Alkemy X

Michael Porterfield is head of 2D at Alkemy X, a global studio that provides visual effects, production, editorial, design and creative development for film, episodics, agencies and brands.

Porterfield, who has over 30 years of experience in visual effects, recently joined the company from Scanline VFX. His diverse VFX background spans feature film, episodic and commercial projects and includes Apple TV’s Lisey’s Story; Netflix’s Don’t Look Up; Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Roland Emmerich’s Midway; and HBO’s Game of Thrones.

What does the job of head of 2D entail?
The definition varies widely from company to company based on structure, staff and need. I see my role as a mentor to the artists…a leader providing a clear vision across the board — from creative decisions to technology to pipeline design. I also make sure that communication and organization from my department within the facility help to keep our shots delivering efficiently, our clients happy and our bottom line healthy.

What would surprise people the most about what falls under that title?
Head of a department sounds so singularly important as a title. I’ve found the more attention I give away to others, the better I am at my job. Actively listening, engaging and asking others for their opinions is a highly underrated craft some would be surprised to find in the skillset of a departmental head.

How long have you been working in VFX and in what kind of roles?
I’ve been in some form of VFX for 30-plus years — from client-supervised commercial VFX work in a Flame suite in Minneapolis to television episodic work in Vancouver. Then a wild mix of music videos, film trailers and feature film VFX in Los Angeles. I also worked in Seattle and Albuquerque and am now back to Vancouver to work remotely for Alkemy X, a company founded in Philadelphia and with locations all over the world. I believe that covers all the North American time zones, come to think of it.

All along, I’ve done everything from on-set PA to small-shop VFX supervisor to compositing supervisor for major superhero films.

How has the VFX industry changed in the time you’ve been working? What’s been good? What’s been bad?
Some reading this will recall the days in feature film VFX when we would not begin work until we had a locked edit on a sequence or a reel. Currently, it’s not uncommon to take final shots to the client only to have them omitted from the film. While this compression of the production schedule has allowed a vast increase in the number of shows available for release in theaters or on streaming platforms, the amount of time spent chasing editorial changes means that time has not been spent on making the VFX content look all that much better.

That’s a real, tangible challenge — trying to keep morale positive for the artists after spending weeks polishing a shot only to have it cut. Or when reshoots result in having to add shots very late in delivery that have to be rushed through, increasing the necessity for expensive and exhausting OT hours during crunch time.

On the plus side, there is more work available to more artists than ever before, and as long as artists and management work together to prevent burnout, this is an unprecedented time to be working in this industry.

Can you talk about COVID’s effect on the VFX industry?
Remote work due to COVID isolation has fundamentally changed the VFX industry. I am alarmed at how we used to walk maskless into someone’s workspace, with both of us leaning deep into the monitor to talk at length about a shot. I’m also saddened that remote work has taken away that vital interaction.

I don’t miss the number of colds and flu I used to bring home, but we are visual thinkers in an artistic, subjective industry, and being able to collaborate using physical gestures, drawings and references face to face in an office environment has been, to a great degree, lost. There is a warmth to the in-person, human conversation that can build rapport and teamwork, which I believe are essential in such a collaborative industry. I’m working on a hybrid model to restore some of that in this new position as head of 2D at Alkemy X.

Did a particular film inspire you along this path in entertainment?
I saw the original Star Wars 26 times in the theater, many of those times in the middle seat of the front row. The POV from an X-wing diving into the trench, from a seat in the front row, was about as virtual reality as you could get in the 1970s. So you could say, yes, that film had its role.

But a very different kind of film, not altogether unrelated, was also as impactful to me: Lawrence of Arabia, which I was fortunate enough to see restored in 70mm on a screen so large I had to swivel my head side to side to capture the breadth of it. And, no, I wasn’t in the front row. In terms of scope, pacing and framing, very few films have remained etched in my mind with the same grandeur.

Did you go to film school?
I was well on the way to a career in creative writing when I realized I was visualizing the story in my head, then trying to put words to the pictures. It was a revelation when I sat at my first 4-plate 16mm Steenbeck at the University of Wisconsin. The next hours passed in an instant. I knew I had found the single-point Zen focus that turned work into play for me. I took as many courses as I could and began to look for film work opportunities in the area, which, at that time, were limited. But Minneapolis, the hotbed of advertising and commercial production, was a short drive away, and so the story began.

What’s your favorite part of the job?
Whenever I do get a chance to get back on the box and comp a shot, I feel a bit of that same timelessness that initially drew me into the film world. But in more of a managerial sense, working on a large project with many moving parts, many artists of all types, and bringing it all together from bid stage to final tech — achieving that strategic and tactical victory is very satisfying.

If you didn’t have this job, what would you be doing instead?
Mentoring and helping develop artists echoes teaching in many ways. I think I would have enjoyed and been quite successful in education. Hats off to the teachers!

Can you name some recent work?
I was deeply involved in Apple TV+’s Lisey’s Story as compositing supervisor. I was so pleased with the way the series turned out in terms of storytelling and content. And yes, because it’s Stephen King, we created SOME horror in the Long Boy character. The arc of Lisey and Scott’s lives are so elegantly, horrifically played out over the course of the series. The layered metaphors of mental illness, the self-referential callbacks to King’s own prior works and experiences — all of it plays out in such a tremendously satisfying way that it’s one of my recent favorites. I feel fortunate to have had some contribution.

What tools do you use day to day?
I am pretty deeply embedded in ShotGrid, and Screening Room has really been a lifesaver during remote work. In the office, I could walk to a workstation, give in-person notes about shots or a sequence, and then use the Screening Room annotations as a reminder or a follow-up. Now I’m using the annotation tool in far more depth than before, creating quick paint-overs and mini-contact sheets, uploading references from the network for side-by-side comparisons and illustrating key areas of VFX shots that need work with real-world examples.

Where do you find inspiration now?
Reading sparks my imagination continually. No surprise, VFX lends itself to science fiction and fantasy stories, so I recently finished out “The Expanse” novel series after bingeing the six-season run of The Expanse television adaptation.

And with Dune back on the silver screen, I opened a box of memorabilia and pulled out my dog-eared, beaten-up old paperback copy of the book recently and read through it all over again. I’m not certain my internal art director would have made the same choices for either of those adaptations, but that’s the beauty of interpretive creativity, isn’t it?

What do you do to de-stress from it all?
Gardening in the summer, though I am still a novice, and pests can add frustration instead of removing it. And reading, as noted previously, can turn off the anxiety for long enough to recharge and get back in the game.