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King of the Hill 

Local special effects artist Brian Howald had a hand in a new Hollywood thriller. Carsten Knox looks for his fingerprints in Silent Hill.

Brian Howald is a busy guy. He’s in Toronto, in transit from a meeting to a screening and he only has a few minutes to speak. To make matters worse, he’s having to dodge nosy questions down the line from Halifax about this new IMAX project he’s working on.

“I don’t know,” he says, hesitating. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of somebody to find out what I can say and what I can’t.”

That’s fair enough, but what he can talk about is his Nova Scotia digital effects company and how he managed to get work on Silent Hill, the horror film that opened last week.

Howald’s bread and butter is compositing, that is, the manipulation of live action footage shot against a green screen, and adding digital effects and/or layering computer animation into it. His part of the post-production work on Silent Hill took two months.

The movie is based on a popular video game in the “survival horror” genre spawned by Resident Evil, though more psychological and narrative-based than that high gore entertainment. The film cleaves to the game’s model, about a mother trying to save her sick daughter, and running afoul of the creepy, isolated titular town. It stars Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean and was the most recent horror picture to take the top box office this year, earning more than $20 million US last weekend. As with many genre pictures, the budget was tight, as was the time taken to complete the special effects.

“They were coming down to the crunch for finishing up the movie and needed extra help with it,” says Howald. He was contracted by CORE Digital Pictures, an effects house in Toronto that regularly gets Hollywood movie work, including Lucky Number Slevin and Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

Howald worked on a mutant that lives underground called The Grey Child. “I took the elements of the shot,” he says, “these little characters shot on green screen and multi-layered them, so there’d be more than one of them onscreen at one time.

“The other thing we had to do was add burning sensation on their arms, so it looks like they’re burning from within—they kind of glow. We had to track those on their arms, make them move with the actual characters. Matching perspectives and such.”

Howald, 45, has been living in Halifax for over eight years but is originally from Ontario. A job at a television station in Kitchener doing set design and graphics led him into computers in the 1980s. “I learned 3D animation, and that took me into post-production and commercials. I learned different software, and that brought me into long-format television shows and movies.”

Having been a senior compositor and producer at a company in Toronto for 10 years, Howald says it was work on the TV series Lexx that brought him out to Halifax originally, but the lifestyle kept him here. After the show wrapped, he and his business partner, Breandan McGrath, formed Wingit Productions, a Barrington Street-based multi-service digital animation company that does compositing, computer animation and internet applications.

Wingit has ventured into production as well. McGrath just produced a short film called Chunks that was featured at last week’s ViewFinders. Howald directed the first season of the animated series Olliver’s Adventures and voice-directed the following two seasons.

The biggest misconception people have about his work is that it’s overly expensive and time consuming. “Things have changed over the years,” he says. “The effects are more simple. If elements are shot properly, effects can be pulled out at a very reasonable rate and at a very quick turn-around. The accessibility to it now, the machines are much cheaper. I thoroughly enjoy it.”

He admits he’s pretty hard on the work he sees onscreen. “I’ll sit and watch a movie and nine times out of 10 I’ll come out thinking about the effects rather than the movie,” he says. “Unfortunately, my family is the same way. My daughters are very critical, they watch them in a different light.”

This summer his daughters will see another movie that will certainly grab their critical interest. The secret IMAX project Howald has been working on is the stereoscopic version of Superman Returns. It opens in July.

Silent Hill is in theatres now. See Movie Times for details.


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