Believing Make-Believe: an Interview with GoT Visual Effects Artist Neil Safeer Ghaznavi

GoT VFX

My enthusiasm for speculative fiction is very much rooted in its ability to make impossible things believable. For someone like me, to conjure the fantastical through words is great. To see it as illustrations is even better; to watch it as moving pictures that seem exactly like real life is the absolute best. Meet Neil Safeer Ghaznavi, the man who helps breathe realism into the fantastical elements you see on the big screen. Currently working as a senior compositor in a Vancouver based firm, and he has Game of Thrones, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Divergent, X-men, and a throng of other big names to his credit. In an interview with The Spectatorial, Neil tells us all about his work, life and what it takes to be a leading visual effects specialist in Hollywood.

Congrats on the Emmy for Game of Thrones! Which role did you play on the visual effects team?

Thanks! I did compositing, which is basically the end of the line for the visual effects. We’ve got animators, textures, etc. –then I come in right at the end and put it all together.

How did you like working on GoT?

It was great to work on something that I enjoyed watching too. I tried not to spoil the show for myself, I’d just work on my shot and try not to figure out what was going on. The amount of visual effects they want-for a TV show- is on a really high level. It’s almost film quality. We had to study and recreate the sets and props digitally, and that was really cool too.

What has been the best or most difficult work you’ve done in visual effects?

Visual effects works on a very micro, shot by shot scale–every shot may be 2-3 seconds long, but you have to work to ensure every single second looks the best that it can. It can take months to solve a 2-3 second shot and the simplest of shots can be the hardest to perfect. The last, most challenging work I had to do was probably slow down footage and recreate frames that don’t even exist. For example, turning a one second into two seconds. Something like that can be very challenging to recreate realistically.

Digital recreation is all fake, so the ultimate goal is to create realism–you wanna make it look like there’s no visual effects involved at all!

Now for possibly the most important question of today: Which Game of Thrones house are you rooting for?

(Laughs) I’m not rooting for one house per se. I like individual characters–especially Tyrion. The show is very character-driven, and the Lannisters are a very complex and well-developed bunch, although not necessarily characters you want to root for.

Are there any myths or misconceptions you had about working in Hollywood?

Not really. Getting there was a gradual process for me. When I started out in visual effects, I didn’t know I was gonna be a compositor. I didn’t even know what a compositor did! I just liked what was shown on screen, and while I was studying visual effects I chose to narrow into manipulation and realism which led me here. I didn’t really have any expectations; I just wanted to work on stuff–and to get the opportunity to do such work was exciting enough for me.

Drake says, so eloquently, “Started from the bottom, now, we’re here.” From what I gather, you’ve got a similar story. You began working at Bates at the age of 19 doing advertising while getting your first degree, and then you went on to become the youngest Art Director in India at the time. What drove your success?

When I came out of high school, I was like ‘What am I going to do now?’. I was at a loss. I hated school, and the only thing I liked in school was art, so I decided to do something art-specific. I asked myself ‘what industry can I join that will allow me to do some kind of art?’, and it was advertising. I got a huge opportunity in a company in India as a summer intern and after that I didn’t look back. I continued, stayed with the company, and eventually became an art director. I did a lot of work on ad films. This took me to London where we did some visual effects and I saw that and I was hooked. I saw ad films done on computers and I thought “This is what I really really want to do.” At the same time Jurassic Parkwhich influenced me greatly–came out. Then and there I made the decision to quit advertising and go to art school, which I really never did [before]–and here I am.

What kind of shows, movies, or directors inspire you?

Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is a big one, although it came later. From earlier on I used to love sci-fi–I’m a Trekkie and have always loved all things Star Trek. Star Wars was high on my list too. Ridley Scott is one of the directors I follow closely and I really liked the new Star Trek film as well. The last movie that was exactly in my tastes was Chris Nolan’s Interstellar; he did an awesome job with it.

What do you have to say about the speculative fiction genre on screen, as someone who works backstage, so to speak?

I think it is such an interesting genre from both sides of the screen. People are very used to the realism seen in everyday life, and VFX strives to recreate it [realism] in something completely new and never seen before. You get to see space, or walking skeletons for example–things you would not normally see–and yet you manage to believe it and enjoy it. To render imaginations and show them to people is both incredibly interesting and satisfying.

-contributed by Shahin Imtiaz

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