Dinner Chat with VFX Producer Christoph Roth
February 18, 2015

Dinner Chat with VFX Producer Christoph Roth

Compliments of FRANKIE GRRR (www.frankiegrrr.com)

It’s about 8 pm in Wellington, New Zealand, and I’m shuffling around in my minute kitchen, slicing garlic, checking on the pasta, and scrubbing some freshly dug clams from the harbor. The reason for my cooking skills coming to light? None other than Visual Effects Producer Christoph Roth is coming to discuss all things career, movies, and Oscar nominations, exclusively with Frankie Grrr, who has shared the interview with CGW.
Roth is a VFX producer with over 16 years of experience in the world of cinematography and art. During his VFX career so far, he has produced various nominated commercials, TV shows, and films, including the feature films After Earth, Rush, and A Most Wanted Man. He won an Emmy Award for an episode he produced on "Game of Thrones" as well as just having delivered the third highest grossing movie worldwide for 2014 and the highest-grossing Marvel movie of all time: Guardians of the Galaxy. 

He is currently working on his next feature film with the VFX company that brought us all The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit movies: Weta Digital in New Zealand.

Having worked with notable industry members such as Director James Gunn and Jim Jarmusch, Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Ben Grossmann and four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri, he shares great knowledge and insight in the overall scope of moviemaking from all aspects – including his specialty in visual effects. It was easy for me to get to him, as he is a business partner of mine and, of course, an avid Frankie Grrr reader! Lucky us!

We think those are plenty of reasons to feature him in our #interestingpeople category and to share this interview with Computer Graphics World magazine. But just as if we didn't have enough, there are also the impending Oscars, which have Guardians of the  Galaxy nominated twice, and most importantly during this dinner, nominated for Best Visual Effects. 

So, as there’s a soft knock on the door and the clams begin to open up in the sizzling oil, garlic, and chili flakes…

I open the door. 

We greet each other and I offer him a glass of this great New Zealand white wine I’ve gotten just for the occasion. While I throw the pasta over the clams for a quick toss before serving, he takes a seat while complimenting me on the perfumes wafting from the kitchen. Good guest.

Finally, we take a seat. I take a sip of my own wine and pull my Moleskine journal closer to me (this is an interview after all). 

Photo courtesy Christoph Roth.

F.GRRR: Nothing like some spicy linguini and clams and some wine to get you talking about yourself, huh? 

CHRISTOPH ROTH: Definitely not a bad setup. 

F.GRRR: So, Oscar nominations, a new project with Weta Digital, a new country – this is exciting. 

ROTH: Yes, so far so good! Wellington is such a great city, and Weta is by far one of the most prestigious companies I’ve worked with on a project. I’m very excited. 

F.GRRR: Brilliant. So…if this is another one of your movies and you’re having dinner with Frankie Grrr at the end, accomplishments and all, how did the movie begin? How did you get into this business? 

ROTH: Well, I was at university in Germany studying Computer Science in the late ‘90s and was specializing in 3D animation. This was starting to take off. I never did finish my degree, though, which I probably should have. But I got a job as an animator/compositor (a ‘generalist’ we called it) working on a trailer for this really avant-garde 3D animated TV show, but the project tanked when the stock market crashed.

Luckily their sister company needed help on a film, and I continued to gain my experience as a animator. I mostly focused on characters, cartoons, and general animation.

F.GRRR: What software was being used back then?

ROTH: Something called Softimage, which I think is being phased out finally this year. 

F.GRRR: Okay, so you worked for this sister company as an animator. How did you become a producer then? Did you not like the animation game anymore?

ROTH: No, I do still love it actually. I do have an artistic side still, which I think makes me a better producer because I can relate with the artists I’m working with and understand what I am asking them to do. It was just by chance that someone within that company was asking around for anyone who could take care of the production on a project. I was pretty good at organizing and managing my area, so I offered myself and they took a chance on me. 

F.GRRR: I presume it went well since you’re still in the business? 

ROTH: (laughs) Yes, it did. I organized the production, put in policies and procedures, and built up the 3D department so we could work faster and more efficiently as the next project was coming up. I was in charge of the 3D department and it went really well. We ended up doing three feature films.

F.GRRR: Not bad for not having finished uni.

ROTH: Yeah, although I don’t recommend that, especially if my children are reading this, but if you have a passion and you work hard, you can learn on the way. But you definitely need to be a fast learner – always ahead of demands. 

F.GRRR: So, what happened next in the movie that is your life? 

ROTH: Well, through hard work and successful projects, I got a promotion to become a producer for commercials and I ended up spending about eight to 10 years in Germany working in that field. Commercials are great training grounds for producers because they have very quick turnarounds. You’re dealing with a lot of money and budgets as a producer, and you must get the client what they wanted. You have to coordinate so many people, and to get them to get the job done properly so many times, on so many different projects that you can become quite a master at this. If you’re organized, of course. 

F.GRRR: I can imagine. So when did you start working on all these movies? 

ROTH: After almost 10 years I really felt it was time to move on. I didn't feel the challenge anymore, and there was no more room to grow where I was working. I was sent to India in 2008 to build up a compositing department for another movie, and I could really see that I could do this and more. So I resigned and got a job at another great company called Pixomondo as an actual VFX producer. 

F.GRRR: Would you say this is where your career started its steep ascent? 

ROTH: For sure. Pixomondo gave me a chance to work on some top-shelf projects. I got to sink my teeth in the movie industry instead of commercials. It is a different breed of production. 

F.GRRR: What would you say are the most notable differences between the skill sets needed in producing a commercial vs. a film?

ROTH: The major difference for me, especially later on when working on Guardians, was just the length of the project. In a commercial you have deadlines to meet, as with films, but they of course require a much shorter time. It’s a fast-paced, super-demanding environment, but it picks up and keeps its own momentum going. With film, you’ve got to have your endurance up. You have to constantly give it your all, knowing there is still months to go. That can be more demanding, for sure on the artists, but also on the entire management team and yourself as a producer. For sure, if you don’t have the passion for it, you won’t make it.

F.GRRR: Right. So how did you end up working on Guardians of the Galaxy?

ROTH: Guardians was a big movie and had two main CG characters (Rocket and Groot), so there were two VFX companies handling it. I had the pleasure of working for Framestore, which is an extremely great company based in London. How I got there really was sending out my resume, looking for the next project. It helped that by this time I had worked on three major films (Rush, After Earth, A Most Wanted Man) and had won an Emmy for an episode of ‘Game of Thrones.’ I wasn't totally ‘fresh off the boat,’ so to speak. So they took me on and I moved to the UK and worked on it day and night until completion. It was amazing and insane. 

F.GRRR: What would you tell someone who wants to eventually work on a project of that scale?

ROTH: Be prepared to start at the ‘bottom,’ most probably, and remember that if you’re doing what you love, it should just be part of the exciting adventure of your career. Give it your all.

F.GRRR: That’s true. What would you say, then, are the top three things that helped you build this exciting and successful career?

ROTH: Number one would be to truthfully follow your heart. Don’t distract yourself, and don’t hang yourself up on other people’s opinions. Two: Work hard. I really mean that. Like 60 or 70 hours a week is the norm. Three: Don’t be afraid to ask for a job. Get in touch with the company or person! Phone calls, e-mails, resumes. Communicate. If you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere. 

F.GRRR: I hope that helps our aspiring readers. 

ROTH: Me too (laughs). 

F.GRRR: If there are any VFX producers or “VFX producers in training” reading this, what would you say are the best, specific things to learn to become as successful as you?

ROTH: For sure dealing with money and knowing how to negotiate without losing the trust and respect of the opposite party is a must. Practice this as much as you can. Also, everyone must trust you. The client, artists, crew, investors; no one should worry about the project running or not. They just know it will because you're on the job.

That means you’ve got to be a hard worker, honest, and trustworthy at all times. 

Ultimately, you as the VFX producer, or a producer in general, must take care of things. This is your ultimate task. Deliver that product, deliver it on time, and in its most perfect form possible. Your career depends on it. 

F.GRRR: Wooh, doesn't sound like a job for the faint-hearted. So now that we’ve arrived at the final scene where we’ve finished dinner, finished the wine, and said our piece. What’s next for you?

ROTH: Well short term, I’d like to see Guardians of The Galaxy win that Oscar for Best VFX and celebrate a job well done. I’m really proud of that movie and the people who worked on it. Next would be relishing the fact that I am working at Weta Digital with amazing people and Mr. Joe Letteri himself. This is an honor and a personal goal of mine reached. I love working at Weta. We’re working on a feature film due to release in 2016, and there are some amazing artists, supervisors and producers I get to meet and work with. Long term, I have been investing in some literary and artistic ventures, and I would like to create my own content as a producer, while branching out to more than just VFX. I’ve dabbled already on sets as a main producer when needed, and I think it’ll be time to expand again soon. 

F.GRRR: Well, all I can say from myself directly and on behalf of our team at Frankie Grrr is, I hope you win that Oscar, and I cannot wait to see where you end up next and what amazing new projects you produce for us. Enjoy your time at Weta this year and truly, congratulations for everything so far. 

ROTH: Thank you and thank you for the excellent meal. 

As we said our goodbyes and I began cleaning up, I felt oddly proud to have served a meal to such a hard worker. Because in the end, that is what he was. He worked hard toward his passion and goals, and produced films we’ve all enjoyed. What an awesome career! So as I hummed my favorite song from his latest movie (“Red Bone - Come And Get Your Love”) I started the dishes and began to hope that I would be able to produce a wonderful article for my readers, to entertain, inspire, and make you want more. Just like Christoph Roth is doing for us in the movie industry.