Ben Snow :: Meet the Artist


#1

Ben Snow
VFX Supervisor
Industrial Light & Magic

It’s a long way from a goat farm near Burra Creek outside Queanbeyan outside Canberra in the Capital Territory of Australia, to San Francisco, California USA.

From Canberra, to Star Trek: Generations, Casper, Twister, Mars Attacks!, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Deep Impact, The Mummy, Galaxy Quest, Pearl Harbor, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Van Helsing, King Kong, The Spiderwick Chronicles and now Iron Man.

For a extended version of this incredible journey, go to the Feature story on CGSociety.

To talk to the man himself, please feel free to post your questions and comments

Please make welcome to CGTalk’s Meet the Artist, Ben Snow.

#2

Hello Ben,

First off, thanks for taking the time to do this :slight_smile:

I’d like to ask, how early on do you tend to get involved with a project, especially where the vfx plays a huge role interacting with live actors?

I saw ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ last week, could you talk about that a bit please?

How often were you able to review the vfx as they were developing?

As a vfx supervisor, how much direct contact would you expect to have with a matte painter or concept artist, for example? Or would you pass instruction through the lead?

Do you advise and define the pipeline to be used, or is that a decision reached according to the whole team?

Thank you!

Felicity


#3
  1. How old are you and how long in this industry?
  2. How much do you work per day, and per week?
  3. Which books have influenced you the most and you have learned the most from ? Recomend any art related or programming ,whatever CG book that influenced you?

Asta la vista baby, keep rocking , we love you ILM :cool:


#4

Thanks for taking the time to answer these!!!

What do you enjoy most about your position at ILM and what do you dislike the most?

Thanks for doing this. Look forward to seeing some of your answers.


#5

Hi Ben ! Greetings from Italy !

I hope you’ll read these questions, because I’m really affascinated of computer graphic’s world, and I love all works by ILM.

  1. What makes a company like ILM great ?
  2. Which are the first problems making IRON MAN ?
  3. What the Computer Graphic’s Industry needs today ?
  4. Which is the thing that you prefer, in IRON MAN character ?

So, thank you again and more greetings from Italy !
Mark from Rome.


#6

Thanks for taking your time! I hope you have time to answer my 2 questions regarding working as a VFX supervisor.

What would you say is your main skill/talent. The one that allows you to do the work you do so well and make you feel comfortable in that position (which I assume you do). I guess that, at the level you work, it just got to be more than just experience?

What is the most common (or perhaps preferred) way to get to work as a vfx supervisor. Example, would you say that a CG background ranks higher than film background? I am trying to understand if this is more of a producer role or a visual effects artist role.

Thanks again,
Håkan Persson


#7

Hello Ben!
In your opinion, what would you personaly prefer to see in a vfx-heavy movie: graphics that are more artistic or more realistic?


#8

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the opportunity to ask a few questions. Here are mine:

  1. After transitioning from artist to supervisor did you miss actually doing shots?
  2. What are the big differences between ILM and Weta in terms of digital pipeline?
  3. Does ILM ramp up and down with every project or is the number of people working there quite constant?

cheers!


#9

Hi Ben,

A quick question, prior to leaving australia did you have any artistic interests besides being a film fan? Did you do any kind of traditional art or were you simply a fan trying to break into the industry that you love?

Also, how does one talk their way into an ILM party? haha


#10

Ben my question would be related to the final point in the article and that is specialization.

There seems to be a catch 22 of FX supervision in our industry and that is:

  1. It seems like most FX Supervisors are hired internally
    but
  2. The really big studios have a huge emphasis on specialization.

So what are your recommendations on how to stay generalized but also stand a chance of being employable. There isn’t exactly a “help wanted: VFX Supervisor” ad in the paper. Do companies such as ILM have positions which are more open to generalists to further develop towards supervision competancy almost like a pre-production team who experiment on a small scale?


#11

Hi Ben

My name’s Daniel, i’m from Venezuela and i’m currently training myself to be a proffesional animator in the near future.

2 things:

How did it felt the first time you went to SIGGRAPH?

Was it difficult for you to make the decision of traveling to another country to find and get a possition in this industry?

I am working very hard for being able to answer those questions myself,… but it would mean a lot to hear it from you, after knowing a bit of your professional life reading the article on CGSociety

thanks in advance!


#12

I’d like to ask, how early on do you tend to get involved with a project, especially where the vfx plays a huge role interacting with live actors?

It varies. Sometimes film-makers will approach us very early in the process before the script is final just to consult on the sort of things that are possible. We usually get involved in the projects before photography commences because its important to have someone supervising the plates on set to make sure we get what we need. In terms of the initial leads, for some projects a director or studio will approach the VFX company wanting to work with them. Other projects will come in through personal contacts. Most VFX companies have someone out there looking for projects – talking to the studios and film-makers trying to get work. Usually we’ll start with a round of bidding the project – working out how we’ll do it and how much the VFX will cost. It’s a very competitive business so everyone does a whole lot of upfront bidding these days. Sometimes we may try to do some artwork or test to help show our interest.

I saw ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ last week, could you talk about that a bit please?

I was only involved in the project during pre-production. The supervisor who started the show, Pablo Helman, was on set in Canada doing plate photography while the development of the various creatures was starting back here at ILM, and I supervised some of that early development for a few months. When Pablo returned I moved on to something else and in the end Tim Alexander joined the show when Pablo started Indy 4. During the time I was aboard we started the modeling, painting and look development of Thimbletack, the Sprites, the Boggart and Mulgarath. We some experimentation on skin. It was an interesting project because ILM contributed some of the creature designs including some rapid prototyping of the models (3D prototyping) and it was the first show to use a new facial animation tool I’d led some of the development on as an “overhead” technical project.

How often were you able to review the vfx as they were developing?

During shot production constantly. We look at shots every morning in dailies, and artists send me IMs with new versions pretty much constantly during the day. We visit each others desks and usually have a later afternoon check-in for stuff we think we’re ready to finish. We usually do a remote video hookup with the director (or he visits us) at least a couple of times a week to review and animation and shots in progress.

As a vfx supervisor, how much direct contact would you expect to have with a matte painter or concept artist, for example? Or would you pass instruction through the lead?

I’d expect to have direct contact at all times, but its great to have a lead you can trust and rely on to help share the load when you’re busy, contribute different ideas, and help out with technical issues one matte paintings etc. We’ve set up the systems here at ILM to try and make sure we have direct one-on-one contact with the artists as much as possible – its very important to me.

Do you advise and define the pipeline to be used, or is that a decision reached according to the whole team?

It’s a team effort but I have input. At ILM nowadays we have a fairly standard pipeline that we tweak per-show but generally work is focused on making the pipeline as good as it can be across the company.

Cheers

Ben.


#13

How old are you and how long in this industry?

I’m 44 and I got into the industry around 1989

How much do you work per day, and per week?

This varies, but to give a general answer, a 10 hour day during post is pretty standard. When you’re on-set filming with the crew and also attending dailies (which ideally you do as a VFX supe) and planning the next day that can pretty usually run to a 14 hour day. During crunch time you can end up working really long days, and sometimes 7 day weeks. ILM is pretty good at managing that stuff but really it depends on the artist and project. This is not a business with a 9-5 day, that’s for sure.

Which books have influenced you the most and you have learned the most from ? Recomend any art related or programming ,whatever CG book that influenced you?[color=white] [/color]
[color=white][/color]
[color=white]Hmm. The renderman companion was my favourite CG text, but biggest influences were probably more film-fan VFX centered books: Ray Harrhausen’s Film Fantasy Scrapbook, John Brosnan’s “Movie Magic”, “The Making of 2001” paperback. And then I read American Cinematographer, Cinefex, Cinefantastique and other magazines for every nugget on FX films and FX lore. “Film Art” by Bordwell and Thompson was a big influence, and I first off was a horror fan and had my initial interest in film piqued by a book called “Monsters of the Movies” and a glossy book called “Horror Movies” by Alan Frank. Of course that was back in the late 70s, early 80s – I’m sure there are some very good more dedicated books now. Although there seems to be a fair bit of dross as well. I was a big fan of Will Eisner’s Spirit comics, Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge, and the art of Dore.[/color]

[color=white] [/color]


#14

[color=white]What do you enjoy most about your position at ILM and what do you dislike the most?[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]It’s a great job. I work with some of the most talented people in the business. The artists have terrific support from the various departments, particularly production and a strong R&D team, and you never hear the words “It can’t be done”. We have over 30 years of experience and a surprising number of artists that have been here for all that time and whom you can get input and great stories from. We have a very nice campus here at the Presidio in San Francisco. The only real pain is the hours and the aggressive bidding we need to do to get the work – but that’s standard for the VFX business (see my answer to Felicity, above)[/color]


#15

[color=white][/color]

[color=white]What makes a company like ILM great ?[/color]

[color=white]The people who work here, artists, R&D and support people. Our history and experience are good to be able to draw on, we have some great tools and the ability to create more, but it is the ideas and artistic vision that are important, and I think we’ve got a lot of really good creative and technical minds here. Importantly, ‘though, we try to never lose the desire to make things better and make our shots more cool and spectacular. [/color]

[color=white]Which are the first problems making IRON MAN ?[/color]

[color=white]Making the suits look real and blend seamlessly with the real thing; working out how to make his flying and all his movements look very believable and still reflect the character of Robert Downey junior.[/color]

[color=white]Which is the thing that you prefer, in IRON MAN character.[/color]

I like Iron Man himself – because Robert Downey is inside him and brings so much to the role. My favourite suit is the Mark III red and gold.


#16

[color=white]What would you say is your main skill/talent. The one that allows you to do the work you do so well and make you feel comfortable in that position (which I assume you do). I guess that, at the level you work, it just got to be more than just experience?[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]Difficult to answer a question like this without feeling like a poseur. Probably my enthusiasm for the project and for making the work as good as it can be. Also constantly trying to improve my artistic eye and help the artists lift the artistry of their work. Trying to keep hands-on and know the tools. Organisational skills help.

What is the most common (or perhaps preferred) way to get to work as a vfx supervisor. Example, would you say that a CG background ranks higher than film background? I am trying to understand if this is more of a producer role or a visual effects artist role.[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]It’s more of a visual effects artist role. These days CG background ranks highly but many of the leading VFX supes have a good deal of film experience, and it is something you definitely need to make sure you get. You have to be able to talk technically as well as artistically with directors, D.P.s and editors to name a few so you definitely want to try and have as much knowledge of those areas as you can as well as what makes a digital shot look good.

[/color]


#17

[color=white]In your opinion, what would you personaly prefer to see in a vfx-heavy movie: graphics that are more artistic or more realistic?[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]Great question, Al Haitham! My ultimate goal is to make artistically strong, but still photo-real images. In the past, on many of the projects I’ve worked on its so hard to get the Twister or the Water or the creature looking real that it feels like there’s sometimes not enough time to work on the lighting and look to make it artistically as good as it can be. But you do your best. However, as tools improve and if you put enough work into look development up front, its getting easier to make a real looking first or second take. Then you can spend the time on making the shot cooler and more beautiful, although always, always in service of the story and the vision of the film-maker. We’re pushing our tools to get that first take quicker and better and then making sure we can have the ability to take them where we want to artistically. Either way, artistic or realistic, I like it to be in service of a story (although I’ll give Abstract film and the works of Peter Greenaway a pass on that score).[/color]

[color=white] [/color]


#18

Hi Ben,

thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.

This is a little self indulgent, so I’ll try and be as brief as possible.

At the moment (and for the last 8 years) I am working in the field of architectural visualisation. I am completely self taught, and over the years I have become well versed in many 3d and compositing applications (mainly cinema 4d, after effects and shake).

Having been obsessed with films from a very young age I have always wanted to work in film, but always thought it was out of my reach. However, I now think that I would have something to offer the VFX industry in the creation of digital environments.

Having gone through the ILM employment FAQ, I have decided to go back to University for a year, to gain a Masters in Digital Effects form Bournemouth University (it is the only UK based education establishment that ILM reccommends) with the hope of eventually gaining employment in the VFX industry… hopefully, specializing in digital environments.

To attain entry to Bournemouth University, I have created a showreel of my most recent work which hopefully displays my skills in CG…

It can be viewed at:

http://www.vimeo.com/1018478

(I’d be absolutely thrilled at the idea that a VFX supervisor at ILM had seen my work, but I realise you are very busy, so it’s not really necessary to view the video to answer my question)

Anyway, my question to you would be…

Should I go back to University to attain a qualification in Visual Effects in the hope of gaining emplyment in the industry, or would I be better served trying to get an internship in one of the VFX studios at the moment, in the hope that I will be able to develop my skills while working?

I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on this… thanks for taking the time to read this.

Chris McLaughlin


#19

[color=white]After transitioning from artist to supervisor did you miss actually doing shots?[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]Absolutely, but these days I try and do at least one shot on every show I do. On Ironman I lit a shot and created the BGs and TD’d many of the shots for test we did early on. I also did a couple of shots on Pirates 2 as a guest TD – its always good to keep your hand in as long as you maintain focus on the big picture that your first job is to supervise the other artists and help them.[/color]

[color=white]What are the big differences between ILM and Weta in terms of digital pipeline?[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]Both can change year to year and even sometimes show to show but basically ILM’s is centred around the proprietary zeno software which is used for a lot of our tasks including Matchmoving, Roto, lighting and creature work (muscles, skinning etc), and simulation. Weta’s pipeline, at least when I was working on Kong, is built in and around more off-the-shelf tools – so for example the lighting was in Maya but used special plugins to call the rendering.[/color]

[color=white]Does ILM ramp up and down with every project or is the number of people working there quite constant?[/color]

[color=white]We do a lot more ramping up and down and use more project-based people than we did during the 90s, but we try and keep a large core group constantly employed, so the ramping up and down is less marked than other facilities.[/color]


#20

[color=white]A quick question, prior to leaving australia did you have any artistic interests besides being a film fan? Did you do any kind of traditional art or were you simply a fan trying to break into the industry that you love?[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]I was basically a film fan, as well as a big reader, and a lot of my interests in other media grew out of a love of film. For example I mentioned liking Will Eisner’s Spirit comics in an earlier reply. That interest was stimulated by a splash page reprinted in a book on violence in the cinema where they cited Eisner as a comic artist with a great noir sensibility. When Kitchen Sink started reprinting his stuff in the 70’s and 80’s I felt like I’d hit the mother lode! As a medium film really embraces other artistic forms – design, painting, sculpture, writing, and Visual effects gives you a chance to employ each of those.

Also, how does one talk their way into an ILM party? Haha[/color]

[color=white] [/color]

[color=white]If it’s a big party co-sponsored by a software or systems vendor, tackle the sales rep you deal with and beg/bully/cajole/hit them up for tickets. Worked for me.[/color]