Inspired at school by a dedicated and committed art teacher, Adam Howard is now one of Australia’s most prolific and experienced Visual Effects Supervisors. Starting his career at the ABC in Melbourne and at AAV (now Digital Pictures), with shows like the acclaimed children’s series Round the Twist, he moved to Hollywood 21 years ago, where he has since worked continuously, performing wonders with technology to create convincing renditions of supernatural worlds, places and people. With four Emmy Awards and a credit list that includes everything from Star Trek, MacGyver, Lois and Clarke to Titanic, The Social Network, Harry Potter, X-Men and The Twilight Saga, Howard has assisted Hollywood giants such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to realise their own screen dreams. In this expansive Q&A with Adam Howard, he talks about getting his foot in the visual effects door in LA, and urges all those upcoming “tech-heads” to follow their passion as “crazy dreams CAN and do come true.”
Howard loves the collective filmmaking process and the magic that can be created with new technologies, but at the same time admits that part of the art of visual effects is knowing when to capture scenes the old-fashioned way – in camera. A diehard fan of Peter Weir’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Howard remains in awe of the haunting simplicity and beauty of Weir’s Australian classic.
Adam Howard is one of our newest AACTA members, and we’re proud to welcome such accomplished filmmakers into the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles with you as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home, and those like Howard, who fly the flag abroad.
Note: If you would like to propose yourself or a colleague for the AACTA Member Spotlight interviews, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
AFI | AACTA: How long have you been living in LA? Was it your work that first took you there?
Adam Howard: I have lived in California for the past 21 years.
I first came to LA with the dream of working on Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. They were two of the biggest shows on TV at the time. It was a bit of a pipe dream but I went for it anyway.
I had been trying to meet the head of the biggest post production company in LA, The Post Group for about two years but it was difficult doing it from Melbourne, pre-internet and pre-email. I had been talking with his client, who was the head of post production at Paramount Pictures, as I thought that might be a good way to get to meet with him. I called his client one day and he said, “look this is all well and good but you are so far away [in Australia] and I just don’t think I can help you”. I told him, “I am on Melrose Blvd about five minutes away from the studio.” He was very surprised, and told me to come right in. When I got to his office he asked if I had a [show]reel. I did have a reel, which I had created as a short film at AAV in South Melbourne [now Digital Pictures]. I asked him if he wanted to see it and he said, “no”. He then picked up the phone and called The Post Group’s assistant and told her that he had a guy in his office who had the very best demo reel he had ever seen! I nearly died.
I met with The Post Group but they told me that the could not hire me. A bit disappointed after all that effort, I went on to meet with Richard Edlund at Boss Films in Marina Del Rey. He liked my reel and said that he was planning to start a small “digital effects” department and that if I was ever back in LA he would give me a job. At the time, digital effects in Hollywood were in an extremely early stage of development and were only really being used for TV. I realised that the experience I’d had at ABC-TV and AAV with digital paint, effects and animation was going to be pivotal to my getting a job in LA.
So I went back home and after a short time, packed my bags and made the move to LA. Unfortunately Boss had not made the move to digital quite yet and I ended up working for ABC Television in Hollywood. Seven months into my stay at ABC, the phone rang and it was the old head of The Post Group. He told me why he had not hired me. He was leaving The Post Group to start his own visual effects company called Digital Magic and he wanted me to join the company as the assistant to the senior animator on… Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver.
I started the following week and at the end of the first month there, the senior animator (who has sadly since passed away but who became a dear friend over the years) told me that he was leaving to go to Industrial Light & Magic to work on Hook. The following Monday, my boss came in and told me that I was now the new lead animator on Star Trek. About a year later I also became lead animator on MacGyver. So you see, crazy dreams can and DO come true!!!
AFI | AACTA: You were born and raised in Melbourne. What do you miss most about Australia?
Adam Howard: My family. My Mum and Dad live in Deepdene and my brother is also in Melbourne. My kids were both born in LA but they now live in Melbourne too.
The one thing that is really lovely to hear is when friends and co workers from the States go to Australia to do film projects either in production or post production positions, they always come back saying how much they love the country and the people. Aussies just have a truly beautiful way about them that is unlike anywhere else in the world. They are funny, warm and always make people feel at home.
AFI | AACTA: What first inspired you to work in visual effects?
Adam Howard: I lived with my family in Tokyo Japan for three years between the ages of five and seven. I remember watching a kid’s TV show where there was a costume character man with a donkey’s head. The camera was on the ground in a sports stadium looking up one of the stairways between the seats of the stadium and this character was trying to run from the top down to the camera. He would get half way down and then pop back up to the top. He kept getting more and more frustrated every time his efforts were thwarted and I remember thinking…“I have no idea how that is happening but I want to do it”.
Shortly after, I ended up as a child actor on NHK in Tokyo, which was a blast. Then of course the big influence, was Star Wars. I doubt that there are many people working in visual effects from my age group who were not influenced by George’s amazing films. They just opened up the world to a whole new scale of storytelling and demonstrated how technology could be used to create visions on a much vaster scale than they had ever been created before.
AFI | AACTA: What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Adam Howard: Storytelling! It is all about the story. An old friend of mine, Linwood Dunn, was basically the creator of visual effects compositing when he created the Acme Dunn Optical Printer back in the early 20th century. He created the optical effects for King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane and West Side Story…Yes he was a legend! He once told me when I asked him what I should do [in order to have] a long career in visual effects…“You only have one job in this business and it is to serve the story. The minute someone looks at a shot and says, ‘Wow what a great visual effects shot!’, you’ve failed. You have to spend your entire life doing shots that no one will ever notice. It’s always about telling the story.”
I have lived by those words ever since and they have served me well. Thanks Lin.
AFI | AACTA: What does a typical working day look like to you?
Adam Howard: It really depends on the stage of the project. In pre-production a lot of time is spent in the office working out exactly how to pull off a shot and working with the director on pre-viz [pre-visualisation] to help tell the story the best way we can.
Once on set, it is really no different than everyone else’s day on the set – long hours, little sleep and high stress. But with everyone’s creativity running at full steam it is a wonderful experience. Some of the most fun days are the ones when a shot that has been planned for months has to be changed due to unforeseen circumstances, and you have to think fast and on your feet. There really is no substitute for experience in those circumstances.
Once we get to post-production, it is just about making sure that everything looks right and that you are giving your crew good, accurate and helpful direction. I think having sat in the artist’s seat for so many years has helped me as a Supervisor. Post-production crews on shows I have supervised can range from a small handful of people to a few hundred. I always appreciated directors and supervisors who took the time to really explain what they had in their mind’s eye, and I try to do the same when I am with my crews – down to the tiniest details.
Someone asked me once to describe what exactly it is that I do. Imagine that you have to show someone a photograph of a car parked in the middle of a busy bustling city but all you have to start with is an empty page. You have to create the car, the light on the car, the glass, the shadows, the reflections. Then you have to do the same thing for every other object in the photo. Not just the big things like buildings, the sky, trees and people, but also the tiny things like the rust on a water down spout, dirty smudges on windows, bird droppings on the ground, cigarette wrappers in the gutter. It might sound ridiculous but it is all those tiny details that are the things that fool a human brain into believing that what they are seeing is real. Now, do 24 of those images every second and make it feel real and you are on your way to making something feel totally believable.
AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three people who have had a significant impact on you over your life, who would they be?
Adam Howard: Well unfortunately I cannot name just three. There have been hundreds of people who have had a significant impact on my life but there are seven who I would like to mention in particular.
First and foremost is Rick Rowton. He was my art teacher at Scotch College in Melbourne. Rick had come from teaching art in the prison systems of Victoria to teaching us. What he brought with him was a mind that knew no boundaries in art. To him, everything was art and he let us all explore everything until we found the things we were passionate about doing. He was the one who recognised that I should be focusing on art studies and he helped my parents point me in the right direction. I will be forever in his debt. I consider him to have been my greatest mentor and a true friend. Sadly, he passed away many years ago and I never got to thank him personally.
Second and third: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
I can’t separate them as the films they made together helped shape the way I approach filmmaking. They are master filmmakers and I have been blessed to not only be inspired by them but also work with them on a number of feature film projects when I was working at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic].
Fouth: Harold Freedman.
Harold was the State Artist for Victoria and I was lucky enough to work with him on a couple of the big mosaic murals he did for public spaces in and around Melbourne. The main one I worked on was The History of Fire mural which is on the side of the Fire Brigade building in East Melbourne. I laid out a large amount of the fire in that mural along with David Jack and Joe Attard. Harold taught me everything I know about colour. The glass in those murals was my first real experience of mixing colour with pixels. They were just very large ones but the principal is the same. Up close it all looks like a bit of a mess but from a distance it makes a single, cohesive image.
Fifth: James Cameron
I worked with Jim on two of his films, Titanic and Ghosts of the Abyss. I also worked very briefly about seven years ago on some very early tests for the characters in Avatar. He tells stories on a grand scale and never takes no for an answer. The other thing about Jim is that he is one of the smartest people I know. When he asks you to do something, it is because he knows it will work. He is fascinated by the entire filmmaking process and brings that enthusiasm to his productions on every level.
Sixth: Jim Henson
I met Jim when I was about 19 and he offered me a job on The Muppet Show, if I ever made it to New York. I never took him up on the offer but imagine if I had! My entire life could have been very different. He inspired me to be unafraid of breaking the rules. The Muppets are a truly brilliant creation. He was able to tell stories to people of any age and nationality without the restrictions of language and have every one of those people understand exactly what he was saying. Not many people in this business can lay claim to that. He let people learn how to laugh all over again. That is an incredible gift to the world and he is sorely missed. He had the most incredible imagination, something I doubt we will ever see the like of again.
Seventh: Linwood Dunn
Of course. He was the original visual effects guy. He showed me what was important in this business and helped me understand how to go about doing it.
AFI | AACTA: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?
Adam Howard: Time away from family and friends. As the business has evolved, more and more production is done away from home due to tax incentives (in part) and so we have to go where the work is. I have been very lucky to travel all over the world doing this job but it is always good to come home at the end of the job.
AFI | AACTA: What have been the highlights?
A few things. The people first! Film crews and visual effects teams are a whole breed unto themselves. Thrown together from all walks of life and nationalities and in a very short time you become a family. It really is like that too, I’m not just saying it. I have stayed friends with people who I have worked with throughout my entire career. You spend so much time with people on a film, you end up with a very personal bond that lasts forever. Winning the Emmy Awards was amazing. I was nominated twice in my first year in the States and won both of them. It’s pretty hard to beat that. Another highlight was going to the Academy Awards the year that Armageddon was nominated for Best Visual Effects. We didn’t win but it was a blast just to be there and walk the red carpet.
AFI | AACTA: Has the nature of your work changed dramatically over time due to the advancements in technology and 3D imaging?
Adam Howard: It certainly has. When I first started in the business at ABC in Elsternwick I was working in the Graphics Department. We made all the graphics for all the shows and it was all handmade. There were no computers, there was no Photoshop and most importantly no internet. We had to do research and we kept every magazine we could get our hands on for photo reference. Then came the Quantel Classic Paintbox. I was one of the first group of paintbox artists in the world and I remember saying to the head of the department that I felt this was the next major industrial revolution staring us in the face. I was only about 17 at the time but it was just so obvious that this tool had the potential to have a huge impact on the way we did everything.
Since then, of course, we have now come to live in a world unimaginable without computers. Visual Effects that would either have been virtually impossible or cost way too much to be practical can now be done at home. It is amazing how times have changed. It is always wonderful to see new technologies and new ways of thinking coming forward in this business. I think because we work in an industry which thrives on creating fantasy, we get the opportunity to try things that have not yet been invented and make them happen. Just look at the Star Trek communicator and modern day cell phones. They are one and the same. Buck Rogers’ fantastic laser beams are now standard in every DVD player.
With all this wonderful advent of technology though, I think it is really important to remember as filmmakers that not everything needs to be done with a computer. Sometimes the very best way to get a shot is to spend the extra time to get it in camera. I had that come up just recently when we shot Unknown in Berlin, with Liam Neeson and director Jaume Colett-Serra. The car chase through the centre of the city could have been a huge green screen shoot but we all decided collectively that the best way to do it for the highest quality “look” was to pull out every different kind of camera and car rig around and put them to work. It made for a truly thrilling sequence, partly because the actors were actually travelling the streets of Berlin so their reactions were absolutely real.
AFI | AACTA: You’ve won four Primetime Emmys for your work on Star Trek and have been nominated for Enterprise. What does it mean for you to have won these awards specifically for your craft?
Adam Howard: When I was growing up in Melbourne there were two nights of the year when I was always home watching the TV. Emmy night and Oscar night. I always wanted to go just to stand out the front and watch the crowd go into the ceremony, so to be nominated and then win was beyond a dream come true. I have been very lucky indeed. To be recognised for doing what is regarded in the business as the best work for the year is an incredibly humbling honour.
AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming Australian Visual Effects Supervisors wanting to make it in Hollywood?
Adam Howard: Never stop learning. Never give up. Never stop pursuing your dreams. Anything and everything is possible if you set your mind to it. Make lots of friends in the business in every facet of the business. This is truly a team effort.
AFI | AACTA: Do you see yourself returning to work in Australia in the future?
Adam Howard: I would love to work in Australia again. It is so exciting to see the wonderful and brilliant work that keeps on coming out of Australia. Australian film crews are regarded as some of the best in the world and it would be a great thrill to do a film there.
AFI | AACTA: What is your all time favourite Australian film? Why?
Adam Howard: Again, there are many but if I had to pick just one, it would be Picnic at Hanging Rock. Peter Weir is a genius. He created a film that is truly terrifying and yet all that scares you is purely in your mind. It is also one of the most hauntingly beautiful films to watch, thanks to Russell Boyd’s magnificent cinematography. Combine all that with David Copping’s wonderful art direction and Gheorghe Zamfir and Bruce Smeaton’s score and you have a true masterpiece of filmmaking.
It was a great thrill for me to work with Peter Weir on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He should be revered as one of Australia’s film treasures.
AFI | AACTA: Thank you for sharing your time with us.