Kevin O’Neill interview

Creature Feature Interviews

Kevin O’Neill
(Sharktopus vs Whalewolf, Sharktopus vs Pteracuda, Dinocroc, Dinoshark & Dracano)

ONEILL_01Over the years, I have profiled writers, directors, actors, producers and composers but today, I’m adding a new profession to that list.

I spoke with Kevin O’Neill, one of the best VFX Supervisor in the industry, about his career and the big transition that he went through in becoming a top tier creature feature director for Roger Corman. With directing credits include Dinocroc and the two Sharktopus sequels and VFX credits include Piranha 3D and Crocodile, Kevin has amassed a wealth of experience which he generously took time from his busy schedule to talk to me about.

Read on to discover the day-to-day business of a VFX Supervisor, what it’s really like to work for Roger Corman, what really happened to Sharktopus vs Mermantula and an exclusive scoop on his next project, Intergalactic Shark Attack…

[JS] How did you get started in Visual Effects/ the film industry?

[KO] Well, I grew up on the East End of Long Island during the 60’s/70’s, when the local TV stations and Cinema would run everything from King Kong (1933) to Godzilla to of course, Ray Harryhausen films. I developed and early fascination with Ray H. and Willis O’Brien’s work, and soon found myself immersed in all things related to the process and equipment necessary to produce short experimental films. I was lucky to have taken up this interest at the same time a small but very informative collection of books and magazines dedicated to the technical and art of visual effects films, both professional and amateur were starting to publish on a regular basis.

Then in 1977, “Star Wars”…. Made up my mind to make VFX a career, went to film school (Ithaca College, class of 1983) and took an internship in L.A. After graduation I headed west and got a job working for Peter Kuran (Visual Concept Engineering, VCE). Pete was the youngest member of the Star Wars VFX crew, and has contributed to some of the greatest VFX films in history. He’s one of the smartest guys I have ever met in the business. From VCE I moved on to a series of VFX facilities, ending up at Apogee and worked with John Dykstra, then back to VCE in the early ’90’s. (It’s the name of the game in the VFX industry that you jump from movie to movie and facility to facility).

While back at VCE I started to supervise a series of movies based on Hercules for Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert at Universal. This led to an offer from Sam and Rob to Supervise the VFX on the TV series that followed, and from there the decision to form a Visual Effects Company, Flat Earth Productions.

Piranha 3DCould you explain the role of a VFX Supervisor?

Sure thing. Methods and procedures vary from person to person, and are certainly re-engineered per the budget, but these are the fundamentals I follow.

First up, the VFX Sup’s job usually follows 3 phases, Pre-Production, Production, and Post Production.

PRE-PRODUCTION –
The point wherein the conceptual and technical designs of the various VFX elements are worked out with the Director, Producer and key members of the production team.
This might include creature designs, storyboarding VFX sequences, Designing set creations or extensions and various other aspects of the film that would involve VFX.

PRODUCTION –
The implementation of the pre-production decisions and plans, often modifying them as day to day production dictates.

POST PRODUCTION –
The assimilation of all the production VFX elements into a pipeline involving VFX artists and vendors who will carry out the creation of those VFX elements not created or photographed during production. Once these elements are integrated, the VFX Sup. works with the Director and editorial team to refine and adjust VFX to meet the final blue print of the projects edit.

What fuelled your decision to start directing?

After a decade of VFX Supervision and developing an efficient CGI/Creature focused Visual Effects Facility I began to see VFX facilities popping up all over the place I realized I needed to re-imagine how I could pursue my career in VFX and my ultimate goal of directing, having handled those chores on a number of TV episodes as 2nd unit/vfx unit director. I figured I could parlay my company assets into the director’s chair if the opportunity arose. This ultimately led to “Dinocroc”.

How did you get involved in the Dinocroc project?

I was supervising an action film in Romania when I got a call from Damian Akhavi, who at the time was the Head of Production at Roger Corman’s company, New Horizons. Damian was searching for a VFX Supervisor on a film called “Dinocroc” which was to shoot in Russia and directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Well, that was on a Friday, and on the following Monday I got a call to come and meet with Roger to discuss Dinocroc. It seemed that Timur had acquired the funds to start up on what would become his feature “NightWatch” and was no longer going to be able to direct Dinocroc. Without missing a beat Roger sat across from me and said he felt based on the strength of my past directing chores and the fact that I had a VFX company that I should step into the director’s chair and handle directing and the VFX, at a substantial discount of course! Of course we also stayed in Los Angeles for the production…

dinocrocAre either Supergator or Dinoshark actual sequels to Dinocroc?

Well, it’s my understanding that at the time SyFy said they were not interested in sequels, so what was Dinocroc 2 got a haircut in script phase and Roger pitched the title Supergator, which SyFy liked. By the time Dinoshark was conceived, the SyFy Channel was looking to keep at least one Roger Corman production in the pipeline a year, so the Dinoshark project fit nicely in that arrangement.

Have you seen Dinocroc vs Supergator, if so what is your opinion and was it strange to see the creature from your directorial debut in someone else’s movie?

Not a happy camper about that project. Another director [Jim Wynorski] who works with Roger was desperate for another gig and went in and pitched the title out of desperation. Roger being Roger agreed to it then let the director run off to some friends of his to produce the VFX. As you can see by the way I handle these films, because I direct AND create the VFX, there are much more robust and numerous creature scenes. Something that was pretty lacking in DvsS.

I had always presumed that there would be some communication between the more regular Corman contributors?

None. To be honest, I steer clear of Jim [Wynorski] when I can due to a past experience, and have never met Declan [O’Brien]. Plus Roger likes to funnel as much as he can through the New Horizon’s pipeline creatively.

Could you provide a brief overview of how the Roger Corman business model works?

The company is much smaller now than in the glory days of the 70’s and 80’s. The staff is small, mostly interns, and what writer development they manage usually depends on what idea Roger can sell to a prospective distributor. The SyFy Channel for instance has pretty much taken all development in house, and acquiring films to fill in schedule gaps. As far as directors go, Roger takes some chances but they are few and far between now. I come on board basically because I have a track record with SyFY and Roger and can put the VFX Muscle of my VFX company behind my Directors effort.

Can you tell me a little about your experiences directing the low budget creature features?

Well, directing low/no budget VFX films are really akin to being in the Marines. You prepare as much as you can, get dropped in behind enemy lines and have just about every decision you thought you had prepared for turned on its head. Where money, time and redundant support are the order of the day on large budget films, we rely on being inventive with just about everything. We are a breed apart, and I have been lucky to have had the support of some very talented and like-minded souls while making these films.

dinosharkHow closely do the Syfy movies adhere to their screenplays? Do you still have copies of the scripts?

I do, and to put it clearly, yes we have to adhere to the conceptual spirit of the scripts, but about the only SyFy dictate is that we have a “kill moment” every 10 minutes. I often re-write the script to take advantage of various local assets, as we more often than not shoot these films on foreign soil.

How did the production of the two Sharktopus sequels differ to your other creature features?

We shot them back to back, which was a great experience. Crew settled in quickly and we were able to make adjustments on the second film based on the immediate experiences on the first film.

For a while Sharktopus vs Whalewolf was referred to as Sharktopus vs Mermantula, was this a case of misinformation or did that creature once exist?

Ohhhhh, Hollywood….especially when it comes to a Roger film! Seems SyFy had all ready contracted a “Spider” creature film and were not interested in having two. Now Roger had not bothered to tell SyFy the second film was “Spider” centric, so when they graciously declined Roger simply said, no problem, we will change the creature. Thing is, I had already shot the film with a spider as a second creature! Sooooo, we re-edited the film, SyFy approved the new creature, and to borrow a line from another famous creature film, “…anyway, we delivered the bomb…”

You have now amassed quite the creature feature filmography, is there something about the genre that particularly like or feel well suited to?

Well, you do tend to get pigeon-holed in this biz, but truthfully as I mentioned before, Ray and Willis had a tremendous impact on me and my career. I also find the great Mythos of man fighting the unimaginable, either corporal or metaphorical, to be a timeless story always ripe for re-invention. I would however, like to get my hands on a musical one day though!

You have directed a fair number of big name actors, who did you enjoy directing the most? (This is a loaded question as I am a big fan of Costas Mandylor)

Costas is a grand man! In addition to directing him in Dinocroc, I also would often run in to him on the set of the “Saw” series when I was in Toronto. A college mate of mine, Dan Heffner, is a producer on the series.

Casper Van Dien is also another friend and great actor, along with Catherine his wife.

Treat Williams is another wonderful actor with a great sense of Cinema history.

Sean Young, Ted Raimi and the late Charles Napier are/were all wonderful to work with as well.

sharktopusvspteracudaRegardless of role, what has been your most rewarding film to work on?

Working with Frances Coppola on Bhram Stokers “Dracula”. Brilliant, inclusive and inspiring filmmaker.

A lot of creature features get short changed with regards to the home media releases, some films are never released on DVD (especially outside of the US) and special features are often non-existent; what is your view on this matter?

Well, eventually everything will be available to any market that offers streaming technology, as that’s really all that’s left for the majority of distributors to make a dime off of. As far as the special features, it really is a shame that that marketing angle has fallen out of favour. Somehow we need to figure out how to embed things like commentaries into the streaming equation.

Following on from that, would you be interested in recording director’s commentary tracks for your films?

I’ve actually done several commentaries on films I have directed as well as films and television shows I have supervised the Visual Effects on. Always like to relate behind the scenes shenanigans when I can!

Due to the lack of decent home media releases in the UK, I am planning to expand my site to include downloadable commentary tracks from industry professionals to play along the films. Would this be something that you would be interested in doing?

You bet. Commentaries are fun, and its sad that streaming technology does not allow for the inclusion of past, or for that matter present commentary.

Would you return to do another creature feature?

You Bet! I love the genre, love VFX driven films, and most importantly, love working as a Director!!!

If you could choose any of your films/ creatures to return to for a sequel, which would it be and why?

I’m a big fan of “Destroy All Monsters” so for me I would love to take all the creatures we have created to date, add a few more, and make the equivalent of that film with today’s VFX technology! In a nutshell, “Enter the Dragon” with creatures….

What are your favourite creature features?

King Kong (1933), Mysterious Island (1961), Dragonslayer, Aliens, Jaws and a soft spot for Dinocroc, of course.

sharktopusvswhalewolfWhat is your favourite creature?

I’d have to say Vermithrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer, and of course, the original Kong.

Ignoring all logic and budgetary restraints, if you could make a movie about any creature, which creature would you choose? (For some context, I would choose Killer Rhinoceros)

Killer Rhino! That creates some interesting ideas for sure! I don’t really know. One idea that I have had for a while would be to create a creature that is constantly mutating into another kind of creature entirely, so that the intrepid heroes, victims and audience never know what to expect from scene to scene.

What is your view on the emerging focus on Shark-based films since the turn of the decade?

Truthfully, I think the pattern has emerged and peaked. Once a parody of something becomes the norm, it’s time to re-think the general approach to a subject. I hope I get a chance!

What about the shift away from more standard giant creature movies and into high concept ideas (Creature vs Creature, creature/ creature hybrids, creature/ natural disaster hybrids)?

Much the same as above, although I believe sometimes just going forward with a solid idea, regardless of its popularity, is still the best and most rewarding avenue to travel. Every one of these trends had a “first” at one time or another!

What have you got coming up in the future?

Well, running a few things through the development grinder as I write…an Urban creature film looms in the future, and a Horror film based on a popular graphic novel series has just landed on my desk. Also, a little thing called “Intergalactic Shark Attack” that I am trying to fund. So we will see…

If a creature feature enthusiast with some cool ideas for some films and a passion for screen writing wanted to get into the creature feature business, do you have any advice for them?

Well, movies are getting made by all sorts everyday now. If you stick to the genre you like and can pound out a decent first draft on a timely basis, there are plenty of folks out there who will read them. Also, there are more screen writing forums now than ever before, and I have in the past read some pretty good stuff through those avenues…Just remember what Billy Crystal said in “Throw Momma From the Train”….” A writer writes….ALWAYS…!”

Thank you for your time, Mr O’Neill

A big thank you to Kevin O’Neill for answering my questions and if you want to find out more about his filmography, you can check out his IMDb profile or the official website of Flat Earth Productions.

For more information on Kevin O’Neill creature feature contributions, you can them in the Creature Catalogue such as Dinocroc, Dinoshark, Sharktopus vs Pteracuda and Sharktopus vs Whalewolf!

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One thought on “Kevin O’Neill interview

  1. Pingback: Competition – Sharktopus vs Pteracuda DVD Giveaway! | Creature Feature Corner

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