How I Letterboxd: Todd Vaziri

Visual effects champion Todd Vaziri talks to Jack Moulton about his passion for cataloguing the art form he loves, the anxiety of choosing four favorites, and why blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking doesn’t have to be brain-dead drivel.

A movie someone thought was art-house garbage as a kid might end up being an absolute revelation when seen as an adult. It’s okay to evolve.” —⁠Todd Vaziri

If you follow Todd Vaziri on Twitter (and you ought to), you’ll learn more than you ever knew you could about the art and craft of VFX. A long-time Letterboxd member, who finds his Letterboxd diary most handy when recommending movies to others, Todd is a lead artist and supervisor in the VFX industry, with a résumé that includes films in the Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Transformers franchises.

He’s also an advocate for the VFX industry, taking the time to research and explain where digital effects have been used, even when viewers are convinced they haven’t. No matter what tools they use, all crew members are artists collaborating to bring a vision to the screen, he tells Jack Moulton in this edition of How I Letterboxd. So, do Todd a favor and put the old practical-vs-visual effects “non-argument” to bed.

A shot from ‘Transformers’ (2007), lit and composited by Todd.
A shot from ‘Transformers’ (2007), lit and composited by Todd.

How were you introduced to Letterboxd?
It may have been my friend John Siracusa who brought the app to my attention. I’ve always been more than a little obsessed with tracking what movies I own on physical media, so obsessively tracking the movies I’ve seen was a natural progression. As a kid growing up through the VHS home-video revolution, I collected movies; not just retail VHS movies, but recordings of movies off of television.

When laserdiscs hit the scene, I was an early adopter and even made VHS backups of all my laserdiscs. When I went to film school I brought literally hundreds of movies on VHS and laserdisc with me, and needed to keep track of it all. So you could say that I have some experience organizing and logging my cinema experience. The services that Letterboxd provides is a natural progression of my instincts to catalog the art form I love so much.

I became a Patron because something snapped in me one day—I realized how much I was relying on the service, and how generally pleasant the app is, and was embarrassed to realize that I had not already become a Patron. It was a slam-dunk decision for me to become a Patron. I want Letterboxd to be around for a long, long time. Forever, preferably.

Which feature do you find the most useful?
The simple act of logging the movies I’ve seen is the killer feature from my perspective. Any bozo with a text editor can do this on their own, but Letterboxd makes this simple task easy and pleasant. And the ability to create lists, to rate the films, to review the films, creating a watchlist, adding reviews, and being a part of a kind and civil social network—that’s all gravy to me.

I’ve been using IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes since their inceptions, and they’ve both become big, bloated messes that try to be all things for all people, including advertisers and privacy trackers. They’re invaluable resources, but they’re not fun to use; using them is like being required to open up a poorly wired electrical panel to turn off a few lights in your house. There’s a lot of data on those websites but it’s not intuitively laid out, nor are a joy to use.

I don’t follow too many people on Letterboxd—my follow list is mostly people I know personally. I haven’t really dived into that end of the pool too deeply. But, quite literally, the simple act of tracking the movies I’ve seen has been invaluable for me. I think it was back at the end of 2014 when I said, “I’m going to try this out. I’m going to log every new movie I see starting in 2015.” After about a couple of years of doing it, I realized I was using my list to help recommend movies to people more often.

One of my biggest pet peeves in cinema fandom is a combination of two things—one, people childishly saying something like “they just don’t make good scary movies anymore” and two, my poor memory. I’d like to quickly respond with a list of scary movies made in the last decade off the top of my head, but I can’t. With my Letterboxd history, I can just quickly bring up my profile and rattle off titles like Hereditary, The Babadook, Green Room, The Guest, It Follows, Get Out, etc.

Harrison Ford and snake in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Harrison Ford and snake in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

We’d love to hear about the four faves on your profile. What impact do they have for you?
First of all, I’m gonna assume that other movie fans have had the same experience as me when deciding what four films deserve to live in that prime spot on one’s Letterboxd profile. It’s a sobering, daunting, anxiety-filled exercise. Movie fans like me have so many different favorite films, and distilling one’s tastes into four measley films is a seemingly impossible challenge. So you’ve created countless hours of angst and hesitation amongst your users. Thanks for that.

The four films pinned to my profile are Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Rear Window and Back to the Future. In short, they’re probably the films I’ve seen most in my lifetime—each of them has layers that I’m still peeling back and discovering. And three out of four of them touch upon one of my basic thesis points I’ve been trying to make for decades: that blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking doesn’t have to be brain-dead drivel. We’re drowning in the myth that giant, spectacle-filled movies are almost doomed to be mindless, soulless pieces of garbage.

Raiders, Empire, and Back to the Future are examples to the contrary, and there are countless others in every generation of cinema. When we reward mindless spectacle films with the odd defense “just turn your brain off at the door”, we’re doing cinema a disservice and literally giving approval to studios and filmmakers to make dumb, disposable junk-food entertainment. I don’t think it has to be this way, and those four movies are evidence. Those three were all released within a five-year period, and all within a formative period for me as a moviegoer. Moments of each of those movies are forever burned into my brain, and Rear Window only gets better with age.

As an aside, some folks also think that their tastes need to be forever frozen in time, for fear of seeming hypocritical or wishy washy, which makes choosing the four films that much harder. I take the point of view that everyone’s tastes change over time. Just like one’s literal taste buds—foods we abhorred when we were kids or teenagers we end up loving as adults, and vice versa. Why can’t that be the same with art? A movie someone thought was art-house garbage as a kid might end up being an absolute revelation when seen as an adult. It’s okay to evolve—there’s no reward at the end of your life for never changing your tastes. This is a long way of saying you’ve tortured your members with the four faves feature, and how dare you.

The liquid version of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
The liquid version of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

Which film gave you that moment of clarity where you knew you had to be in the world of VFX?
If movies like Raiders and Back to the Future inspired me to want to do something, anything in movies, it was the films of Jim Cameron that inspired me to get into visual effects. I was always fascinated with camera tricks, puppets, model photography, optical compositing, but with the advent of digital visual effects, I watched the progression of how they could be used to tell stories with great anticipation. One could look at Cameron’s films and see how a master uses every tool available to help build character and tell a story.

With The Terminator, Cameron relied on classic movie tricks like rear projection, model photography and stop-motion animation combined with innovative live-action puppets. Aliens advanced upon these techniques as well, and with The Abyss, computer graphics were thrown into the mix. I was especially intrigued with Cameron’s storytelling process when it came to the highly experimental pseudopod sequence, which was ultimately created by Industrial Light & Magic, with computer graphics optically composited onto film. He wrote the scene in such a way that he could ultimately remove the sequence entirely without ruining his movie if the experiment was a horrible failure. This type of forethought and imagination was inspiring to me.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out just as I was entering college, and everything that Cameron and ILM learned on The Abyss was turned up to eleven with their work on the T-1000 liquid-metal villain. Terminator 2 is a veritable showcase of every single visual effects technique available at the time—all executed with incredible precision and quality, all in service to the film’s narrative and building character. It’s an absolute gem. It was the combination of The Abyss and Terminator 2, and Cameron with ILM’s iterative progression between the films, that inspired me to want to work in visual effects. I wanted to be a part of that process of problem-solving and storytelling.

I know you’ve been showing your daughter movies during downtime in the pandemic. Any luck inducting her into the cinephile life?
Well, both my wife and I went to film school; she has had an accomplished career in movies on her own, and we’re both monstrous movie fans, so I guess it was inevitable that our kids would also be into it. Our thirteen-year-old daughter is at that wonderful age where she can watch more adult-oriented movies, so the floodgates have opened to a whole new world of movies. Showing her Alien and Aliens was a huge moment, as was Die Hard and Jaws. I can’t wait to show her Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s becoming quite a gifted filmmaker herself, and enjoys film editing the most. She’s dying for me to teach her how to use Final Cut Pro.

Which film that you worked on is the ten-year-old you inside you squealing the most about in excitement?
I’m incredibly lucky to have worked on a lot of great movies. One thing moviegoers might not understand is that someone in Hollywood can be absolutely wonderful at their job—for decades at the top of their field—and never work on a “good” movie. It’s the luck of the draw. So I completely understand how lucky I’ve been. If you told a ten-year-old me that old-man-Todd would ultimately work on several Star Wars movies, a few Star Trek movies, a Jim Cameron movie (Avatar), and a couple of Mission: Impossible films, ten-year-old Todd would have probably laughed in your face.

Todd was a lead digital artist on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Todd was a lead digital artist on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).

Your filmography is impressive. I can smell the popcorn from your IMDb page. Can you explain the responsibilities of your roles?
In broad terms, I’m a lead artist and sometimes supervisor. I’m focused on compositing, which is the layering of elements together to create an image. Compositing is as old as photography itself, and for its first century, compositing was done photochemically with film. Now we can layer and manipulate imagery in the digital world, which gives us a lot more flexibility and freedom. When I’m an artist on a film production, I take real-world photography, computer graphics renders, explosions and fire and smoke photographed on a stage, and other elements and blend them together to make a final image.

As a lead, I help with look development on a sequence, usually by tackling the hero shots of the sequence and figuring out how we’re actually going to accomplish these shots. And when I’m supervising I work closely with the visual effects supervisor on all aspects of the work, from all of the technical requirements of the show to the aesthetic. It’s all basically problem-solving and telling stories with images.

Which common misconceptions about VFX grate you the most?
There are so many common bizarre tropes about digital visual effects, which makes it clear we’ve done a poor job in visual effects explaining what we do. To make things worse, there’s this absolutely garbage attitude that digital effects are in fact the enemy of good cinema, especially in contrast with “practical effects”. I’m not even going to get into the details of this non-argument, since it’s made in bad faith or complete ignorance. It’s not helpful when the studios and certain film directors not-so-subtly push this argument into the mainstream.

Here’s the deal: making these movies is really, really hard. Filmmakers should use whatever techniques they need to get their vision to the screen. Successful directors and visual effects supervisors are not tied to any particular dogma—in fact, the best cinema experiences are created by dedicated professionals who collaborate with other disciplines. For example, you will frequently hear visual effects supervisors say “oh, this gag should absolutely be a puppet that the actors will interact with” when it’s appropriate.

But for some reason this non-argument persists, and from my perspective it means that we in the visual effects community need to tell the story of our role in cinema with greater clarity. I’m doing what I can; reminding folks that we’re all artists collaborating to bring a vision to the screen, and it doesn’t really matter what tools we use so long as the vision is created.

What’s a film with overlooked visual effects that we should all take a closer look at?
In order to answer this question, I scrolled back at all the movies I’ve watched—the last few years I’ve averaged about 50 movies a year—and nearly every single one had some visual effects in it. This includes the small art-house films, as well as the blockbusters. I’m a huge fan of the marriage between stunts, physical effects and digital effects, so the work in the John Wick films and Atomic Blonde has been a real joy to discover. Just last year, as an example, there were a ton of visual effects in Uncut Gems, Parasite, Us and Little Women, so when we talk about visual effects, we’re not just talking about Star Wars or Marvel. It’s all of cinema.

The split-diopter opera shot in The Untouchables (1987), during a zoom in to Robert De Niro’s Capone.
The split-diopter opera shot in The Untouchables (1987), during a zoom in to Robert De Niro’s Capone.

You frequently point out split-diopter shots on Twitter. Which is your favorite?
Split diopters are wild, aren’t they? Generally speaking, they completely take you out of the movie, because they’re so rarely used. Audiences are accustomed to the visual vocabulary of cinema where only one plane of depth can be in focus at any one time. Split diopters throw that vocabulary out the window, which is what makes them so much fun!

Right now, my favorite one is an odd one. It’s from The Untouchables, where Capone is seated at an opera performance. The opera singer is in the extreme foreground and Capone is in the extreme background, and the shot zooms in on Capone during the performance. The distorted split line is invisible, since the split between lenses is against darkness. It’s a wonderfully weird shot, and you don’t quite know what you’re looking at.

The late Sean Connery with Kevin Costner in another split-diopter shot from The Untouchables (1987).
The late Sean Connery with Kevin Costner in another split-diopter shot from The Untouchables (1987).

As a member of the film industry, how do you feel about your responsibility to be sincere about your film reviews on social media? Some noted filmmakers on Letterboxd choose to be coy, brutally honest or exclusively celebratory, for instance.
I really don’t think it’s worth anyone’s time to hear me talk about movies I didn’t like. In private, I have no problem criticizing movies I think are garbage. But in public, I’d rather use what little influence I have to celebrate the spirit of movies. There are so many great movies being made, and so many great movies that have never been seen by large audiences. It just seems like a waste of time talking about ones that didn’t hit the mark. I’d rather use my energy to talk about art I love.

What are the best films Letterboxd members haven’t seen?
From that wonderful list? For my money, Run Lola Run, with additional votes for You Were Never Really Here, Let the Right One In, Big Night, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Upgrade, One False Move, The Devil’s Backbone, Sing Street and Tell No One.

Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here (2017).
Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here (2017).

This interview will be published shortly before the US presidential election. Are you planning on moving to New Zealand in a worst-case scenario? You are welcome! (After mandatory quarantines, of course.)
Funny you ask, because another cinema pet peeve of mine is that “only some movies are political”. Not true at all—all movies are political. I think a lot about how Roger Ebert thought about the movies:

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

And if a movie doesn’t have a clear political point of view, it has a ‘status quo’ political point of view, as in “everything is fine and nothing needs to change”. For the love of all that is good in the world, please vote, America.

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