It all adds up to fantastic films
As an effects supervisor at Double Negative, Nicola Hoyle has been central to making some of the most fantastic moments in film.
Remember the Hall of Prophecies scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? The destruction part of that was down to Nicola and her peers. Here, we find out how she made her way – via a qualification in maths and engineering ... and some time working for a Formula 1 team – to the world of blockbuster movies.
Can you explain what exactly Double Negative does?
We’re a visual effects house and we work on post production. After a film is shot on set we get to work on the images digitally...we get to include all sorts of things they can’t do on set. Specifically, in the area I work in - effects animation - we get to put in explosions and other dangerous things you can’t do for health and safety reasons on set - especially when you have high-end actors. We also put in lots of environments and lots of creatures like dragons and other things that are make-believe. We make them as real as possible.
Hellboy II - Image Courtesy of Universal Home Entertainment
So, what do you do as an effects supervisor?
It’ll be devised on a show-by-show basis. What happens is that we’ll start at the beginning of a show and we’ll then build up a team of effects animators based on the type of work we know we have to do. Then it’s just managing the team and providing the technical know-how to realise the director's vision - what he or she wants to see, like explosions, fluid splashes or anything else.
How did you get started working in film?
I took a very roundabout route. I did maths at university and then I ended up doing a PhD in computational engineering. I learnt to program and did a lot of computational fluid dynamics running simulations of airflow. At the time, I was doing that over Formula One cars (for AT&T Williams F1).
I found that the geometry of what I was creating in the computer had a lot more control if I used techniques from the computer animation industry. I thought 'I want to be at the forefront of that industry. That looks cool, looks fun’.
Then I found with digital effects you can ‘massage physics’. In engineering you have to have specific tolerances and it has to be accurate - people like to fly in planes that don’t fall out of the sky. So, you’re very rigidly restrained with the physical world in engineering but in visual effects you’re not at all. You can make it as creative as you like and non-physically correct just to make it look good.
But you have to understand the rules to break them?
Absolutely. You have to understand what goes on behind the scenes: the maths behind it, the physics...you have to understand why it behaves the way it does. For example, if you drop a glass vase on the floor it will fall and shatter in a specific way. So, you understand all the forces that are surrounding it that causes it to fall and all the material properties for how it breaks up and how it shatters, like if it breaks into a million pieces or just three big glass objects. You have to understand that and be able to direct the software we have. It calculates using all the equations to be able to get the result you would like. You have to understand the parameters you should change and the equations to make it do what you want it to do.
Have you been involved in overcoming any particular creative challenges that you are proud of?
Yeah, there are many challenges I feel proud to have worked on. The first project I worked on was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I worked on the Hall of Prophecies. The challenge was that there was supposed to be a room full of infinite shelves - it was infinitely high and went through the floor. They were meant to crash and fall down over the actors as they ran out of the room, like dominoes, so technically it was very challenging. Just the sheer number of objects that we had in the scene and making them all smash up and interact with everything else was very challenging.
I worked on the Dark Knight as well, which was a very, very cool project. Our challenge there was to make it look as photo-real as possible because we were producing it to Imax resolution. That was a challenge. because it was so big you see the tiniest, tiniest amount of detail, so you can’t get away with an awful amount.
Are you a massive film buff?
Absolutely. I love movies. It’s a great job to have: you get to go home and sit in front of your TV - or go to the cinema – and pretend it’s research.
How would you describe the working environment at Double Negative?
It’s full of fun people. It feels like it’s a mix between an art school and an academic research department as there are so many ideas being batted around. There's so much to learn. Even if you are in a different area, you can take a brain break and go and talk about the technology and the difficulties the compositors or lighters or modellers have to face. It is all very different and it’s really refreshing to work with people like that.
Would you say the people working for Double Negative are some of the best in world at what they do?
Absolutely. I feel very, very lucky to be working alongside these people ...but everybody's so down to earth, that’s the best thing about it. It inspires creativity, I think.
Are there many women working in the industry?
When I first came into the industry there were a lot fewer girls than now, but it’s balancing out a lot more. There have always been females in the industry especially on the artistic side. Technically on the engineering side or the maths or science side there has been fewer but now it is becoming much more even.
So you find there are no gender barriers?
Not at all. The only thing people worry about is the quality of what comes out of the screen, and it doesn’t matter who produced it or how or where or why. As long as it looks good that’s all that matters.
How do you think your career and job will progress and develop over the next five years?
I think the nature of the film industry does a lot of that development for us. Every single film the director wants has to either to push the barriers of technology or produce something that no-one has ever seen before. And just by the nature of what people expect to see at the cinema we're always being driven forward - whether that’s through technology and the cameras that they use or the stereo phase we're currently going through. In five years time there’ll be the next big thing people want to push.
What subjects did you take at A Level?
I did maths, further maths and physics.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Apart from watching movies? I do a lot of sailing . We have a little dinghy that my husband and I race on the weekends. We either travel around the country or go down to the south coast and have a blast in the fresh air.
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