Meet the Artist: Christopher Nichols


hey chris,

i’m in the archviz field myself, kinda fell into it due to my geography (where i live there is no film industry but a heckuva lot of building and development so if you want a job as a digital artist, thats the sector you work in).

eventually i would like to get into a VFX role so i am curious how exactly you went about it. was it your hard surface/architectural modeling skills that got you in the door at DD? once ‘in’, was it easy to switch over into the lighting department?

was your portfolio purely archviz up to that point?

i have a quite a few big archviz projects behind me so am curious if a VFX employer would even consider someone with my background.



This is a hard one to answer… When I was in architecture I admired several peoples works (still do). In VFX, I admire some great artists, but not in the same way. I am not in awe with people, that is mainly because it takes a whole team of people to make something. So, I am in awe of that team. I am in awe of the NYC team, and the fur lighting team on King Kong for example.

Don’t know if that makes any sense. If you want names of people, I can talk about architects if you want…


As you may know, what your eyes see, and what the data is very different. I have found that this is one of the most difficult things to explain. The person that explained it the best is Dan Lemmon, who is now a sup at Weta… but he had cool charts and diagrams that makes so much sense.

Basically, in an oversimplified way, visually, half the light is not equal to have the value. But when dealing in linear space, you make it so that half the light IS half the light IS half the value so that everything gets added correctly, then add that curve back to it so that you can see it correctly.


Actually I focus mainly on photography and cinematography. My interest in GI push me that way. I like books such as this one:

SPI uses their own interface for renderman. This have their own package that they have used for many many years. As far as the Renderman for Maya… I don’t think that large sudios would use it that much as it is not as customizable as RAT.


Thanks for your answer chris !


I too was doing archviz in a place that had a lot of building and no VFX: Houston, Texas. I left there because I thought the sense of design that was being build at the time was… well pretty dull. I moved to LA hoping that I could get exposed to a higher sense of design. It also ended up being a good place to be around VFX and I met a lot of people that did it.

As far as convincing people that I could do it, I got lucky there. Two of the people that were involved in me getting hired were ex-architects. The one that recommended me, and the one that hired me. You will see that there are many ex-architects in VFX. They can quickly tell if the person is ready for VFX or not.

Oh and one last thing… If you have been in archviz for a while and make a good living going into VFX is a big risky jump. Your first job may not pay as well as you think, and you have to live with the fact that you will probably get laid off the moment the job is over (3 to 9 months for feature films). You just have to be OK with that and realize that your second job will be a LOT easier to find once you have your first one under your belt


Sup Chris!

Thanks for taking the time to stop by and answer some good q’s.

For some time now I have been learning alot about rendering and so on [XSI]. It kills to render using GI FG and all those killer options. I dont work in a studio were theres render farms or anything so its pricey to view good renders or try out new options to get good results. What do you suggest to learn at great speeds. I have been looking to get a new machine as well. Id like to hear some ideas on how to climb the latter as fast as i can or maybe you can recomend a graphic card and so on.



Oh you know… I don’t really deal with computers at work, and my home computer is pretty old. It is a 3 year old dual AMD 2600+… More important than the speed of the computer is the efficiency of the artists an the rendering engine. For example, that rendering under the freeway overpass was a pretty quick rendering all things considered. At 800x600 that took around 8 mins to render on my old computer… and that is without baking the lighting.


Hi Chris

My girlfriend is an interior designer student and is a huge fan of Zaha Hadid … she was wondering what you thought of her work.
And who is your favourite architectural designer … designers.
Love your renders awesome stuff !


The DVD is great - well structured, giving a good overview!


How do you think will rendering evolve in the next 10 years
and what is your fav architect and building?

keep them bouncing


Zaha’s work is great. I love her bold style. I got to meet her once. Interesting woman… I hear she is really hard to work for.

I have always liked some of the paper architects of the last 30 years. Architects like Lebbeus Woods and John Hejduk and Lars Lerup and Steven Holl. I love good design too, but I think I love some of the stories that are behind these amazing designs that never get built. Zaha has some of that too. It is a lot more interesting to think of architecture in that way than it is to think about spec office buildings and strip malls.

For those of you that don’t know who I am talking about… this is an example of Lebbeus Woods’ work:

As far as my favorite building, that is a harder one to answer. But I visited the Salk Institute not to long ago, and it has been a long time since a building inside the united states moved me like that. The Salk Institute is designed by Louis Kahn, arguably in my mind, the greatest american architect. I also never miss a chance to see the Arab Institute when I am in Paris designed by John Nouvel.


Hello Christopher

I’m new in the VFX world and everybody talk about that effect or the other effect but anybody talk about pay. I have a big curiosity about how much is the pay is such works, I hope some people like you that have travel for modeling to lighting and viz could tell me.
I’m talking about working on a place not freelance. How much hour per day, how much hour a week, how much is paying out there at a year.

Please fill this big gap that I have and sorry my poor english.

Thank you for your time.


at first thank you for your time.I am new in cg,I want to go univesity next year and I want to study Mathematics,is it good idea,can it help me in future? or is it good idea I am going to study software engineer or Fine Arts?
thank you.


I notice that you are in Iran. Is that where you would be going to school? I am not sure how it works there, but in the US we do not have to select a major until the middle of our second year. I was taking CS, Math, Fine Arts, Physics… not really knowing what I liked yet. The year and a half helped me make up my mind. Math is very helpful general way, not as much in a direct way such as medicine or law for example. I enjoy finding simple solutions to complex problems. Plus Math is a lot more visual than Computer Science.


Hi Christopher,

Quick question, will you bother coming up with an other Dvd covering characters lighting, Fluids and Atmospherics lighting ? I’m sure lots of us would really appreciate if in there you’d share with us more of your experience with movies like TDAT, or even IRobots, which were involving many animated cg elements. I really found your previous Dvds interresting and educational, but I’m craving for tips and tricks that would cover the topics I previously mentionned.

thanks for your time,

Adriano Zanetti



As I know, by looking at your work, one of the best cg lighters I’ve ever found.
I’m an intermediate 3d modeler and wanna ask you something abt,
You’re a 3d lighter and you have done it in several applications (ex. max, maya). That means if some one’s doing 3d,if he wants to be skilled in one area, he doesn’t have to stick to one programe to specialize on something (modeling, lighting, animation) like the way you do lighting (interior, exterior,gi etc.) in different softwares. IS that the way you’ve become a master 3d lighter ???



Hello Christopher,

I would like to know more about your education as an architect and how it influenced your work in the VFX field.
I am not really familiar with the high education system in the USA, so if I may ask exactly how many years have you spent studying math and how many studying architecture.
How wide was your education as an architect, was it concentrated solely on the design aspect or had it touched the technical aspect like structural engineering?
I am studying architecture myself, you can only guess in what context judging by the location below my avatar. I am currently on my second year with three more to go, and I am covering stuff like structural engineering, city planning, a lot of technical stuff (which is mostly outdated) and some theory that I don’t really find that interesting.

So do you feel that you’ve lost something by studying architecture, that maybe it would had been better spent by studying math some more, so maybe you could had explained the linear space issue better than Dan Lemmon (for example), or anything else for that matter that might have helped you improve your work in the VFX field?

You’ve mentioned something about fire ratings on doors :slight_smile: that’s why I thought that there was certainly something you didn’t find interesting or useful in architecture, so I’d like to know how much there was to it.

I feel that I am wasting a lot of time studying architecture here. I really enjoy designing a house but what I enjoy even more is doing a 3d model and rendering it afterwards. I even enjoy thinking about the fact that someone should live there and that it should really be a house rather than a bunch of lines creating some concept sculpture thingy that looks cool but no one can actually use it (I consider this to be the emperors new suit).
But city planning, le Corbusier, the emphasis on boring, irrelevant and outdated stuff, banned usage of computers… I feel it could be better spent learning math, programming, improving drawing skills.

So, if even after getting my diploma as an architect, I decide to dedicate myself to VFX how severe a handicap will I have compared to someone who has dedicated himself completely to VFX much before me?


Yes… you constantly have to learn new software. In fact, many larger studios have their own rendering engines. Places like R+H, Blue Sky, PDI… even Sony Imageworks. While Sony uses renderman, they have their own interface to it so it is like learning new software. The most important thing to know is what lighting does and how it works rather then what settings to use. 3D software is the same thing. A place like PDI can’t expect people to knwo their software as that is the only place that uses it. On the other hand going from non-GI to GI lighting is a different challenge (artistically speaking) as people have to learn to light differently. They have to learn to light like it is in the real world.


Education is never a waste of time. It is up to you to take advantage of it. Lets take your example of city planning. I studied that too… think you would not use that in VFX? Think again. I has glad I had that skill when I was given the task of figuring out how to create cityscapes for New York on Day After Tomorrow. When they need someone to make generic buildings for a city shot, the one that can come up with it and design in a fast an believable way is the ex-architect. In terms of fire ratings on doors and stuff, that realization came when I was working as an architect not when I was in school. Another important thing that school teaching you is not what it teaches you, but that you learn how to learn. After learning so many things, you became good at getting the important information and figuring out how to digest it.


I’d like to give a huge thanks to Chris for his generous participation in this thread :thumbsup: