Meet the Artist :: Dan Kaufman


Dan Kaufman
VFX Supervisor
Image Engine

Dan Kaufman’s career has come a long way. A computer scientist, he has worked as an engineering as well as in the forefront of the film industry. While at VIFX, Kaufman learned how to handle everything from writing RenderMan shaders to creating composites using command-line compositing tools. A lot of work in a lot of areas. At CIS Hollywood, he was digital effects supervisor for that studio’s work on ‘The Core’ ‘Matrix Revolutions,’ ‘Poseidon,’ ‘Ocean’s 11,’ visual effects supervisor on ‘Scary Movie 3’ and look development supervisor for ‘X-Men: The Last Stand.’

He developed pipelines, broke down scripts for bidding, and worked on location for films ranging from those with invisible effects to those with 3D creatures.

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

Please make a warm welcome to CGSociety’s Meet the Artist, Dan Kaufman.


Hi Dan Kaufman. It was very inspiring to read your incredible story. We are so much alike. I’m a classic and 3D artist. I’m currently 5 months into learning programming with C++ from home, reading books and other online resources. I’ve fallen in love with computer science. I’ve found it very rewarding thus far, but from your experience. What area’s of programming should I focus on, or what’s the stuff I will use and what should I ignore?

My goal’s are:
(On the programming side of things)

  1. Game development
  2. Visual Effects supervisor.
  3. Plug-In developer
  4. Write shaders

Did I pick the right language to start with?

Thanks Dan. Keep living your dreams.


wow, well first let me say your work is amazing…but that is obvious lol.
Second, I would like to apologize at the beginning for the long winded and personal nature of my question.

Here it goes…
I’m a 20 year old student who is majoring in computer science at my local university, I have always been really good with math and engineering type things, but I also have always had a passion for movies and special effects. I am always taking art classes and 3d animation classes at the local community college and I constantly find myself opening up 3ds max or after effects (my software of choice lol) to play with something.
You seem to have come from a very similar background and you are living the dream lol.

That’s my story, but what about the question? The only professor who teaches 3d animation at the community college is retiring next year, effectively ending the only 3d animation program in my area. This causes me a huge dilemma. You see, I essentially have a free ride at my university. Through scholarships and Federal aid, my computer science degree costs me almost nothing. This is a very sweet deal, but my passion isn’t really there. I love programming and computer science, but I love visual effects just as much, and I soon wont have an outlet to really learn vfx like I would like.

To make a long story short (too late for that lol): Should I take on the extra expense and pursue a good animation school, or stay with my free, but not so great, education in Computer Science, and just try to continue learning on my own?

You seem to have such a similar mind set as me, and you are such a successful and amazing artist, I thought you would be the perfect person to ask.

Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it immensely,
Ray I.

if any one else wants to give their opinion on the matter, feel free. I this is a serious dilemma for me, and I appreciate any help.


Congratulation’s, this is truely one of they best film’s that i have watched in a very long time, and also in my honest opinion, the film which make’s best use of CG, I agree that film makes use of CG, but in a way that builds up the film, it compliments the action that is going on, and isn’t the action itself (in most parts, if that makes self).

I just have a few question’s;

[li]What was the main software for modeling (were there a mixture of diffrent application’s used i.e. Diffrent artists prefering their own software for modeling)?[/li][li]What software was used for the main rendering of the characters (non SFX i.e. smoke, particles)?[/li][li]What was the most challenging aspect of getting the pipeline to work, and what did you enjoy most about it?[/li][/ol]Thank you Dan.


Hi Dan

As already mentioned great job!

  1. Firstly because we all had this run through our head…excuse the pun…How many head poping shots did you guys do (if any)?

  2. What could you say was the most difficult shot to integrate into “a real unpolished location.”?

  3. Having a good deal of experience working in/on VFX, i would imagine you find yourself looking at shots remembering when you first learnt to solve a problem and also seeing distinctive patterns in your work which help a shot to completion? Could you think of a good example of a shot/scene from D9 that reminds you of past projects (at a visual level) and why?

  4. What was your most worked on shot?

  5. Your most favorite shot?

  6. Most enjoyed piece in the film?

Lots o questions, cheers for you time! And grats on such a high quality visual result!

Cheers Kieran.



After reading the article, I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to end up like you. I used to make stop motion animations with my sister’s video camera when I was like… 12 maybe. I’m 15 now, but I guess there’s still a chance. :stuck_out_tongue:

But now I’m just kind of all over the place. About 2 years ago I started playing around with Blender 3D, and I’ve made a few games and animations in Flash. Now I’m messing around with Photoshop painting and some playing around with After Effects. And I really enjoy working with all of them, but… I’m wondering which one of them I should keep working with. What do you think?

Thanks for your time, and by the way. District 9 is some crazy cool stuff. It’s awesome that you got to work on it.


Hello there Mr. Kaufman!
I saw District 9 just this past Wednesday, with my father. I thought it was a very special movie, and the main character (Vigus?)'s personality and the way he sort of awakens in the movie just kinda spoke to me. I thought the alien/human relationship went over very well, and it feels more like a heart-opening movie than mere entertainment.
I read the article here on CGsociety about you, and towards the middle it says “Kaufman likes to think of ‘District 9’ as having invisible effects. “It is a kind of invisible effects movie,” he insists. “It just has aliens in it.””
I was wondering if you could maybe comment more on that. Because I think the effects really were more invisible… but you guys did a very good job of making humaness visible-- in everyone.



First off, thank you all very much for your kind words, and I’m glad you all enjoyed the work on District 9 so much. It’s always great when you get a chance to work on a movie that’s out of the ordinary, and this one’s been a lot of fun to be a part of.

So, let’s get to the questions!

Hi Lorenzo (firstsingle),

Having any sort of programming experience is helpful in many areas of creating visual effects, and I imagine the same holds true for game development. I’d say having a good knowledge of programming strategy and techniques is more important than any particular language unless you know a very specific area you’re interested in. There are a multitude of languages used in the creation of visual effects, from multipurpose languages like C++, to scripting languages like Python, to program specific languages like PRMAN shading language and MEL. Artists/Technnical Directors that can program are always in high demand. C++ is definitely a good place to start (and similar to the latest incarnation of PRMAN shading language), and a lot of work is being done using Python these days, so those would be my top recommendations.

Hi Ray (rayman22201),

Well, as you can see from my background, the path to get from one place to another is unfortunately not always obvious. The only thing you can do is try one path, and if it’s not working, try another. The obvious advantages of going to an animation school is that you have access to software and equipment, you are pushed to create, you will likely learn new techniques and methodologies, and when you graduate, potential employers will know you’ve at least completed a certain amount of work.

That being said, there’s probably nothing you’d do and learn in school that you couldn’t do and learn on your own if you’re determined enough. Most employers looking at relatively new talent are going to judge them by their reel and the scope of their knowledge (with emphasis on the reel!) You can certainly read a lot of books on the subject and put together your own work using software you already have or learning editions of popular software like Maya and Houdini.

As an additional note, it’s helpful to target which area you’d like to work in. For example, Maya is the most widely used 3D software at larger and midsized vfx facilities, so learning it will widen your potential pool of employers. Other popular software packages are Shake, Nuke, Houdini, and XSI.

So to sum up, the choice of course has to be yours. Perhaps see how much progress you make in your current situation, and if it seems like you’re not making enough to get where you want to go, try something new like animation school. Hope that helps!

Hi Daniel (DanielWray),

The modeling was done pretty much exclusively in Maya. We did use ZBrush a little, but that was mostly on the texture side. All the aliens were rendered with 3Delight, a Renderman compliant renderer. Now that last question is a big one! The pipeline went together relatively smoothly, but the biggest challenge (as is usually the case) was to get all the parts working reliably in the short time that was available before we had to start cranking out shots. We had a great team working on it, though, and it’s a testament to their abilities that we were able to reliably get so many shots through it. While I’d say most of the artists would say that they liked having fairly comprehensive tools that were built for lighting and animation, the part I enjoyed most was seeing so many shots coming out that looked so good!

Hi Kieren (kogden),

I think we did five of what we charmingly called “meatbag” shots, although I don’t have all the info in front of me. Among other elements, there was an actual bag of viscera and blood that was blown up for the effect. We did all the exploding person (and alien) shots that were inside as well as the guard exploding that’s about to shoot Christopher Johnson outside (and parts of that shot were also done by The Embassy).

Once we had the pipeline set up, the difficulty of putting the aliens in didn’t vary too dramatically. The interior locations were usually more complicated than the exterior ones because of the multitude of lights and shadows we had to match - Christopher Johnson’s shack was particularly challenging to match because of the extremely varied lighting as well as the interaction with a lot of practical objects from the physical location. Actually, the hardest part of integrating the aliens in usually had more to do with what we had to take out. There was an actor on set for almost every shot that has Christopher Johnson or a hero alien. Some of the more complicated shots to take him out of were the one where Christopher Johnson is hit with a piece of wood, the one where he’s dragged out of the Casspir, and the shots where he’s searching with a flashlight in Paul’s shack. Another difficult shot all around was the approximately 1000 frame long shot where Paul is taken out of his shack (which in addition to the stand-in actor removal throughout the shot, has dark interior lighting, bright exterior lighting, and lots of lens flares.)

I think in general, the more shots and shows you work on, the greater feel you get for identifying what’s causing a problem in a shot. However, it’s a continuing learning experience no matter how much you’ve done in the past - there’s always more to learn. I’m not quite sure which the most worked on shots are, but two of the lead contenders would be the shot mentioned above where Paul is taken out of his shack and the first shot where you see all the aliens in the hold of the Mothership (there’s actually a lot more detail in that shot than you can see in the finished movie!) I’m afraid there are just too many shots to pick a favorite, and I really just liked the movie overall.

Hi Culligan (zymn),

As far as which software to use, you can check out the answer above to Ray on that subject. However, I think right now you have plenty of time to experiment with different things, and see what area you enjoy working in the most. I’d say the most important thing is just to create some cool, polished work with whatever packages you can get your hands on.

Hi Mary (OrganizingCat),

The term “invisible effects” is used to refer to effects in movies that most people won’t realize is an effect. For instance, the shots from Leatherheads in the profile are of an early 20th century football stadium in Chicago with a large, cheering crowd. However, they was shot in a much smaller, much more modern stadium in North Carolina with probably around 50 extras. Most people watching the movie wouldn’t really think that they were looking at a movie with a lot of visual effects (there were about 200 shots in that movie). However, someone watching Dark City or Matrix Revolutions would know that the bizarre and unusual things they’re seeing must be visual effects no matter how good they look.

So what I meant was that even though we had something extremely bizarre and unusual to put into shots, our job was to make them seem completely natural and part of the background, so that the audience almost forgets that they’re watching a visual effect.

Thanks for your questions, everyone!

  • Dan


Yo Dan, District Nine was incredible! The effects were also subservient to the story which is the way it should be. I would interested in hear a short description about your process for helping bid the shots. What steps are involved in analyzing the needs of client versus time and talent available…



Very nice interview, I have to confess I have not seen the District 9 due to work overload, but all my pals tell me its truly what they expect from a VFX movie without cheesy moments. And that has been said from quite a lot of lighting friends I got. So I’ll go this weekend to take a look at it!

That being said, my interest in your career is more motivated by the success of your profile rather than your current fame on this recent movie. I believe success is not a single stone in the path, but a whole road made of them.

I’m particularly interested in how you manage your computer science skills with your artistic background. I am a bit of a mix as well, but always find myself being recruited due to my artistic value, and my computer science background gives a nice note, but is not being currently used (or has ever been, but I apply the logic/procedures for problem solving). I would like to exploit that in the best possible way, which leads me to my next question:

Being a texturing/lighting “artist” I am interested in building shaders for movies. There are few people that can guide me in this area, and I would like to know what innitial approach would you recommend me nowadays, that can be sustainable for productions of tomorrow.

If it might help, I’ll list my background so that it might aid in your answer: computer science bachelor degree, vfs design diploma degree (love the book language and machines), worked as lighting/texturing artist for videogames first, then switched to lighting artist in movies, now working as texturing artist for feature animation.

I love my job, my strategy has helped me attain the goals I want. However, I’m unsure of how to further complement them for future tasks which can make me more valuable as a worker. Since i love lighting/texturing, making shaders is what I think I should go for, but I find myself a bit confused on where to start. Could you throw a bit of info here? I would really appreciate it!

PD: I also got some international awards for characters and a short on marketing and artistig areas, but I don’t feel gaining more would make me more valuable? ahhh, not sure …I just like to make pretty things…lol


Big Inspiration. You guys went above and beyond with the effects. Most of the time, I would have guessed it was a man in a suit if it weren’t for all the interviews and behind the scenes I’ve seen. You did a great drop with the team. Looking forward to more.

If you could go back and work on the film some more, is there anything you would change?



Hi Dan Kaufman. Your work is totally amazing & District 9 was incredible! I like it so much.
i am a student in a 3d animation school in Jordan, at the school they teach us just 3d stuff they doesn’t teach us composting so i learn composting software and techniques online like Nuke, cuze i wanna be a VFX Supervisor in the future.

  • do you recommend me to focus on composting more than 3D stuff like modeling and rigging etc… ?

  • what kind of knowledge should VFX Supervisor have ?

  • What kind of jobs & positions that give me the chance to become VFX Supervisor in the future?

Thanks for your time.


Hi James (suntemple),

Well, bidding shots is somewhat of an art, and it’s something that you get better at the more you do it and a skill that can always be improved. An initial bid on a show is frequently based on somewhat unspecific information, and this of course means that your bid will be fairly rough. This can be done by analyzing the script, storyboards, and/or concept art, and guessing at the number of shots that will be involved. Another way it can be done is by breaking down shots into categories of difficulty and specifying how many shots of each difficulty level can be done for a given budget. You can adjust this estimate based on discussions with the clients as to what their expectations are.

Later, when you get specific shots, you just break each one down into the different things that need to be done, e.g. paint, roto, animation, lighting, comp, etc. and come up with a time estimate based on past experience. You also have to bid building assets, which is also broken down and estimated based on experience. At that point, a dollar amount is attached based on the artist days estimated, and the formula for that amount, as well as any overhead costs, are unique to each facility. Usually, things like time and talent available are not something that work into a shot specific bid, but if what you’re bidding is beyond something a client might normally expect to get, there may be charges added for rushing it or having to get people in unexpectedly. You usually go over the client’s expectations of what they’re expecting to get before you do your bid and then just keep that in mind when staffing up, scheduling, and then bidding a show.

Hi Cesar (cesarmontero),

Shader writers are pretty much always in high demand, and if you have the background for it, I definitely recommend pursuing it further. Probably the main reason they’re hard to find is that it requires mixing technical and artistic sensibilities together. So it seems that it might be a good area for you, and most likely one that will serve you well in the future.

Different renderers have their own shading language, of course, so you’ll probably want to pick one. My background involved a lot of Renderman shader writing, but Mental Ray is fairly popular as well. They both share basic principles and techniques, although they go about many things in different ways.

People learn things in differently, so I can’t really tell you the best way for you to learn about creating shaders. My approach was to read The Renderman Companion and later Advanced Renderman. Another useful although more abstract book is Texturing and Modeling: A Procedural Approach. Then there is all the documentation from Pixar, which was very useful to read as well. They also supply quite a few technical examples illustrating different techniques. One thing to keep in mind is that Pixar recently implemented a fairly dramatic update in their shading language to make it more object oriented, so while you can still use the information in the books above, they don’t contain the latest information that’s available in the Pixar documentation. There are also some learning resources online (just do a search on “Renderman”), although you have to be a little careful when looking at shaders people have posted - some are probably not good to use as a guide.

Then just set some goals (start out simply) of what you want to create and dive into writing one. Of course, you’ll need access to the rendering software, but I imagine you have that at DreamWorks. From my own experience, it’s great to be able to work from the shader level up to lighting to get the effect you’re looking for, so hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Hi Naren (narenn),

Thank you - I’m very happy with the way it came out, and I think the crew did a great job, so I guess if I could go back and work on it more, I would probably just keep refining and fixing little things here and there and layering in more small details.

That’s why it’s good to have a deadline where they take it away from you!

Hi Ahmed (EgyMan),

Well, I’m afraid there’s no easy answer to those questions!

As to what area you should concentrate in, it really depends on what you like doing and where you feel you have the most talent or desire to learn. Pick something that you like doing a lot and try to get as good as you can. I can’t say that any one area is better than any other in leading to being a supervisor, but I can say that probably most of the supervisors I’ve known had a background either in generating elements for shots (lighting and/or fx) or in compositing or both. However, it’s certainly possible to move from one thing to another, and it’s great if you get the chance to do a variety of different aspects of vfx creation. While I would pick a few areas to concentrate in, it’s very helpful to have experience or at least knowledge of as many parts of the process as possible.

There usually isn’t really a direct path to being a VFX Supervisor - it’s a matter of doing the best you can, sticking with it, chasing up opportunities when they arise, and having a fair amount of luck.

Good questions - thanks, everybody!

  • Dan


Hey Dan. Congrats on the move up in the world – caught me by surprise, I thought you were still at CIS! The prawns looked great; you guys should be proud.


Thanks for answering my questions Dan. I really appreciate you giving your time. I hope you’ll hang out with us again.


Hey Dan, thanks for answering my qeustion. I actually have one more for you.

My question is, what goals do you have (or at least what’s left) as an artist in the industry?

I personally have 3 goals: Win an academy award in vfx, become a supe at ILM, and to be rembered as a great artist.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to answer all these questions of ours.



Hi Dan

First off, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

I loved District 9 - I’d like to ask about the mothership exterior design please it works really well and I’m wondering what sort of work went into developing a. the look of the ship and
b. deciding how to get the ship on screen (how much we’d see of it at any one time, how much exterior detail to create…).

I’m working on a low-budget/no budget feature at the moment and doing my first vfx stint (there’s probably only a handful of shots and most will be matte paintings or sky replacement which I guess I’ll do, there’s only me in that ‘department’ which is a great way to learn a lot!! Some stuff to figure out, problems to resolve which I’m finding my way with, all in all pretty exciting).

I’m keen to learn how to achieve the best look on a very limited budget - what’s your opinion of 2.5D as a solution if there’s barely camera movement on the shot/ or just a subtle push in - one of the shots for example is an establishing wide long shot of a labour camp in world war 2 - the camp itself will sit in the far distance of the landscape. We’ll use a stock shot of a suitable landscape (3K) as the background plate (well, that’s what I’m thinking of at the moment!).
The script doesn’t call for movement within the frame as such (I thought maybe adding some trees with a little breeze in them closer to frame, and some subtle cloud movement to suggest ‘life’).

I wonder if you can sell the environment to the audience with a believable opening shot, especially in a short scene, would that carry them through the rest of a scene where you never really see that background again (example would be shooting with the background out of focus, tighter angles, etc). While we never want the background (or lack of it!) to inform the shooting style, there are a couple of scenes where we may have to compromise (or make it a night shoot).

Well I kind of rambled on a bit there!

All the best and thanks again!



Hi Dan, i want to know if its possible somewhere to find the designs, or the pictures in HD of the weapons of district9 who are for me the best thing after the cg aliens, its possible to find PHOTOS HD of the weapons who are in district9???



That is plenty of info, thanks a lot for it Dan!
I guess education is 90% motivation, 10% learning.



Hi Naren (narenn),

I’ll have to think on that one, but yours don’t sound too bad at all! Good luck with all three.

Hi Felicity (felicitymoore),

From my experience it’s always best to do things as simply as possible as long as you can still get a great shot. If you can do it in 2D or 2.5D, by all means do so. The shot you’re describing sounds like a perfect candidate for a matte painting. To give the shot some life, you can add parallax by splitting the pieces into layers and moving them slightly in relation to each other during the shot, faking a camera pan or dolly in the comp, and/or adding small bits of movement (like the blowing trees or clouds you talk about or the somewhat timeworn flock of birds).

Creating something as big as the giant mothership is always a challenge, so I’m glad you liked it. There was some consideration of doing it as a matte painting, but it quickly became apparent that we would need too many shots at too many angles to get away with that. The design started with a piece of concept art from Weta and direction from Neill to make it look like a worn out and damaged giant floating refinery. We used lots of reference pictures of oil refineries as well as large building complexes, dams, etc. We modeled quite a bit of detail in 3D, and then enhanced that by adding smaller bits of detail painted onto many 2D cards scattered across the 3D model (this was how all the fine piping detail was added, for example). The inspiration for the look of the sides of the ship came from arial pictures of the roofs of large building complexes and parking structures. After that, it was just a matter of getting it to sit into the sky with the appropriate amount of haze. Weta handled the close up shots of the mothership, and for that I believe they built some higher rez sections of the ship.

Hi Leonardo (imothep85),

I think you’re probably going to have to wait a little while to get designs and hirez pictures of the alien weapons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are made available at some point. The only thing I’ve seen released to the public is this:

I believe it’s from the marketing campaign for District 9. Hope that tides you over until more pictures are available.

  • Dan