Michail Charalampidis on VFX, Moving from Greece to Hollywood, & Working on the Hit Show - Game of Thrones.
May 13, 2015
I grew up in Lagadas, a small town near Thessaloniki, Greece. I joined a theater acting class as a kid. I was good at it.
I had a lot of untamed passion for acting and storytelling.
I attended the International Baccalaureate program in Anatolia College. I took a theater class and discovered the creative power lying with a director.
Soon after that, I felt theater was limiting for me and I switched to the cinema world, which was a more appropriate medium for the type of stories I wanted to tell.
I attended Hampshire College, a school that gives a lot of freedom to the students to make their own work.
It’s a great system if you know what you want and how to get it and I benefited greatly from it.
However, when I look back, I realize what influenced me the most was not theater or my education.
My parents were really into movies and built an awesome home cinema in our basement with a projector and surround sound system. We’d watch movies and TV shows there.
I remember the couches trembling during space battles in Star Wars.
I’ve seen way more movies in our small theater than on my laptop. A blockbuster movie is not meant for a laptop and you lose so much when watching it like that.
I remember when Inception came out, I was so excited to see it, that I waited until I got back home for Christmas break so I can watch it in our theater.
Watching all those big movies the way they meant to be seen subconsciously helped me to think big.
First Job in Entertainment
I worked on a small indie film that happened to shoot in Douglas Trumbull’s private studio. I worked for free as most people did. I wasn’t sure how much I was worth.
What’s my rate?
I never had a rate before other than the minimum wage I’d get while working a college job. Through the production I met Trumbull. He intimidated me greatly.
I mean the man was a legend with two Oscars sitting in his office.
I was privileged to be housed by a couple who quickly became my family and were also friends with Trumbull. With their help and my persistence I managed to get hired as an editor in his studio.
I was asked, “What’s your rate?” “I am willing to work for free” I replied. “No, we don’t accept work for free. We pay everyone here.”
I never had a rate. What do I say without sounding greedy or cheap? “Whatever you can afford,” was my answer and thankfully they gave me a good starting rate.
I think I was lucky to have a kind-hearted employer. After that I realized I will never work for free again.
I get inspired by stories that somehow impact me. They don’t have to be educational. They can impact me in an entertaining way. Several filmmakers have made movies and shows like that.
Any story that keeps me hanging, uncertain of the future of the characters, is a great story and I always get something out of it.
I watched Ken Follet’s TV show adaptation of his books “Pillars of the Earth” and “World without an end” and I was like “When will the good guys win?”
The bad guys were so evil and cunning that wouldn’t give the good guys a break. I was vouching so badly for the good guys and got so excited when justice was done.
My sister didn’t like the show because good characters had to go through so much suffering. But who likes a story where everything goes smoothly and protagonists are well off?
What was it like working with Douglas Trumbull?
Intimidating at first. I felt like he could read my mind that he knew what I was thinking. I felt I was being judged for my work all the time.
I would censor myself so much that I wouldn’t be able to phrase sentences sometimes. I didn’t want to say anything stupid.
His wife, Julia Hobart, who is his business partner intimidated me even more with her strong businesswoman aura. It sounds like the working environment was really demanding. But it was actually very casual and relaxing.
After the first week I realized they are both two very warm-hearted people and there was no reason for me to be so tight.
Just like everyone else they’d enjoy a good dinner, a fun movie, and an interesting conversation.
I hope my future employers are like them.
They also own the most beautiful property I have ever seen and I have pretty high standards. Their house is a perfectly balanced mixture of modern and traditional lifestyle.
Landing a job on Game of Thrones
I don’t want to give an easy answer and say it was networking. The truth is it wasn’t just networking.
In college they tell us go sell yourselves as much as possible but I think meeting someone is only the first step.
Influential people don’t just go around to networking events offering jobs or giving away their contacts even though that’s what I was led to believe.
I attended a networking event during my senior year looking for a sound and color artist to teach some workshops at my school.
I met Diane Pearlman, the director of Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, who was also trying to facilitate film related workshops.
She knew people who could run the workshops and I had plenty of students who wanted workshops.
We collaborated successfully, she got to know me, we established a relationship of trust, and then I asked her to help me get a job after graduation.
She put me in touch with Steve Kullback, the VFX producer of Game of Thrones.
I don’t think she would have done it if she didn’t have the chance to know me through our collaboration.
When I got the Game of Thrones job I asked Steve how many people Diane had recommended to him.
He replied “We know each other for 25 years and you are the first.”
So, it’s not just networking. You need to prove yourself so whoever is going to recommend you trusts you.
What has it been like working on Game of Thrones?
It has been very educational. I think there are two types of entry-level jobs. Those that hang a job title sign around your neck and put you in a sealed box and those that put you in an open box and give you the room to prove yourself and get out of it.
I have met people who feel comfortable staying in the box and honestly there is nothing wrong with it. It has a lot of perks.
Working with the visual effects department of Game of Thrones certainly was the second case even though I wasn’t able to see it at first. I started by setting up the office and organizing drives.
I felt thrown in the middle of the sea sometimes.
My supervisor would throw terms at me that I had never heard before but I learned quickly and so my responsibilities multiplied. And so, I was outside of the box.
It took some time and the fact that I am hasty didn’t help at first.
I learned that patience is key.
How do you challenge yourself as an artist?
Try to be creative. It’s hard. It’s really hard and that’s why it’s a challenge. Being creative doesn’t mean always tell a new story with a new style.
You can be creative by combining pre-existing elements of movies. I’ve met a lot of people who want to make generic work, a short, a story of two people who meet, realize their lives are meaningless, and deal with it.
I’m sorry, but it’s hard enough for me to decide to sit down and watch an indie film with some production issues. It’s becoming even harder when there is nothing new to see.
Not all my work is as original as I’d like it to be, but my goal is to make it so. I also want to do all that economically.
That’s the challenge for the producer I have inside me.
If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
It’s quality that matters, not quantity. Actually, I am not so sure about that. You see, to appreciate quality you need to expose yourself to quantity - to a volume of different work.
I am glad I was involved in a lot of different projects because I learned so much. But, as you evolve as an artist, you need to focus.
It’s extremely rare that you can handle multiple projects and give your whole heart to all of them. At least I don’t think I can do it right now.
Most of the time people don’t know what they are talking about. I’d feel so bad when my peers in college would talk about directors I didn’t know and festivals I had never heard of.
The worst was, they were talking about those things pretending every filmmaker has to know them. They even made me feel bad for not knowing. “How are you going to be a director if you don’t know who X, Y and Z are?” As if knowing film history makes you a good filmmaker.
I don’t want to demean the importance of film history but I don’t think reading piles of books about directing turns you into one.
The problem was I’d listen to everyone for some time and felt I don’t qualify to be a director, which brings me to my last and most important advice I’d give to myself.
Words are easy, work is what matters - I wish I knew sooner that I should judge peers and collaborators based on their work and skills and not the way they were talking about their work and their skills.
Everyone can say “I can be a cinematographer,” you can say it right now. It’s so easy, but it takes a demo reel to prove your statement.
Now, every time I want to work with someone I always request a demo reel.
I am not a big social media guy. I guess I just don’t have the mindset. However, I think social media is a great tool if used correctly.
I used Facebook to organize my first movie because I knew people check Facebook more often than their emails.
It’s also a great tool to promote your work and even find new collaborators.
Furthermore, our world is becoming so International that staying in touch with friends and family is difficult. I have friends spread from West coast all the way to Greece.
Through Facebook and other social media I feel I know what they are doing.
It’s certainly not the same with a face-to-face interaction or even a phone call but it’s better than nothing.
But keep in mind social media create a portrait for you. Not an accurate one necessarily but some sort of a portrait. And this portrait can make you or break you.
There are people out there that still don’t get that. My employers are on Facebook and I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked me up before hiring me.
There are moments in your life that you can share with people verbally and make sure they get it right.
But posting a photo with you clearly being drunk is like posting a poster of a movie. Everyone will speculate what you are all about just like they’ll speculate what the movie behind the poster is all about.
Take us through a typical day at work on Game of Thrones.
Every day is so different. I am part of the main VFX team.
My friends ask me, “So, you guys make the dragons?” Well, not quite.
The main team in post-production is consisted only of seven people. Our VFX Supervisor directs the visual effects of every shot and communicates his ideas to our VFX editor, who will make a rough composition so we can see where and how our supervisor wants a dragon to move.
It’s the process in which we get a pretty accurate visual indication of what the final shot will look like. Then the main team hires a number of VFX companies like Rhythm and Hues and they will do all the magic and bring the dragons to life, do all the animation, lighting, rigging, texturing, etc.
Then they send the shots back, our supervisor reviews them, and if they get approved, they are sent to the showrunners for final review.
Our VFX producer is like a traffic policeman, making sure everything is delivered on time. The team also consisted of an assistant editor whose tasks are so many and mysterious I wouldn’t be able to talk about but for the most part she helps our main VFX editor.
Then there’s an associate producer, a coordinator, and a production assistant (myself) who struggle to keep everything updated.
We update the status of every shot, track all the notes, circulate and track files, organize our drives, and a lot of other logistic work - for the most part tracking everything in order to make sure our supervisor and producer have all they need to do their job right.
Current career aspirations?
Anything that involves teamwork. Sometimes, I wonder if I like filmmaking because I like movies or because I like the amount of collaboration taking place.
Whether it’s directing, producing, or VFX supervising, I want to be a member of the core team behind a movie or TV show.
I want to be one of the people making decisions. I like the pressure.
It gives me a lot of energy along with some sleepless nights, but hey, you can’t have everything, right?
My goal will always be to direct next to a strong producer, a visionary cinematographer, a creative VFX supervisor, a skilled sound guy, and an organized assistant director.
Anything less is not worth pursuing.
A good plan. I am not obsessive with day-to-day organization but when it comes to making a movie, I get obsessed with planning.
I walk on set and imagine how shooting will go, double check with everyone about what time they have to show up, etc.
I need to feel confident that everyone is on the same page.
It’s impossible for everything to go perfect but the more time you spend planning things out, the more prepared you are for the unexpected.
In terms of writing, I need to have time. It takes time to get into writing, so it’s not worth doing it for just thirty minutes.
I also like listening to music, preferably soundtracks because lyrics distract me. Soundtracks also have more of a story in their melody and that helps my imagination.
Top 5 Moments in Entertainment
Every time audiences watching my movie would gasp. Best feeling ever. Make sure you sit in the back when screening your own movie to watch for reactions.
My first feature being optioned by a small production company. We still haven’t made it but a producer with thirty years of experienced saw something in me.
People clapping at the Toronto International Film Festival after screening the work I developed with and for Douglas Trumbull.
When I made my first successful post move for Game of Thrones. What is a post move? Some of our visual effect shots are shot with a steady camera so we can apply the effects more easily. When effects are all done our supervisor likes adding a slight movement to the shot to make it look more organic. That’s a post move. It’s a simple enough technique and I decided to try and do it in house instead of sending it to one of our vendors. When I got it right, the associate producer turned all the lights off and asked our producer to review it. After the entire team squeezed in the room and a careful examination of the shot and all its color channels, the producer said, “Yeah, I’d buy this.” I wish I learned how to apply post moves earlier. That would have made things simpler.
The day Steve Kullback, the VFX producer on Game of Thrones, told me the following three words, “Belfast is confirmed,” meaning I am off to Northern Ireland to work on set of season 6.
Why directing & vfx?
The power to create worlds from scratch. I mean, honestly, technology is so advanced that you can make virtually anything.
What do you want? Dragons? Spaceships? Flying castles? All of them combined? You name it and it can happen. The possibilities are endless and your imagination is the only limit.
A director with a good understanding of visual effects can make those great summer blockbuster movies we all can’t wait to see.
Advice for those wanting to work in the Entertainment Industry?
Have a skill and be good at it. You see, most students are not great at anything. They are good at multiple things but unfortunately that doesn’t make you that special.
If you want to do visual effects, then you better graduate knowing After Effects or even better Nuke inside out. If you are a mediocre user, then you will land a mediocre job.
I understand it’s hard to be an expert outside of college but the more you know the better your chances are.
To do that you have to:
Be honest with yourself - Take a good step back and look at your work.
Sometimes people send me their reel and I want to say, “It looks like a high school kid made it.” Don’t get me wrong, I was like that while in college and it’s okay to do bad work before you create your good work.
But advertising your bad work as good will hurt you. Just keep working.
Be patient - take time and develop your skills. Most people set a project to learn something and they rework on it a couple of times until they find something else to do. Do you know how many versions a Game of Thrones shot goes through until it’s finalized? In college you have plenty of time to perfect your work.
Forget about the LA or NY question. The right question is where are the people I know going to be or where is my network of support?
Make sure you stay close to the people you worked with in college. If they all move to New Orleans, maybe that’s where you should go too.
If a class is not working for you, then skip it. I regret not walking out of classes that just didn’t work for me. Just because a class is film related, it doesn’t mean it’s going to teach you much. So, what do you do?
Find a mentor and take an independent study with them. Meeting Ron Bashford was certainly a turning point in my education.
I had the pleasure of taking a class with him and one more student. Yes, that’s right a class with only two students in it.
I think I learned more there than my first two years in college combined.
You know how in a traditional class with twenty people you can ask about 1-2 questions per class? Well, here you can ask 50 questions per class. The rate in which you learn skyrockets.
Plus, Ron was the best professor I ever had. He wasn’t even a film professor. He taught theater.
After two more classes with him I asked if I could take an independent study so I could ask 100 questions per class.
A lot of students are afraid of an independent study but they changed my life. Find a professor who you want to work with and make it happen.
What is something about your career that you would like people to know that they might not?
It’s hard to settle. You need to move a lot which is good and bad. You get to see a lot of things and are thrown at all these different and fun circumstances.
It’s hard to maintain relationships, friendships, be with family, and call a place home.
Your co-workers can become your family and friends but that’s only if you keep working with the same team through different projects. I have seen people get depressed because of it.
One day they pause and ask, “what am I doing here?” It is likely that it will happen. It hit me badly as I transitioned from living with 7 amazing college friends whom I loved and spent every evening with (except the ones that I spent editing) to an apartment with one friend to an apartment with zero friends.
Thank God I was involved in some promising work or I might have quit and run back to my family in Greece.
Furthermore, the job will be less creative than you think. Most times there will be unspoken boundaries especially if you are working for a big company.
We confuse being creative (meaning come up with ideas) with finding creative solutions. Doing the latter is one hundred times more common and needed.
I was a theater actor through middle and high school and continued to do so more intensively during my gap year prior to college. I thought I wanted to be an actor and even though I am director now I am glad I spent all this time acting.
You know, I meet directors who have never acted? I can’t comprehend that. It’s like meeting car engineers who have never driven a car.
When I started making my first videos. I did everything from producing to editing to sound. You can’t be good at all, but it’s essential that you get exposed to as many elements as possible.
I think my biggest lesson was making two feature length films while in college.
This contradicts what I said before about the importance of quality over quantity and my movies suffered because of that, but college is the place to experiment.
My first movie, “Years of Youth,” was a test. Can I tell a story for 90 minutes and handle the pressure of the production? I did both and then the question became “Can I do it again and better?”
So, I decided that my thesis film should be a feature. Most people didn’t believe I could pull it off and that I should make a short, but I learned so much more the second time around.
You see, most students put a team together and shoot over an extended weekend or a week. From the moment they start until the moment they finish it’s all like - go, go, go.
They have no time to reflect progress, evaluate their weaknesses, and try again. I broke down my production over several weekends and over two semesters, which gave me ample time to do all that.
Every weekend was smoother and smoother. It felt like I’ve made multiple short movies.
I firmly believe that the more you practice, the better you become.
I have a few quotes from some of my mentors in life and they all deserve credit. Some are self-explanitory and others need a bit of background info.
"Studying comes first, then work and then everything else." - My Father - Every weekend I didn’t want to go help him with his job.
"You have rights but you also have obligations." - My Mother - Let’s just say I wasn’t an easygoing kid and leave it there.
"If you don’t love the work you do, you better not do it at all." - My Grandparents
"I don’t understand why you complain about the volume of work, aren’t you here by choice?" - Eleni Goni (Literature High School Teacher) - On being responsible with homework during my two years in private school as part of the International Baccalaureate Program.
"If you can’t commit to being part of my team, then I don’t want you in it." - Dimitris Sakatzis (Theater Instructor) - on making a commitment to be a valuable member of a team.
"Be as specific as possible." - Chris Perry (Professor and Adviser at Hampshire College) - on communicating my ideas to my team. A lot of people think they are specific when in reality they only give you 20% of the things you need to know in order to solve a problem. Communicating 100% takes too much time, so you have to find a balance.
"A good story combines plot and characters in a meaningful way." - Ron Bashford (Professor at Amherst College)
"Surround yourself with a capable team." - Diane Pearlman (Producer and Director of Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative)
"Don’t tell me what you don’t want to do." - Michael and Elise Richman - as I was rehearsing my “I want to work for you,” speech for Douglas Trumbull.
"You don’t become a director in L.A. you get invited as a director." - Jon Lawrence Ré (Producer, Writer, Distributor)
"If someone hires you to work for free it means he never intends to pay you." - Douglas Trumbull (VFX genius)
"Be a step ahead." - Paul Russo (VFX Coordinator on Game of Thrones) - if you can anticipate what your supervisor might need from you, you are bound to be hired again, as experience proved to me so far.
"A good movie is story, story, story, story and finally, story." - Greg Spence (Producer on Game of Thrones)
"Before asking me how to solve something, consider what would you do to solve it." - Steve Kullback (VFX Producer of Game of Thrones) - Every time I’d approach him with a question I could take care of myself or when I was over-explaining a problem. Don’t do that. If you want to be valued, try to take care of problems and approach your supervisors only if you absolutely cannot find a solution.
And most importantly:
"Add birds to your VFX shots to give a sense of life and scale." - Joe Bauer (VFX supervisor on Game of Thrones) - On how to make set extensions look real. Most people might not get the importance of this but VFX people will.
I’m always working on something. And by always I don’t mean I never stop as some artists claim about themselves.
I mean I am always thinking of projects while driving, before going to bed, ideas are slowly but constantly evolving in my head.
Right now, I work full time for Game of Thrones, trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible.
The second biggest item on my agenda is pursuing my next film. I am already collaborating with a production company in Greece but we need more support.
I am constantly working on how to make my treatment and production proposal more presentable. I am thinking a written proposal accompanied by a video might be more appealing and stimulating. Rewriting, rewriting, and more rewriting, trying to eliminate all glitches of the screenplay, etc.
As if all this wasn’t enough, I recently started writing a TV pilot because you need a different project to help you detach yourself from the main one.
Finally, my hope is to spend a few days practicing some VFX skills I developed while working for Game of Thrones.
If it goes well, then it will take me a step forward to finishing my treatment for my film and enriching it with a lot of visuals because, as we established, work is more important than words.
So much for quality over quantity, right?
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Academia and the real world are different. I used to call my college a bubble. I think they all are. The bubble is not a problem.
You can enjoy it as long as you are aware of it and take steps to be prepared for what’s coming next. Play with it but don’t get lost in it.
Where can people go to find out more information about you and your work?
Remember this is all my work in college. It reflects my attempts to acquire more storytelling skills. I have videos I made before college. They look so silly now but I don’t take them down because they are a reminder of where I was and how I evolved.
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