RISE | Visual Effects Studios was founded in 2007 by Sven Pannicke, Robert Pinnow, Markus Degen and Florian Gellinger in Berlin. The plan was to focus with a small, hand-picked team on GermanTV and feature film effects – but that plan failed.
Today, over 260 artists call the award-winning company their creative home in Stuttgart, London, Munich, Cologne and Berlin, making it one of the biggest VFX studios in Europe. RISE has become „partner in crime“ for directors like Tom Tykwer, Lisa Joy, Mike Flanagan, Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, Gore Verbinski, studios like Marvel (Eternals, Loki, WandaVision, Captain Marvel, …), Warner Bros. (Fantastic Beasts 3, Reminiscence, …), Netflix (Midnight Mass, Stranger Things), Sony Pictures (Uncharted), Studio Canal (Gunpowder Milkshake) and also produces more and more animated features (Richard the Stork, Dragon Rider). Its sister production company RISE PICTURES develops its own original content and co-produces films (Stowaway) and series for an international audience.
What was your first contact with visual effects?
Florian: I think, like for most people our age, we were heavily influenced by movies of the 70s and 80s. 2001, Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones, Back to the Future – pretty much standard childhood influences. But the final spark that made us want to work in this profession came with CG in the early 90s when suddenly The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park changed the game forever.
What made you want to work in this industry?
Markus: All of us had experimented with computer animation in its infancy. I was using an Amiga, Robert came from a Softimage background, Sven even worked with stop-motion rigs and Florian did some 3D Studio on MS-DOS. Back then it was a more playful exploration than an actual profession. Who knew that this would one day become the global industry we work in today?
How did you decide to start your own studio?
Robert: The four of us were working for a small postproduction company in Berlin in the early 2000s that was mostly aimed at advertising clients. I was the studio manager, Sven was brought in as a producer, Markus started as a compositor after finishing university and Florian was our intern. The company changed its clientele by slowly doing more and more feature film work. While this was working out quite successfully, the company shut down in 2005 suffering from a lack of advertising work.
Sven: At this point we were facing the decision to either split up to work somewhere else – or to keep doing what we did with what seemed like a well working team. That’s where we made the decision to at least try to found our own business. 2007 seemed like a good year: All VFX work was moving onto standard PC hardware while most of it had been done on 500,000 USD SGI graphics workstations. So the investment was a fraction of what it used to be and we knew enough film producers to look for work. The rest is history.
How did you find the name of your studio and what’s his meaning?
Robert: Florian was wearing a T-shirt while we discussed a potential name for the company that showed a yellow half circle and two possible answers: a) rising or b) setting, the half circle supposed to display a very minimalistic sun. In essence it’s the question about positivity, if the glass is half full or half empty. And since we were rising out of the ashes of our former employer, it seemed like a good fit.
Markus: We also explored various logo designs for a couple of options and ended up just loving the simplicity of the four letter word. It looked great on business cards, t-shirts and letter heads. From a graphical point of view, it also has a fair amount of recognizability. It ended up being a choice because of both, meaning and aesthetic.
Can you elaborates about the collaboration between you?
Florian: I was just the intern. I used to bring everyone soy latte that everyone hated. Just kidding – it just worked insanely well. We were partners in crime before founding our own company. Everyone was helping and contributing to the best of his abilities and the work we delivered was always well received.
Can you tell us about the evolution of your studio since its launch until today ?
Sven: At the beginning we were focusing on German Independent and Arthouse movies plus some TV work because we knew a couple of producers. X-Filme, the production company behind Run, Lola, Run, gave us our first job while Robert went on to work on a sequel to a movie he had also previously supervised before RISE, The Three Investigators 2. We started with an intern and an employee in addition to the four of us at our friends’ sound studio Basis Berlin, temporarily renting a small office with a couple of desks. Once we had found our own office space, we grew quickly to roughly 20 artists. One day, VFX supervisor Chris Townsend was in Berlin supervising a movie called Ninja Assassin in Studio Babelsberg and used the contact form on our website, asking if we were interested in working with him. That’s also how we met Dan Glass who became a friend and collaborator.
Markus: Spoiler alert: We were interested. He then contacted us again to help on Percy Jackson and a year later for the first Captain America for Marvel Studios. He opened doors for us that we always considered unreachable. With all this high profile work on our show reel, we had a solid foundation to start reaching out to other potential international clients while evolving the type of work we were able to do both internationally and nationally. We were early adopters of Nuke for compositing, doing reprojections of moving footage before most other studios considered it. We ended up rolling out Houdini for lighting and rendering before (almost) anyone else did because we did some successful shots on Cloud Atlas that were giving us an advantage over just using it for FX.
Florian: Today, we can deliver pretty much everything filmmakers can come up with, only limited by the number of artists we employ – but with close to 300 people, you can do a lot of great things and our qualities are no longer questioned for specific types of work. We also try to stay away from being categorized as THAT water company or THAT creature company to give our team some variety in work. We’ve made a lot of friends in the industry and all mayor studios enjoy working with us. We’ve come a long way in the last 15 years.
Your studio has several offices. How did you choose these cities ?
Robert: We didn’t pick any of these cities, specific employees did. One of our producers wanted to move to Stuttgart – but she was too good and we couldn’t possibly let her go. So we gave her an office and a team to look after. Our LiDAR supervisor chose to move to Cologne – but what would we do without all of the LiDAR knowledge he had accumulated? Same solution, we gave him an office. In Munich, a fellow VFX supervisor contacted us and we agreed to try to open a studio together in Munich. London is the only facility we opened because we wanted to be part of the London VFX ecosystem. The German market is very detached from what’s going on in the VFX world, so having a hub in a city where most of the global work is done seemed like a good idea. And London is only a 90 minute flight away from any of our German studios. When we met Lara, our managing director in London for the first time and discussed our options, we were all convinced this would work. And it did!
Can you explain us the pipeline and the workflow of your studio ?
Florian: We are working with our own database called RISEBASE instead of the usual suspects in production management. That enabled us almost 15 years ago to implement file synchronization between sites, review and delivery management for 1000s of shots and integration with artist software without relying on an external software source. This year, we’re going to move away from a standalone application to a web based UI with a ton of new features. RISEBASE 3 was in development for almost three years and will, when it comes out, put everything else to shame. It gives you the type of freedom and versatility you only get from in-house software development.
Markus: And, as I already said, we were very early supporters of Nuke for compositing and Houdini for scene assembly, lighting and rendering. We just moved to our new true 100% end-to-end USD pipeline using Solaris in Houdini and the first show using it is almost delivered. From time to time we just tend to make good choices because we’re lucky to work with a lot of smart people who are all enthusiasts and evangelists for these types of things. A lot of these developments started with a beer and a conversation like « you know what would be insanely cool to have, … ». We might be taking a lot of risks by adopting new tools and standards so early – but, knock on wood, so far it paid off.
How did you face the huge challenge of Covid?
Florian: We sent everyone home to work remotely and our teams sat in zoom calls all day with over 120 participants. Was it ideal? No, definitely not. The amount of time you have to put in contacting individuals that are currently not at their desk is insane. Nothing works spontaneously, everything needs to be scheduled. But it was the best we could offer at the time and we all had to learn how to make the most of it considering the circumstances. It did work fairly well after a couple of months and we’re still operating in hybrid mode.
Sven: But we also see that a lot of our employees missed working together as a team in the same room and they have all come back to the office. While it’s great to skip the daily commute and while individual artists working independently through their daily to-dos makes perfect sense, the chemistry of a beer on the office terrace with co-workers on a Friday night or shouting infos through the room to speed up change requests has something magical, too.
With this particular situation, how did you integrate young artists?
Robert: We had to skip hiring interns and trainees for almost a year because we couldn’t afford the one-on-one mentoring via scheduled meetings. Or let’s say we could have afforded it – but we we not prepared for it. Now, we have proper mentoring programs in place that take care of trainees and junior artists to improve quickly and a buddy system that helps new hires find their way around RISE, no matter if they are working remotely or at the office. It works very well and the feedback has been overwhelming positive. But of course it eats further into your available human resources for ongoing projects.
What do you think are the next big steps for VFX?
Markus: There is so much AI based development going on. Facebook has an algorithm for volumetric video from a single 2D video source, filling in back side of things automatically that are not visible in the source material. You have Mid Journey presenting ways to do (concept) art that were before unthinkable. There are developments for animation being created by AI as well as motion capture retargeting and facial animation to rely on neural networks. We’re witnessing a fundamental change in VFX – but we will have to see how quickly this technology matures to make it a reliable and predictable tool in production.
What was the most surprising comment you have received from a client ?
Florian: That our English isn’t good enough to be trusted with the work for an international client. That was in the very early days of RISE but our English language skills didn’t really improve since then. Maybe our current clients have translators when working with us? We haven’t figured it out yet.
Markus: The client VFX supervisor told us roughly ten years ago on one of the biggest shows with one of the craziest schedules that, looking at the speed at which we iterated and at that our work improved, we were up there with ILM as their favorite vendor. It showed us that it was worth the effort and gave us a compass for how we should be working in the future.
What do you like the most about VFX?
Sven: Where in the film making world do you have the entire screen as your canvas if you’re not the DP or director? It is a very rewarding profession because it gives you the chance to present your work to the largest audience possible. You don’t have to explain what you do for a living, either. You have the best visual material to show what you do and there is a lot of magic in recognition and exposure for each individual involved.
What is your best memory on a shoot and during post production?
Florian: I still have fond memories of This is Love where we took a gigantic gamble of compositing a 4K car crash with re-projected 35mm plates as the backdrop in Nuke 4.7. We pulled the car up and back using a forklift in front of greenscreen because, obviously, production couldn’t afford a motion base at the time. It was a beautiful DIY moviemaking experience and in the end, it all worked out.
Markus: Almost at the same time, I was doing something I called a time based motion control. The dolly tracks were identical for foreground and background plate – but the background plate was retimed to match based on the 3D position of the tracked foreground camera. I like these simple technical solutions to otherwise crazy complicated setups.
Sven: I was out in the forest supervising the first season of DARK for Netflix, not knowing what I would get myself into. The international success of the show and the compliments we received from around the globe for our work were overwhelming. Here you are, shooting a German genre series that then shows you what « global distribution » through Netflix really means.
Robert: Shooting Babylon Berlin with the three directors / show runners is and was one of the most rewarding experiences. Tom Tykwer and his co-directors treat you like family and simply trust you with delivering what they came up with. Their trust and welcoming nature makes you remember what you were hoping to find in making movies.
What is your favorite shot or sequence ever?
Robert: While Terminator 2 was certainly groundbreaking, Jurassic Park was showing living and breathing creatures on screen and the hybrid approach with stellar work from Stan Winston and his animatronics established a new level of believability.
Sven: Coming from a miniature and stop-motion background, I’d have to say Blade Runner. The art direction and design of the cityscapes was and still is visionary and remains unrivaled in my view. It sets a specific melancholic sci-fi mood no other film has ever achieved to recreate.
Markus: Every single shot with the T-1000 in Terminator 2 because, working with today’s tools and knowing how hard it can sometimes be to achieve a desired result, you really appreciate the insane work they did back in the day even more.
Florian: I agree with Markus on the T-1000. It’s crazy how well the work ages and how watchable the film remains. The CG is an essential part of the story and Robert Patricks performance makes the character come alive as probably the best movie villain ever.
What is the dream project you would like to work on?
Florian: I think we all agree that working on any of the franchises from our childhoods would be a dream come true.
Sven: That being said, we’re very fortunate with the work we’re being offered and there isn’t really anything to complain about.
Robert: I agree, we’re just blown away daily by the amazing work our teams do and how hungry and ambitious they are.
Markus: Seeing others succeed in the environment we built is in some ways even more rewarding than doing the work yourself.
A big thanks for your time.
// RISE – Reel 2021
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022