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Behind Closed Doors with Rachel Wheeler



Movie Marker Magazine went behind closed doors with award-winning Visual Effects Producer, Rachel Wheeler to chat about the inspiration behind her career choice and some of her greatest achievements to date from Happy Feet to Fantastic Beasts.

Firstly, for readers who may not know, can you tell us what a Visual Effects Producer does?

VFX Producers are at the heart of the production, responsible for overseeing the entire visual effects production pipeline, and helping to bring the director’s vision to life. A producer works with the director, VFX supervisor and other creative heads to break down the movie and identify any CGI (computer-generated imagery) required i.e. creatures, environments, and effects. They oversee the VFX budget, which can run into millions of dollars on the larger films. During production, the producer works with key creatives on set to ensure that shots are filmed in a way that will allow their teams to work their CG magic, and assess any additional work that comes in while shooting. When filming is complete the producer’s focus shifts to supervising their teams to deliver all VFX shots on time and on budget, ahead of the film’s release. There’s a great deal of high-level technical and creative problem-solving, budget and people management required from VFX producers, making them absolutely critical to a film’s success.

You have such an incredible line-up of blockbuster films so far. What inspired you to take this career path? Was it something that you watched and thought – oh yeah, I want to do that?

As a teenager and film school student growing up I was always more fascinated with the visual effects’ heavy movies such as the ‘Matrix’ and ‘Star Wars’.  I’d watch them over and over again as well as any of their behind-the-scenes footage I could find. It was always the visual effects shots which fascinated me the most as they combined traditional film-making techniques with all this fascinating, world-leading technology which I just knew I wanted to be a part of.

Your debut film was the iconic blockbuster feature animation ‘Happy Feet’, from Warner Brothers, which picked up multiple international awards. It must have been a phenomenal experience. Can you explain how you were brought onto the project and any stand-out moments?

I was actually working for a TV station in Sydney, Australia when I was first approached about taking on a role as a technology coordinator on the film. It sounded so interesting and challenging and was the first large-scale feature animation ever made in Australia, so I jumped at the chance to be involved. 

Mumble with a cast of thousands, all generated with ground-breaking Horde software

Probably the most memorable moment was watching the Academy Awards live with all the media outlets’ cameras tuned in on us, all dressed up in our evening gowns and suits on a hot Australian afternoon. I’ll never forget the moment presenter Cameron Diaz read out the card which announced that our ‘little’ local film had just beaten the behemoth Pixar’s movie ‘Cars’ for the Oscar.  It was an incredible moment after four years of hard work, to be honored with the film industry’s highest award, followed by much jumping around and champagne popping!

Rachel (on right) with ‘Happy Feet’ crew celebrating their Academy Award

In the subsequent years you’ve worked on a wide range of other huge films including Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and Avatar and Gravity, which also won Academy Awards. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did on Gravity?

On ‘Gravity’ I was a line producer overseeing the talented previsualization and motion capture teams. My teams created digital replications of all the film’s elements, and patterns of movements from the actors. This work was critical as it enabled our visionary director Alfonso Cuarón to plan all the film’s lighting, composition, camera moves and the actors’ choreography. For a film of this scale, set in outer-space, almost every element except for actors Sandra Bullocks and George Clooney faces had to be done in CG, requiring an incredible amount of trail-blazing technology and techniques from our team. It was an extraordinary workplace to be a part of, so many world-leading creatives working together, and rooms full of not only CG assets but actual space station miniatures and spacesuits. Growing up I was obsessed with NASA and its space programs, so it was really a dream come true being in such an inspiring environment and contributing to this groundbreaking film.  

Work in progress shot showing Sandra Bullock’s face added to CGI

What advice can you share with any budding VFX producers out there?

Always be curious and hungry for knowledge and willing to learn about new technology. The visual effects world is evolving more than ever now, and as producers we need to be constantly adaptable and ahead of the game.  For example one of my latest, really fun VFX projects was in the emerging new area of ride films, which has stunning world-class CGI integrated into well-known theme-park attractions. I’ve also been getting more involved in virtual and augmented reality, a significant area of evolution for visual effects which it is essential to have knowledge of. Seek out a senior producer mentor who can help you grow and expand on your knowledge and abilities, as much of the job can only be learnt over time and from experience. This includes a particular instinct which makes good producers excel in this industry and is a talent that simply can’t be learnt in film school.  I’ve been honored to have mentored numerous junior producers and coordinators over the years, many of whom are women, which our industry needs more of.  It’s been amazing seeing them come into their own as fabulous VFX producers on their own award-winning films.

Thank you, Rachel for taking the time to chat to us at Movie Marker. We look forward to seeing more of your work on the big screen!

Rachel with Director George Miller

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