We are delighted to present an interview with Nathan McGuinness, the former Visual Effects Creative Supervisor at Asylum Visual Effects. He directed Iron Woman, the live action commercial for Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. We wanted to learn more about the commercial’s production, so team member Roy spoke with Nathan over Zoom. You can read a transcript of the interview below, which has been edited for clarity.
Yeah, I mean, 2004. So we’re talking quite a few years. It’s bizarre, but because it was a very small team, and that small team, I’m still very close with most of the people who are involved. So yes, where would you like to start?
Well, my name is Nathan McGuinness. In 2004, I had two companies, Asylum and Kommitted Films. Asylum was my visual effects company and Kommitted Films was my production company, which was just catering for myself to direct, using my visual effects company as the parts to be able to create and direct commercials like Iron Woman. Yeah, that’s how it all began and how it was.
Well, I mean, in that period of my life, directing commercials was just a dream, but having a reputation in visual effects that allowed me to direct, I suppose Black Hawk Down would be one of my favorites. Master and Commander was obviously a fantastic adventure and a bit later on in the game, I think Benjamin Button was a great, fun project. I mean, all the projects, I was always associated with such great film makers.
The movies were great, but the people making the films were even better so, hard to qualify one great film because I was always lucky, fortunate enough to be on films that were made by such great filmmakers. One of my favorites was coming in and helping on Greyhound, which was Tom Hanks’s film, which was only a couple of years ago. It’s hard to have a favorite when you get to work with all these great people, and [they are] equally enjoyable.
I think it all began with the advertising agency originally working through Asylum, with other directors from production companies, who we catered for. We had a relationship already and that’s what kind of kind of created getting the ball rolling and having the opportunity to work on commercial directing projects while supervising commercials as well, and features and music videos at that time.
I think it was just for me, being fortunate enough to have a lot at that time to give me the opportunities to work on and meet creatives and advertising agencies and brands… it gave me a little bit of a range of creative kind of directing jobs for myself.
Yeah, we filmed here in downtown Los Angeles, night shift, obviously, and you know, just a little grungy little piece of street in an alleyway, which as you can see, was just pretty minimal, but it was a real set. You know it was, it was a real location. So it was really all about the lighting and the alleyway, keeping it quite simple, you know. The light really gave it the texture and the simplicity that focused on our key player.
No, that’s fine. I don’t mind being associated to Fight Club. I was trying to bounce the feel off obviously the game itself, so I had to do a little bit of visual research from the game, and not being a gamer, just trying to even make sure that there’s a connection stylistically.
It was one of those cases always where the creators would send us up a script. I’d develop the treatment; it was just a normal direction process. Really, it was a month’s turnaround on top of discuss it, talk about it, get it awarded and then go into, you know, putting a team together and making sure that everyone’s on the same page and it was a comfort factor with everybody involved, because I’d worked with everybody. The crew were people that I’ve been fortunate to work with on the movies, so I was able to use world class DPs [Director of Production] and production designers and AD’s [Assistant Director]. I was fortunate enough so that the process was really a pretty good process.
Yeah, I mean at that time, before virtual sets of all the digital world, and still today, something that simple could have been built on set for sure. I still feel that the live situation for a for a set still allows you not to have to sort of compromise with the photorealistic version of what we do. That’s put it in the real world, we won’t have to deal with issues of replicating the real world.
I mean, yeah, obviously we backended it with some game play. By the way, I’m discussing this with only looking at it again once, from so many years ago, but I still remember [this like] yesterday because of the simplicity of the camera too. But yeah, we went through some gameplay footage we found. We found a little piece that kind of inspired us to be able to create the walk and the walk cycle, so that when we transitioned in, everybody puts you back in the game.
Yeah, yeah. I mean the walk felt right to us because it felt like it was the representation of the game-like feel and obviously our casting was kind of important in that way because she pulled it off really well, you know, she already had the attitude and the look. Directing her wasn’t really a difficult issue, and she did really well.
OK, so I know we’re recording. What I did do, and we may as well just say it, my producer Jodi Fisher dug up the call sheet from all the way, all the way back in time. So, Melissa Keller was our main talent, obviously, and I chose her the minute I saw her. It wasn’t like a process of elimination. It was like Melissa was right for the job and she was right for the job, she was perfect for the job. If anyone was ever wondering who that hero was, well, now you know Melissa Keller was Iron Woman.
I don’t know where she is today. I know she went off and did some good things, but she was memorable for us because she just did it so well, you know. Even watching it for the first time in a long time, I still looked at it like yeah, she was definitely the right pick.
Yeah, well, I think that’s why. The agency and I had a great relationship, and I hope I’m right with Bill Stone. He was one of the creatives and we had this brilliant relationship, we did a lot of commercials with them, you know, for that period of time. Yeah, she just held it well and she had the attitude, and she had a bit of, you know, I wouldn’t want to mess with her type of fear.
Yeah, I mean as I said, and when you look now, obviously the effects, it’s a long time ago, but I still think the idea was quite simple, but it still looks good. You could go off and you could replicate that commercial today, still that same idea, you would still be equally blown away. Yes, it would probably have the effects be advanced a little bit, but the idea and the feel… I think you wouldn’t have to change much.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s how I felt too when I took a look at it, and our turnaround time even back in 2004, was still a massively fast turnaround time, but it was at a time where the CG artists were kind of more generalists with an all-around background. They were hotshots, you could say, that small group that I remember so well.
The team were a selected few for the success of my company Asylum at the time, and they were an intricate part of why it was successful. It was a small and lean but really fast little team.
The reason why I’m looking down, by the way, is because I received the call sheet yesterday, and it was amazing to see the names cause the names there are people who are still doing really well and working very hard in our industry today.
No, but you can see in the way we designed the light. She was in the light, and it was only one light, it was one light source. Our DP, Dariusz Wolski, today is hands down one of our greatest DP’s to walk this planet. I think I met him on a project for Joel Schumacher back in the 2000s. Today he is still one of the greatest. Yeah, he experimented with light and working in an environment that was completely negative space. Nothing but that one source of light that just basically gave her that really nice source that followed her, and he built a lighting set up that we tested and we experimented with prior to the shoot.
That light source wasn’t something that we just kind of rolled up at the set, you know, and we knew we needed the source, but we hadn’t really seen what that would exactly look like. Dariusz would come to my company, we would set up a little test area and he played around with different styles of light that created that source that’s so important to, as you said, the agency briefs, the two worlds of light and dark. Just with that very fine touch of atmospherics inside that light source is what gave it so much, even though it was the one source, it felt like it had a lot of depth. I was lucky to have a guy like him to be involved in something for myself.
So yeah, things like that source that look simple, aren’t very simple when you put it all into play. That’s why doing your homework and capturing the methodologies on all aspects of the end result prior to going into the shoot makes it a far more successful journey than just putting it in theory. It works, but you could put it in theory and sometimes it doesn’t work. We just made sure we were buttoned up, we had that light source and you can see [that] the negative versus positive light in the commercial is so successful, but that took experiments before we shot.
You always need to be able to explain. Working on a project is about, and it doesn’t matter if it was today or 2004. It’s the planning and approvals of creative, [that] is part of the process but being planned correctly, before you go into working on that day in all aspects of the shoot. The more you know and the more you’ve tested, the more you feel comfortable, the more everyone [is] on the same page, the better it’s going to be. Still today.
In sound, it’s kind of an equally important scenario, so we did some custom sound and I want to be able to just have a quick look if you don’t mind. Just want to go to see if I had the credits here… They do. [he was looking at the call sheet] I’m not seeing my sound in here.
With all the gaming campaigns back in that period of time, I was always hunting the best of sound design. It’s still equally important as the imagery still today that kind of applies to everything we do, right? So I was just trying to keep ahead of the game with something fresh and something that has a memorable kind of feel, as much as the imagery as well. It’s the effort you put into shooting at something is equally as important as our sound was. We had a version of that, that we used as our template so we could get that vibe.
Yeah, no, I think this one is completely custom but… I’m always gonna say period of time because it’s just so long ago, you know, we would go out and actually buy the rights to the track using the band, and that’s what I thought was so successful. A lot of the gaming campaigns that I was working on at the time, we would talk directly to, to the labels and we would do a deal with them so we could use the actual artists’ track, so we didn’t have to go replicate it or somehow create a version that’s similar and all that.
Tracks I could hear, I’d hear in the car, I could easily apply that to my vision because it could have made my ears pick up when I listened to it originally. I’m trying to not make that process so difficult. Having to try to create someone’s masterpiece, masterpieces are very hard to just replicate. Here’s a reference here, take this and you can’t be this, but be like that. That’s a really hard call, so I think you go with what’s so successful that makes you know the rest of the world love what they’re hearing, like I love what I’m hearing, you know that’s going to be so successful.
I know you’re recording, and I would love to tell you, but I can’t remember. I don’t think it was Melissa, from memory but… yeah, sorry. That is going so far way back. I can’t remember and I wish I had my call sheet longer than yesterday, so I could have gone back and done some really great [research]. That’s why I wanted to call you yesterday, I wanted to say ‘Hey, I just got the call sheet, I can really do some research for you’. This is something that, when I saw the call sheet yesterday, I had no idea I would ever have my hands on the call sheet.
That was so amazing, 2004, and here was the call sheet. Jodi Fisher, my producer found it, and sent it to me, so once I started reviewing it, there’s a lot of depth in there that I couldn’t figure out just overnight. It’s quite amazing to see the call sheet for that long ago.
Yeah, I mean, but it’s a great historical relic because I don’t think it’s hardly a person on that page that I don’t know, still doing well and still working. It’s quite brilliant that, obviously, age is an interesting process, an interesting scenario. I got on the phone to talk to Jodi and was like talking to her the same day as the day we made it, so it’s quite amazing.
No. Did you say a Kelly?
Ah! Yes, yes, I might have it up here. [he looked up to the shelf on his right] Yeah, I do. I know that the awards come along with the success of the agency and everyone involved, so I do believe I remember the Telly, yeah.
Yeah, well, you know, I think that even as long as go as these, generally commercials, in the visual effects genre, they don’t really have a shelf life and because of our styles and technology and the bar of what we see, the realism has been lifted so high. I feel like it’s aged somewhat, but the idea hasn’t allowed it to age as much as the normal visual effects-heavy commercials, so I think that probably contributes to even back in the day, [inaudible] or just accept it as not a bad commercial. That goes to prove that there must be something about them that gives it a little bit more longevity or some content in there that stops the aging process of a commercial or an idea or technically, the aesthetics and looks. It just holds up slightly more than some other visual effects commercials that I worked on at that time, hands down.
I think that that’s probably exactly right. All it’s really doing is bouncing off [a] great idea, great content, great game, and I was just fortunate enough just to be able to put a very a live action piece underneath and over the top of something that looks cool anyway. So yeah, you’re right, because the live action portion of it is what keeps the age of it alive.
No, not after it came out. I was doing a lot of the agency’s [Leo Burnett] campaigns at that time, and I’m talking there was probably 30 or 40, maybe more, so I’m not a gamer, but I knew every game because I was constantly studying all the gameplay. You can’t direct something and not have the discipline to go in and do your homework, understand the game, or you don’t have to be a gamer to be able to just understand the content that you’re working on, so I’d always be mindful of and careful about the product itself.
You can’t have someone tell you what the product is, you have to look at it and understand it, as a director, as well as almost as a gamer so, and I think that’s maybe also an advantage to come to someone like us, who’s not particularly the gamer because I look at it more from a higher-up view, which helps move it across into a film type of field domain, but for the advertising of the game. Which is kind of what they do today with the gaming trailers. They’re so amazingly creative, you know, they’re such an amazing feat when you see them. They’re so filmic, and so I think it’s an advantage, but you got you gotta know your game to successfully direct a gaming spot, so the gamers have some respect for what we’ve done.
Yeah. Well, yeah, yeah. I think that as a creative, whoever was pulling the strings, the way you represent your product in the game as a director has to be not selfish in any way. Sometimes you’re trying to appease a different audience that shouldn’t be appeased that way. Personally, I wouldn’t be pushing drugs and alcohol in a gaming realm. Ever. Full stop.
Not in this day and age, not now, not in 2004. I think that’s in the values of what we try to do and teach our younger generations and ourselves. You just don’t use that as your creative springboard to, say, look what I can do as a director or look, I can do as a creative. You don’t need to do that.
Well, that’s so nice to hear because the actual making of it, the reason why I remember so well, is again, just great people, great client, great, team, staff and the idea was something to look at and something beautiful, and you know not influencing anybody in any way, shape, or form. Basically, it was just connecting the game players with the message of the next generation of the game.
I can’t share exactly what I’m working today, but I focus a lot now on helping develop in the feature world. I like to be part of the process of in the world of hepatitis, I’d like to be part of the original conception of the TV shows which need a lot of visual design and bringing the pilots to life, that’s great. Right now I think it’s a very diverse world when it comes to what people like myself do. You could be going from a feature film like I did on Greyhound to a very an amazing artsy film that you don’t even see there’s visual effects. I finished a project a little while ago called The Good Nurse, which was a visual effects assisted film and those are really challenging because they’re just visual effects that aren’t there. The location is somewhere else, and so that’s what I really love doing.
At the moment I’m on a project where there’s a lot of need for specialists like ourselves to just help move projects over the line because of the global world that we’re in, we needed a lot of people like ourselves to help get the visual effects out over the line because of the way things are designed at the moment. Yeah.
It was a pleasure talking to you, and it was a surprise to go back in time, and to your readers, I’m just really happy that I got to work on something so long ago that people today are still interested in, as you said, the readers are and I’m very proud to be part of something so interesting at the time and so popular at the time, is popular today.
© 2023 Shinesparkers (RoyboyX) and Nathan McGuinness
Special thanks to Quadraxis
Interviewed on 15th March 2023