Manuel “Manolo” Mantero is a special effects wizard whose industry experience will make budding VFX gurus foam at the mouth.
The movie maestro’s work speaks for itself: one of the teams he headed won an Oscar; another was nominated for an Emmy; and Manolo has offered his expertise to movies as successful as X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), as well as the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things (2022).
Manolo’s career has reached a height that most will never achieve, but like anything, it first sprouted from smaller seeds. He grew up in Spain in a creative house, with artistic family members who encouraged him to express himself through art, right from the beginning.
My dad was always painting, since I was very little. He paints landscapes. He’s still alive, and he’s now 92 and still painting. My sister is very artistic too, so it runs in the family.
"I remember the smell of the oil paints. I used to paint with my dad sometimes when I was little, and I would show him my stuff. Then he was like, ‘Oh yes, that’s really nice. Why don’t you try this, and that?’ These are all good memories.”
Manolo’s interest in film and visual effects was also there from the start. He says he wanted to work with films ever since he saw the impressive effects in E.T. (1982), and he was blown away by Jurassic Park (1993) and then Toy Story (1995).
Manolo studied Fine Arts at the Universidad de Sevilla, but always hoped that sometime in the future a Spanish university would teach him the skills he would need to work in the film industry. In 1995, Manolo moved to the UK to study a degree at the University of Wolverhampton in Computer Graphics. At the time, the Spanish government and the European Union were encouraging people to go to other countries to study, so Manolo was able to move to England and obtain the qualification at no cost to himself.
He says: “The course at the University of Wolverhampton didn’t just benefit my future in the film industry – it gave me a future in the industry. It opened so many doors."
"Back then, not too many people had a university degree in visual effects or computer graphics – there were actually very few. Everybody else in the industry was self-teaching and learning the trade by themselves, so with the help of a university degree, it was super-easy for me to find a job."
"When I first started, you would do a commercial and do the whole thing by yourself. You had to know about motion capture, about layouts, about animation effects – about everything really, and compositing at the end. I think that making those commercials pushed me into a really good position as a supervisor."
Since those early days, Manolo has worked in countries across the world – from England and Spain, Australia, Canada, and now Spain again. His extensive experience and resumé has taken him to impressive heights – but when did he recognise that he had “made it”?
Manolo says: “I probably realised what I’d become when I did Alien: Covenant – that was big. I had worked on big movies before then, but I got to work on that one for almost a year, and I was a senior supervisor. When you get to make decisions for a movie, I think that you get to be most proud of the things you do."
“That was probably the moment that I realised, okay, now I’m a big player in the industry.”
During the production, Manolo supervised an especially ambitious – and gruesome – effect, which dazzled Ridley Scott himself.
“I think the part I’m most proud of is the Med Bay sequence, which is when we had the first alien coming out of one of the characters,” he says. “They tried to do it with animatronics but it didn’t feel right, so we did the whole thing with CGI. We had the ribs cracking, the spine breaking and touching the guy’s belly. It was very well done, and the result was really, really gross."
“Charlie Henley [visual effects supervisor] presented the scene to Ridley Scott, and Ridley said, ‘You’re sick!’ The scene was disgusting and disturbing, and I think we did very well to get that reaction from Ridley.”
Five years and several films later, Manolo went on to work as a digital effects supervisor on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, for which his team scooped an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. The role was a dream come true for Manolo, as the book Dune, by Frank Herbert has been a favourite since he was 12 years old.
He says: “I’ve been reading that book every year since I first read it, so it felt incredible to work on the film. The picture was beautifully filmed, and I worked with [visual effects supervisor] Paul Lambert who has just won his third Oscar, so he knows pretty well what he’s doing. “We had the time to really look into things in the smallest detail, perfecting it right up until the end. We worked on it for more than a year.”
Manolo feels that this experience allowed him to work with “the best supervisors in the world,” as well as “a very talented team.”
“I got to learn from so many artists and department supervisors. You can tell how good everyone was when you see the final product. It’s so good – it’s perfect."
“I think we all knew that there was a big chance that we’d get the Oscar for this one. I knew it the moment I went to see it at the IMAX. I cried so many times. We knew we were seeing something unique, because seeing that level of realism in a fantasy show was just out-of-this-world."
“I watched the Oscars with my wife, and when we won, it felt really, really powerful.“
Manolo’s next taste of an accolade was an exciting near miss: the effects team he led for the first half of Stranger Things Season 4 was nominated for an Emmy.
As the visual effects supervisor, Manolo supervised around 20 different departments, and had a global view of everything that needed to be put together in order to create a high-quality final product.
He says: “It takes a lot of time and work to put together a massive destruction scene, or a sequence that’s heavily populated with effects, and we had two or three of those.”
While preparing to depict the “hellscape”, they watched countless documentaries of tornadoes plus 4K storm sequences, just watching the lightning and the moving clouds.
“We did lots of research to find that sweet spot. I had a magnificent team and we all pushed together in the same direction. A good team working in harmony will give you 120%.”
Manolo says that it felt right that his team was nominated for an Emmy, but knew that it was going to be a challenge to win. Due to the time constraints for nominations only the first half of the season was submitted, as the season was released in two chunks and the most dramatic content appeared in the second half.
He can’t yet discuss it, but Manolo is currently working on an adaptation of the video game Borderlands, which he says is going to be an interesting show featuring an impressive cast.
In parting, Manolo adds that he wants to thank the University of Wolverhampton, to which he says he owes his career.
“The University gave me a new life, honestly. Once you have a degree like this, and especially a British degree, it’s very easy to go to Australia, and Canada, and more. It transformed me into a better person, so I’m very thankful and fond of the time I spent there. A lot happened during those years, and I grew so much.”