Digital effects producer

Born: December 28, 1964;

Died: September 15, 2019

STUART McAra, who has died of cancer aged 54, did not know exactly what he wanted to do when he was at school, but he loved trips to the cinema with his dad and knew from a very early age that he wanted to do something in the film business.

He was no A student and his first job was in McDonald's. A film-making course in Bournemouth led to a job as a general dogsbody with the Computer Film Company in London and ultimately a distinguished career that saw him working on ground-breaking digital effects on Braveheart, Star Trek, Avengers and Harry Potter movies.

“He worked for all the primary companies and was pretty much at the forefront of it all,” said Jeremy Hall, who worked with him at the Computer Film Company in Los Angeles and later at Pukeko in New Zealand, where McAra revisited a childhood enthusiasm, working on a digital revival of Thunderbirds.

“CFC were the first company to build a complete digital pipeline,” said Hall. “He was there at the beginning of the story with CFC and then went to LA and was at the forefront of digital work in LA.

“Then the first Harry Potter was instrumental in creating the industry in London as it is now. It is significant that he was involved in so many companies and doing it with ILM (George Lucas’s company) in Singapore.”

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) there were dozens of candles suspended on wires above the pupils’ heads in the Great Hall at Hogwarts and the digital team were tasked with blanking out the wires. But the candles burned through the wires and fell onto the tables, endangering the actors. So the filmmakers had to add the flickering candles to the film digitally instead.

Stuart Bannerman McAra was born in Edinburgh in 1964, the only child of two civil servants Robin and Cookie. He went to Stewart’s Melville and Flora Stevenson Primaries and then Broughton High.

He loved films and television, especially Disney cartoons (though he was less keen on the corporation later on when it took over ILM) and the Gerry Anderson programmes Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. An aunt made him a replica Captain Scarlet outfit with tunic and cap.

After discovering a video camera in a storeroom at Broughton, he made several silent shorts. After a very brief stint at McDonald's, he sold personal computers and spent 18 months as a stagehand with Theatre Workshop in Stockbridge in Edinburgh.

His time at Bournemouth and Poole College convinced him that he did not want the stress and workload of being a producer or director and he began his professional career as a “runner” at CFC, the Computer Film Company, but was soon working on rudimentary digital visual effects.

This was the early days of digital work and he was responsible for doing things like removing aeroplane vapour trails in period dramas and was credited as an “additional compositor” on the Oscar-winning film Braveheart (1995). A persuasive individual, McAra convinced CFC to broaden their horizons and allow him to go to California to open an office there.

Returning to London, he did a lot of digital work with Cinesite Europe and was visual or digital effects producer on Mission: Impossible II (2000), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and the first Harry Potter films.

He worked for several other companies before moving to Singapore after George Lucas’s company Industrial Light and Magic began operations there and he was visual effects producer there on Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), Rango (2011), the superhero movie Avengers Assemble (2012) and Star Trek into Darkness (2013).

After Disney took over ILM, he returned to Scotland, where he worked on converting an old school building into a home in Speyside whisky country. He called it “The Ranch”.

He drew enthusiastic crowds at the Moray Science Festival demonstrating how digital effects work, recording children against a green screen and then matching the recording to a new background, and enabling youngsters to see themselves fly through the air in a quidditch match.

But digital effects commissions were limited in the North of Scotland and in a fairly dramatic, though temporary career switch he drove a forklift truck for the beer company BrewDog, before a phone call took him to New Zealand and the chance to work on Thunderbirds with Pukeko, an offshoot of Peter Jackson’s Weta Company.

The original Thunderbirds show in the 1960s had used marionettes on scale-model backgrounds. The revived series Thunderbirds are Go, a co-production between Pukeko and ITV, combined digitally animated characters and scale models.

McAra was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the end of 2015, but continued working. In an episode in the second season of Thunderbirds are Go in 2017 a character was created in McAra’s likeness and he provided the voice.

A brief marriage ended in divorce. He did not have children. He is survived by his parents and his partner Natalie Stevens, who also works in the film industry.