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ANSWERS! John M. Levin - Community Interview

XD1 June 7, 2012 User blog:XD1
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Well, there was a lot more red tape to sort out than we anticipated, but the wait is finally over! Due to the unanticipated and overwhelming number of questions we received, it would have been impossible to ask all of them. This made it necessary to sort through and pick out some to try and represent a wide range of fan interest. The following are the Q/A we were able to touch on in the time we had allotted, questions in black, answers in bold blue:

Countmall

  • How did you get started in the industry? What was, when was, and how did you get your "break"?
  • My university didn't have a film production program, but rather a film theory and crticism program. It was always a pipe dream for me to think I could actually get a job in film. In 1997, a producer friend named Camille Geier, recommended me for a production assistant job at Pixar Animation Studios which is where I worked for the first year of my career. I worked there on Toy Story 2 and then left when an opportunity came up to work on the Star Wars prequels at Industrial Light and Magic. I started at ILM as a production assistant on the Phantom Menace in 1998. Around 2001, as a Production Coordinator, an Animation Supervisor I coordinated, Daniel Jeannette, planted the seed that I might actually be able to make the jump from production to artist. I really admired what the artists whom I was working with were doing and really wanted to make the switch to artist. I started using my lunch breaks to study up in our training department with an animator named David Sidley and a layout guy named Brian Cantwell, and about six months later, I had trained enough to get a job as an artist at ILM. In short, I was really lucky and I will never forget everyone who helped me along the way.



I"Maxiumus"d

  • For a person who does not have access to this vast technical suite and is limited in funds to create even a remedial workstation- How would you suggest a person who wants to enter the visual effects field start down the path in doing so?
  • That is a great question...the trick is the remedial workstation, as so many programs require increasingly more robust computers to complete the work. I would probably try and download student level editions or a learning edition of the major software out there that is used in visual effects companies, such as Nuke or Maya. These editions usually have restrictions such as exporting or rendering that make them impossible to use professionally. Use that to get familiar with the softwares and the workflows. I'd volunteer to work on-set of small independent movies, until you can work your way on-set to a major feature, by trolling wanted ads on Craig's List. Gnomon Workshop has some free tutorials,

Check out Maya through: http://usa.autodesk.com/maya/trial/

Check out Nuke here: http://www.thefoundry.co.uk/products/nuke/



007 Status

  • To do the visual effects for movies, what qualifications do you have to get at school?
  • Actually, none. You don't have to have a degree to do the work if you can do the work and put together a reel of work that illustrates that. You could in theory self-train and do it on your own. It kind of depends on what discipline you want to do. Some disciplines benefit from schooling and training...animation and technical directors. There are many great schools out there like Cal Arts, or Academy of Art schools. You could train online, or you go into a classroom. Or, if you are pressed for money, and really motivated, you could train yourself. Some of the best visual effects artists I know are completely without a visual effects or computing education.



Johnnybravo44

  • What is your favorite area of work to work in, like layout artist, digital artist or what?
  • Layout artists have this unique opportunity to create and bring iconic images to the screen that camera operators around the world rarely get. Some of the most memorable, and creative shots and camera moves are created at the layout level. These shots then often go out to set, with precise instructions and measurements of how to hit all the right marks. They come back into the visual effects pipeline and we can even further finesse and get everything just the way we want it. Its a great feeling to see the final shot up there on the screen and see how it turned out.



Gethralkin

  • Would you say that digital set design is simpler, or a lot more complicated, than standard set design? What software have you used for digital asset generation for the films you have worked on?
  • While digital set design can be very complicated, I think it gives us the ability and preview the shots and troubleshoot possible pitfalls early on. Often times a practical set will be built for weeks on end before the camera show up on set. Then, its too late to change things, and we'll have to figure out some tricky way of dealing with it in post-production with some sort of digital recreation of the set. Previewing shots in layout, you can cut many problems off at the start, create set pieces that work with the shot, and move things around at will. We do this largely in 3D animation packages similar to Maya. However, at ILM, we do it in our proprietary software called Zeno, which has won a number of technical achievement Oscars, and is very well suited to our needs.



Professor Tofty

  • Your filmography includes a lot of sci-fi and fantasy films, like "Avatar" and one of the "Harry Potter" films, but also some of a more realistic bent, such as "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "Rush Hour 3." In what ways would you say working on these types of films, in your like of work, is different, and in what way is it the same?
  • For the most part our approach is the same. We're always, generally, trying to make things look photo realistic, as if it were there in real life. Its always fun to bring impossible images to the screen in a realistic fashion...something that hasn't been seen before, or would be cost prohibitive otherwise. So the completely fantastical creatures and aliens, the 9 foot tall green Hulk's , the transforming robots, and the tentacle-bearded pirates are always a lot of fun. But we also have a lot of fun making effects that no one would ever realize is an effect, such as in The Avengers how virtually all of New York is completely done in visual effects, almost none of it was shot in New York. The fact that people won't realize that means we did our jobs right. But either way, we approach them pretty much the same way.



Neildown

  • What was your favorite movie to work on?
  • Great question, but hard to answer! Many films that I've worked on were not my favorite to watch, but were a ton of fun to work on. Still others are films that were breathtaking, but so painful to work on that I can't watch them without some bad flashbacks. Films like Avatar or The Avengers, Star Wars movies, were both fun to watch and fun to work on.



799272002

  • What movies were the most challenging films that you were a part of?
  • The most challenging, for a long time, were movies shot with anamorphic lenses. These are the movies that you see really wide aspect ratios on...typically 2.35 aspect ratios like all the Star Wars movies, or the Transformers movies. The lenses have a great deal of lens distortion inherent in them that make my job more difficult. But since about 2004 we've had that worked out pretty well. So now, stereographic, or 3D, movies have moved in as the most challenging aspect of visual effects for layout artists as not only do the effects need to work in the 2D screen space of the frame, a difficult task as is, but now they have to work in depth too. They need to feel like the effects that we may be inserting were shot with the rest of the surrounding plate, so getting them to line up in depth complicates things.



UndercoverGleek1

  • I admire you John, especially since you helped make Nightmare Before Christmas. Team Tim Burton! My question is what was it like working with some of the biggest people in hollywood and on some of the biggest movies ever (Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter 6, hopfully The Avengers)?
  • It is amazing sometimes to think how many huge films ILM has worked on, some of the all time biggest money makers, and that is really exciting to be apart of. When I was at school, discussing films with teachers and other students, I always wondered what it would be like to be able to witness some of the biggest filmmakers of our time practicing their crafts. We got some great opportunities to work up close with Joss Whedon on The Avengers, working close with Mark Ruffalo on capturing his facial expressions for the Hulk and it was incredible. The best thing about working here and in this business is to constantly be witnessing great talent and extremely creative people. People bring their films to ILM because they are looking for the best of the best and I can't help but feel proud to work among them.



Cåm

  • Over the last 10 years how has the industry come on in terms of visual effects? Has any particular innovation stood out to you or had an unexpected use?
  • Like I was mentioning before, the facial motion capture that we've been doing for the last decade or so, pitching to filmmakers like James Cameron, and most recently to Joss for The Avengers has changed visual effects tremendously. So has stereographic filmmaking. I don't think anyone would have predicted 15 years ago that 3D movies would be getting such interest. It was a natural progression, and the advent of home viewing on personal 3D televisions has helped that progress. We're seeing more and more virtual cinematography being used by filmmakers, such as Cameron in Avatar, and much as we used in Rango, and a bit on The Avengers, and I think that will increase in popularity and usage.



Johnnybravo44

  • I see you've worked with 3D in films before, what are your personal opinions on 3D in films?
  • About a year ago, I figured I've worked on enough 3D movies, probably three at that time, maybe its time to go out and buy a 3D television. So I picked one up and got it home, set it up, watched a Blu-ray copy of Avatar and was blown away that I could do that at home. I'm kind of interested in seeing what else really makes great use of the medium like that that. I never would have predicted the “gold rush” to 3D filmmaking that we've seen in the last few years. Yet, its made for some interesting new tools and I'm kind of interested to see how it develops. I'm working on some films right now, one of which is not the kind of film I would have predicted as ever being made in 3D, but, I think it may surprise audiences. James Cameron predicts that someday all movies will be made in 3D. While I can't quite imagine going to see Sense and Sensibilty in 3D, I wouldn't argue with him either.





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