Interview: Award-Winning Visual Effects Producer, Rachel Wheeler

Interview: Award-Winning Visual Effects Producer, Rachel Wheeler

BRWC got the behind the scenes gossip with Visual Effects Producer Rachel Wheeler

Visual Effects Producer, Rachel Wheeler, has produced visual effects on numerous feature films and commercials over the last thirteen years, including Happy Feet, Avatar, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Great Gatsby, Gravity and The Gunman. Rachel has an impressive list of credits to her name and has worked on four Academy Award-winning films so far – an extraordinary achievement in an ever-evolving industry. 

BRWC: For those of us who may not know exactly what a VFX Producer is, can you explain your role within the film industry? 

Rachel Wheeler: With CGI (computer-generated imagery) continuing to be an integral part of storytelling on the majority of award-winning films being made currently, the VFX producer is absolutely essential as they supervise the entire visual effects production. The producer leads large teams, often numbering into the hundreds, to ensure all VFX shots for their film are completed to a high standard, on time, and on budget.  VFX producers are uniquely skilled as they must have an extensive of knowledge of the technology behind the CGI which they are creating, as well as being able to lead teams and manage high-level financials, while acting as the main communicator with studio clients, producers and directors.  

Rachel (left) on location in New Zealand, planning VFX work on a large-scale battle scene.
Rachel (left) on location in New Zealand, planning VFX work on a large-scale battle scene.

It is interesting to read that women make up only 18% of the VFX world, with only 5% women working in supervisory roles. Can you explain why you think that may be?

Yes, women are under-represented in our industry, there’s a gender imbalance across the film industry as a whole, but with the highly technical aspect of visual effects this is more apparent in our industry as historically less women in general, have gone into science and technology-based fields. Another factor of this is retaining women in these roles – with increasingly pressed schedules and budgets VFX is often a very demanding, time-intensive industry, so getting the work-balance can be a challenge. We are seeing a gradual shift with more women enrolling in VFX training courses, so as we start to see more of these young people coming up the ranks in leadership roles this will also help to show the next generations of female filmmakers that there’s a career pathway available to them. 

BRWC: We are huge Harry Potter franchise fans at BRWC. What was your role on Fantastic Beasts, and what contributions did you make on in the film?

Rachel Wheeler: As the visual effects producer for Method Studios I oversaw production of multiple CGI (computer-generated-imagery) shots including recreations of 1920’s New York, cutting edge wizard teleportations, several worlds within a magical suitcase owned by Eddie Redmayne’s character Newt, and even one of the fantastic beasts!  Transforming the green-screen sets with the main actors, into beautiful CG-augmented scenes of New York City in the 1920s was really a fun project for my team and I. 

For accuracy and authenticity we referenced a lot of black and white photos as well as old New York maps to recreate the iconic tenement streets and landmarks including the Manhattan Bridge, the historic Woolworths building and the intricate elevated railways of the era. My team and I then added extensive digital crowds and various CGI elements like horses and carts, signs, food stalls, flapping laundry and many other dynamic, period pieces. All these elements really helped to recreate the chaotic, vibrant look and feel of the Manhattan’s tenements from that period, and added the perfect backdrop for the wizards’ fantastic adventures!

Before - NYC with actors Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne.
Before – NYC with actors Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne.
Final scene of NYC with actors Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne.
Final scene of NYC with actors Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne.

What were the highlights of working on this particular film?

Well, definitely working on a J.K. Rowling project was incredible! I’ve always been such a huge fan of her books and all of the Harry Potter films, so being a part of her return to the wizarding universe, so beloved to many worldwide, was really special.  We all need some good, healthy escape, so I’m proud to have supervised one of the team’s that brought to life such an inspiring, uplifting fantasy world!

Newt (Eddie Redmayne) in the snowy “Obscurus” CG world created by Rachel and her team.
Newt (Eddie Redmayne) in the snowy “Obscurus” CG world created by Rachel and her team.

Your work on 1920s New York was incredible! We understand you also worked with some pretty iconic London landmarks as well on the film The Gunman? Tell us more about that!

Oh yes! There were quite a few incredible locations on this film, but getting to shoot on the historic Tower of London’s Tower Bridge was a really memorable experience. There were a lot of complicated shots in this bridge scene, including shots from cameras mounted in helicopters. As VFX we were on hand for the director, for digital work resulting from filming in such a complex location. During the shoot Tower Bridge was completely closed off and populated with a cast of hundreds of extras, along with specially designed double decker buses, cars and iconic London black taxis zooming back and forth. It was a huge undertaking from all the departments, and amazing to be a part of shooting on such a famous landmark. 

Shooting ‘The Gunman’ on London’s famous Tower Bridge.
Shooting ‘The Gunman’ on London’s famous Tower Bridge.

BRWC: It sounds like your career has had you leading visual effects teams in some incredible locations around the world! What is the craziest place you’ve ever worked in?

Rachel Wheeler: Probably Transylvania, “Dracula’s” hometown, in sub-zero temperatures! At the time I was producing visual effects on a prominent, filmic Super Bowl commercial which had us filming in locations around the world, including Romania’s Transylvania. We shot at several castles including Corvin Castle, one of the largest castles in Europe. Corvin castle was where Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stokers real-life inspiration for Dracula, was imprisoned in the 1400s. The castle itself was such an incredible, historic place to film in and for VFX bring to life the fantasy world. We shot in the castle’s throne room and later at night in underground passages, but as temperatures in Transylvania drop to below -4 F this was definitely the most extreme environment I’ve ever worked in.  Despite the sub-zero conditions we produced stunning, ground-breaking VFX work. I was very proud to see how well our work was received during Super Bowl, a world away from Dracula’s dungeons!

Rachel shooting in Transylvania.
Rachel shooting in Transylvania.

Wow that does sound like an incredible experience! The amazing VFX work you’ve produced and your remarkable career are very inspiring, what advise would you give to the next generation of VFX filmmakers?

Well, as a technical industry for film, our craft and the type of work we produce is constantly changing and evolving so its really important to be adaptable and diverse in your skillset. Stay constantly hungry to learn and increase your knowledge in all aspects of our industry, creatively and technically, whether from publications, online material or by attending all our industries technical and training conferences. We’re a very friendly, supportive industry as a whole so I’d also encourage up and coming VFX professionals to find a mentor already in the industry. I’ve been honored to have personally mentored many up and coming young colleagues over the years. It’s been amazing seeing them all come into their own as fabulous VFX producers, on their own award-winning films! 

Congratulations on all of your amazing career achievements Rachel. We can’t wait to see what you tackle next!

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