Surveying for the Silver Screen

Captain America: Civil War hit cinemas in late-April 2016, but did you know that surveyors helped bring the film to life? Our Head of Film and Entertainment, Huseyin Caner, spoke to RICS Recruit about his work on the film and Plowman Craven’s role in the movie business.

How did you first get started in digital mapping?
While I was studying photogrammetry and remote sensing at UCL, my tutors arranged a school trip to visit a commercial company called Plowman Craven. The company is one of the best and biggest in the field of surveying and measuring and that was when I first learned of the market demand for digital mapping. What is a working day like for you?

We have fun every day. I’ve been working for Plowman Craven for nearly 15 years and every day I go to work and learn something new and enjoy the company of my team members. We start our day with a 10-minute day-planning meeting; after that, the team starts working on projects and some go to external sites for data capture. The rest of my time is divided between several things: sending new estimates, answering client requirements, chasing new projects and informing clients of deliveries. Technical development is almost a continuous task for me; I enjoy developing systems for scanning, coming up with new workflows and working on new products that we like to deliver to our clients.

Can you explain the role of digital mapping in creating film special effects?
The film industry has adopted and accepted 3D models a lot earlier than our traditional clients. All the VFX [visual effects] software packages work in 3D, so we rarely see 2D plans and sections, however, art departments and set designers still use 2D CAD drawings. Having said that, on recent projects we have been requested to use 3D ground models to help set designers to plan/design their sets.

What films have you worked on?
We have worked on over 100 films ranging from the Harry Potter series, multiple Bond movies including SkyFall and Casino Royale, as well as plenty of superhero movies from the Avengers, X-Men and Batman franchises. I enjoyed working on all of them because each one of them was unique and came with its own challenges. Some had very short turnaround times, so time was precious; some had very tough locations — it would be very cold in Iceland or very hot on top of a volcano. I suppose these sorts of challenges make the job interesting and make you feel good because we solve a problem and deliver the job.

Which of the films you’ve worked on have been the most memorable?
I’ve always liked action films like Rocky and Die Hard. When I was working on The Expendables, I had a chance to meet all my childhood heroes.

I would say the Harry Potter series was the most important one I’ve worked on because I believe the success of these films were a turning point for the UK VFX industry. The confidence level of people in the industry, and particularly confidence of film makers for UK VFX, became a lot stronger after the Harry Potter films. After that, we started to get more and bigger budget films made in the UK.

I’ve loved working on the Bond films, and of course, how could I forget the Marvel films we have worked on, including Doctor Strange and the new Captain America movie.

What kinds of skills do you need to have a career as a digital mapper?
Working in the VFX industry as a traditional surveyor is quite unique, although we are still measuring using the same tools, like tape measure, total station, GPS, laser scanner and aerial photography. The major difference to traditional surveying is that we have to measure and model some unusual things like people, live animals, vehicles, helicopters, airplanes and all kinds of different shaped props. In terms of skill sets, we don’t require anything different but processing the data and the type of delivery is slightly different than traditional surveying. The most important skill I look for is attention to detail.

Would you use the same tools to map a landmark as, say, Captain America’s iconic shield?
You have to have a large “toolbox” if you are working in the film industry because you never know what is going to be thrown at you (pun intended). We have several different types of scanners in the business so we are in a position to scan very small objects ranging from bugs and butterflies to mountains and towns. Captain America’s shield was scanned using our high definition scanner because we wanted to get the best resolution possible.

What’s the best thing about your job and would you recommend it?
The best thing about my job is that I contribute to the creation of something that will last forever. Someone, somewhere on Earth will be watching the films in the future that I worked on.

I would definitely recommend becoming a surveyor but I think I was one of the lucky ones to find myself working in such a unique part of the industry.