Victoria Alonso on ‘the Marvel process’ and shaping the visual effects of their films

A preview of the Marvel exec’s SIGGRAPH keynote.

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With multiple Marvel films constantly in the works, visual effects artists have been pretty busy, and look to be busy within the Marvel Cinematic Universe for many years to come. One of the people at Marvel closest to the visual effects effort on their films is Victoria Alonso, executive vice president of production for Marvel Studios, who started out as PA, worked for Digital Domain for a number of years, became a visual effects producer, and ultimately joined Marvel as a producer on Iron Man.

Alonso is also this year’s keynote speaker at SIGGRAPH, where she’ll be chatting about the state of visual effects, diversity, and representation in the industry, things that she often brings up on Marvel panels. I wanted to ask her about what she’ll be talking about in the keynote, as well as where she sees the things like inclusion in the VFX industry and how it works to ‘plus’ shots – a term we hear about often from Marvel.

So, as a special preview to her keynote, I got the chance to chat to Alonso right before she headed to Comic-Con this past weekend, where Marvel announced a new slate of films to come, no doubt helping to shape the future lives of many visual effects artists as well.

Victoria Alonso.

b&a: When we last talked at the VIEW Conference in Turin, you told me you slept four to five hours a night. Is that still the case? 

Victoria Alonso: Well, let me tell you, I just arrived from London last night, and I’m in the car, and I’m going on Sunday to Comic-Con, and London was about 20 hours a day, so no, it hasn’t changed. I don’t need more than that. So far it’s working out alright.

b&a: There’s such a history now with your involvement with the MCU films. Can you look back a little bit on production on Iron Man compared to how production happens now, and identify maybe the main differences that occur at Marvel?

Victoria Alonso: I think that the main difference is that, on Iron Man, Louis [D’Esposito], Kevin [Feige] and myself were on the set every day. Now, granted, the movie was shot in LA so that was possible, but we’re not able to be on set every day on every production, otherwise that would be the only thing we do, right?

At that moment in time we were just doing one movie, and now we have multiple films [being shot at once]. We now have another creative producer on set each day, which we had on Iron Man, but now that responsibility has become a lot bigger for them. I was on set on the movie that I can’t talk about just yesterday, so we do go for shorter periods of time.

Victoria Alonso with Robert Downey Jr.

b&a: I feel like you have a unique window into the visual effects world having worked in the industry before your role at Marvel. Sometimes the visual effects industry has good connotations and bad connotations that go with it. I wonder what you’ve noticed personally in recent times in terms of positive improvement, and also things that you think might still need to change, in the visual effects industry?

Victoria Alonso: What do you mean by good and bad connotations?

b&a: I guess the good thing is there’s so much work at the moment, and I guess the bad things are that often people talk about the long hours and the ‘wild west’ side of visual effects. I mean, these aren’t secrets, that’s how some people feel about it. But at the moment it’s exploding, there’s so much work.

Victoria Alonso: Yeah, I think we have a lot of work for a lot for companies and we are now the largest providers around the world, in terms of the amount of visual effects at this time. And these movies are done now by somewhere between 10, 12 companies, up to 22 companies, so the work does get spread around and there’s something for a lot of people all the time.

Some of the good part is to be able to have a good body of talent from around the world. You know, 15 to 20 years ago it was all quite localised, right? And now it’s globalised and in fact, if you don’t have your work done in other parts of the world, you’re missing out on the talent of those people. So for us it’s a no-brainer to have to go worldwide, to go find the talent.

The wild west aspect of it, it always feels like, for me it’s not a negative, it is the beauty of it, because a lot of times when we’re in a room in a meeting or set going, ‘I want to do X, Y and Z.’ And we’d all look at each other and we’d go, ‘Has it been done before? No, it hasn’t been done.’ And we’d look at each other and go, ‘Of course we can.’ I mean we’d have to go figure out a way. So part of the wild west thing for me, I guess, is because it hasn’t been done before. So it’s a new approach, it’s a new method, a new image, a new idea that we can translate into that creative field.

Victoria Alonso and a panel of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ supervisors at SIGGRAPH 2017.

b&a: I’ve been in talks that you’ve given at Turin and at SIGGRAPH previously where you’ve been a voice for more female representation in the visual effects industry. What else do you think needs to be done in that way?

Victoria Alonso: Well, I think that we can all talk about it or we can do it. And I think the conversation is nice, but then we just need to do it. We can, you know, talk the talk and walk the walk. And so, if consistently we’re asking for fifty-fifty, then it won’t help if I’m the only one doing it. It will help a little, I’m not going to lie, but it will help if everyone would try to at least consider it.

My thinking has been, it’s like you or me leaving a lot of talent outside of your rooms, by not considering women, and the moment you do consider women then you will find that your talent pool expands, and you’ll find a richer company because of it. And so my thing is like the sun and the wind, I’m always going to say it, I’m always going to do it. I walk into every room and I look around and I go okay, this room clearly has a problem, it’s not fifty-fifty; how are we going to get there?

But it’s a slow burn – we’re not going to change things in half an hour. It just has to be a frame of mind, and eventually what happens is you have enough women who have the experience that you need in order to put women in as the head of department. So you’ve got to start somewhere. So my thinking is always, I try in just about every single group, every department that we can, to try to create a fifty-fifty effort.

Alonso on the ‘Homecoming’ panel.

b&a: I wanted to talk to you about something that some people in visual effects mention as ‘the Marvel process’, and it came up when I was talking to Framestore about the illusion battle in Spider-Man: Far From Home, which was that incredible sequence where I think there was a great idea behind the sequence, but when a test audience saw it, you increased it, made some more content, and you ‘plus’d’ it. Can you talk about that side of things a little, and maybe that sequence in particular?

Victoria Alonso: For us, you know, we’re talented and smart, but we’re not the most talented or the smartest. We know that. So, we always listen to what the audience has to say, and the audience is super smart, and the minute that we see they have an appetite for something, then we will see that. We won’t always see that, but we will see it, and at times we think, ‘Oh this can work,’ or we think is it too ‘cra-cra’, and that we’re going off the deep end here, but we say, ‘Well, let’s test it and see what happens.’

And then when people saw it, the illusion battle became one of those cases that blew people’s minds. I mean like, it was like, ‘It was nothing like I’ve never seen in a Spider-Man movie,’ and that’s exactly the reaction that we would like to have from people.

A shot from the illusion battle in ‘Far From Home’.

Spider-Man: Far From Home was our 23rd film in our studio and within the Marvel universe, and to have people say, ‘Nothing like I’ve never seen in any superhero movie,’ then you go, ‘Okay we can still wow you in some way.’ We can still get your attention for more than just this final battle or this swing sequence through New York, we can get you elsewhere where you haven’t been, and I think that’s what makes it exciting.

Part of the ‘plus’ thing of it is, to be honest with you, we stole that from Walt Disney, it’s not an original from us. Walt Disney used to say that to plus, you continue to plus your project, your creation, your story, and that’s something we’ve taken to heart, and that’s one thing where we’re always open-minded. To work with us you have to be very free flowing in your ways of creating because we’re never locked onto one thing, it is pretty malleable up to the end. I mean, the characters are the characters and there’s a storyline of course, but a lot of the pieces get moved around throughout the film in order to find the best fit.

b&a: Finally, is there any kind of small, sneak peek you can give me about what you’ll be talking about at SIGGRAPH?

Victoria Alonso: I’m think I’m going to be talking about a whole lot, and most importantly in looking at all the people that have come from all over world for that event, and try to make sure that the dreamers of the future, that they stay open-minded. My key thing would be to encourage them to try and use things to do it differently, and that’s how we have created something new over the years for technology and for storytelling.

That will be for me one of the main things that I want to discuss with a group of people that I’m always so inspired by, and they consistently remind me of why I’ll be with them in the future.

Victoria Alonso’s keynote at SIGGRAPH 2019 is on Monday, 29 July, at 2pm in West Hall B.

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