Profile: Richard Clarke - Head of CG


Anatomy of a Design Process

Richard Clarke is Head of CG at NVIZ.  As a Head of Department, his role includes mentoring, hiring, staff management, and overview of all CG projects within the company.  He also still acts frequently as a VFX Supervisor on specific projects. This was the case for the Alex Garland film, Annihilation.  The work on Annihilation was particularly interesting from a design point of view, and piqued the interest of NVIZ and Clarke.  

Annihilation is an unusual story about a group of soldiers sent into a remote, rural area to investigate an alien presence.  Like many of Garland’s films it explores complex themes such as the relationship between humanity and technology or nature.  In the film this presence is called the “shimmer’ and all the humans who come near to it are gradually “infected” and assimilated into nature, literally turning into bushes and trees.  These were known as “Tree Folk” within the production, and NVIZ were brought on board to realise the transition of a central human character.

NVIZ Annihilation

© Paramount Pictures Corp. All Rights Reserved

“The chance to work with a director like Alex Garland was a wonderful opportunity” recalls Clarke, “He’s a very technical, creative and demanding director, and the challenge of designing and realising Tessa’s assimilation was intriguing.”

The Design Process

The sequence had been through various stages of work for some time, however, there was a set of additional shots from a re-cut that required a fresh design for Tessa Thompson’s transformation that had to feel different and more recent to the original Tree Folk. This new task was brought to Clarke and NVIZ.  After being briefed by Garland and the film’s VFX Supervisor, Andrew Whitehurst, Clarke went away to develop some themes. He drew on his interest in human anatomy, which began when he was observing prosthetics sculpture and animatronics back in a SFX department, and which he’d built up while working on John Carter of Mars.  During that time Clarke and the team he supervised were taught classic anatomy by a team member, Chris Bull, who took regular sabbaticals to study the subject in Florence.  

 Anatomical studies of the shoulder. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Leonardo da Vinci.

The obvious approach would have been to develop a transition from human bone or skeleton, to plant or tree.  But Clarke was immediately struck by the similarity between plant growth and human muscle structure that both seem to flow in a sweeping, mycelial manner.  He drew on references such as sketches of anatomy by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicts the sinew and muscle muscle groups in a human shoulder and chest in such a way as they could almost be creeping branches or vines, to begin the design of the effect. 

His concept approach was successful and Garland was immediately on board, but in many ways that was only the beginning.

NVIZ Annihilation WIPs

© Paramount Pictures Corp. All Rights Reserved

The journey from concept through to design, and all the later stages are never the same.  The ability to explore ideas that are truly transformational, while also creating a space for expression, collaboration, iteration and crucially a realistic outcome, is a particular strength for the NVIZ team and underpins the company’s ethos of streamlining the filmmaking process without loss of creativity.  Ultimately, this kind of creative efficiency was also at the heart of Clarke’s approach to Annihilation.  Says Clarke, “When you’ve done any kind of life drawing you learn sets of rules, ways of doing things.  Classical anatomy is an even more in depth way of doing that.”  The result was a happy hybrid between humanoid and plant. 

NVIZ Annihilation

© Paramount Pictures Corp. All Rights Reserved

As Tessa slowly wanders into the distance, her skin begins to evolve.  Gradually, the epidermis is being sucked in from over the branch/muscles that are turning under her skin and her arms sprout leaves and flowers.

“NVIZ’s work on Annihilation during the scene of Radek’s transformation was essential in not only telling a key story point, but also in providing a deeply emotional moment for both the characters and the audience. It was a scene that required real sensitivity and artistry as well as enormous technical skill. NVIZ tackled designing the transformation from human to plant form as well as executing the shots themselves. The naturalistic modelling of the plant shoot growths and the distortions of Radek’s skin as they emerge required a fine line to be walked between pathos and body horror. Tessa Thompson’s performance drove the emotion of the moment, and NVIZ’s work supplemented it perfectly. The scene is an exemplar of VFX that is not bombastic, but is beautiful and deeply moving.” Andrew Whitehurst, VFX Supervisor - Annihilation

NVIZ Annihilation

© Paramount Pictures Corp. All Rights Reserved

Working with Creatives

“Alex’s brain is going 24/7” says Clarke, “He’s extremely talented, but he’s also a very nice person and very inclusive.  He was always respectful and grateful for other people’s efforts.”  Despite this, the creative process with any director or filmmaker is rarely straightforward.  As a creative team, Clarke and the team at NVIZ understand the energy and single-mindedness that is required to drive the making of a film.  “You always feel something could be better,” says Clarke, “you keep pushing, you keep evolving. I absolutely loved working on that film, we had a small team, but we worked hard and really enjoyed it.”

Garland and Whitehurst returned to NVIZ when they began work on Devs.  “I’ll never forget that conversation” recalls Clarke, “he [Garland] explained the Devs story and finished by saying we’d need to learn about pointillism, determinism, quantum physics, quantum mechanics and quantum computing!  He said ‘Yeah, it would be really good if you could get your head around those subjects’!”

More about Richard Clarke…

We wanted to know more about Richard’s role at NVIZ and his own interests.  Here’s what he told us.


What do you do?

I am essentially Head Of CG, however, I am also a VFX Supervisor which has been a cornerstone of my career since 2004. The departmental role covers many different aspects including hiring, staff management, sales & mentoring. The supervisor aspect is the same wherever you work. It is project based and every show has unique challenges.

What did you study? What skills /talents do you need to do your job, including soft skills? If you were doing it again, what would you prioritise?

I have a degree in computer animation and was one of the first graduates in Europe with this qualification. I was a long time ago, far, far away…. The soft skills I have are a mixture of personality and being exposed to many different companies over the last 25 years. You boil down the best bits as you go to hopefully be better at your job and pass those  nuggets of wisdom onto others.

What was your path into the industry?

In 1996, a friend of mine saw an advertisement in a national newspaper for a 3D artist to work at Pinewood Studios. This was an amazing opportunity for me as I was 21 years old and had never worked anywhere before. I got a job in a SFX company (that created Pinhead for Hellraiser) that was branching out in VFX.  I was exposed to people sculpting prosthetics and making animatronics and my office was opposite the 007 stage. Very cool.

What’s a typical day for you? Dailies, monitoring feedback, pitching to clients, contributing to bids, budgets, schedules, creative work, performance reviews, meeting directors, production HODs, getting lunch, driving to set, cycling to work etc

I don’t have a typical as I have multiple roles and responsibilities. If I am running a show, then it is the classic vfx show routine of morning catch ups with key staff, dailies, desk meetings and client reviews. Then, there is all the things that a manager of a department has to deal with, such as bidding for new work, staff matters and of course lots of meetings. 

Who’s your favourite filmmaker/visual artist? Why?

That is a difficult question as there are so many. I love old movies and 70s/80s americana as it is a nostalgic part of my childhood. Hitchcock is a true master of creating amazing shots and composition. David Lean is also hard to ignore for his epic vistas and stark style. 

Is there a show you are working on right now that you can talk about?

Not sure I can say? This is the modern age of making movies and tv. Everything is a secret!

Are you exploring any new workflows, production, personally and company-wide?

I want my department to work in a more procedural way. By that, I mean that we want to work in a non destructive way to work, so any change you make does not break what you have previously created.  Our main tool is Maya and it is finally starting to catch up with Houdini in that respect.

What do you think is the most important development in visualisation recently

Real time rendering is the biggest breakthrough in recent years. Doing 3D is difficult and can be very slow. Rendering has traditionally been one of the slowest parts of creating a final image. To have it sped up to near real time rendering that looks as good a traditional renderer is amazing. Ironically, in some cases 3D artists can now work faster than 2D artists as they have to work with higher and higher resolution footage.

What do you think the future of visualisation will look like?

Better tools for faster content creation, such as real time rendering. Better off the shelf assets so we don't spend time building every day items. More well rounded in-house tools and workflows so artists can work cleanly and efficiently. Cleaner and more integrated workflows between different steps in the process.

What’s your work highpoint/achievement/proudest moment?

Being cheeky to George Lucas whilst wearing a clown costume! That did happen. However, a lot of my most memorable moments are from the early parts of my career. I used to work on projects for the director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) which felt very special because he is very visually creative and VFX was not “an everyday thing” back then. I worked on the famous Guinness Surfer TV commercial which was voted best ad of the 20th Century in the UK. 

What’s special about NVIZ?

The atmosphere and talent. Everyone is nice and we all want to do our best whilst having a laugh along the way. Plus, the company is very diverse in what it can do which means there are always different flavours of projects to work on.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received, or would like to give to aspiring visual artists?

Be enthusiastic about your work. But, try not to be too precious about it. We don’t own it, we are not in control of it. Our role is to bring someone's vision to fruition. Sometimes, if we do get to hold the “reigns of creativity” a little and that is exciting! However, shots and sequences get cut. I once delivered an entire sequence on Star Wars Ep2 that I lit and composited myself. The sequence was on the cutting room floor 24 hours after I delivered it. However, everyone was very happy with my work and that took the sting out of the experience and I was still happy. Just enjoy the journey and appreciate the learning experience of every project.