Join Rob Garrott for an in-depth discussion in this video Mike Lowes: VFX artist, part of Artists and Their Work: Conversations about Mograph, VFX, and Digital Art.
- [Mike] You know I think there's a little kid inside of every visual effects artist. When I knew for sure, man I want to do this, I really want to do this, was sitting in a theatre watching "Jurassic Park" with my parents. Yeah, I remember that.
- What's your background, like how did you get into the business? - Specifically into the business was, let's see, I mean I was always interested in digital media since I was a kid, but I started off trying to find work in digital media however I could, and I think there was an insurance company I was working at doing just 3D visuals. I wasn't trained as an animator specifically or anything, but basically doing motion graphics for various shops.
There was one in Edmonton as well. I think it was called Dynacor, if I remember, and just sort of transitioned from way back things like Deluxe Paint II Enhanced, to whatever, on the 2D and then moving into 3D graphics. Initially, it wasn't even animated for projects, just even stills. I just sort of reached a point where I was having a harder time breaking into the field and ended up going to film school, and did some video editing afterwards.
I think I went into a PlayStation 2 game I worked on initially. I took character animation program, not even visual effects, but after the funding on the game I was working on got pulled I ended up heading into television visual effects initially on shows like Andromeda and Stargate, and then wound up in feature films and commercials. You know, it was never anything, any specific software, even necessarily any specific field.
Initially I was just whatever I could get my hands on workwise. It could be prints. Maybe it was video editing. Maybe it was bits of after effects and then rolling into computer animation, but I always wanted to get into actual 3D animation whether film or a video-game, whatever the medium. - [Rob] What was the very first 3D animation project that you did? Either a commercial or otherwise.
- Business or otherwise, but personal as well? - [Rob] Yeah, exactly. - I think it was, let's see, I was using a program called Ray Dream Studio, and I was trying to build an entire goblin village. I didn't understand that the computer would have limitations that it wouldn't be able to handle. I didn't understand even the paradigm of cameras and sets that you would just build what you needed for this camer-ing.
I just set about building the entire world that all these goblins lived on, and a little island and the mountains, and the computer just got slower and slower. I had a blast doing it. I have the images somewhere. The water wouldn't render so there was just sort of these flying boats going around. The key frames all got corrupted and I remember arms spinning like pinwheels.
I didn't understand even -- I think literally like eyes were just pushed through spears in the head because I didn't know what I was doing modeling it all, but I had fun. - Tell me a little about the Embassy and where you've been working? - Sure, well the Embassy I've been at, I think, four or five years now, I'm not sure. It's a good sign that I can't actually remember exactly how long, I'm enjoying it there. The Embassy is a smaller visual effects company compared to some of the bigger shops that have been moving into Vancouver over the years.
- [Rob] How many people? - I think roughly -- I don't know of the top of my head, but I'd say between 25 to 35 people would be my rough estimate. - Is that counting freelancers or is that full-time staff? - I think about 20 to 25 full-time staff, I believe, and like lots of places, you know, it ramps up and down slightly, but not massively. It's got a pretty core group of staff there that have been there for years, and yeah, it's a cool shop. - Why don't we start off by having you walk through the Houdini project a little bit, and we can talk about, you know, who you are and where you came from.
- Yeah, so this started with a game called Katamari. I don't remember the full title of the game, but one of my son's games basically if I remember, it's a very small, little person rolling a ball, - And you have to pick up junk. - all through the world. Everything sticks to it, and it goes to the scale and this is what I love about the game is that when you start off, I think, you know, you're just absolutely tiny, rolling along picking up paper-clips and what-not, and in the same level you might end up rolling over and picking up nuclear submarines in the ocean.
I've just never seen that scale in a game, so I wanted to try to figure out how to make a Katamari ball in Houdini without using any dynamics, without using any -- Just using math, just using as a way to understand matrix math. The initial experiment was just a ball rolling along, and my son who's nine years old thought it would be great if it was a chocolate ice-cream cone gathering sprinkles, and that maybe it could be a factory and there was something in the hood at the top that was making it roll along.
It's simple, you know, it's no fancy rendering, it's just GEO, but it's industrial scaled dynamic parenting of on mass by the thousand that runs quick and -- - [Ron] It runs very quick actually - [Mike] And no dynamics, just the GEO capture on disk, but yeah, that's that guy there. Let's turn everything off to begin with and I'll sort of run through how the process I did putting it together, if you like.
- [Rob] Absolutely. - [Mike] Just start off in Houdini, quickly model together just a simple, simple box, gave it a color, and some of the nice controls in here with Houdini is when I'm using Houdini I don't do a lot of scripting even. I know there's a lot of very technical Houdini users, but with myself it's mostly expressions. I keep things as simple as I can giving things like a Y minimum, so I'm able to change the actual scale, and it's all that's going to stay on the ground for me.
Then the ice-cream cone I wanted to have it always as it was actually rolling along I wanted it to be rolling in the direction it was going. This little guy I just drew a simple path for it to roll along here. In Houdini there's a little carve stop here that over time -- - [Rob] Excellent, just revealing the slider. - [Mike] It's just delete along the length of the curve here and that's what I used for my timing of my animation, so the path in the animation is sided separately, and broke that into a bunch of points, and I'm getting just directional on the path, grabbing a normal for that, so I'm basically just putting normals along the actual length of the curve, and then on the other side here just grabbing a rest position for the sphere where it is in the scene before it moves.
A little bit of technical stuff in here. It's basically just this node here, just for the roll of the ball, and this nasty mean expression which I literally just looked up on the Net, and this gave me the rotating of the -- Just give it the right amount of rotation. - [Rob] Based on the circumference of the object. - [Mike] Circumference of the object, exactly, which I'm grabbing and then this little arc length which just grabs the length of the curve.
- [Rob] Excellent. - [Mike] The nice thing is I can scribble any curve in or any animation and the ball will happily keep rolling. - [Rob] Excellent. - You can see the ball is rolling along here and properly rotating. Then for the dynamic parenting of all the little sprinkles, I just added an attribute which stores on -- Where are we here, the details view, you can see it just basically knows what frame. All of the points have a little attribute.
Then I transfer that attribute onto the sprinkles, so at the frame that the ball rolls onto a sprinkle and runs into it it transfers a certain little distance away from the ball where it's just always transferring onto the sprinkles if they're close enough, and it transfers on that frame and goes frame 48. - [Rob] So it's behaving like a constraint tag would, so in a character rig, for example, where you have a character pick up a cup, and you transfer the position on this frame to the cup on the next frame. - Exactly, yeah, and if I change my animation it's just reading based on the distance.
- [Rob] Excellent, and then how are the sprinkles being generated themselves? Are they placed onto the surface with a (mumbling) or? - [Mike] This one is just a straight scatter, but basically I'm just grabbing the top sheet of all the polygons here. So here it comes in as a -- Just bring in the slab itself, just grab the top polygons, scatter a certain number of points over the whole thing, 1,500 in this case. Give them IDs so I can have something constant to delete against, so I don't have to worry about changing point counts as it goes.
- [Rob] Right. - And this is something I do like about Houdini in here is I can do things. I go in and bypass up the chain here and go for troubleshooting and see, okay, well there's the effect of just my random rotations. - That's one of the interesting things about that I find about Houdini and Nuke as well, is the idea of nodes. I've spent most of my professional life working in layers as the metaphor, and nodes are coming on strong in terms of just the ideology behind them.
- Yeah, and I notice this -- I'm not a compositor myself. I can fumble my way through Nuke, but I always find it neat when you're looking over the shoulder of someone using a node based program, whatever it is, is that everyone's flow of their scene file is different and it's sort of a nice map for people having an option to think how they will. None of us think the same. People's scene files will be really different. For me, I like my little color schemes here, and these mean something for me.
Other people that's not going to be their thing. The key is basically right here. I have a delete node here that's deleting all of the pieces that have their attribute of the frame number. I'm asking it "Please delete all the pieces "whose attribute is not the current frame number." which is frame 66.
If I turn off that bypass and I jump back here we can see it's just the pieces are just close enough to the ball for me to just deal with those guys separately. Then what I do is those rest attributes that I stored way, way earlier on how is the ball moved both in position and rotation, and this is where I wanted to learn -- Because I don't use any dynamics here, is I wanted to learn what is the math using these things called matrices which I didn't pay enough attention at school to learn at the time, but what you can do with those is you can reverse that, so if you imagine the balls rolling along that I can take at the moment that it would touch and I want to attach it than I can go take the ball, take off its rotation, send it back to the origin of the scene, and take the litte bits that I want to stick to it, and put them where they would be if the ball was just at the origin and not moving at all.
What that allows me to do is I've then parented -- I can have motion that's moved the piece to where the ball is without a rotation applied, and when I reapply the motion and rotation now it's going to go with the ball continuously, so that's the base of the effect. Everything else is just -- I'll bring the final one up here again.
But the effect, because it doesn't use any dynamics, it's just using that understanding of the math, and how to remove and add back on rotations and everything and dealing with it all on a per piece basis that could be, you know, 50,000 polygon cars instead rolling onto -- It doesn't care that it's a ball. It could be a skyscraper or who knows, whatever the shot called for, and it doesn't care, wouldn't care if the train was, you know, it doesn't have to be a flat grid or anything, and yeah, it's just another little technique or trick and, you know, I did this for fun at home, just to try to solve a problem, but I'm sure it usually seems within six months or a year some project will come up, this will solve some part that I would not have time at work to, you know, R&D without knowing how long it would take or if I could solve the problem.
I find this stuff really useful to just keep playing. - At what point in your career did you make the transition to doing exclusively animation for BFX and for commercials or theatrical? - That was probably season four of Andromeda, so after the video-game got cancelled with Ubisoft, a friend of mine was working on the in-house visual effects team at Andromeda, and got a job there and needed to learn the whole visual effects language and everything very quickly.
- [Rob] Sure, what was the pipeline that they were using at the time? - We were using LightWave almost primarily there. I think a lot of the assets, the ships, and everything were already in there, and LightWave at the time had a long pedigree of visual effect sea shows. A neat thing pipeline wise on a show like that, and I think this is rather unique to an in-house visual effects team is literally the creative process would be -- We would read the paragraph in a script that what they were looking for for what that visual effects shot could be, and there wasn't even an edit of the show yet, so we didn't even have - We got to decide even how long the shots might be and I think that's really unique, so I just had to fill the idea from a paragraph of, you know, around the corner in the building might be the writer, or one of the producers of the show, and so we were really nicely involved and then you just needed to fill in that part right to sometimes even bypassing storyboards to just rough animetics right in the computer.
- So normally in the BFX process you would start off like you would start right off with the script and then go into storyboarding phase, so you guys would even bypass that completely sometimes? - Yeah, for these science fiction shows we often already had the assets of either the ships or maybe a recurring set, so we could block in the actual shots, and even sometimes it would -- Because this might happen before even shooting would go on that it gave them an idea for when they did go to camera of maybe how this could flow.
Maybe after they would see the -- If we got there early enough sometimes we might have an animatic of a fight sequence of the show and they might be able to then go film some extra cutaways to make it more exciting to bouncing back and to reaction shots and stuff like that. While it is always nice to have storyboards, there's also something nice and fluid if very basic rough animatics you can get in there. - So much of the time when you're working in visual effects you're starting literally from nothing.
Sometimes you don't even have a plate to work from you have to do something completely CG, but to have a list of assets already available to you on a show like that must be an interesting situation. - You also have a bit of a vocabulary visually from, okay, you're on season four, and this is some of the things they like to do. - [Rob] The ships are supposed to look like this and the set looks like this because they've had this battle and there's scars on the -- - Yeah. - The transition from doing the game stuff to the visual effects work that would have been about 2000? - Either 2000 or 2001, yeah.
- [Rob] That was right about the time the digital revolution was really taking off. People had been able to do work on computers for about a decade already at that point, but it wasn't really readily available, so how did that sort of blossoming of technology happen around that time? How did that affect the work that you guys were doing? - That's a good point. I think at the time they were just starting to realize and start asking for a lot more even in the television world.
I still remember, I think even in Andromeda the effects might have been done at standard definition. I don't think we were even into high-def yet or anything like that. It might even have still been film scans, if I remember, but things like ... It started to become even in television actually cost-effective to do 3D tracking of shots to start unlocking those visual effects. Okay, it's a static camera here comes a visual effect and moving into an effect that needed to take place on something static, moving camera and moving actor, an effect done to the actor on a TV budget.
It was just moving a lot of the ideas from film actually breaking into television, but I think with the neat addition in television there was often an understanding that everyone realizes, you know, we are in lower budgets here and that you can have a bit more fun with it. It didn't need to hit that standard of, you know, "Jurassic Park" or what have you. It felt to me that there was a lot of shows that had a lot more playful visual effects than what you'd be seeing in film.
People were just excited to have -- Let's just do it, let's just try it and the audiences enjoyed it. - [Rob] They felt lucky to be seeing that. - Yeah. - It's changed a lot now though because the people come to expect the same level of quality on television that they see in the theatre. How is that, because that's got to be putting some pressure on you guys to deliver? - Oh for sure, I mean there's just incredible television work being done out there, and, again, with the rise of the kind of cameras that they're able to have on television sets now, and everything, of course, in high definition or recorded even beyond that and downsampled down with.
- Has there ever been a time where you've worked on a shot and couldn't get there? - I used to base it on how many revisions that I have to go through for a shot, and that was my success rate, but sometimes I realize maybe a given client that their journey of they're not sure at the beginning of where they want it to end up, and they needed to see more actual different versions to go through and then they may be absolutely thrilled with what they had as an end result, but in the past I might think, "Oh well, I only got there with them "on the 10th revison, so I've failed, "I've wasted time and money," let's say, but they may be very happy with that result and there's where they needed to go.
Another client may very much know, right off the bat this is what they're going for, their notes one after the other are logically progressing to that result of what they want and for me that's wonderful when you have that, but I still think it's a two-way communication that I need to be able to be receptive for them to do that, and they need to know what they want too. - When you guys are first getting a job, and the client walks in the door with a script, can you describe the process that you'll go through, so from the script all the way through to delivery.
- Okay, sure, I might do -- Do you mind if I do a commercial opposed to a film. - [Rob] Absolutely. - Let's see, when I think back to the smashing gas pump commercial. - [Rob] That was a Hyundai spot, right? - I think it was a Hyundai spot if I recall. So in that process we have the visual effects company, and we also have the client being Hyundai, but then there's also an agency involved in that triangle as well, and either we will be pitching the idea of here's our idea for selling your product, in this case the car.
They have a specific car they're wanting to sell. I don't remember if we were the ones that came up with the smashing glass concept. I believe in this case it would be the agency, and then we need to come up with I believe in this scenario we were involved with pitching ideas and everything on how the actual commercial would be shot which was pretty cool because you have a chance to maybe even go in and, again, through animetic storyboard how this could all look as a final product before even one camera has been set up.
- [Rob] Fantastic, does that happen often for commercials that is? - For commercials much more often, yeah, and I mean you have so little time with commercials as well to shoot them and there can be very quick turnarounds. Sometimes on the visual effects side maybe as short as three weeks beginning to end and yeah, it can go quickly. So, yeah, from animetic trying to rough it out as much as we can on the computer, and because of the way the Embassy is, you know, we have a small enough shop that a lot of us wear a lot of hats, you know, we're not just strictly, okay this person is, you know, an animator and that's all they will ever do.
They will have that speciality for sure, but, you know, many of us have various tasks that we can take on as needed for a given project, so in this case as the animetic is being put together we're trying to take guesses of what assets we're going to need and try to have everything going parallel because we don't have time to do one step, then the next step, and the next step, so modeling is being roughed together even as the animetics. I'm prototyping, let's say, a dynamic system for making guesses of, okay, I'm not even sure what camera angles we're going to be doing yet, but can I make something really fast, really maneuverable for smashing these gas pumps.
We don't even have the design for the gas pump finalized yet. I don't know how tight or how wide we're going to be. Are we going to have hundreds of them or just two, so you need to stay really, really flexible and be really comfortable with things changing, and just not take it personally. Then once everything, you know, off they go to shoot it then and when the footage comes back we all start tracking it madly as quickly as we can because the faster we can get the shots tracked, then the faster we can get temps of the effect in there.
We try to render roughly lit, gray shaded version of the commercial as early as possible because in parallel as soon as we have a shot tracked then, of course, the compositors are in there trying to clean it up if they have to do any keying or a lot of roto just for separating elements cleanly. If we can get them, even a rough CG element of a gray gas pump falling over in this shot than they know where to focus their roto, they know where to focus their keying.
Problems can come up early. We find out what renders slowly, so it's strange. I mean attritionally its, you know, very much A than B than C than D, but if your pipeline gets compressed enough than you kind of want to try to get everything as parallel as possible. - So now you're working in parallel and about how many people, you know, let's take that Hyundai spot again, you've got 25 staff on hand, but you guys don't work on all one project at a time, there's overlaps.
- No, definitely overlap. Of course with how competitive visual effects are these days as well, I mean you can't have staff sitting there idle as well, so sometimes you need to take on a bit more than you might be comfortable with, but that's the world we live in, so you may have a bit more parallel going on than you would hope for, or it could be something as simple as let's say you do bid on a project and you get the contract, but then they have delays, so maybe their shooting ends up going a month later than you're expected, but it's a good piece of work to do, but now you have two projects going on at the same time or another one finishing.
Yeah, so there can be some good juggling. - Let's talk a little bit about you as an artist. Do you create work outside of your full-time gig? - I do, not as much as I should, and that's actually something I was thinking of, just with this interview and everything, and just about how important I think it is to make sure to keep working on things outside of your workplace, or when you're in the industry. I think it keeps things more creative and it can be a playful place where you don't have that pressure of immediately needing to go for the goal of specifically what the client is after.
I find even just putting together this little scene just when you don't have a specific goal right away and you can just sort of follow your own instincts and build your own workflows and start, you know, developing a relationship with the tools that you're interested in specifically because, you know, you do enjoy them. Probably before all the computer stuff what I got into initially and I'm not great at it, but I do enjoy it, is Stop Motion Animation.
- [Rob] Fantastic. - It involves the computers a bit these days with the recording and editing of everything, but yeah, I mean my wife has a bachelor in fine arts, and my father-in-law is a potter and does a lot of clay sculpture. I do envy how much enjoyment they get out of just producing outside of the workplace sometimes, so yeah, that's something I'm trying to get back into more even if it's just a simple thing of just doing some sketches if I'm having a cup of coffee, and for myself I am a bit intimated by my fine arts skills compared to my wife and I have some very talented friends on the fine arts side, but that's not what it's about.
It's for your own enjoyment and advancement and whatever, wherever it is that you're at, so I'm trying to get more involved with doing my own projects because that excitement carries through into work I find. It's crossed now I think with the movie industry getting so huge between, you know, where I think initially it was, you know, smaller groups of artists working on things, wearing a lot of hats to, it's moving a lot to almost crafts people, if you were, like so many teams are so huge that I sometimes feel I would never want the role of someone that's the -- I used to make the joke of someone has the role of making -- They're the deciduous leaf maker.
I never want the field to go that specialized. - [Rob] Sure - That would be scary. - Do you feel like it actually could go that specialized because I get the sense that we're heading into a period where that niche workflow is sort of breaking up a little bit where people are becoming it's kind of more bring your own software, bring your own hardware kind of world in where people are being asked to, artists are being asked to do more and more different parts of the job. - Yeah, I hope that the software makers will save us from that world of the software because, you know, each new grand blockbuster, or not necessarily blockbuster, it could be a smaller, more independent film, but everyone keeps raising the bar in terms of what can be done with visual effects, and as we're asked to do more if the tools don't get also that much more capable I think there's the danger of us getting that excessively specialized that you would need such a grand number of people to work on a film that you might have someone that's just working on feathers folding back and forth for years, rather than, you know, having more creativity and what have you.
- It seems like that massive workflow is already, you know, coming into play. You know I went and saw "Guardians of the Galaxy" over the weekend and there were literally hundreds of people listed at the end of that movie, hundreds, and you know, it's virtually impossible to get a movie of that scale done without that many people and I'm not sure if I necessarily see it changing like that to where, you know, one person could even think of taking on a project of that size or even a hundred people.
- Well that's right, I hope the software or tools or also the techniques that people use can evolve enough to keep pace with the challenges of what people are asking for from visual effects that it can stay a creative role for a lot of the people working on the films. That's my hope.
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