I’m a Visual Effects programmer motherfucker!
I grew up in a small town somewhere in bumblefuck Illinois. Far from the glitz and glam of Hollywood. Nothing but corn and horizon for as far as the eye can see.
Being from a small town has its perks. You learn about small business and how branding and customer satisfaction matters. Important lessons that directly apply to being a good technical director.
Because I wouldn’t own a computer until I was in my early 20’s my ability to progress was limited. My time was dependent on friends who had computers and their ability to not care that I only came over just so I could sit on the box for countless hours.
It wasn’t uncommon to find me at a friends house locked in a room sitting on a computer while everyone else was partying. A close friend of mine use to joke and call me “The illuminated face“. Because when you walked in a room you’d see my face illuminated by the CRT screen and nothing else.
Intro to Visual Effects
Back when Discovery Channel was actually worth watching I enjoyed the Movie Magic series.
I didn’t have a passion for film but the behind the scenes series was interesting. Especially later on when visual effects started to appear in episodes. I remember learning about Flubber, Titanic, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, to name a few. Some of the episodes that stood out the most for me covered Multiplicity, The Abyss, and Independence Day.
During my AOL days I was unknowingly introduced to VFX applications. I had utilized TrueSpace 2 and Lightwave for generating the splash screen graphics of my Visual Basic applications. I still remember watching the Movie Magic episode on Spawn and realizing the application I had used to create my craptasic art was the one used to generate Spawn’s cape.
Years later when I was walking into Digital Domain for the first time. I paused at the front doors and stood in quiet silence for a brief moment. Remembering the Movie Magic episode’s about Titanic and The 5th Element.
It begins with frag videos
Video editing was starting to come into its own with respect to the video gaming world. People creating music video styled highlight reels of their gameplay. Being the competitive person that I am, slapping together clips and fancy editing wouldn’t be enough for my videos. I had to do something more than the other guys.
Searching for something that would differentiate my videos from the hordes of others I stumbled upon a Quake map decompiler. I came up with the idea of importing maps into Maya as VRML data for the purpose of animating camera moves. The camera animation would be baked out as Quake scripts which would run during demo playback and capture. This would allow me to create smooth camera transitions between unrelated clips.
So I started teaching myself MEL and Maya. I created a user interface to facilitate the importing and exporting of data. Quake was Z up so the tools would rotate the game world so that I could animate in Y up. Then during export the camera would be flipped so the animation export was properly oriented to Quakes Z up.
And it all worked. The system performed as advertised. Only one problem though. I never released a single video!
I had become so entranced with the VFX world that I started to branch out into different aspects of it. Modeling, texturing, animation, lighting and rendering. I sucked horribly at it all but none of that mattered. I tossed aside the frag video idea and started to explore the fascinating world of VFX.
I joined the various community web forums CGTalk, VFXTalk, and XSIBase. The course had been entered into the nav computer and I was off to explore brave new worlds.
Teaching myself new things is something I’ve always been good at. I can even have an unhealthy level of drive when learning something new. So Failure is an expected part of the process and doesn’t affect me much. But as I started dabbling more and more into VFX I couldn’t deny one overwhelming bit of reality. I was horrible at the artistic stuff no matter how hard I tried.
The famous Colin’s Bear video was released around this time and I felt a deep kinship with the poor bastard. Hell maybe even some envy because that bear animation was better than anything I had ever done.
It was hard for my competitive nature to accept. I’m not use to losing or giving up. But holy crap I just couldn’t get better no matter how much I practiced!
I started to try and place blame for some of my failure on the applications themselves. If the application only had a tool that would allow me to do X, I would say. While it is true the applications at that time were much more limited then today even I knew it was a bullshit excuse.
2D is one less D this has gotta be easier right?
Eventually I realized that I wasn’t interested in the artistic aspect of VFX like I was in the technical side. Struggling with the artistry my programming side had become much stronger. I had already started playing with C/C++ during the frag video development but now I was looking into it more seriously.
I installed cracks for Shake and an early copy of Nuke when DD still owned it. 2d appealed to my nature. Especially because it didn’t depend on all the other disciplines to provide it with material to learn. You can use any image or video clip you find on the internet to start learning compositing. Unlike the poor guy who wants to learn 3d lighting but doesn’t have any geometry or decent textures/materials.
When I finally got my hands on a release of the Shake SDK is the moment things really kicked up a notch. I created a whole suite of plugins, 15-20 if I recall. And later when The Foundry acquired Nuke from Digital Domain I ported a number of the Shake plugins. The Nuke plugins would eventually come to be known as NFXPlugins.
I was sitting at my computer in an IRC chat room when a someone asked if anyone could write scripts for Nuke. I chimed in that I may be able to help and asked what the problem was. My TCL skills were still pretty limited but I was eager to help. The person said that they had a friend working at Digital Domain in the paint/roto department and were looking for a script to help with some paint work. In particular the request was for a hotkey which would floor the clone brush offset value in the Paint node so that it wouldn’t be sampling sub-pixels. Easy enough, so I whipped up a quick script in a few minutes and gave it to the person.
Someone then asked in chat which facility I was working at to which I replied “I cut peoples grass in Illinois“. This came as a surprise to the person as they had always thought I worked in the industry. I mean when a nerd trolls IRC all day and speaks the lingo it’s not hard to see why. Soon I found myself in private messages talking to this person and to my disbelief I was being told that I could make a living creating tools like the one I just had. Yeah right!
Now I had always assumed that software nerds in the VFX industry were a bunch of John Carmacks. Little did I know that it is primarily made up of script kiddies just good enough to be dangerous. So I was a bit hesitant about what this person I only knew by way of the internet was telling me I could totally make a job of.
It’s a good thing I didn’t write off the advice and kindness shown that day. Because I didn’t know it at the time but the person I was chatting with would lead me to my first job and become a very good friend.
Houston we have liftoff
July 2008 I found myself in Los Angeles California. I had left Illinois with $1300 in cash, a borrowed suitcase, and a prayer.
After a couple of interviews at the end of July I received a phone call I’ll never forget. It’s the call everyone trying to break into the industry dreams of getting. The you have a job call.
Looking back the timing couldn’t have been better. My programming skills were at a place where I could show despite my lack of industry experience I was capable of performing the job. But more importantly, I had picked an application to specialize in that was taking the VFX industry by storm and studios were looking for anyone with experience. Thank you Apple for killing Shake!
It’s funny when I think about it all. I never really had a plan to end up in the film industry. And if you know me well enough you’d know I never really have a plan for anything. But I sure am glad to have arrived and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.