Rob Hifle is the CEO and creative director of Lux Aeterna (www.lavfx.com), a Bristol, UK-based studio that specializes in visual effects for broadcasters and streamers. The studio’s credits include work on Our Universe, having spent 18 months working on more than 700 shots for the Netflix series.
Here, he talks about the studio’s recent rebrand, as well as his personal journey in the VFX business.
What was the reasoning behind the rebrand of BDH to Lux Aeterna?
“Over the last few years, we’ve transitioned from a 3D CGI and motion-graphics studio into a fully fledged VFX company. Our core business has changed massively with the hunger for high-end VFX. We have scaled up with regard to our VFX artists, expanded our Houdini and production departments, and invested heavily in our internal render farm. We are a different entity now. The Lux Aeterna rebrand has been such an interesting process, working through our core values, re-evaluating what we are, what we want to be and where we are going. It has re-energized our creative thinking, workflows and processes. It’s been cathartic! These are exciting times for VFX and the company's transition from BDH to Lux Aeterna has been both refreshing and invigorating.”
What inspired you to found BDH in the first place?
“I founded BDH 28 years ago. Gulp! Previously, I had been working for the BBC in its graphic design department. At that time, it was difficult to work for external clients, so it felt quite restrictive. I met fellow creatives Steve Burrell and John Durrant, and collectively we decided to form our own agency: Burrell Durrant Hifle (BDH). It was a natural progression for us to take ownership and control with regard to where we were going with our work.”
Tell us a bit about the studio’s history?
“During the ‘90s, we directed music visuals, commercials, idents, PPBs, documentaries and a plethora of graphic content for film and television. I was filming all over the world. It was an exciting and liberating time. Founding BDH gave us the opportunity to express ourselves, to innovate and experiment creatively, and have the courage to take risks. Interestingly, that creative freedom, and an element of attitude, led to us winning a spree of awards. It was hard to pigeonhole BDH, as we never wanted to do anything twice. It felt anarchic and irreverent at times, but above all, I remember it being great fun!
“More recently with Lux Aeterna, we’ve had a busy few years working on a huge science cosmological-meets-natural world series for Netflix called Our Universe, and an ancient history series, with an interesting gaming look and approach, for BBC Worldwide and a Chinese broadcaster. We've also worked on several drama-documentaries, which, unfortunately, I can’t talk about, but they will be landing later this year. It's an interesting mix of work. They all have a really strong creative look and direction. This is what we are good at: giving a film or series a strong aesthetic.”
How did you first start in the industry?
“After graduating in the late ‘80s, I met Steve Burrell, my fellow director at Lux Aeterna, who had just moved from London to Bristol. We worked together on several film and animation projects for the BBC, like the documentary shorts Small Objects Of Desire. We also designed and directed multiple BBC Two idents, which were all very bespoke and hand-crafted in those days. We filmed all our work on 16mm and 35mm back then. I have fond memories filming on location out of Steve’s camper van and using his kitchen sometimes as a studio. Our work had a certain look, and I put that down to our experimentation with film speeds, double exposure, long exposure, pixelation, animation and in-camera techniques, as well as post techniques in telecine.”
You’ve served in a range of roles over the years?
“Many doors have opened and closed along my career path. As a director, I’ve worked in commercials and music visuals and promos. As a creative director and VFX location supervisor, I’ve worked across documentary and drama. A few years back I met Houdini VFX supervisor Paul Silcox, who is now VFX director at Lux Aeterna. We formed a creative partnership on Our Universe for Netflix, which delivered over 700 high-end VFX shots, including lots of rigid body simulations using huge datasets. More recently, we’ve expanded our VFX tendrils into the drama-documentary genres. These films have great stories, they’re great to work on, and it’s the work we want to pursue.”
What inspired you in the early days?
“As I started out in my career, I remember being inspired by the Dogma 95 collective - a group of Danish avant garde filmmakers, including Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. They had their own manifesto – a strict set of rules and values in their approach to making films. I liked that.
“At BDH, in the early days, we definitely had unwritten rules, we immediately avoided the obvious, and approached an idea with attitude, extremes, sometimes derision, always with an element of mischief and, where possible, humor.
“I would love to have the opportunity to work with Terence Malik. I love his approach to storytelling. Profound momentous themes depicted through cinematic wonder. How he engineers interlinking narratives interwoven with images of the greater universe. Many of these organic cosmological scapes, in such films as Tree of Life, were created using liquids in tanks by innovative cinematographers Peter and Chris Parks. I’ve similarly worked with Peter and Chris using their abstract fluid film techniques when creating VFX for the BBC’s Wonders Of The Universe over ten years ago. It was a brave decision for the commissioner to let me create something so unimaginably vast as the universe in something so small as a petri dish. It was a tough pitch, but it did pay dividends with a BAFTA nomination.”
Can you talk about the business of running a visual effects house?
“Our best VFX asset is our staff. Some of them have been with us for 15 to 20 years. We have very close working relationships. We all know each other's strengths, foibles and nuances. The VFX industry is unrelenting. It has high-reaching expectations with regard to artistry, delivery schedules and budget. It is a high-pressure industry, so at Lux Aeterna, we try and do everything to protect our staff so they can perform without these pressures weighing them down, with the freedom to create their wonder.
“We’ve always tried to create a culture within the company where we help with personal development. We want to empower staff to communicate creatively in a collective workspace. It is imperative that our artists can work within a collaborative creative pipeline as well as have the ability to problem solve independently.”
What inspires you today?
“I love film. I’m an avid BAFTA member and get to see a lot of the film nominations. I also try to get out to film festivals. I try to go to SXSW festival in Austin when I can. It's very inspiring and a real shot in the arm for creative head space and meeting like-minded thinkers.”
Are there specific projects that have inspired you from a VFX standpoint?
“In its day 2001: A Space Odyssey was the gold standard in VFX for me. I’m still influenced by it today. The anamorphic framings, the confidence in the ambiguity of the imagery, and the hold on long shots with just music and sparing dialogue...the genius of Kubrick! Douglas Trumball was pioneering in his approach to the VFX. He also went on to direct Silent Running in the ‘70s, which is another film that left such vivid impressions on me as a youngster.
“I also remember the first time I watched Christopher Nolan's Inception. I was mesmerized by the mind-bending visuals and VFX. It was so seamlessly woven into the story. The dream sequences in Paris were wonderfully orchestrated. I love Michel Gondrey’s quirky VFX sequences in his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – they’re brilliantly clever and sublimely original. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. I think there is a theme shaping itself here. Primarily, I want to work with auteur directors.”
Do you have advice for aspiring VFX artists?
“It’s a competitive industry and it takes many years to become a VFX artist. Don’t jump too fast. Give yourself time to learn your trade and develop as an artist. Work out which part of VFX interests you and then follow your passion.”
What are some of the rewarding project you’ve worked on?
“One of the most rewarding films I’ve worked on was 8 Days: To The Moon and Back. This documentary drama used the original declassified cockpit audio recording of the Apollo 11 astronauts themselves. Back in the ‘90s, I had the opportunity to film Neil Armstrong in New York as part of a 25 years commemorative BBC-themed evening called Moon Night. It was an incredible experience to meet such an amazing icon of the 20th century. Now, 25 years later, I was working with his original audio to commemorate 50 years since the moon landings, so equally, it was an awesome privilege.
“The creative direction and the VFX shots on 8 Days: To The Moon and Back were an integral part of the storytelling. It included views of Earth and Moon from both the Command and Lunar modules, and CGI spacecraft maneuverings. The Apollo 11 Flight Plan was meticulously studied to make sure that the CGI elements were true and factually correct. The most demanding request from director Anthony Philipson and producer James Van Der Pool was to create a first-person Neil Armstrong POV on the surface of the Moon, seen from inside his visor. This meant testing miniature lipstick cameras and mounts, as well as an illuminated tracking system of markers within the dark studio environment. The lunar surface was created using a combination of augmented Houdini CGI simulations, with a practical studio set using five tons of aggregate. The VFX supervision was demanding, especially on time and budget, but it was one of the most creative and enjoyable projects I’ve worked on. It was received well with BAFTA, Emmy and RTS nominations.”
Can you share a little more detail into your role as a member of BAFTA?
“I’ve always had huge respect for BAFTA with regard to its core values, especially supporting unheard voices and giving light to stories. BAFTA is up there as one of the most prestigious awards and it has always held the torch high in celebrating excellence across the screen industries. We have been lucky to win a BAFTA some years back, and we’ve come close more recently with several nominations. My only involvement directly has been as a BAFTA jury member, which is always a great privilege. Unfortunately, I rarely get to go to the film screenings in London, being in Bristol, but I do get to vote on the awards.”