A De Montfort University alumnus has spoken about his “truly special” experience working on the visual effects for Chernobyl, which has become one of the year’s most celebrated TV series.
The story of the 1986 nuclear disaster won an Emmy for Max Dennison and his team at DNEG, one of the world’s leading visual effects companies. Even though he’s worked on some of the biggest shows and films in the past 20 years – including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises – he says Chernobyl stands ‘head and shoulders’ above that work.
Max, who graduated from Leicester Polytechnic with a degree in Industrial Design in 1992, also shared his advice to DMU students who want to follow in his footsteps.
He said: “My advice: Follow your dreams, have passion, and work hard. As with all things in life, opportunities come and go, but the trick is to recognise them when they appear.”
The HBO series, which was shown on Sky Atlantic, starred Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris and Emily Watson. Filmed entirely in Lithuania and Ukraine, it became one of the year’s most celebrated shows earning plaudits for its unflinching portrayal of the disaster and clean-up efforts.
“I came onto the show in early 2017 and right from the beginning, reading the scripts from writer Craig Mazin, I knew that this was going to be something different,” said Max. “I've read a lot of scripts in my career, but this one was truly special. We filmed the entire show in beautiful Lithuania and Ukraine and when I first arrived on set, I knew instinctively that my team and I were going to have to raise our game.
“The attention to detail and the total dedication from all the departments already in place was humbling. Additionally, our director, Johan Renck, said to me early on that he was not after what he called 'Hollywood style effects'. So these factors immediately set the parameters for us.
“What you experience when you watch the show is a sense of restraint, humility towards the subject matter, and a deep desire to reveal the truth about what really happened both at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant in April 1986, and about the people who were directly affected.”
His team produced 846 visual effects shots over the five episodes of the show, weaving complete CGI with more subtle effects to produce the stunning visuals – including creating a nuclear reactor building inside and out, developing complex destruction and smoke simulations and designing never-before-seen shots such as the look down the burning reactor core.
Chernobyl won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects at the 2019 Emmys – one of ten gongs awarded to the show.
Max says it was very much a team effort. He added: “It feels absolutely amazing and my team and I are incredibly humbled to have been recognised by our peers in such a way. As with every project, they are team efforts and my team at DNEG, my colleagues in Lithuania, Germany and Ukraine all share in this amazing accolade.
“During my career, I have been so incredibly fortunate to have worked all over the world, on some of the biggest shows in the last two decades, and with some of the most talented people in the industry.
“Nevertheless, it is equally incredibly rare that you get to work on a show that is as truly special as 'Chernobyl'.”
Max’s career began when he set up his own freelance illustration company in London after graduating in 1992. He was soon headhunted by the famous Shepperton Studios’ Magic Camera Company to be a matte artist, making incredible realistic landscapes and interiors on film. Some 27 years later, and he is VFX Supervisor for DNEG.
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But he has fond memories of his time at DMU, living off Narborough Road in Leicester. Some of the best friends he has today are people he met in his first year as a student.
“I think in hindsight, the friendships I made during that period had the most profound effect on me.
“The experience of going to college at DMU was a very special one for me. I learned so much, not just about design, but also about life in general and about the necessity of working closely with other people. This is, after all, integral to a successful career.
“It is also important to remember that college is an holistic experience and you are guaranteed to be a different person by the end of it; wiser, more mature, and ready to put to use all those skills that you have acquired. Nowadays, work opportunities arise all over the world and I would encourage everyone to seize them with both hands.”
Posted on Tuesday 22nd October 2019