Interview: Richie Baneham

If asked to list some Irish Oscar winners down your local pub quiz, it’s likely that the name ‘Daniel Day Lewis’ will spring to mind, followed by ‘Peter O’Toole’ and then maybe even yer man from The Frames. However last year it was Tallaght man Richard Baneham who walked away with a gong, having worked on the visual effects for James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest grossest film in history. And so, one year on from his win, with the 2011 Oscar nominations looming, we asked Baneham about his journey to Oscar stage, the pressure of living up to his award and the challenges facing visual effects artists.

Baneham studied classical animation in Ballyfermot College of Further Education, whose alumni also boast the Oscar-nominated animators of The Secret of Kells and Granny O’Grimm. Following his degree, the determined student moved over to the States with his soon-to-be wife Aisling, and spent years building up a good reputation in some of the smaller film studios. “One of my first main jobs was working on a movie – and I’m ashamed to say it – called The Swan Princess. But sure it payed the bills – hey, we were 22, all we needed was money to drink and pay our rent!”

After spending another couple of years paying his dues, Baneham finally got his big break when Warner Bros.’ Brad Bird selected him to work on the critically acclaimed animated classic, The Iron Giant. From that point on it was a fateful line of events that brought his performance animation work for the character of Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to a certain Mr.James Cameron’s attention.

“Jim had been testing the waters to see if CG facial rigs could be built to give a fully enhanced performance, and when he saw the Gollum sequence I had worked on – the soliloquy where Gollum becomes Smegaol and Deagol and they talk to each other – Jim apparently said ‘right, we’re ready to make Avatar, the technology and tool-set is far enough along to make this movie.’ So I was asked was there any chance I’d be free for a meeting with James Cameron – I managed to free my schedule! – and he and his team were so open to ideas, it was instantly a great match.”

But despite the widespread critical acclaim and record-breaking financial success of the film, the Oscar campaign was still a struggle.

“It really wasn’t certain at all! Coming up to the nominations we had animation departments saying it was visual effects, and visual effects departments saying it was animation, and it was just this uneasy period when people didn’t know where to place us. And then there was this David and Goliath dynamic created between ourselves and District 9, which was such a great, small budget movie, and to be honest we really weren’t at all sure we were going to end up on top!”

And even after his win, the Oscar pressure just doesn’t stop. Currently working on two Avatar sequels which are set to be released in 2014 and 2015, Baneham’s already feeling the pressure to live up to the expectations of that little golden man.

“To be honest there is that wonderment within the group of whether we can top that again. And I think this is really the test – doing it once is great, but to do it twice…yeah, we’ll have to see, we’ll either do it big or go home!”

Ironically one of the challenges facing the Avatar team is not just making the characters look realistic, but avoiding freaking out your audience once you do.

“The ‘uncanny valley effect’ refers to when figures, for all intents and purposes, look right but feels wrong,” Banehma explains. “And on Avatar that was a huge danger, we were afraid of our life to get into that. Whenever you do anything that’s photo-real there’s a danger of getting it look like a photograph but feel like there’s something amiss. It makes your audience feel uncomfortable and they’ve a hard time connecting with the character because it looks anatomically correct but feels dead or soulless. Not to knock other films in the slightest, but I think The Polar Express veered into that territory, it did feel uncanny, so it’s something you have to be very careful with.”

So there’s his vote for a visual effects gone astray, but which of 2010’s film does he think worthy of following in Avatar’s footsteps and scooping up a gong for visual effects this year?

“I think Inception was well done, I’m not sure if the effects are too traditional to win but I enjoyed the movie. Likewise, Tron:Legacy has to be a favourite too, though I thought Inception was a better movie overall, Tron has some crackerjack visuals and as a body of work it’s very strong. It depends if they want to go new or traditional.”

And what about hardcore traditionalists like myself, is there any hope that we’ll ever get to abandon our stupid 3D glasses in favour of some good old-fashioned 2D animation? “The movie industry is a business, and as given to fads as any other. I’m not sure we’ll ever see a resurgence of 2D the way it was, but there’s room in the industry. It just comes down to making a good movie. When I’m working on a project, whether 2D animation, 3D animation, the genre shouldn’t matter, and the methodology of making the movie shouldn’t matter. If you make a good movie, tell a good story and connect with the audience and you’ll do okay.”