Meet the Artist: Christopher Nichols


Christopher Nichols
Senior Technical Director
Sony Pictures Imageworks

Like many Artists in VFX, Christopher Nichols’ background came from an unrelated field. His undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Fine Arts from Colgate University. It was his Math background that first got him into CG that he used to visualize complex multi-dimensional space.

He then carried that interest in his graduate studies, where he got a Masters of Architecture from Rice University. His big passion in CG is in lighting. He has studied CG lighting both artistically and technically for a number of years, starting with architectural spaces, and carried through into VFX. He had studies Global Illumination techniques at an early stage, and has recently released two training DVDs on the subject that are available at the Gnomon Workshop. They are “Global Illunination: Exteriors,” and “Global Illuminations: Interiors,” and focus on Vray lighting techniques.

Christopher’s film credits include “The Day After Tomorrow”, “I, Robot”, and “Stealth,” which he worked on during his time at Digital Domain. Currently, he is a Senior Technical Director at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

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Hello Christopher.

I am wondering what your most challenging assignment has been and why?

Also, what types of shots make you cringe when you think of how difficult they may be to achieve?

Thanks for taking the time to do this Q&A. It’s one of the best features of CGTalk, in my opinion.


Hey Christopher!

How much does your education in math effect your VFX work? and what made you want to get into cg? Thanks!


Hello Christopher

Can I ask what’s your favourite 3d app?

Also What should we the students who’s interested in the VFX field be aware or concerned about? in terms of breaking in

and finally, how easy is it to break in the VFX field compared to other CG fields?

My questions might sound awkward, sryy about that :blush:

Hope you well and further success



Hey Christopher,

As someone with a heavy math and technical background, what has your experience been as you’ve transitioned to being both technically and artistically minded?

What type of path do you recommend for students and semi-pros who would eventually like to specialize in lighting and cinematography? I’ve heard that both of those fields of the industry are beginning to converge, has this been you observation?

Thanks so much for taking your time to answer our questions, the whole community really appreciates your willingness to talk with us!


Hello Christopher.

How many years are you doing the VFX ?

I just want to add, your work is really fantastic.



hey there i see that you worked on the day after tommorow. Im wondeing did u work on the big wave? If you did did they use mayas fluids stuff to create it or some in house software?


Hey Chris, just curious, what project are you working on here at Sony and what department you’re in? Also, got any details on what specific work you did on your previous films? Thanks and see ya round!


Hey Chris,
What are the three biggest problems that you as a director see in the noobs, fresh out of College? Aside from having a wicked portfolio, what can we as budding CG artists and animators do to get the job? Win contests? Get Degrees? Pray?:shrug:


any advice for people studing cg on there free time with the hopes of making it into the business?


Hey Chris,

I just thought I’d mention that it’s very inspiring to hear how you came from a totally unrelated field and then went to excel so well in cg! You are truly a master at what you do.

Take care!


I was wondering if you are at all interested in working on the animated films being made by Sony, in addition to VFX work.


Hey guys… Lots of questions… Sorry for the late response, I will try to answer some of your questions below one at a time.


Well challenge is hard one to answer because, due to the nature of what we do, every new challenge, becomes the most difficult one you have done. But I would have to say trying to actually get into the VFX world was one of the hardest things. Most of that is about knowing the right people, being at the right place, finding the right project, and combine that with some luck.

What makes me cringe? It may not be the answer you are looking for, but usually what I hate is when I am asked to do things that are unnatural (in terms of lighting). I want lighting to work the way lights do in the real world. I realize that on set, lighting is not very “natural” either, but it is more natural then what we are asked to do sometimes. I guess that is why I enjoy Global Illumination so much.


I don’t do much shader writing or programming mostly because I like sticking to the artistic side of things. But Math is a very powerful educational tool. It helps you breakdown problems, understand logic, debug issues, and most importantly, try to find the most efficient way of attacking a problem. I always found that the “art” in math was to find the most elegant way to solve the problem.

I got into CG because I was interested in visualization. This started with my math background and continued through my architecture career.


I read that VRay was used on the NIN video at DD with very few passes rendered for the final result. The other approach I’m aware of at DD is to render many passes and then build the image in the composite (using Nuke). I know that requirements change on a per-job basis, but do you think that renderers like VRay mean we will see less passes in the future?


I don’t really have a favorite app. I think I favor working in lighting, and when I do that, I love working with global illumination.

Getting into the VFX industry is a hard one to answer, as I am sure many have tried. It really has to do with luck. There are many things you can do to maximize your chances. Trying to be at the right place and the right time is one of them. The most important thing to be concerned about is your reel. Try to find the area you are most interested in and study that a lot: lighting, animation, modeling,
It is good to be well rounded, but being a specialist in one area is good too.


I have been doing CG for around 12 years, but I got into VFX in 2002.


Nope… Most of the work that I did on Day that you can see in the movie was modeling. There were a TON of buildings that needed to be modeled for that movie and I was part of that team. I then did some fun look development in lighting on the movie, but it never got used.

As far as I remember, the wave thing was done with proprietary software at DD. They have some pretty cool tools there. But I not part of that FX crew so I really can’t tell you much more about it.


Not sure how much Sony allows us to talk about work that is in progress… but maybe I can mention that it is the movie that involves a lot of fire.

What I did on films… let’s see on Day I was modeling and did some look devel. On Robot, I was one of the sequence lighting leads. On Stealth, I did lighting, and now at Sony I am doing lighting and composting.