worked on the beginning of the original LOTR project over 10 years ago and how it’s come to a close now.

DL: "I’ve been able to experience them [The Hobbit Trilogy] as an audience member rather than someone who is working with the films closely. Especially to see everybody working hard here and close a chapter on middle earth, so it’s a big event here at WETA."


CBM Manny: Batman vs Superman. I see you’re listed as its visual effects supervisor--judging from the online credits listed. What juicy pieces of awesome can you share with us? That won’t get you into trouble.

DL: "I think it’s on imdb—I’m actually not working on that one. Keith Millerhe's taking the helm on that one, I’m concentrating on other projects right now; but the same team, Zack Snyder, Joel Whist, John “D.J.” De Jardin [...], basically the same visual effects production side team. They’re leading the shop on visual effects. I think it’s going to be a strong fun film. He [Snyder] has such a perspective on comic book movies. He has such a strong opinion on how to handle characters. Something that stood out, was leaving out the use of kryptonite. The green rock that took away all of Superman’s powers. Zack, didn't buy into any of that. Saying "He's Superman!" he wanted to make the story with broader issues. Especially with the costume, he wanted to change it without changing it. When people found out about the costumeThey went nuts. I thought that was a bold choice. Especially the Kryptonite choice. When you look at the canon--the comic books. You don’t just see storylines, but themes, and the rules have evolved. As the characters and the comic universe moved through the years, The iconography and mythology evolved. A comic has legs, if it touches deeper themes, then It can change and fit as the world changes around it."


Even though we only had a few minutes, he spoke in detail about the ideology that Zack Snyder wanted for his vision of Man of Steel and how he [Dan] would bring that to life with his effects teams. He then paralleled his answer toward Planet of the Apes and continued.


DL: “That’s what I like about Planet of the Apes. The comics became more spinoffs of the movies and television shows. There was just something about our nearest and closest animal cousins. It’s interesting to look at them as a mirror of human behavior and what makes us different from other animals. It’s a rich field to explore […], there’s so much that's untold. In the 60's and the 70's they [studios] were limited by the tech, now we have everything from image enhancement, performance capture, HD digital editing […] It opens the doors to so many other possibilities."

CBM Manny: "With all the films you work on as a Visual Effects Supervisor, can you elaborate a little on what you do? Do you get your hands dirty with modeling and coding or do you mainly oversee and operate by handling a massive team?"

DL: "It’s a bit of bothit could be around a digital studio of 700 people sometimes who'll lay their hands on a part of the project. Some work for a few weeks, some for a few years. The way I typically workwe'll talk about preproduction first, we'll work ideas and talk about the best way to get the shot they [Directors] want and we'll go out and shoot the movie and guide their decision. Then I’ll come back to New Zealand and work with my team with the footage shot and work our magic. My days are usually 10 to 14…15 hour days. I spend most of those days in a dark room with a computer working with many artists."


Dan broke down some of his experience and day-to-day from previsualization, to principal photography, and eventually more long hours in front of a computer with artists in post-production. It’s interesting to get a perspective from someone that oversees this many artists, modelers, and coders who all work together tirelessly for hours, days, months, if not years—all to bring a few seconds of material to life. I would have loved working with him at the Tradition Studio. There, we had a couple thousand people working on one film across multiple deparments. He continued with more detail.


DL: "I focus on achieving the goal they [Directors] have and work toward getting the best quality for the shot. [...] Trying to make the most believable and engaging characters possible. Performance capture tech, to casting talented actors who can work with that tech. People like Andy Serkis who plays Ceasar in ‘Apes’ is always a pleasure, he technically set the bar for this type of work. Toby Kebbell, who played Koba, and was in RocknRolla. That was the first time he'd done performance capture and he did fantastically. It doesn’t require anything different from other acting work. It’s sort of there to record what they do, but you have to be aware of what you do or don't do. They [the actors] just need to do their thing as they would in any normal film and forget about the tech they're strapped into. We're able to take the decisions they make with their bodies and take all the info from what they do and transfer it into whatever their character is supposed to be. That’s one thing—like taking a smile from a person and placing it on an ape and translating it well...with this film the apes are talking more and figuring out the lip sync was more challenging but we were able to do it well with performance capture."

CBM Manny: "What other projects are you able to talk about?"


DL: "The Jungle Book, a pretty cool project I’m working on, its more apes and monkeys […] which is cool but in a sort of style that’s life-like but surreal […], it's fun, creating digital characters like this, and I’ve already worked with apes--many times."

CBM Manny: "Is this film going to all be CGI? Live Action? Or a Combination of both?"

DL: "The boy—Mogliis being played by an actor, so it’s a bit of both. We're building set pieces and he'll move and interact with them but for the most part it will be digitally animated, with locations based on India but stylized and pushed fantastically a little bit. Sort of like what you saw us produce for Avatar. In that style of photography within a digital world that looks like it’s all shot in live action."

At this point the gentlemen that was helping us stay on time with Dan’s interview schedule let us know there was roughly one minute remaining. So, I gave him one more quick question. It’s sort of my 'go-to' when we’re running out of time in an interview.
CBM Manny: "What type of projects do you love to work on the most? Comic, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy?"

DL: "I love the variety and I think the cool part of collaborating with the best storytellers in the world is learning what projects they'll bring to the table and being inspired by the worlds and characters they’re trying to create. Especially worlds and characters that I never thought of before. With comic books as well—Comic authors and illustrators come up with things that are completely out of this world. Things that you can connect to and relate to on an emotional level; touching on themes that are great to create for a genre and are great challenges for digital effects as well. But I love all varieties, I work within all of them, even if it’s mostly Sci-Fi."

CBM Manny: "Thank you Dan for your time and for indulging my momentary reminiscing about Digital Domain."

DL: "Nothank youanytime."

I’ve worked in this industry, mostly as a Project or Production Manager and I was fortunate enough to get some time at Tradition Studio in Port St. Lucie, FL, even for a few months before the company closed those doors. It was a great oppotunity to speak to someone like Dan who helped pioneer some of the greatest visual effects in recent history. Working with Dan Lemmon would have been an amazing highlight on my or anyone’s career, whether it be a general sculptor or an award winning digital effects team. He’s worked on so many groundbreaking titles with amazing attention to detail and life-like sceneries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next set of films he helps create end up challenging his previous work for highest spots in box office history.
We’ve dispelled any notion he was working on Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes just ended its 21 week theater run (last weekend) earning over $700M globally and just became available on Blu-Ray this past Tuesday. Avatar 2 is set for release—Chrismas 2016. Other films you can check out where Dan has run a visual effects team—Jumper, Enchanted, Fight ClubVan Hellsing, and many more!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed speaking to Dan Lemmon. Comment, share, tweet; hit that big red thumb floating around in the ether—you know I love it when you do!

By @EmanuelFCamacho
Editor, Staff Writer | CBM

Liked this interview? Here are other recent Interviews I've conducted here @CBM and elsewhere: Neal Adams, Lou Ferrigno, Rob Prior, Adam Simon & Gary Daniels

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