MOVIE GEEK: Self-taught visual effects master Simon Hansen.
MOVIE GEEK: Self-taught visual effects master Simon Hansen.

Alexandra Schwappach

SELF-TAUGHT local film school drop-out Simon Hansen has transformed into Hollywood hot property.

Now a top visual effects producer for some of the world’s most talked-about films, Hansen’s latest work, Chronicle, is getting rave reviews. The science fiction film about teenagers who discover they have superpowers, and must choose whether to use them for good or evil, opens in SA this weekend.

Hansen, 39, who lives in Cape Town, calls it a “commercial independent film”, a film that falls somewhere between indie and Hollywood blockbuster.

As a youngster, Hansen was impressed by visual effects, but never thought he would be able to learn how to do them. “I saw Star Wars and I was astounded,” he recalls. “But I also thought that kind of stuff was too far beyond reach.”

Hansen had plans to study film at university, but dropped out and used his tuition fees to buy a camera, with which he took pictures at weddings and matric dances.

“Then I just started messing around with computers, rebuilding editing programmes and such.”

Years later, he had developed so much experience in the field that he surprised even himself. “It suddenly dawned on me that I knew quite a bit about it. It was as if everything started to click together.”

But he’s quick to say he could never have got this far without the support of his friends, family and co-workers. Most of his colleagues attended Wednesday’s premiere of Chronicle.

“We are all so happy for him,” says Amira Quinlan, Hansen’s colleague and wife. “He is very talented, but he’ll never brag about it. So that’s why we’re here.”

Quinlan and fellow producer Hannah Slezacek are heavily involved with Hansen’s work. A self-proclaimed “geek”, Hansen says the two women help him to socialise and network at large events.

But what the team are most adept at is figuring out fresh ways to produce visual effects on a tight budget. “We can’t have the mindset that there is not enough money, so we’re just not going to do it,” Quinlan says. “We have to think of how we can create something without a big budget. It forces us to think creatively, outside the box.”

Audiences first saw Hansen’s work in District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, a collaborator who Hansen met in 1995. His own short science fiction film, Alive in Joburg – also directed by Blomkamp – was the basis for the 2009 hit.

Alive in Joburg, a film about a population of extraterrestrial refugees that alludes to themes and politics of apartheid, was shot in Joburg. “It is so great to see something really take off,” he says of District 9’s success, “because it just as easily could have flopped.”

Although he has written dozens of scripts, worked with many renowned directors, and developed the SI-2K digital cinema camera used to film Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, Hansen remains humble. He is no perfectionist, he says, and believes in the fact that many great creations happen by accident.

Referring to the original Superman movie, where producers had to think of a creative way to make actor Christopher Reeve fly, Hansen comments: “The courage and passion they needed to take on the challenge is basically the underpinning of my philosophy – taking risks is what leads to innovation.”

Seeing his own work up on a big screen is not as climactic as one would think, he says, but what he does look for is audience reaction.

“I tend to look at the audience while the movie is playing. Then I can see what works and what doesn’t, what people are reacting to and what they’re not reacting to.”

Wednesday’s audience response was positive.

“The theatre was completely full,” Quinlan says. “And I think the film really captured them.”

Hansen’s achievements have helped draw attention to SA’s film industry. He has also trained more than 200 young film talents, many of whom have gone on to top film houses all over the world.

As for his next venture, Hansen says the offers are streaming in. “It’s amazing, and I’m so grateful to be in position to choose. The fact that I am even getting recognised is so cool, because there are so many who contribute to work like this.”