A Conversation with Joe Mason, VFX Artist, Against The Clock (2019)

A Conversation with Joe Mason, VFX Artist, Against The Clock (2019)

Joe Mason has worked in the motion graphics and VFX industry for two decades, but cut his teeth on visual effects for film only this year with work on an upcoming spy thriller called Against The Clock. Directed and written by Mark Polish, who is also known for The Astronaut Farmer (2006) and Jackpot (2001), and starring Andy Garcia and Dianna Agron, Against The Clock is an effects-heavy film with innovative visuals. Michele Yamazaki from Toolfarm talks to Joe talks about his first-time experience working on the film.

Updated 4 January 2019: A trailer has been released so you can check out the great work that Joe did on the film, and also, the name of the film has been changed from Headlock to Against the Clock. You may see the film referred to as Headlock in the interview, but please note, it's the same film.

Against the Clock Trailer

Michele Terpstra: Hi Joe. Thanks for talking with me today. Against the Clock (formerly named Headlock, at the time that this article was originally published in October 2018) is an upcoming film, set to be released in early 2019, directed by Mark Polish. You were hired on as a VFX artist?

Joe Mason: Mark was apparently looking for a VFX artist for the news sequence and he found my reel on YouTube and thought it was really well done. I got an email asking if I would be interested in working on the film. Honestly, at first, I thought it was a prank by one of my friends because I had never worked on a film before. When I did some research, I saw that Mark had worked on some pretty successful indie films in the past, most notably, The Astronaut Farmer.

andy garcia in Headlock

Andy Garcia in Headlock. Photo Credit: Mark Polish

When I realized this was for real, we talked on the phone and I agreed to work on it. At first, I was brought in to produce a graphics package for a 30-second news sequence in which a reporter tells of a foiled terrorist attack. Mark liked the sequence so much that he asked if I could work on some other scenes. The film is just packed with VFX, and I was brought on the team to bring some of the remaining shots to life. I think I ended up working on well over 100 shots in the film. A lot of the rendered graphics overlays, adding text and tracking the camera to create a surveillance look. 

Joe Mason

Joe's work on the news broadcast scene.

Because of the sci-fi, or “spy-fi” genre, many of the shots use CGI to create the futuristic environment. It’s really a one-of-a-kind film. I think audiences will love it. Some are saying it’s the new Matrix. Mark is an innovator and is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. The film is full of VFX. There are some scenes with visuals that have just never been done before. The film is a collaboration of a whole bunch of creative people, most of whom I’ve never met. The great thing about technology is that you can collaborate with people from all over the world to create a project that everyone can be proud of.

Michele: Can you give a brief synopsis of Headlock?

Joe: The film takes place in the future. As Mark says, it’s a “spy-fi thriller.” He also plays CIA Agent Kelley Chandler, who is in search of intelligence that will prevent future terrorist attacks. Agent Chandler’s wife, played by Dianna Agron, is a former CIA agent who goes looking for the truth after Kelley is injured during a mission. The film is pretty trippy, kind of like TRON meets Jason Bourne.

Headlock Still

A still image from Headlock. Photo Credit: Mark Polish

Michele: You had mentioned that you worked remotely. I had assumed that the film was shot near you. Does Missouri have film incentives that are driving work to your state? 

Joe: I’m not aware of any Missouri film incentives. Not many films are made here. In fact, even films about Missouri are rarely shot here (Three Billboards, Ozark, etc). The film was actually shot in several different countries, as well as in Southern California. I worked on it remotely from my home in Missouri. We shared files over the web and used a review site called Frame.io. It’s great because a director can make notes, draw on frames, note timecode, etc. all through FTP.


VFX work from Joe Mason in Headlock.

Michele: I should mention to readers that I haven't seen a film or trailer, as it's not yet ready at the time of the interview, but Joe sent me some stills of his work on Headlock. Joe, can you talk about some of the more complicated shots you worked on? Were you on set during filming to help direct any effects?

Joe: In one scene, a character named Jerry, played by Andy Garcia, is communicating via video feed with the villain of the film. They shot the villain on a green screen, and I treated his background as well as some of the foreground elements. I came into the production pretty late in the process. Most of the shooting was done by the time I was brought in. I think I would have tweaked some things that were shot on green screen. Small things like avoiding wardrobe that reflects green, and evenly lighting the green screen. These little adjustments help the VFX artist a TON in post. Even adding a nice backlight to separate the talent from the screen help to prevent those annoying green halos that we have to get rid of later. I would have loved to be on set for some of the shoots, especially in foreign countries. I think they traveled to 10 or 11 countries to get what they needed for the plot line to make sense. But the cinematography is really beautiful. The film has some amazing imagery. 

News open

Joe's Cinema 4D work on the newscast scene in Headlock.

The news broadcast sequence was probably the most challenging part of the VFX work. The actress was recorded on green screen with minimal lighting, wearing a reflective white dress. My job was to create a news graphics package, but Mark didn’t want it to look flat and boring. So I created background and foreground elements in 3D using Cinema 4D. I love Cinema 4D because it lets the VFX artist do virtually anything he/she can think of. Mark was after a futuristic newscast look, so I made some metallic globe elements, and then added a ton of moving parts. He wanted it to look like a graphics package on steroids, so that’s what I gave him. Using chromic metal materials made the globes look sterile and futuristic rather than earthy and real. After a few rounds of tweaks, we came up with a really crazy sequence that I think viewers will like. Once I had the look and feel of the sequence established, I had to rotoscope around the actress/newscaster because the key just wouldn’t work. This took a while, and I learned a new level of patience doing roto in After Effects.

Michele: The screenshot you sent with the guy in the robe with the Mayan god in the corner reminds me of Anonymous, and it looks like a fair amount of plug-ins were used in that part of the film.

Joe: Yes, Ah Puch is the name of the villain in the film. Mark had a vision of creating a trippy environment for him, so I turned to Trapcode/Red Giant for a lot of these looks. I used Trapcode Form and Particular to create some of the particle elements in front of and behind AP. Mark also wanted him to have sort of a glowing, heavenly appearance, so I added some glow and Trapcode Shine to bring that to life. To top it off, we needed to make sure it looked like a video transmission, so I used Digieffects Delirium in several layers to accomplish that. Delirium was perfect for the look Mark was after. 

ah puch

Ah Puch, the villian in Headlock. VFX by Joe Mason.

Michele: What other sorts of effects and plugins did you use?

Joe: I used Digieffects a lot. They make great interference plugins, and this film has quite a few scenes were transmission interference is a key element. I also created a bunch of overlays and camera tracking sequences for surveillance shots. Again, I turned to Digieffects to add a sort of low-tech surveillance camera look, and did some camera tracking with text and other graphic elements, as if Agent Kelley is being tracked at all times.


Surveillance VFX by Joe Mason.

Michele: Did you have a clear idea of what you were going to do from storyboards?

Joe: I didn’t have storyboards. Mark and I talked several times over the phone but mostly used Frame.io to get on the same page. Mark would draw some basic images on the screen if I wasn’t on the same page as the idea in his head. He was very specific though, and great to work with. I’ve never met someone who is so certain of what he wants creatively. That’s not to say he didn’t give me freedom.

Michele: Did you have much input on creative on the process? Were you allowed to experiment?

Joe: I was surprised at how much input Mark would ask for as we were working on some of the scenes. At times I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. I was used to working on corporate video, web video and promotional pieces for the small screen. This was my first large format project ever. But Mark treated me like I had been doing this for years. It made me more confident and made the process really enjoyable. A lot of the looks I came up with have my own personality and style built into them, while at the same time preserving Mark’s vision for the film.

Headlock still

A still image from Headlock. Photo credit: Mark Polish.

Michele: What did you find was the biggest difference of working on the film vs. working on corporate or web video?

Joe: I think the biggest challenge has been the waiting process. I didn’t realize an indie film could take so long to produce. Mark would be the first to admit it, too. But there would sometimes be weeks or even months in between the sequences that I would work on. I think in all, I worked on the film for about a year and a half. Of course, this was in short spurts, but it made it challenging to start and stop a lot. Sometimes I would even forget how I did a particular effect or look. But I loved learning about the process of working on an indie film. It’s a fascinating way to make a living. I’m not sure I would have the patience to do what Mark and Janet Dubois (the film’s producer) have done. I’ve learned that it takes a huge amount of time and patience. You’ve got to be willing to take risks and you have to believe in yourself and the vision you have for the project. I think Mark is a master at it. To be able to produce something that looks as good as this film does without the backing of a major studio is a huge accomplishment. I hope it’s wildly successful at the box office. I wanted the experience, and it turned into WAY more work than I had bargained for, but I’m really glad I did it. I’m hoping to fly out for the premiere in the next few months. Hoping to meet Andy Garcia and Justin Bartha, too.

Headlock Still

Mark Polish in a scene in Headlock. Photo credit: Mark Polish.

Michele: Any words of advice for an artist who would like to get into indie film visual effects?

Joe: I would encourage anyone who has the chance to do something a little out of their comfort zone to go for it. It may be challenging, and it may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar at times, but the reward is worth the risk. It may just open up some opportunities that you never knew were out there.

Michele: I really hope you do! Thank you so much, Joe, and best of luck to you, Mark, and the team on the film!

Posted by Michele Yamazaki