Meet the Artist - Jeff Okun


#1

Jeff Okun has completed the visual effects work on the Warner Brothers award winning film, ‘Blood Diamond’. A special feature on his experiences in Africa during the production, is posted HERE.

Working closely with Edward Zwick, the film’s Director, Co-Writer and Producer, Jeff was charged with creating invisible visual effects for the film. The mission statement for this project was, ‘If the audience sees a visual effect then we have ruined the film.’

The visual effects for this feature film range from virtual set extensions and extensive matte paintings to full 3D work and computer generated weapons and events of warfare to enhance the reality of the action sequences and add spectacular action ‘beats’ that propel the story forward.

Okun is known for creating ‘organic’ and invisible effects, as well as spectacular ‘tent-pole’ visual effects that blend seamlessly into the storytelling aspect of the project. “I feel that my job is not to showcase what can be done with the technology but to serve the story using visual effects where and when needed.”

Okun has also worked on wide-ranging effects as seen in such films as the award winning Tom Cruise film, THE LAST SAMURAI, the sci-fi hits STARGATE, SPHERE, RED PLANET, DEEP BLUE SEA, LOLITA, CUTTHROAT ISLAND, DEATH TO SMOOCHY, THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS, DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER, THE LAST STARFIGHTER and David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME.

His credits also include music videos from such varied artists as Sting, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janet Jackson, Wayne Newton, Bryan Adams, Amy Grant, Dolly Parton, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Neville Brothers and Rod Stewart, in which he created many amazing in camera and special optical effects.

Jeff also created visual effects tracking and bidding software that is in wide use within the industry, as well as creating the revolutionary visual effects technique dubbed the “PeriWinkle Effect” and the “Pencil Effect”, that have been used in many projects to help achieve a more realistic sense of danger and accurate budgets.

Jeff also serves as the Chair of the Visual Effects Society and the Chair of the VES Awards Committee, having spear-headed the creation of the VES Annual Awards. He is a respected member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (sitting on the steering committee), the Academy of Television Arts and Science, and BAFTA as well as a member of the board of directors for the Gnomon School of Visual Arts.

If you have any question for Jeff Okun, please feel free to post them here. Although Jeff is traveling right now, he is enthusiastically hoping to appear very shortly to write the replies. Please make him welcome to CGTalk ‘Meet the Artist’, Jeff Okun.


#2

Jeff,

First off I want to thank you for being an inspiration to the younger generation of visual effects artists like myself. I was fortunate enough to attend the VES Awards show as a guest this year, and I want to congratulate you on coordinating the show, and having it be a huge success.

This is my first year in the Film VFX industry, and naturally I am learning so much in such a short amount of time.

  1. What is your take on the younger generation of VFX artists? What advice do you have for someone starting out?

I get the sense that the Industry is more concerned about churning out the next effects extravaganza and not nearly as concerned about the story or the VFX craft. That is why I respect your work so much, because of your patience and attention to detail. I know we all strive for that level of realism, but fall short due to budgets and near ludicrous deadlines. I recall John Knoll commenting about this at a screening of Pirates 2 last fall. He was saying he was concerned with where the industry was going with these tighter and tighter post schedules.

  1. Do you see any change to this trend, and how do you feel about it?

  2. Finally, of all the projects you’ve worked on, which one is closest to your heart? I think we’d all enjoy reading about what made that show or sequence so memorable for you.

Thank you for your time Jeff. And thank you for your service and dedication to the visual effects community.

Sincerely,
Dereck


#3

I really enjoyed reading the CGS article and the impact that it had on you and the other filmmakers emotionally - I thought it was one of the most interesting articles I’ve read so far. This was a great film and one which I was surprised to see make it to the big screen. What is the difference for you between working on a film with a greater humanitarian message and one that is an entertainment blockbuster? It would be interesting to hear you discuss the pros and cons of working on different kinds of films.

Also it would be interesting to hear what your experiences were like working with Zwick, who seems to have directed some amazing projects.

Thank you for your time!


#4

Thankyou for setting time to chat to the cg members,

quick question.

  1. Could you advise us in your wisdom a list of skills sets you should be proficient in to enter into VFX industry, im a max and maya generalist.

#5

Mr Jeff Okun,

Being new to the field, this is the first time ive heard about you and after reading the first post, i thank god coz we have someone whos doing it to serve the story more than just to showcase a new softwares for doing things in movies.

The most mesmerizing moment for me in movies, talking about special effects that serve the story so well, was the bullet time. It was new, fresh and spot on and also gobsmackingly awesome (at least for me).

I always try to put myself to the special effects guys in movies and imagine myself having a new movie and trying to come up with something gobmacking and original and at the same time serve the story good.

The effects in recent movies , to me is a case of ‘ive seen that before in this other movies bla bla’

A good example is how movies after the LOTR like to use the mass tool to show huge battlefield of armies…i think its overused.

My question to you would be…how do you do it? How to come up with something original, bullet-time like…and serve the story. Of course first youve go to have a good story.

Thanks for your time and so sorry for the long post.


#6

Hi jeff - I enjoyed the CGtalk article on blood diamond, it was interesting to hear that there are people out there still able to enjoy life after all the atrocities that have happened (and are ongoing)

  • what’s your take on recent productions with environments that have been entirely filmed on green screen - do you think there’s a future for it?.. have they been succesful? (a recent example being 300) My personal feeling is that (300 in particular) lacked a sense of scale - is this due to a lack of traditional experience, or are we just very new to the technology, as compared to where we were with digital humans only just a few years back?..

thanks.


#7

Doesn’t matter what we have… but who we are. (and what the bleep do we know?)

Congratulations on receiving one of the best awards you could attain in your entire life… you know well what I mean. :wink:

Technical questions ? Well, after reading all your interview, besides the unbelievable ability you had to handle VFX issues in such environment, specially psychologically, among all the technical difficulties what was the most challenging task for you and why ?

BTW thanks for sharing part of experiences there.

Thanks Paul Hellard one more time for such fantastic opportunity ! :slight_smile:

Thanks for your time Mr. Okun,
Cheers,


#8

Hi Derick

1) What is your take on the younger generation of VFX artists? What advice do you have for someone starting out?

Okay now
my take on the younger generation of VFX artists? Well, in general I am amazed by them. You all seem to be incredibly creative, dedicated and love what you are doing. That is a fantastic thing. And will carry you far within the business.

One of the things that I am not real happy about – and this is not necessarily tied to the ‘younger generation’ of VFX artists – is that a great many of you do not seem to observe the life around you. I am talking about shadows and highlights, caustics, mists, distances, lighting and so on. This is essential for creating believeable effects when you are doing the “Invisible” work.

My advice for someone starting out is to take a drawing course so you learn to observe nature in a manner that will serve you in your career. That and to hang out with working friends, drop by facilities that you would like to work at and to make a killer demo reel. One of the things not to do on a demo reel is put on tons of the same type of work – unless you want to just do that kind of work.

2) Do you see any change to this trend, and how do you feel about it?

Sadly, I see this as a continuing trend – shorter schedules, less money and worst of all, less caring about the quality of the work. The issue seems to stem from the fact that everyone is afraid to fail, so we all kick into 24/7 work schedules and make it happen. If we did fail, there are 50 people ready to take the job from us. I see this happening all over the entertainment business – in the sound editing, in the editing, in the preping, the posting, the shooting. It appears that these days starting without a script but with a release date is the norm. So we all need to keep in mind why we do this!? I do it because I love it and that means that even when the deadlines are short, the creatives are lacking, I do it for me – up to my standards. Now that does not mean that I draw an unreasonable line - I have learned how to make it all work no matter what the issues. And I have learned that we are not really VFX supervisors or compositors or whatever, but really VFX PROBLEM SOLVERS. So start keeping track of the little tricks and secrets that really worked or saved your bacon – including a little bit of praying!

3) Finally, of all the projects you’ve worked on, which one is closest to your heart? I think we’d all enjoy reading about what made that show or sequence so memorable for you.

I would have to say that whatever was the last project I did is the one closest to my heart! In this case, Blood Diamond. I mean, if you read the story, you know that not only did I learn a great deal about life but, we put out a pretty important film as well. Does it ever get any better than that?


#9

From Rebecca:

1) What is the difference for you between working on a film with a greater humanitarian message and one that is an entertainment blockbuster? It would be interesting to hear you discuss the pros and cons of working on different kinds of films.

There is not much difference between working on the two types of films except the responsibility to the reality and accuracy of the story – that’s not really an effects issue. However, the feeling inside that you get when you feel that you are helping to tell a story that needs telling means that you have an extra burden on you – and that kind of burden can be freeing and invigorating!

Now if your question is really more to blockbuster type films and the VFX in them not carrying the burden of having to look and act real, then, yes, blockbuster entertainment films are much more forgiving in that respect. However, that does not mean that you can let your quality guard down. What it does mean is that you need to understand the physics of what you are doing and then start cranking it up to a much higher level.

2) Also it would be interesting to hear what your experiences were like working with Zwick, who seems to have directed some amazing projects.

Edward Zwick is an amazing human being. His track record shows that he never backs away from difficult subject material and that he is a person who loves to expose, and thereby help correct, the wrongs of the world. Look at Glory and Blood Diamond, Last Samurai, The Siege and so on. He is also one of the smartest guys I have ever met. He is a very passionate guy when he is directing, and good is not as good a great, if you know what I mean. He demands the most of himself and of the people who work with him. And that is exactly the type of person you should strive to work with because it demands that you do better than you think you can.


#10

1) Could you advise us in your wisdom a list of skills sets you should be proficient in to enter into VFX industry, im a max and maya generalist.

To me the best skill set you need is be able to see. So many of us have a preconceived notion of what things look like, but when you actually take a look, sometimes it does not look anything at all like what you thought.

Next, political salvy – I have been sunk more times than not by my own political short comings. By this I mean, you have to interact with so many different types on a project, each with their own agenda’s, needs and desires – rarely having anything to do with the project at hand. Learn how to listen, and save yourself a great deal of grief.

When it comes to specific software, I pretty much leave that up to the people who know them inside and out. If I know what it should look like, and I can communicate that to the artists, then it would be silly of me to dictate to them what to use. They are the experts to me.


#11

My question to you would be…how do you do it? How to come up with something original, bullet-time like…and serve the story. Of course first you’ve go to have a good story.

Well, you do it by looking around! Bullet time was actually used several years earlier in Coke commercials for the Japanese Olympics. And it was also used before that in a few French TV commercials.

The point here is not who did it first, but who applied it with the right touch to the right situation so that it soared above the rote use.

I am always looking in other mediums for fresh ideas. I love to read the magazines about stage craft, magic, special venues and photography. I really love to go to museums and look for inspiration from the old masters (impressionists are my favorites).

And in the end, just like when you write a song, it is usually seeing something old in a new light and combining it with something else that yields a great idea on how to do something new! Something never before seen.

I harken back to Stargate, when we were trying to come up with the Stargate effect. We tried everything. We looked everywhere. And then I happened to mention to Roland Emmerich that I loved the work of a Spanish film maker who used mercury and water as the portal to the neither world. He loved that idea and I went off to start playing with water. What ended up as the final result was a happy accident. We got a 3 foot wide, 4 foot talk clear plexiglass container full of water and shot 126 lbs of air pressure into it through a 1 inch wide nozzle. It lifted the entire contents of the container, moved it over a few feet and it all landed on my DP, Dave Stump! It was the funniest thing I have ever seen. We reduced the pressure to 16 lbs and that is what is in the movie.

Back to your question: This is the key and the fun of what we do!


#12

- what’s your take on recent productions with environments that have been entirely filmed on green screen - do you think there’s a future for it?.. have they been succesful? (a recent example being 300) My personal feeling is that (300 in particular) lacked a sense of scale - is this due to a lack of traditional experience, or are we just very new to the technology, as compared to where we were with digital humans only just a few years back?..

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a huge thing. We are going to see it used more and more and probably will define a whole new type genre of film.

With “300” the issue of scale has more to do with not putting the little things in the frame that give the mind the invisible clue of the scale of things. And I believe that was on purpose. They were trying to do a graphic novel not a live-filmed action adventure movie. And to me, they were very successful. Now if you would like to discuss personal takes on the project, well, I got tired of the look before it was all over. But that is just me.

The technology is new, but old at the same time and we are only just now learning out to harness it to full effect. It is almost as if we had it, mis-applied it, forgot it, rediscovered it and are now amazed by it all over again. Go figure.


#13

And I have learned that we are not really VFX supervisors or compositors or whatever, but really VFX PROBLEM SOLVERS

This is so true and such a great way to approach the work.

Great interview and I think an eye opener for many of us.


#14

Among all the technical difficulties [on Blood Diamond] what was the most challenging task for you and why ?

The most challenging task on Blood Diamond was putting together the refugee camp. Technically, it was the set that had the least reality to it and carried the largest burden to be real. When we filmed it there were only about 15 tents there and a bit of a chainlink fence. The dialogue is “This is what a million people look like
the 2nd largest refugee camp in Africa”

Ed always figured that by this point in the story we could afford for it not to be perfect. I, on the other hand, was determined to make it perfect. I hired Syd Dutton at Illusion Arts to create the camp. He tried a number of procdural approaches to it, but in the end just ended up painting it. And in my opinion, did a fantastic job! Beyond compare.

I supplied a number of references for him as well as tons of photographic elements of tents and people. But he took it to another level using both my photographs, and people as well as painted tents, CG people and people he stole out of other angles of the live action camp.

I am just knocked out by Syd and his company. They are just the best.


#15

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for taking ur time replying us all!

Its great to know the background story of that portal effect in Stargate. I remember watching it on the big screen and went ‘whoa’. Trully, id never seen anything like. It was awesome. My eyes were plugged to the portal, imagining the world beyond it.

Knowing it was sorta like an accident makes it cooler. The way i work (ok here comes the new boy shouting out loud about nothing) is very rigid, have specific plans picture in mind that i wanted to achieve. You have made me realise the fluidity and the importance of ideas to flow and try many things in between.

Thanks again Jeff! I’ll be watching Blood diamond soon!


#16

I said to myself… what vfx in Blood Diamond?.. aha!

Will there possibly be a presentation at Siggraph of some of the VFX techniques used on the film? VFX mapping with GPS seemed very interesting, would be curious to see how these elements were assembled. Was there much tracking of handheld footage?

Also could you elaborate on this: “…when a white person comes through and takes pictures of the children, the kids generally disappear in the next few days never to be seen again.”

Lastly, whats next for you?

Thanks.


#17

Mr. Okun,

Thank you for taking the time to share a bit of yourself with the forum.

My question is this: In the pre-CG days of VFX, a common mantra in the industry was that a good VFX artist should never rely on only one particular tool or technique as a means to solve all problems. Rather, they should be open to using anything and everything at their disposal to get the shot. Is that still good advice in today’s CG instensive world? If so, do you see it being taught in today’s VFX schools?

3D-Pangel


#18

Thanks very much for your responses! I’ve enjoyed reading all of your responses to the questions so far.


#19

No worries my friend. This issue of being fluid is much bigger than you think. As a matter of fact, learning to think on my feet, problem solving a shot as it happens, has been a way of life for me for a long time now. The opportunity where I get to pre-think a cool look and then actually get to execute it as well is not as frequent as one might think. Of course that does get to happen a lot, but it some how always feels as if the life has been drained out of it - know what I mean?

Do not be afraid to experiment, push a button that you do not know what it will do or just toss out the whole thing and start over, but doing it differently! Great stuff happens sometimes!!! And of course… sometimes not too.


#20

Hello Jeff,
I really enjoyed reading the article. It made me think about so many different things… thank you for that. I rarely read or think about VFX in the movies, but the article shed a little light on the whole thing. :slight_smile:

It’s awesome that you worked on Sphere and The Last Samurai :love: I really, really liked TLS and I think it just didn’t get enough attention… the movie is straightforward beautiful!

I don’t know what I could ask you, but I always like reading about funny accidents and interesting ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, like the Stargate effect you talked about a few posts back. So, could you share some more fun stories? Those are always great to read :slight_smile:

Take care and continue doing the awesome job!

  • Donna