Personal

Vikings

Some good news.  Since October I've been working on a new show called 'Vikings' that airs on The History Channel.  The early ratings are in, and it looks like the premiere episode did pretty well.  I'm hoping that it gets picked up for another season.  I've been lucky to be part of a great team with some old friends.

FX Guide Article-Halo:Forward Unto Dawn

It's always nice when something you worked on gets a little write up.  This article on FXGuide.com talks about the work that was done at Arc Productions on Halo: Forward Unto Dawn.  That project was easily one of the most pleasurable shows that I've worked on in the last ten years.  There was very little overtime (actually... I'm not even sure if I did any OT), all the supervisors/leads were cool, and the work itself was lots of fun.

All too often a show can slip into 'disaster mode', when it feels like you're lurching from one problem to another.  This show wasn't like that, and it was a pleasure to work on.  Not to mention they left my name on the watermarks so I can show my family.

How flunking out of animation at Sheridan was the best thing that ever happened to me

Back in the early to mid 90’s, animated movies were hot.  Disney had just come out with a string of hits, each one was bigger than the last.  Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and then the biggest of them all, The Lion King.  At the time, The Lion King made $300 million at the domestic box office, which would be huge today, let alone back in 1995.  Animation was a big deal, and Disney’s success was noticed by every major studio.  As a result, lots of other studios started opening up Animation departments, including Warner Brothers and Fox.  

Anyone who could animate was being recruited by these big studios.  It was at that time when I was accepted to Sheridan College, for their animation program.

For me, this was a huge deal, the biggest thing that could have happened in my life.  I had spent an extra year in high school to work on my art portfolio.  I figured at the time that I could have taken an art fundamentals course, but my high school’s art program wasn’t bad, so I stayed an extra year to save the cash.  If my plan wouldn’t have worked, if I didn’t get into Sheridan, then it would have been a waste of a year, and a huge embarrassment to stay in high school so long.

At the time, there were only two animation schools in North America that had any type of reputation.  One was Cal Arts, which was on the other side of the continent, and Sheridan College, which was a 30 minute drive from my house in Brampton.

When I was accepted, I vowed to work as hard as I could.  I knew that this was it, my chance to reach my dreams, my ticket out.  I put everything I had into it.  I worked around the clock, I give it my all.

I flunked out at the end of my second year.

I was crushed.  Absolutely floored.

For years after, I had a well crafted list of excuses as to why I failed out.  All the good teachers left, snapped up by a hungry industry that needed animators.  Why would an awesome animator stay at a college in Oakville Ontario when they could be animating the next big thing at Disney?  The teachers that were there, didn’t care.  They would accept 120 students knowing that they would cull it down to about 40 or 30 at the end.  Instead of teaching, they mostly just gave out assignments and if you passed, great, and if you didn’t, then tough.  I had several different explanations that I would tell my parents, my friends and myself.

A few months ago, I was clearing out space in my closet, and I found a lot of my old work.  Looking at it with fresh eyes, the truth hit me like a ton of bricks.  I just wasn’t that good.

After I failed, I was back at home with no prospects, no job, no anything.  I was very frustrated, very angry, and had nothing going on in my life.  I went to an employment agency, and would show up at whatever menial job they were handing out that day.  That’s when things got real, really quick.

I worked at a steel mill/machine shop, punching inch thick steel plates all day.

I showed up to a food processing plant, and I unloaded their trucks all day.  The best story from there was the truck full of lamb carcasses that I had to unload.  By the end of the day I was covered in lamb’s blood, and got several odd looks on the bus ride home.

I worked at another steel shop.  A guy showed me how to shave down a centimetre long screw with this huge milling machine.  It was comical, this huge machine would have to be fired up to shave the top of this teeny-tiny screw.  It would take about a minute to do one screw.  I had hundreds, if not thousands of screws to shave down.  That was a very long, very boring day.

There was a place called Polybottle, which made and recycled plastic bottles.  I think I saw about 16 fires from the faulty machines in the 8 weeks I was there.

All the while that I was working in those places, I felt ‘the fear’.  I was thinking that this is it, this is my life.  I was petrified.  I was no stranger to working hard, or working manual labour.  I had worked jobs all through high school.  But this was different.  These jobs were rougher, tougher, and I couldn’t really see any way out.  I had vague plans for my future.  In the back of my mind, I thought maybe I could go back to Sheridan for TV and Film.  But I wasn’t really looking into it.  I was mostly just trying to get a better dead-end job than the one I was currently in.

It was my mother’s constant reminders, that I started looking into the TV and Film program.  To my shock, the due date for the application and portfolio was the next week.  I snapped into action, and frantically assembled a portfolio.  To my relief, a few months later I got the news that I was accepted.

When I got back into Sheridan, I was a different guy.  I had worked hard before, but now I was focused.  I was driven.  I was also very scared.  For me, I was thinking that this was my last, best shot at building a career for myself.  I was now 23 and would be 26 when I finished.  At the time, I was thinking that I was too old to start fresh if this was another failure.

Luckily, this story has (so far) had a happier ending.  I did well in TV and Film.  It had a small visual effects component to the program, which was enough to build a demo reel.  With that demo reel I was able to find a job as a junior compositor, and have been working in the industry ever since.  Once I started working, I heard of a teacher’s assistant position at Seneca, which turned into a teaching job, which turned into a coordinator’s job.  I’ve been lucky.

But something that has stuck with me through the years is the memory of the frustration, aimlessness and anger that I had through those rough times.  The feeling that I had nothing to offer any company.  I firmly believe that it was my failure at Sheridan that fuelled me in the years that followed.  The first time you meet someone at a party, unavoidably one of the subjects that’s brought up is ‘so what do you do?’  I clearly remember the feeling I had when I had nothing good to answer that question with.  It doesn’t feel good, and that feeling still drives me to this day.  

Update

Maintaining a blog is much harder than it sounds.  It's been almost a year since my last post, which is horrible.

A few updates:

Things at the school have been better than ever.  The latest class graduated about a month ago and produced awesome work.  I've started working on the You Tube video of their work, which should come out in late August.

I finished up a contract at Arc Productions, working on a movie called 'Little Boy'.  I'll be going back there for another project in July.

A few months ago I became one of the first certified Nuke trainers in Canada.  In fact, I was the first one in Canada when I took my final test, but I'm sure that there's probably many of them now.  If you know of anyone who needs a Nuke trainer, contact me.

Colour Correction

When I started compositing, colour correction seemed like a black art.  I would push and pull different controls until I would eventually get something that looked somewhat like what I wanted.  When I had spare time, I would open other artists’ scripts and I’d marvel at how they would colour correct a shot.  Every artists' technique was different - some would exclusively use curves.  Others would use levels/histograms, while others would use numeric inputs.  Looking at other artists' scripts would allow me to undertand their technique, but I was still clueless about their thought process - about why they did what they did. 

I fumbled around with colour correction over my first few years of compositing.  The first step towards understanding was reading Steve Wright and later, Ron Brinkmann’s compositing books.  They explained basic things like matching black and white levels and checking different colour channels. These details now seem obvious. However, at the time, gaining this understanding was like lifting a heavy vale from my eyes.

Understanding the different tools took time.  I had to learn that ‘gain’ really meant ‘multiply’, and ‘offset’ meant ‘add‘. I had to learn that there was a difference between these controls and between their impact on images. It took me some time to grasp that when you multiply images highlights are affected more than shadows.  Colour correction was one of those things that just took practice.  It was here that the ‘compositing is really visual math’ really started to click for me. 

Even now, whenever I submit a shot for review, I receive feedback about a necessary colour correction. There is definitely a certain level of subjectivity to colour correction: supervisors often have a different idea than I on how a shot should look.  However, I’m now usually much closer to the target than I used to be, and it only takes one or two iterations before everyone is satisfied.


These books contain great advice about how to approach colour correction.  Wright and Brinkmanns’ books are software independent, while Christiansen’s book is specific to After Effects.

Colour correction resources:

Steve Wright

After Effects Studio Techniques