Visual Effects That Stood the Test of Time With VFX Designer, Daniel Martin

WITH VFX Designer, Daniel Martin

Visual Effects Designer Daniel Martin

Visual Effects That Stood the Test of Time With VFX Designer, Daniel Martin

Episode 27 – Kino Society – VFX Designer

If you were wondering why the effects of movies like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2 are still so real, it’s because they were made by a team that knew their limits. Daniel Martin is an award-winning VFX designer and model maker. He has developed his incredible talents in films such as Possessor, Host, Color Out of Space, Lords of Chaos, and many more. Since he was a child, Dan has been fascinated with special effects as a form of magic; a hoax in the service of a narrative for an audience eager to suspend disbelief. As such, it approaches each effect as a unique challenge, not just as an isolated product, but as an event integral to the world of history. With an ever-growing list of award-winning film and television series credits, Dan has developed quality work that meets the unique creative and budgeting requirements of each film.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Daniel tells how he became interested in magic as a child and then, watching movies, learned about special effects, and felt that it was like magic but with a greater end.
  • The importance of experience to know how to establish your limits within the industry and not burnout.
  • With a mixture of planning and experience, you can make a cheap effect look good, as long as you know what you’re doing. 
  • Why Daniel likes working with directors who know what they want, but listens to ideas that come from his subordinates.
  • Daniel’s happiness for being part of Possessor, a fantastic movie where there are no digital effects, and everything is in camera.
  • Movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, have visual effects that stood the test of time, because they had a very experienced team that knew the limits of the medium they were working with.

To learn more about Daniel visit his website, and follow him on Instagram.

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Visual Effects That Stood the Test of Time With VFX Designer Daniel Martin



Owen Shapiro  00:04

Welcome to Kino Society with Owen Shapiro. In today’s episode, we have Daniel Martin having provided special effects to British cinema for over a decade, Daniel Martin has developed a talent for delivering high quality work that caters to each film’s unique budgetary and creative requirements. Welcome to the Kino Society.


Dan Martin  00:30

Hi, thanks for having me.


Owen Shapiro  00:32

So what’s made you want to get a career in the film industry?


Dan Martin  00:36

I mean, I think it was special effects before it was film. When I was a kid, I was into magic. So when I found out about special effects, it felt like, you know, magic to a bigger end. And at that point, I was consuming as much film as I could get my hands on, which was limited at the time. And it’s just been a love, that’s fine with me all my life.


Owen Shapiro  00:57

So What school do you go to, to learn special effects?


Dan Martin  01:02

Um, I mean, initially, I was a combination of sort of self taught via books and magazines that I could get my hands on when I was younger. As I got older, I didn’t really know anyone involved in film. So I just did you know, any job I could take I, as long as it had something to do with the film industry, I’d take that. So I, you know, from as sort of small as working in cinemas, when I was young, I took her work experience job in a post production house in my hometown. I trained as a camera operator, I worked as a camera operator for a company that did sort of corporate and event filming. Every time I got a sniff of someone who was related to special effects, I’d sort of, you know, tried to get introduced to them and talk to them about that. And I was lucky to make, you know, a few contacts over the years. Eventually, I did go to university. I started my degree when I was 21. And I did an engineering degree that was tailored towards special effects. And I went straight from there to job at the Jim Henson’s creature workshop, which I got via finding out someone new someone there and badgering them to to introduce me. Yeah, I’ve not not really looked back.


Owen Shapiro  02:12

So what’s an average workday like for you now?


Dan Martin  02:15

I try and keep them shorter than they used to be. I think one of the trickiest things in film in general, but in in special effects definitely, is getting the work life balance, right. It’s very easy to burn yourself out. And I think with with special effects, especially, it can be tricky, because we’re somewhat anathema to even our colleagues in the film industry. So often, it’s not quite not quite understood what’s being asked of us with what seems like maybe a small change can have huge effects on the effects department when you’re younger and sort of more excited, and also sort of less sure of your place in the industry that can lead to taking on unhealthy levels of work. So I mean, I haven’t had to do an actual all nighter for over a year now, which is great. But they still do happen occasionally. But like when I was starting out, having a year is easier because I was younger. When I was starting out, I’d often do sort of like maybe one two, all nighters a week.


Owen Shapiro  03:17

So how do you think that your career got easier or harder on you? Because at the same time, as you said, you’re getting older, but also you’re getting more experienced?


Dan Martin  03:26

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, as you get more experience, you get more, more responsibility. And there’s more at stake if you make a mistake, or if you get something wrong. But yeah, obviously the sort of the wisdom and experience and and also knowing how to set your boundaries within the industry as well. That can that can only come with age and experience. So it’s kind of a it’s a trade, I think.


Owen Shapiro  03:51

You’ve worked in both TV and film before. What’s the big difference between two?


Dan Martin  03:56

I mean, it used to be that films have more money. So the budgets were bigger, but that’s kind of changing now, with with the changing relationship between film and cinema, I think TV probably has more of a run up because it’s tends to be filming for longer because it’s a longer format, you often know what you’re doing further in advance, but then that’s not always the case. You know, I’m working on a show at the moment where they don’t even get the scripts for an episode until like a couple of weeks before the episode shoots. So that can be quite tough. Otherwise, there’s not that much difference. You know, there are little differences. But that changed from project to project. But that’s the same within you know, when you say just within film or just within TV, I see the same people crossing between both constantly. Yeah, I think that what difference is there? We’re sort of dropping away now.


Owen Shapiro  04:41

So in the past, do you think you prefer to work on or Well, when you had lower budget? Did you have to find more creative ways to utilize them or did the visual effects just generally end up looking cheaper?


Dan Martin  04:55

I mean, I think you have to know what your limitations are. And if you ever reach those limitations, that’s When things end up looking cheap, you can, you know, with a mixture of planning and an experienced, you can make a cheap, perfect look good as long as you you know what you’re doing the that.


Owen Shapiro  05:13

It’s so what’s kind of creativity that’s your job requires since special effects is often seen as more of a technical thing than anything?


Dan Martin  05:23

Yeah, I mean it is I think it’s a technical art, I mean, I get a decent amount of creativity because I design as well. So it’s not just working for someone else’s sketches, which is very gratifying. And sometimes I work with other designers, I’m doing another job at the moment where I’m working for directly for the production designer on a particular part of a project. So I’m still getting to put in my aesthetic input. But obviously, you know, there’s someone above me and above him, there’s the director. So there’s always that sort of hierarchy. But I’ve been lucky enough that the people I’ve worked with have been on the whole excellent collaborators, and have been interested not just in my technical ability, but my aesthetic taste as well.


Owen Shapiro  06:04

So speaking of aesthetic taste, has that often clash with any of your crew? And in what ways?


Dan Martin  06:10

Yeah, I mean, I think as a technical artist, you know, everyone below, the director has to understand how what they’re doing fits into the bigger picture. So it’s not, you know, it’s not really acceptable to turn up and fight with the director over over what you think anesthetic is. But sometimes, you know, you might have to say, Well, actually, what you’re describing won’t work for reasons, you know, if you have experience in a particular thing, particularly with a green a director, or someone who maybe doesn’t work with effects very much, they may be requesting something, but not understanding what it is that they’re asking for. But that’s not necessarily an aesthetic thing. That’s, that’s more on the technical side. I don’t think so I think when you take a job, you, you know, part of the reason you choose a job is because you enjoy the aesthetic, and you like the you know, the way the director talks about it. So I think you know, going in, whether or not you’re suitable for it, and hopefully if you’re not suitable for it, then you don’t take the job.


Owen Shapiro  07:03

So do you prefer working with directors that know exactly what they want or prefer with the erector set? Or if it’s looser, that they’re like, willing to accept more freedom, looser kind of requirements?


Dan Martin  07:16

Yeah, absolutely. Although I like we were talking earlier about like not overreaching, your, your ability. And I think that whereas that’s very important for budget, in practical effects in digital effects, it’s more about the tech. And if you look at the films, where the digital effects have stood the test of time, things like Jurassic Park and Terminator two, it’s because a very experienced crew knew that they, you know, they were very confident what they were doing. They knew that they knew how to do those things. They weren’t overreaching. So I think, yeah, it’s a lot of it’s just about knowing the limits of the medium with which you’re working.


Owen Shapiro  07:48

I mean, things like Jurassic Park and Terminator two still look fine. But they don’t look particularly very good. Yeah, they’re not Terminator two, as that’s liquid character that looks very 90s like very 90 CGI.


Dan Martin  08:05

Absolutely. But But again, I think you know, that the choice of that character to be that liquid metal is in part driven. What was possible digitally at the time, you know, is written as a shapeshifter. But the liquid metal thing is, is a is a very cool addition. And it’s because it’s something that they knew they could do.


Owen Shapiro  08:21

And it still looks pretty good. Yeah. So so any of your works that stick in your mind, that may have been the most challenging to pull off.


Dan Martin  08:31

I mean, you know, there’s challenges in every job. It’s, it’s more fun when it’s challenging, obviously, that can tip over into frustrating if it’s too challenging. But often, like I, I use a phrase when talking to directors about how to sort of punch up in effect, which is to start introducing problems we know how to solve, if you, if you approach the, the effect in sort of the most logical and simplest way possible, that’s fine. And that’s probably going to be the most cost effective way of doing it. But once you’ve done that, if you’ve got the option, you should start to make your own life difficult with short choices with length of shot with all of all of the additional things around that, that that make up the rest of the film. But you introduced those things, those problems when you know how you’re going to solve them already. Because then you can start really pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes and creating those sort of wow moments.


Owen Shapiro  09:25

So we already discussed about the difference between working in TV and film, but what about working on just generally lower budget projects? What’s the big difference between that and working in film?


Dan Martin  09:36

Well, I mean, I think that’s, again, that’s the difference has changed throughout my career. Because, you know, when I was younger, I was very excitable, and I was, I do everything I could to the point of, you know, not really making any money to deliver as best as I can for the film. I feel that I bring a lot more if I’m on a low budget film, a I probably can’t take a low budget film. If it’s, you know, just me All film because I have overheads that I didn’t used to have I’ve got a bigger workshop, I’ve got a team that I have to pay. So there’s a sort of an immediate, sort of lowest level budget that we have to operate within. But for smaller projects, and by smaller I mean shorter rather than just lower budget. If it’s if it’s a single thing, and it’s something that particularly speaks to me, then yeah, I’ll still take on those those smaller things. I’ll fit them in around other stuff. And so I think it’s about it being exciting enough to justify turning away from other probably more lucrative projects, because you know, you can only do so much at one time.


Owen Shapiro  10:34

Oh, what’s it like starting your own workshop?


Dan Martin  10:39

I, I kind of muddled through and did really well, I, I rose pretty quickly because I was lucky to have good collaborators. The first, the first feature I designed my effects for which was called the expelled in America or F in the UK, directed by Johannes Roberts was based on a short film that I’d done with him. That was the first time we’ve worked together. And then the short did well as a couple of festivals, and it picked up a budget for a feature version to be made. I designed that I followed him across to that it got a cinematic release, it got well reviewed. So you know, my first feature was released theatrically, immediately, I started doing more work. And at that time, I was still going back and forth between working in my own workshop and working for other people. You know, I go and work on other movies as part of another team when my workshop was quiet. But then as my reputation grew, and again, as I got to work with more and more notable directors, their second Human Centipede film was a big deal for me that put me on the map for the horror, like horror world and then getting to work with Ben Wheatley on sightseers. And then with him again and again over the years has been very beneficial to me. So I think Yeah, I’ve been I’ve been lucky in that the people I’ve got to work with have have not only risen in their sort of the world that they’re working in, but also have been sort of like loyal enough and pleased with my work enough to take me along for the ride.


Owen Shapiro  12:00

All right. Now for a few more personal questions. What’s your favorite movie?


Dan Martin  12:05

It’s very difficult. It’s a it’s a changeable, changeable answer. The my favorite movie I’ve seen recently is Sidney Lumet Fail Safe, which I watched on a whim. I didn’t know very much about it. It blew me away. For your listeners, maybe who haven’t seen it or heard of it. It was made and due to be released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. And it has a not dissimilar premise, in that it’s about the American military and American government dealing with the possibility of an oncoming nuclear event and how how the Americans would deal with that Stanley Kubrick worried that it would overshadow or cause problems at the box office for Dr. Strangelove, had his company purchased the movie and not distribute it. So while it was a huge critical success, it hardly anyone saw it. It did eventually get released. But later after Dr. Strangelove, it’s on criterion in the States. I think it’s it’s either criterion or BSI in the UK, and it’s genuinely astonishing. The ending of the film is like a punch to the chest.


Owen Shapiro  13:07

Yes, Sidney Lumet is a really really good director.


Dan Martin  13:09

I love Yeah, he’s incredible.


Owen Shapiro  13:11

Any other favorite directors?


Dan Martin  13:14

I mean, I’m a big fan of Takeshi Kitano. Although I haven’t been keeping up with his more recent stuff. I i a little while ago, I watched for the first time the the human condition, the Japanese trilogy. nine and a half hour. Yeah, just breathtaking pictures. Um, yeah, I’m a big fan of being sort of dragged across the coals emotionally.


Owen Shapiro  13:44

Yeah. Yeah. I love that. That’s probably my favorite of his works. Human Condition. Not far behind, though. I love that movie. All three of them. Yeah, human condition. So good. What would you say to someone who was interested in entering the world of cinema?


Dan Martin  13:56

Cinema in general? I mean, you know, you’ve got to do it for the love. Because making money is difficult. If Yeah, if it’s something you set your heart on, and you really want to do then there’s various pathways in most of them involve meeting the right people. So unfortunately, if you’re a little socially awkward or nervous, that can be the hardest. hardest thing. There’s this unfortunate Venn diagram of sort of personal traits that has to be filled in for a successful film career. You have to be able to do the work, but you also have to be able to sort of talk to people and meet people and so on. And then you have to be able to, at least at some level, manage your business as well. So those three things aren’t, you know, not everyone has access to all three of those things. Try and go to film festivals, watch as many films as you can read scripts. I mean, it’s Yeah, it’s it’s difficult because there are so many different roles and so many different parts for each of those roles. for special effects, I think there’s never been a better time you know, whereas I used to have to scour libraries and find comic book shops in London that were importing American like film magazines and makeup effects magazines. Nowadays with Stan Winston School of Character Arts and Tableau porcinis books and podcasts everywhere. There’s, you know, there’s never been a better time to get your hands on the information. And the materials are easier to get hold of now with, you know, most of these shops having an online presence, and international shipping being easier. And an actual industry popping up around effects rather than I was just having to borrow tech from other other other industries.


Owen Shapiro  15:32

So do you have any current projects?


Dan Martin  15:35

Yeah, I’m, I’m on five, five projects at the moment I’m in development for for a project. We’re providing some stuff for ongoing TV show. We’re doing a two features along a TV series for Amazon. And I’m prepping for a couple of features at the moment as well. So none of which I can talk about.


Owen Shapiro  15:59

So how can my listeners find and connect with you?


Dan Martin  16:04

Uh, probably easiest is I’m on Twitter @13fingerfx. And the same on Instagram, although I use Twitter more. And if you if anyone’s got any questions, they’re welcome to message me. My DMS are open on both. Yeah. Happy to answer any further questions if people have follow up.


Owen Shapiro  16:19

All right. Thank you so much for your time, Dan. And that’s all for today. Don’t forget you can subscribe to Kino Society on iTunes and Spotify.


Dan Martin  16:27

Thank you so much.


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