“You’ll hate digital effects, it’s full of anoraks and nerds,” the man was telling Sara Bennett. “You won’t like it at all.” Hooked on cinema at a young age by watching Hammer Horror films with her father, she knew she wanted to work in film production but was unsure where her passion could lead her. “As I loved horror, I was interested in prosthetics and make-up, so I went to college and trained in that,” she explains. “I tried to start a career and found it very difficult.” She ended up as a receptionist at an effects company, where a colleague would pass the time by describing the nascent field of digital effects to her. “He was trying to dissuade me but it just piqued my interest. I wanted to find out what it was all about. I think it’s because I’m stubborn.”
The journey from that day to where Sara finds herself now – the second woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (for her work on Ex Machina), and the first in 23 years – has been one of diligent, steady progress. Without a background in computing or mathematics, she started as a runner and worked her way up, becoming a compositor and later a visual effects supervisor. “I just fell in love with computers. It was really good because I got to see how all of the departments work, and it gave me a grounding in every area of post-production,” she says. “I was lucky. I had a lot of helpful people above me who spent the time teaching me. It means I can say to someone: ‘I know it’s painful and it’s taking ages and you’ve been drawing around someone’s arm all day long, but I’ve been there and it’ll be okay.’”
Sara’s career has coincided with the growth of the British VFX industry, which after years of domination by American companies has become pre-eminent. The unsurprising catalyst for this, she relates, was Harry Potter – like seemingly most visual effects artists in the country, she worked on a number of films in the series. The result was invaluable: “That’s what grew our industry. Before then it was small but steady and it just exploded. We had ten years of Harry Potter films. It trained up so many people, kept them employed and the level of skills just grew and grew.”
After nearly a decade working at another effects house with a close knot of collaborators, Sara and the group decided to found their own studio, Milk. If it wasn’t for the non-disclosure agreement, the shelf of awards and the Doctor Who Slitheen alien head that greet you as you enter their offices, it might be difficult to guess what it is the company actually does. The bank of computers and their well turned-out operators could easily belong to an architect or an ambitious internet startup, while the Society of Petroleum Engineers sits just a few floors below, further confusing matters.
It’s fitting that Milk’s office is so unassuming, however: given the prevalence of digital effects, they are decidedly under appreciated. Over the 18 years that Sara has been working in the industry, she has seen their use grow beyond Hollywood blockbusters to become an indispensable tool in modern film and television production. She gives an example: Milk’s work on the recent period episode of Sherlock didn’t just involve recreating Victorian London through digital mattes and CG crowds, but also removing dolly tracks, contemporary road markings, and even crew members checking their texts in the background. “A lot of the shots we work on aren’t necessarily sexy,” she says. “Maybe we’re getting rid of some cables or adding a new sky because it was overcast on the day they were filming and you want to liven up the scene. You can do hundreds of shots like that which no-one would even notice, but they’re still important.”
These effects work precisely because you aren’t aware of them, which also means they’re taken for granted. For Sara, though, that’s part of the job’s attraction. “I love doing big fantasy stuff and creatures and spaceships, but it’s also really fulfilling to add to the story. On a show recently we did a lot of matt paintings that look photoreal. It’d be a tiny 100 metre yard and we were building it out into this epic space. You wouldn’t know that 30 of those extras were actually just five people on different green screens. It’s as satisfying as the big effects. You’re building a world. The visual effects are not just spectacle, but storytelling.”
Like a headmaster who doesn’t get to teach any more, Sara’s fear is that having wider responsibilities will take her away from the work that first enthralled her. “I always said I’d never walk around with a clipboard, it’d make me miserable. I have to be hands-on,” she says. “The hardest thing has been letting a lot of compositing go. I haven’t been able to do as much as I used to, but I’m relieved that so far I’ve managed to keep a hand in while still doing management roles and supervising.” She concedes that ultimately it all adds up to the same goal: to instil in others the same delight that she felt, years ago, staying up late with her dad. “The job is often really hard, especially when there’s a quick turnaround or a stressful delivery. But what’s great about doing a film is that months later you can go to a screening, and when you’re sat in the cinema you can finally switch off and watch it all properly. It’s the best feeling because you see your work up there and the audience is utterly engaged with it, with this thing you made. You remember why you do it.”