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Simon Hansen on VFX, Filmmaking & the South African Film Industry

Simon Hansen is an influential VFX supervisor, screenwriter and director, who has collaborated with the likes of Sharlto Copley and Neill Blomkamp. Best known for producing Alive in Joburg and his work on productions such as Chronicle and Roots, he has developed international experience from his base of operations in South Africa. At his core, Hansen is a storyteller, who has honed his film-making skills over the years and is currently developing several projects for screen. Spling discussed his career, VFX, the local film industry and found out what we can expect from the man with a plan. Listen to a podcast of the interview

What inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?

I guess film has always been very close to my heart since I was five years old. My earliest memory was going to the movies to see Superman, probably the first film I remember that really had an impact, and then obviously Star Wars. I think having a very active imagination could be considered to be quite a tough upbringing. Escapism and the whole imaginative space was appealing to me from that period on. I never really thought of doing anything else. What I was going to do on film is another matter because your imagination runs wild, but ultimately as you grow up you start wanting to make content, express yourself and create... that's a process I followed in pursuing film.

I understand you've mentored some big names in the South African film industry can you tell us a bit more about that process?

Starting out in South Africa there wasn't a lot going on, there had been a lot of films made in the '80s with the tax scheme that the South African government had at the time, which was then abused and shutdown. When that was shut down, there was almost nothing going on. The thought of entering the film industry in South Africa was quite a daunting idea, you either had to lead or eke out an existence here and do that on your own.

In the early '90s I met Sharlto Copley who had similar ideas to me in terms of pursuing a film career and we started working together, pursuing what we considered to be a very large dream with a long journey to the place we both wanted to go, which is where Hollywood films were at that point - being told at every turn that you can't do that in South Africa and that it wasn't a viable place to do it.

Simon Hansen

Soon after that other people started being attracted to what we were doing, most notably Neill Blomkamp, who was still in high school at the time and would ride up on a bike to our offices in Blairgowrie opposite Video Lab. We had been playing a lot with computers, my dad was in the tech industry his whole life so I was exposed to computers and where that was going, so it was a natural consequence that we would dive into that as the world changed. Film changed technologically so really all those things coming together, people like Neill, Sharlto, myself and a host of others would collate around these ambitions, which first culminated in working quite closely on the bid to create e-TV. We created a brand called Dead Time taking the midnight to 5 AM slot and inverting the idea of dead time to create something positive out of it.

We became highly talent-focused as a result, developing our ability to not only appreciate and identify talent, which is actually an art in and of itself, but to nurture it and know what talent needed only because it started to make sense to us. We were in need of that nurturing and would know instinctively what other people would need in order to drive and develop their skills further. We ended up in that space as the film industry has changed for the better, through the service industry predominantly, over the last 20-25 years. That's really been a core underpinning of everything I've done.

You've kind of grown with the technology and it's come a long way because there wasn't a lot in terms of visual effects, especially in the computer-generated arena? That only really kicked off in about '83 with Westworld...

Absolutely, 25 years ago it was really early days and I was quite intimidated by the tech. I had two brothers who had been more inclined to go into that world and I ran away from it, found myself needing it and edging my way back into it, having to cut my teeth. But getting in so early made a huge difference. When you have your creative passion, which is driving you and you're putting computers together, you're pushing the envelope, pushing computer-generated imagery, which is almost always on the high end of computing. So that was quite a challenge, but at the same time without realising it after five or six years of doing that, you suddenly become an expert in something, which was ultimately your Achilles heel so it was a very good process, having that rooting in my family where I always knew theoretically how it works.

In terms of your development, it's constantly been a challenge in terms of keeping up with technology, driving yourself and letting your passion really take the lead?

Yes absolutely, passion is the underpinning of everything. If you don't have that will or desire to achieve some goal through which you have to do all other things you don't really embrace doing those other things. It's very seldom that people actually do stuff like that for its own sake. Being a creative person and finding the challenges along the way, and then the solutions, really is what starts to set you apart. You have this vision or creative idea, you have these obstacles in between and you have to slay them, so that's the driver... without passion you've got nothing.

While you're best known for your work as a visual effects supervisor, you also have some credits as a writer, producer and director, which aspect of the film-making process do you cherish the most?

I've always enjoyed writing the most, the idea of coming up with ideas and concepts, putting stories together... the freedom to create and engage people's imagination. Visual effects and the technical aspects of film-making are consequential to that ambition, so it works that way around for me and always has... I've never approached it from the point of view of wanting to make cool CGI imagery or do special effects make up.

Bringing it to life?

...with it having a purpose. If a visual effect or any aspect of film-making is created without a purpose it just becomes a pain and you see a lot of that in film today with form over function... the creative aspect of how the film is executed. The look and the technology is dwarfing the writing and you feel it straightaway.

Basically the Roland Emmerichs of this world?

...a host of filmmakers actually, it's a real trap. I think people get trapped by what they can do and it's like anything in writing... you can have all these great scenes, but what are the scenes, moments and beats that you have to have that actually make this film good?

Having formed Inspired Minority Pictures, Slaves Talent Management and Atomic Visual Effects, you've been very active and influential in the South African film industry... is this idea of mentorship and giving back part of your mission?

When people say "I'm giving back or contributing to an industry" it's kind of a misstatement to me because you can see it so evidently in Hollywood. When Sharlto and I started, we were condescended to because we had so much to learn and we didn't know what we were talking about. If you are in Hollywood you will see it's the young people that are entering the industry with new ideas. It's become such a young business and that's not an altruistic endeavour I can assure you - that has to do with capturing young, vibrant and energetic minds who are eager to create and express themselves. They come with a whole lot of energy and new perspectives and ideas.

So when I mentor people it's a double-edged sword. I do believe in it, I do like to see people grow and I'm pretty good at doing it and know what they need but at the same time it started because I understand that films are made by communities of creative people. You're never an island in this business even if you think you're the creative master of everything. If you think Steven Spielberg could have done in South Africa without what he had in Hollywood, you're mistaken, he just couldn't have done the same thing. It's a collective arrangement of talent... on scale in Hollywood. That's what makes Hollywood what it is. The world has got a lot more interesting now because it's diversified and shrunk so you can do things in a new way that's more decentralised and it's more possible, but it's still really really tough to compete with the number of creative people arriving in Los Angeles every day with hopes and dreams.

The mentorship part is really about putting yourself where talent is and particularly in a country like South Africa where you need the talent to grow so much more desperately. You have to mentor people, so there is an aspect of altruism to it because you need to give up a lot where the conventional business world will say that you shouldn't pay for it, it's too much trouble, leave it to the film schools, let someone else do it or poach them afterwards. That's the opposite perspective... so you can see there's altruism in it, but it's not that I have approached it from a giving perspective, it's that I have approached it with a vision of what I think I need and the universe in which I need to live in order to stay in South Africa and do these things. It's a consequential requirement of doing these things... you could even call it a responsibility. I think some people understand that, but I don't think a lot of business people do.

It's also relational because you're investing in those people and you are hoping that by helping them sharpen their own skills they're going to come back to you and stay with you for future collaboration?

Which they don't, but you have to keep doing it... it's about critical mass. I see it in Cape Town a lot, you take acting for example, a lot of actors do a couple of gigs here and they jump on a plane to go off to Hollywood to get their big break and I don't think they do the mathematics before they do it. The numbers of opportunities that exist here and the competition for those opportunities is way better in Cape Town than it is in Los Angeles.

Plus you get noticed more and you're not swimming in a tin of sardines...

Exactly, so there's a numbers game aspect to it as well and I don't think a lot of people think about it. At least we're at a point now where we are making international films here, some high-end international films in South Africa, so they've brought Hollywood to our doorstep. The same thing happens in visual effects... in all aspects of the industry, except maybe in crews. I don't think the crews are cutting their teeth so they can move overseas and do unit management in the States. There are cases where it has happened, especially HODs, production designers, solidly in the creative edge but the crews tend to stay here.

Almost all people finishing go overseas to work for a visual effects house with a big name in visual effects productions... that's the big draw. The feedback I've received from many of them, is that they're very disillusioned by it all because they're often trapped by their working conditions and work visas as imported labour. Their visas put them in a chair at that company and it's quite difficult to move or adapt. It's also sad... we get nominated for international effect work from over here. If I look at something like Roots, for which we received a VES nomination I'm very proud of... a lot of artists on that list have since gone overseas for bigger things. I'm left wondering, if you had a space at the very top of something that was award-nominated... we just need to push a little harder and will be all the way here.

Not realising it's more of a sideways shift into a bigger pool...

Don't get me wrong, working inside that Hollywood system, the number of creative people and volumes of scale of the projects... it comes with a lot of state-of-the-art everything, but then you also move out of this very adaptable, innovative environment where you stand on your own feet. You're a little bit more dependent on the guy next to you on the production line to give you the next thing so you can do your bit and give it onto the next person. And every one of those people are the best in the world and that's how they do it, but it's a bit of a different approach.

Speaking of that idea of actors going to Hollywood, where you think we could improve in the South African film industry?

In my mind, the South African film industry is only going to be an industry when the content that we make, vast majority of our crews and our business that is done is actually created here. Peter Jackson is creating his own film projects using the in New Zealand film industry... they are not creating a service industry for foreign productions. That's a big difference... so focusing on the writing, the development of content, that's not only good but checks all the check boxes to compete with international productions on that level. That's the goal and there's almost none of that happening here in terms of that kind of development.

It's something I've always been involved in because my passion lies in producing films myself, so I'm very invested in that, but the industry in general... it's very limited even though it has grown. Thankfully we are seeing a lot of films making their way into the international domain but it all sits in the art festival circuit in a sort of cultural expressionism, some kind of very limited and colloquial approach to film, whereas I think a lot of the opportunities we've had to make films that are seminal to the entire international community. A lot of these opportunities have fallen to the wayside and that's what I'm interested in doing, making films that go into the international market and the zeitgeist of what people are thinking around the world, not only in this little pocket.

A good story well-told is universal - doesn't matter what it is or where it's set, but I think our entire approach is made into this colloquial form rather than bending it into this universal form. You see that when Clint Eastwood is making Invictus, that's our movie but we need Clint Eastwood to make it. It's not a great example because it wasn't the greatest movie and didn't do so well, but you see it time and time again. Roland Joffe just made the Tutu film. Many of our stories and pearls, with the exception of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, were not homegrown. It also sets the bar, to make internationally and universally accepted films about those local treasures in storytelling is not easy.

What have been career highlights for you so far?

I watch people's careers and I think you're lucky, if at 25, you're doing what you want to do... you've turned the corner. It's been a long struggle, I'm still trying to establish what I believe I can in terms of making international films so to pick the points in my career that are most cherished... it has a lot to do with suffering... a whole lot of suffering until there's a turning point. That turning point has a huge amount of value to me. There were a few of those, the most notable... I had a very rough time from about 2006 to 2009 and two things happened, which meant my career was pretty much over. I was in debt, I couldn't function and the industry and world had hit me pretty hard and I had a lot of awkward endings in relationships that really de-stabilised everything that I was working towards. It cost me about 10 years of my career.

Two things happened that really set me back on my feet. I produced a film with a young director Wanuri Kahiu called Pumzi, which made it into Sundance and that was sort of like I made it when I had nothing. I put everything into that film just to get back onto my feet and establish myself in my own right. Then a year or two after that I did a film called Chronicle, which I supervised for 20th Century Fox and directed by Josh Trank. I had a key role and the producer and director were very generous in how they acknowledged me to the international industry. It put me on the map for the first time where no one could take that achievement away from me, so it was the long climb before that and the dips and troughs that really made that experience and moment really heartfelt and appreciated, reaching the first summit and seeing the top of the mountain.

It's tough, no one should underestimate what it takes, a lot of people like to pooh-pooh this industry and talk about its film stars having opinions and filmmakers having opinions and that they are not politicians. They're in this fuddy-duddy creative business where life is easy and it's all about aesthetics - people don't really understand the depth of what it takes to not only hang in there and be creative, but the diverse range of skills you need to make a film, it's insane!

To be more specific, which visual effects segment are you most proud of?

I'm probably most proud of the work I did on two productions, Chronicle and Roots. Chronicle's film structure was designed for me. I struggled to make these international films in South Africa with no money, no resources, trying to make stuff look like it was a blockbuster, using effects as the leveler. It was my whole angle and why I undertook this film for 20th Century Fox. It had a $12.5 million budget and they wanted to make a film that could compete at the box office, a high concept film and blockbuster. I was one of the engineers involved in trying to put that together for which I'm very proud.

I didn't produce the end work, I supervised it. Whereas on Roots, we produced all of that. We got a VES nomination for that and again our budgets were comparably lower than our international competitors. We had less to work with, we were in new territory doing water simulations with ships, which had never done before, it was our first effort and we managed a very difficult area of effects to get to that awards room. So I'm very proud of the work we did on that. Philip Noyce, the director, really has been a silent champion of ours over the years. I have done a few movies with him and he's a very tough person to work with. You won't really know that he likes you until you hear that he's fighting for you and he did that, which has been appreciated.

What would you say is the biggest mistake young filmmakers make when incorporating VFX elements into their films?

If you don't understand story or what you're trying to do with your film and its beats then you cannot bring any aspect of film-making to bear effect on that structure because you don't have a structure. If you don't know how important that moment is or what it should feel like, what's adding to or taking away from that moment and how it relates to everything else in the film, it becomes very difficult to creatively focus all aspects of film-making on that from lighting to wardrobe to make up. All of those things come to bear on how you present that turning point or moment in the film, the VFX are by no means an exception.

Every aspect of how you put those effects and shots together is in the context of the film. It has a moment that comes on a particular page number, is of particular importance and if you don't understand that then you can't ever apply effects or anything else to maximise that impact. I think that's what most filmmakers and VFX people don't apply themselves to this, they'll get lost in a long one shot with awesome visual effects. You can almost hear them pitching it in the boardroom, but how does that serve what you're doing when a hard cut might have actually done a much better job of it? I think that's the trick, is not to get lost in the tools of film-making.

I just find that some filmmakers don't get the balance right in terms of how much CGI they really need in the film, you almost want to have a few high quality bits rather than a lot of very average stuff...

You just articulated how we break our scripts down. That's the goal going into it. We know we're going to do an effects job, the producer has done a little pie graph and has split it into what is apportioned for each section. There's an amount of money inside that budget that that producer thinks they need to spend on visual effects and if you know that number, which is sometimes a journey because you sometimes don't, then you can go about maximising the value of what that money is as opposed to just quoting stuff. You can do so many versions, options or approaches to solving the problem and that ability to rob Peter to save Paul is a real art if you can take that budget and say "well, I'm going to get 80% of these shots done for nothing in a very cheap way, being innovative in how I construct them to save the bulk of the money for these five or six shots, which actually count".

No one's going to notice these other shots - they're not effects worthy shots. They have to be done, but they're not bringing the value. Often these non-value shots are the bulk of the budget, the second you make that cheaper, they say well can you do the cheaper ones. Then they go the next effects house to get that cheaper, I don't think a lot of producers understand what they are doing. It's like your production designer saying let's do this scene with two little flats and a basin rather than doing a whole apartment, they'll save a whole lot of money so that they can get this whole exterior shot set built so they can add value. They don't seem to do that in terms of their visual effects apportioning and essentially it's no different. A producer will think that's great money saving, but you're still making a world. The fact that you're not using a hammer, nails and set building, you're using digital resources is kind of a non-point.

And it's such a tricky balance, because you want to give them your best because you're putting your name on the production, but you also want to add as much value as you can to the production to flesh it out as well as you can because you're trading with your own reputation...

Absolutely, that's really how it feels on every job. If you don't have that understanding with the producer, you are trading with your reputation. Those decisions that are made around money are crucial. I understand where the thinking comes from, no one wants to waste money and many companies that don't have the creative at their fore in their thinking will take as much money out of the budget as they can and put it in a pocket. That obviously scares people away, when you do find those people don't function that way that really creatively focused and they say what is the best way we can spend this money to maximise the impact and strategically working at that level, you've really moved into a producer's role when you look at how many of today's films are digital.

I think at the VES Awards at one of the speeches they noted that more than 50% this year of what Hollywood spent or certainly of the Marvel films was digitally created so the focus on producing effects and being a visual effects producer has grown from being this organiser to more strategic thinking. It's helping but there are still a lot of producers who just don't get that.

I suppose it also explains why in terms of cost efficiency these days, a lot of visual effects supervisors are graduating to become directors, just because they understand how to get the balance right in terms of visual effects...

Exactly, that was probably a big opportunity that I had, which never really took when I was in my slump. I couldn't take that leap, even now it's still a huge thing... if you're visual effects minded and know what you're doing, you're still in demand, but a lot of the younger directors are coming VE ready and those VFX artists, although some have done really well, Neill being a notable one, some of them struggle a little bit beyond the form to get the writing and everything right.

Case in point, Maleficent...

Absolutely, it's not a strong enough story and the directing is not dramatically strong enough on its own, so you end up constantly landing in this form over function problem and I'm hoping that as I move forward over the next three years, I'm feeling very strong about moving into my directing career again, I've got a number of projects solidly in development so I'm really feeling strong about re-entering that universe in control of my form. Being able to demonstrate the deeper knowledge that I have of the writing development process of which I can bring all these other skills to bear again. Feeling very strong about that.

Can you tell us a bit about any projects in the pipeline?

I can't tell you about the one that's closest to going, but those people who worked on the development project will know what it is. It's been a long time coming, nearly all my projects have been through years and years of development in parallel. I shot a concept film in 2014 here in Cape Town to put that together and develop the project with the NFVF and I'm now at a point where that project is being shopped internationally to studios. If that comes together in the way I'm hoping that'll be my next big kick off.

Then on the back of that I've got two screenplays that are at first draft level, nearly all of them are in the science fiction arena but I don't limit myself to that space. There are a couple of passion projects that have got nothing to do with visual effects and science fiction, so there's quite a spread of stuff, so I'm hoping over the next two years I'll start to roll out some of these projects. I'm working with some really talented young film-makers like Willem Grobler, who did a short film called Hum, he's actually overseas now. I worked a year... actually 10 years on his project, but it had to go on hiatus for a long time because it wasn't working, we started reworking that a year ago and that's now on first draft level. I'm really excited about the project, so there are some very interesting projects and they'll be announced soon and start to roll onto IMDb.

In terms of the NFVF, are they very stringent on their policies on funding, is that a real challenge for you – did you have to adjust quite a lot to meet the requirements?

Not at all, I don't know how to say it without getting people's backs up, but I have had a very easy time with the NFVF. They've been very kind, generous and forgiving to me. I've made mistakes, I've had to learn tough lessons but I've always stuck in there trying to be as creative as I possibly can. I think somewhere in that institution through the years I've had some champions and I think people in the NFVF respect my abilities, so I've had a very easy run of it. They've been very supportive of me, so I find it very hard to say a lot of the things people say about the NFVF. Any state institution's going to have its problems.

You have to take responsibility for your position, a lot of writers in particular feel there is this big barrier that they are producing this awesome work and that there are people out there who are stopping them from breaking out. There are these gatekeepers and the funding is somehow cooked into this nepotistic plot against them, but the truth of it is that really good work is so rare. If you produce something that is really good, there will be people queueing to take that project and you can't really see that until you get to the point where you're pitching everybody. You think you're this young talent, the NFVF has paid for you to be at Cannes and you don't even have a script or your script isn't good enough yet and you've written one draft and you think you've cracked it and you give them the script and they never phone you back and then you make these charges of gatekeepers and anti-South African or anti non-American. There certainly can be elements of any of those things but the thing that drives this business is the ability to flip pages as you read the script and put bums on seats. At the core of the business that's what it is, even though there are other political agendas.

There does seem to be an air of naïveté especially from South African filmmakers, there's that deer-in-the-headlights kind of thing?

It's getting better, as film-makers are getting exposed. Some of them like Michael Matthews and Sean Drummond with Five Fingers for Marseilles, that's long-suffering that they've got there and I don't agree with every way that they approached their film. I might have done things differently, but it's succeeded in what it's done and it's created an opportunity for them. They've really proven themselves as formidable and people take them seriously because their work is on the level and that's becoming more common. Other films like The Wound are doing really well, but it's a process of exposure. The more exposure you can give your country's talent, the better, getting notes is part of the screenwriting process and you're not supposed to fight every note, you're supposed to listen and understand what you are not communicating in your screenplay.

Are you still running workshops?

I stopped running them, I had really great ambitions for pulling talent together and doing that. A lot of the frustration that I had is what we just spoke about. There's an inability to play an effective role in the creative process with young talent. They really need to go and be exposed and learn the hard way... that the help I was trying to give them was actually help. It's not interference, it's not trying to dominate them. I was doing for them what I needed someone to do for me and it's been very hard to find.

If I battle with one thing in this country, it's that there aren't any agents, management, legal protection or business mindedness that you can call on. For someone to take the sword and shield and go into a meeting room and help you battle it out. You're on your own in every respect. When you realise that and try to do it for other people, they think you're encroaching on their territory, it's a really interesting learning experience, because at the same time they are trying to get an agent or manager to represent them in Hollywood. They don't realise that's what those people do for you, so it's been quite a to-and-fro process with the workshops. I hope to do something like the workshops again, but they will be way more effective because people will understand the credibility that you bring to that process. I've been a theoretical film-maker for too long, I need to demonstrate the skills that I have now.