Our VFX Supervisor in Montreal, James, tells us about setting up studios in Montreal and gives us some tips for mids and seniors looking to take the next step in their career!
Hi James. Can you start by telling me how you got into visual effects?
So my background is a little bit different in that I did a maths degree at Bath University, which was good and I had a good time there but I didn’t always love it so much. In my final year I was able to do a lot of computer science units instead of the maths units. From that I found my way into a course on computer graphics, which was quite theoretical. From that I was more interested and I asked my professor what this kind of thing could go into.
I then found a course at University of Kent doing a masters in visual effects, which was great! I learned a lot there and met some good people. Eventually I spent some time looking for a job and found my way into being a runner at The Mill and did that for a couple of months. Then I went to MPC as a Junior FX Artist, and my first film was Harry Potter 7. I stayed there for three years. Then I went to Vancouver with MPC to work on Godzilla and got the opportunity to go to Montreal and set up the MPC Montreal office. I was there for eight years, and I went to DNEG and had just over a year setting up DNEG Montreal office. I then moved to Outpost, to help set up Outpost Montreal!
What is it like to set up a Montreal studio from the ground up?
It’s really exciting and good opportunity to be there from the beginning and try have a bit of influence over not just the everyday processes but the culture, and trying to set it up in the way you want to do. You don’t always get the opportunity to do it but it's working well at Outpost! We’ve started at a good size, and we have the right projects. To begin the studio here, it’s a good variety of work. We’re setting things up well here. It can be hard, you have good days and bad days of course, but in general every week is a good week and you improve week by week. Communication and the time difference is always a challenge no matter where you are, but I think we are doing a good job here!
How different has it been at Outpost in this regard?
In some ways it’s quite similar. You’ve got the basics that you’ve got to set up everywhere. You’ve got to make sure that licences, and the render farm works and I think in that regard we’ve done a really good job setting that up! We’ve had the right people from the UK office over here, and to get us kickstarted. I think at Outpost we’ve been more open to new ideas, which is really refreshing.
It’s been great to be involved with the pipeline and have a little bit of input into the processes we are doing. Not all facilities would offer that. If you were just starting a new facility for another company you would just be straight in with their pipeline and just be transplanted in, and you sometimes lose the unique personality of that office and end up with all these cookie cutter offices, whereas I think Outpost Montreal has a good chance of being in the Outpost family but having its own unique little twist.
What have you enjoyed the most about working at Outpost so far?
I have enjoyed these first few months and setting up this place. It’s been a good opportunity to lead a project from the beginning and be on a project from day one. Normally I get thrown into a project two months after it starts and have to clear up some of the mess that's already happened! It’s been nice to be part of this project from the beginning. I’ve really enjoyed that. And with my new role getting more involved in the bidding and client bidding, it’s just been a really good opportunity.
How different is being VFX supervisor compared to your first roles in your career as effects TD etc?
So I was FX TD for about five or six years ad CG supe for over four years. I think it’s been a bit of transitional period in that it’s natural to gravitate back to what you know, so I’ve probably been a bit hands on with CG things and matchmove, you know things, I need to let go of... but there's a much more interesting side of the job, dealing with clients and the management of the project more than anything else. I still do miss doing shots occasionally, but there’s still a good opportunity here to get your hands dirty and take on a few shots here and there. I managed to take a couple of effects tasks and do a couple of layouts for the show as well!
What is your favourite discipline?
I’ve probably spent as much time as a CG Supe as I was a FX Artist, so I’ve seen every single part of the pipeline and I feel just as comfortable shot building – matchmove, layout, animation – as I do in FX. I’d like to think I can be a bit everywhere!
So you’re more generalist really?
Yes I think so now. With the nature of supervision you have to be a jack of all trades and try your hand at everything! I do like layout, shot building, and shot creation. I like the early part of shots; I like getting in there in the beginning and designing a layout for an area or environment, and that magic moment when you drop cameras into it and it all works out – that’s a really satisfying moment. In comp right at the end when you put the finishing touches on a shot, that’s satisfying as well when you’re working with clients, put the last touches on and they say "It’s really beautiful, love it", that’s a really satisfying moment as well.
You were originally working in London, what brought you to Montreal?
I always had a desire to travel and live abroad. It was going to happen on my University course but one reason or another I never got the opportunity to do that. So living abroad is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I had the opportunity to go to Vancouver from the UK to work on Godzilla. I had nine or ten months there. I never really fell in love with that city, but then I got the opportunity to go to Montreal. I was going to come originally as an FX lead, but I was given the opportunity to CG supervise X-Men: Days of Future Past – it was just kind of being in the right place at the right time.
Five years later I’m still in Montreal! It’s a great city, I really love it. It’s a great contrast of winter and summer, it feels like two cities: everyone hibernates in the winter and we go to cool little pubs with a relaxing time, and then in the summer everyone goes out into the streets and there are street festivals. I think because the winters are so harsh, people make a lot out of the summers, and it’s a really nice city to be in! I bought a house here now and I can see myself living here a while longer!
Are there any tips you’d give to an artist who is after the next step in their career, whether that is leading a department or becoming a supervisor etc?
I think if you’re at the point of considering management of VFX, rather than shot work, you’ve got to be interested in managing people. There are a lot of creative tasks on the job but there are a lot of people skills you have got to develop to move into those roles. I think if it’s something you’re generally interested in, and not just taking one shot, taking it through and making it the best shot in the world.
If you’ve got an interest in really having an overview of a whole film and how entire films and TV episodes are sculpted, made, from a high level, looking down on everything – just making sure the machinery is working together and reaching its goal – then definitely leading and supervising is a natural next step. But I’d also say it’s not necessarily a step that everyone has to take, I mean a lot of people try it out, be it leading or supervising, and realise they don’t like it. That’s absolutely fine as well. We need really talented seniors to do the best work. If you’re leading you won’t be doing as much shot work, that’s fine, that’s the career path you’re going to take. But if you try it and you don’t like it, there’s no problem in going back, putting your headphones on and being a really good senior!
Let's get into those quickfire questions now.
Dog or cat? Dog
Tea or coffee? Coffee, not a massive fan of hot drinks but coffee.
What’s one thing you always keep on your desk? I have always got a big stack of post-it notes and sharpies.
Sunrise or sunset? Sunrise
Are you a morning or evening person? Morning
Dark chocolate or milk chocolate? Dark
Star Wars or Star Trek? That’s a really tough one! I’m going to say Star Trek as it has better stories.
Fave movie? Depends on the mood I’m in. I’m really interested in good stories and I think Tarantino’s the best storyteller at the moment, so Pulp Fiction!
Fave book? I can’t remember the first book I’ve read. The Beach by Alex Garland, it was a book I read when I was backpacking and it always reminded me of good times.
iPhone or Android? Android!
What would be your superpower? To give electronic devices a full battery with the wave of my hand ,
Do you have any pets? Not at the moment but I’m going to get a dog later in the year I hope!
Favourite thing to relax? Playing a lot of PlayStation at the moment, it’s a good way to wind down.
What time will you go to bed tonight? I normally try to get to bed at about 11pm.
What are you currently learning? Gaffer and Katana, they’re one area of shots that I’m not as familiar with so I’m trying to learn a bit of Arnold, Katana and Gaffer
Crisps or chips? Fries as we’re in Canada!
Rice or pasta? Pasta
Bacon or sausage? Bacon - we don’t get proper Bacon here! I miss it! You get the thin streaky one that they just burn to a crisp.
Ninjas or pirates? Pirates
Facebook or Twitter? Can’t really be bothered with either! It used to be Facebook.
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