On the website for his company 3DCGI, John Sheils loaded highlights from 30 years of creating imagery on-screen. It is quite some journey — from commercials that took a month to make, to a single shot from Spartacus which features 40,000 CGI soldiers.
Sheils enjoyed finding ways to get a computer to do something in 10 minutes that is supposed to take all day. The straight-talking visual effects veteran — who passed away in late April 2017 — got a kick out of programming software to do things it wasn’t designed for, a task that didn’t lose any of its thrill as the software got more versatile.
After his first job — assisting recording legend Eldred Stebbing — Sheils returned to his favourite city Dunedin, as a trainee for TVNZ. He worked with telecine and videotape — and did some after hours claymation experiments — then won a place in the camera department. Four years handling cameras in and out of the studio heightened his awareness of how camera angles and lighting can create mood. This background proved invaluable when Sheils began simulating reality with computers.
“Watching early 3D animation, it seemed obvious it was all about the camera,” he said. “The camera is the other actor in the scene; It defines your emotional response to what you’re seeing. With early 3D, the camera was just sitting there. I got really excited by the possibilities of 3D, knowing the camera was the seat of it.”
TVNZ’s recently purchased Chyron IV electronic character generator reminded Sheils of his Commodore 64 and TRS-80 computers at home. “So I asked the techs for the manuals.”
In 1985 Sheils joined Rex Macintosh, in TVNZ’s graphic design team. Soon the two left to join company Key Graphics. After buying the gear, they rechristened it Pixel Perfect.
Having provided buzzy-bee opening titles for That’s Fairly Interesting — one of the first CG animations to hit local screens — Pixel Perfect created a host of credit sequences and station IDs, including the dancing stick figure that opened Ready to Roll, an early example of low tech manual motion capture. Sheils also conjured up CGI spaceships and planets for kidult TV drama Night of the Red Hunter.
But it was ads that kept food on the table. The Pixel Perfect team animated everything from shampoo bubbles to singing ghettoblasters, and oversaw the creation of NZ On Air’s talking goldfish. The company workhorse was its Cubicomp Picturemaker software, one of the earliest and cheapest PC based 3D systems. But as CGI’s capabilities expanded, so did client expectations. The pair upgraded to Softimage software running on an SGI workstation.
Collaboration was a key part of the game — often Sheils and co would be augmenting live action footage, or working with traditional 2D animators like Euan Frizzell. On the side, Sheils was straining the software for his brother Michael’s Red Scream. Starting from 25 minutes of basic animation, the two distilled an eye-popping three minute short, which screened alongside the Kiwi release of hit movie The Mask.
After seven years, Sheils and Macintosh sold Pixel Perfect and Sheils joined another new player on the scene: Weta Digital. First called in to help operate the film scanner while Weta founding member George Port was occupied, Sheils was there in the days when the staff numbered only six. Among other projects, he worked on Jack Brown Genius, Contact — one of Weta Digital’s earliest outside commissions — and set up the effects pipeline for the CGI ghosts in The Frighteners.
In the period of research and development that followed, Sheils pushed the idea of using muscles and tissues to make CGI creatures more realistic. He was also a key player in the introduction of another Weta game-changer, first utilised in the cave troll fight from The Fellowship of the Ring: using motion capture technology to allow Peter Jackson to create shots in real-time, while physically walking around inside a virtual world. To meet the huge demands of the Rings trilogy, Sheils and visual effects producer Charlie McClellan hired key personnel, designed databases to track the giant workload and established key technical pipelines.
Sheils had long been a fan of video games — on buying his very first computer back in 1980, the first thing he did was create a game using BASIC. In 2000, intrigued by the challenges of creating game scenes that would work in real time from multiple angles, he joined Wellington’s Sidhe Interactive (now PikPok). Sidhe was another company busy “inventing itself”. Sheils was Creative Director for number of games, including handheld racing hit GripShift and Jackass — the Game, which used extensive multi-talent motion capture and his favoured 'virtual camera' technique.
In 2004 Sidhe loaned out Sheils and concept artist Nick Cattell for movie Perfect Creature, directed by the “brilliantly decisive” Glenn Standring. Sheils supervised 140-odd effects shots, helping fuel the film’s twisted Victorian gothic look. He was proud of the film’s use of miniatures, and avoidance of both bluescreen and rendered CGI (if not computers) — plus the team’s ability to turn around early effects shots quickly, often within a day of shooting. In turn Standring would praise Sheils and visual effects producer Charlie McClellan for being “totally about story and character, not trying to force-fit technology onto a film”.
In 2008 Sheils launched company 3DCGI to work on effects for vampire movie 30 Days of Night, then grew the company to deliver shots for fantasy series Legend of the Seeker, Chinese shot Disney co-production Trail of the Panda, and scenes of flaming aliens and slimy tentacles for the remake of Under the Mountain.
3DCGI also got busy over multiple seasons of Spartacus, creating the spectator-packed gladiators' arena using in-house software specially developed to fill the arena with virtual characters, without the need for extended waits to check the results. Working with the fast turnaround demands of television, Sheils and co also created the climactic army versus gladiator battle of Spartacus - War of the Damned. Sheils used the Massive programme Stephen Regelous had invented for The Lord of the Rings to handle shots involving as many as 40,000 soldiers. Renderwall processors ran at 98 degrees Celsius during Wellington’s hottest summer in years.
In 2014 Sheils returned to China for one of his most challenging projects to date: multi-million dollar fantasy Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, from rising director Chuan Lu. As VFX supervisor, he oversaw a final tally of 800 effects shots, handled by five companies. Sheils was on hand during shoots on sweaty Beijing sound stages, and negative 20 degree Mongolian deserts.
3DCGI website. Accessed 1 May 2017
Ian Pryor, ‘Building the Perfect Creature’ - Fangoria 265, August 2007, page 54
‘Show & Cattell’ (Interview with Nick Cattell) - Onfilm, April 2005, page 14 (Volume 22, number 4)
’Sex change for VFX supervisor*’ (Interview) - Onfilm, April 2005 page 16
'John Sheils’ LinkedIn website. Accessed 28 December 2015
The Frighteners press kit