man with a plan

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Neill Blomkamp started directing commercials less than a year ago, but so far everything has gone according to plan for the ambitious visual effects artist. He knew from the start that if he wanted to direct commercials, he would have to shoot fabulous spec work to show off his roots and give a sense of his style, but with two Nike spots down, he's on the right track and looking for the next step. The spec spot that anchors his reel is "Tetra Vaal," which combines a photorealistic CG-animated police robot with gritty live-action scenes from an impoverished South African village, simultaneously catching viewers off guard with the unusual juxtaposition, making a political statement and showing off impressive artistic and animation prowess. "That spec piece is about as me as possible, if it is a little intangible for people," says the 25-year-old Johannesburg native, who adds that he'd like to include Third World issues in his personal work, if not his commercials. "I mixed handheld digital photography with $700,000 worth of effects to weird people out a little, throw them a curveball. It's kind of a dicey topic as well, so that got people talking. " Talk they did, and a few months later, Blomkamp was animating robots again, this time for Nike, in Wieden + Kennedy's "Crabs." A second spot, the time-lapsed, peel-away sneakers of "Evolution," followed, and at this year's Saatchi & Saatchi New Director's Showcase in Cannes, Blomkamp was officially welcomed into the industry fold.

A fan of science fiction in all of its forms, Blomkamp grew up watching James Cameron's Terminator movies, Ridley Scott's Alien, and the early Star Wars films (though he is disgusted by George Lucas' recent work), and counts them among his influences. He started playing with visual effects software as a teenager, where he says that his father worked as a mechanical engineer for the South African mining industry. "I grew up with a lot of mechanical parts lying around," says Blomkamp. "I think that it had a massive influence on the visuals that I want to put into effects. Not conceptual, but visual. Even that Nike shoe coming apart [which is entirely CG] is mechanical." Though he went to Vancouver Film School, Blomkamp is self-taught both in effects and direction, and doesn't recommend formal education, where equipment is shared. "All you have to do is be self motivated," he notes. "When people ask me how to get into digital effects, I tell them not to go to school. Buy a computer and buy the software and just use it at home. Within a year, if you have the dedication, you'll end up there. If you don't have the motivation, even at school you'll be really crap."

In 1998 Blomkamp joined Vancouver-based VFX house Rainmaker Entertainment group as an effects artist, where he worked for three years before starting to direct music videos and look for commercials representation (he is currently repped by Toronto-based Spy Films). "In each one of my early music videos, I put tons and tons and tons of visual effects," he says, "because I thought that would give me the leg up that other directors didn't have because of budget, which was true." In 2003, he founded The Embassy, an effects company composed of former colleagues from Rainmaker. "I felt like I needed to have a home base, an office with a whole bunch of people around me that I like," he explains. "That's how this company came about. So now, I'm in an effects company that I'm part owner of that does the visual effects work for my commercials."

This has proven to be key to his ultra-realistic style, because he embodies both effects artist and director, and Blomkamp is excited by the prospect of a new generation of directors with similar skill sets. Of course, it's also part of his career plan to lead that charge. "When you can bridge that gap between directing and effects, you'll shoot shots that will show the effects in the most realistic and effective way," he says. "Whereas if you're a director relying on people to tell you what to do, you may pick angles that are better for the storytelling, but they may harm the CG because you're not taking in the millions of factors that an effects artist cares about. That's what plays in the back of my mind. I think that as you see more people come up, guys that have a background in effects will have more photoreal work."

Despite his success so far, Blomkamp is already worried about getting boxed in to effects-laden, sci-fi-inspired grit, and isn't against going back to spec work to develop dialogue skills, but for now, he's having fun with visual style. He's currently working on a Namco spot with a Japanese agency to be broadcast during the summer Olympics, and has a short film in the works with Wieden + Kennedy. But he's definitely focused for the future. "I'd like to make stuff that's timeless," he says. "I'd also like to do really large-budget stuff, but who doesn't?"

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