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October 01
2019

ISSUE

Fall 2019

ANNE KOLBE: Playing a Leading Role in Making Cinematic History

By TREVOR HOGG

Whether conjuring the Lasso of Truth with the help of LED lights in Wonder Woman or creating the ancient underwater civilization of Atlantis in Aquaman, or producing photorealistic digital doubles that can withstand close-up shots in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. Pictures Executive Vice President, Visual Effects Anne Kolbe has played a significant role in making these cinematic moments a reality.

Anne Kolbe

Over her 15 years as a Hollywood studio executive, Kolbe has collaborated with Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Zack Snyder (Man of Steel), Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes), Clint Eastwood (Hereafter), Steven Spielberg (Ready Player One), Ridley Scott (Body of Lies), Ben Affleck (The Town) and George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road). “Each of those filmmakers have a different need for how they work, and we’re adaptable to their processes as well as respectful of what they bring to the studio,” states Kolbe.

Pursuing a career in visual effects was not an obvious choice for Kolbe, who graduated from UCLA with a BA in History and comes from a family where finance is the occupation of choice. “I worked as a PA on productions for commercials and TV movies and craft services, from being on a talent desk at CAA to working in a non-profit at a family foundation. I’ve gone on such different paths and I ended up at R/GA L.A. back in the mid-1990s. The visual effects industry was in its infantile stage. You were constantly learning and having to adapt to change. There were these new configurations of people and technology. It’s constantly evolving, moving, challenging, and you’re never allowed to rest and sit on your laurels. I found that was something that suited my personality. I like the technical and financial aspects while the creative side fits with my background from college.”

Aerial blimp footage was utilized to reconstruct London during World War I for Wonder Woman. (All images copyright (c) Warner Bros. Entertainment)

“The driving component for us is to make sure that we have the right creative team with the correct solution for the film and the filmmakers. Tax incentives are driving the business and the global workforce. It’s a factor in the equation of how we put the movies together.”

—Anne Kolbe, Executive Vice President, Visual Effects, Warner Bros. Pictures

Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) pursues Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in one of the few location scenes, in Sicily featured in Aquaman.

Kolbe developed an affinity for comedies growing up in Diablo, California. “I ‘broke’ into the movie business as a post-production clerk for Warner Bros.,” chuckles Kolbe. “I first became interested in the production side when I had the opportunity to be a VFX coordinator on Dark Territory [after leaving R/GA L.A.].” Freelance work led to a fateful encounter with a Warner Bros. executive who temporarily left his position to produce Looney Tunes: Back in Action. “I was the Visual Effects Producer on that movie, and when Chris DeFaria finished producing it, Warner Bros. brought him in to oversee the visual effects department, and I came in with him at that time.”

A lot of the learning process stemmed from on-the-job training, which taught Kolbe the importance of being adaptable, as well the need to read, listen and watch everything. “Mentorship has come up more in the last 10 years. There weren’t many mentors when I was starting in the business, especially when you were freelance. Nowadays there is more attention towards mentorship, which is fantastic. You can take certain college or university courses to learn it, but at the end of the day you have to be working on production to understand what the job is, the demands, and know how to handle certain situations.”

A thought-to-be extinct Megalodon gets brought back to life for The Meg.

The visual effects industry has changed completely from when Kolbe worked on Dead Man, directed by Jim Jarmusch, as a visual effects production coordinator. “Before it was just a ‘post process.’ Now we’re an integral part in how we make the film. We deal with everything from greenlight content presentations for the studio to overseeing over 80% of the content of all of our films, to delivering not only the 3D but also content for ancillary markets.”

The advancement in digital tools has enabled CG solutions for safety concerns and logistical issues regarding locations. “The budgets have gone up correspondingly to handle that content and has created a massive global business structure to be able handle it. The driving component for us is to make sure that we have the right creative team with the correct solution for the film and the filmmakers. Tax incentives are driving the business and the global workforce. It’s a factor in the equation of how we put the movies together. We’ll run metrics, like 15 or 20, on how we’re going to do and award a film.”

In order to be successful in creating visual effects it is essential to properly pair off the visual effects supervisors and producers with the filmmakers, as was the case with John ‘DJ’ DesJardin and Zack Snyder. “DJ and Zack are so similar,” notes Kolbe. “That was back on Watchmen. DJ was an up and coming supervisor. He was passionate and knew the comic book genre. They work so well together. We do that a lot. A key component of helping our films get done well is making sure that the relationship is solid between the supervisors and directors.”

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) gets acquainted with a baby Niffler in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

King Ricou (Djimon Hounsou)is accompanied by Queen Rina (Natalia Safran) and Fisherman Princess (Sophia Forrest) in one of the 2,300 visual effects shots featured in Aquaman.

Special effects created a shaker rig to vibrate the shield as if it was being hit by several machine-gun rounds a second as Wonder Woman races across No Man’s Land.

Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) battling Hades on an airfield in Wonder Woman.

“We have to figure out an approach that helps us get to content that looks amazing and is more efficient, but also preserves what is the most expensive part of the process, which is the artists’ time.”

—Anne Kolbe, Executive Vice President, Visual Effects, Warner Bros. Pictures

King Orm (Patrick Wilson) meets with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) to discuss the fate of Atlantis in Aquaman.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) travels with Mera (Amber Heard) who has hydrokinetic and telepathic powers in Aquaman.

An adult Niffler has the ability to locate treasure and cause mayhem if kept indoors as it is attracted to shiny objects in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

A significant Kolbe collaborator and contributor to Warner Bros.’ success with the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises has been Oscar-winning production designer Stuart Craig.

Another aspect of the job is having brainstorming sessions with visual effects vendors. During the making of 300: Rise of an Empire, Scanline VFX met with Kolbe to discuss how to shoot the water action dry for wet in front of a greenscreen and to develop the look of the four different battles sequences. “That one had a bunch of challenges: budget, schedule and location. What I do, especially when there’s a film that’s particularly challenging, is go to a company that might have a software solution or a creative and technical solution, bring them in and partner with them to figure out a holistic workflow plan on the film that could achieve the objective. I enjoy working with a company like Scanline VFX because we have a good relationship in trying to think outside of the box.”

A balancing act takes place between financial and creative requirements of a project. “It is tricky, but at the end of the day we have to make a really good movie,” observes Kolbe. “The number one focus is to figure out with the filmmakers how we’re going to do that. We have gotten to be good at it, but that is never easy. There’s never one solution to any problem. We’re always looking at multiple ways to handle a problem or a scenario that we foresee coming up. You are constantly having to make sure that you’re keeping your priorities in line, but also understand that you have to be able to handle shifts and changes.”

Keeping an open mind is critical. “I might ask questions that are completely off the wall, but I always want to challenge our visual effects supervisors and producers to try to think of a better way to get the content.” Post-production schedules are becoming shorter. “You can use technology to help you solve some of the problems. At the end of the day, humans can only do so much in a day, but technology is always advancing. We have to figure out an approach that helps us get to content that looks amazing and is more efficient, but also preserves what is the most expensive part of the process, which is the artists’ time.”

“Our industry will have nothing but more growth in the future, whether it’s augmented reality, virtual reality, or whatever that next thing is,” believes Kolbe. “It’s all going to be part of creating visual content across not only those different areas, but also different platforms that are derivative of the film content.”

The job of managing the visual effects department for Warner Bros. is constantly evolving and changing. “The most interesting part is not only the amount of content we touch but also the complexity of it as well. When I look across my desk and I have 35 movies I’m either in some way, shape or form involved in, there are different challenges in each and every one of them. Ten years ago, we didn’t have to deal with this type of complexity in figuring out how to make the movies, and it’s not only that, but also the financial structure of how we’re going to be able to deal with it.”

States Kolbe, “For me, I like challenges and being part of figuring out solutions. Whenever there is a situation where a film goes well or suddenly has to deal with a challenge that we have to overcome to get a film into the theatre, that is where I get the most satisfaction. Just knowing that we were able to do a good job against all of the obstacles and put out a great-looking movie to the best of our abilities. Our department takes a lot of pride in what we do and the quality of the work that comes out of the studio. That, to me, is what drives me and keeps me going to work every day.”


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