We are proud today to share with you this interview with the FX Artist /FX Supervisor and co-owner of the studio “Delicate Machines“, Joël LeLièvre. Joël’s works features movie like Tron Legacy, Transformers 3, Sin City or Chronicles of Narnia and also a lot of impressive commercials.
Hi Joël. Could you describe your background in the CG Industry ?
I started in the CG industry back in 2001. I was hired as lead lighter on a television show for kids, here in Canada. That led to me eventually getting a gig out in San Francisco working for The Orphanage, doing VFX for films like Hellboy, Day After Tomorrow, and Sin City. After a few years of traveling around, my path eventually led me back home to the east coast of Canada where I now live and work.
Have you ever faced some difficulties in your career ?
I tend to look at my career from two perspectives. When working at a big studio, the list of available resources you have access to is amazing. You usually have a highly skilled and talented team you are working with; artists that you can work with and learn from, producers and supervisors who can give you advice and guidance when working on a shot. Also it is very rare that you are dealing with the client directly, which can be nice because it can lessen the stresses involved in completing a shot or effect. You also have access to faster and more abundant hardware; more computers for rendering, more RAM for doing intense simulations. Working in the studio environment is an amazing experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone. It’s a great way to learn, meet new people, and gain invaluable experience.
Now that I am more of a freelancer, and tend to work on my own a lot, the biggest difficulties I encounter, are time and client management. When a job comes in, I have to assess the clients wants and needs, devise some sort of budget that makes them happy, but makes it worth my while in the end, and I also have to look ahead and try to foresee any obstacles that may present themselves down the line. This is where working in studios and gaining experience comes in handy. Generally I have a good idea of how long it will take me to complete a certain project; I tend to budget in some extra time to cover any delays on my end. But more often than not, there will be a change at the last minute that wasn’t planned for, or the director will want to add something new to a shot that he or she thinks will make it better. This is the situation where it can be tough to be a freelancer. No longer do I have a producer, or supervisor who is looking out for me, and who is willing to talk to the director to work out a solution. Also from time to time because I am one creating the visuals, I tend to be subjective when a director or producer criticizes my work. It can hard to be objective and look at the project through the director’s eyes sometimes, so this is something I find difficult at times. In a studio, it is easy, and sometimes fun to have heated, yet artistic discussion with your supervisor. It is not in good business practice to have a heated discussion with the person who is signing your cheque at the end of the week.
Going freelance can be tough, but it is very rewarding. Choosing the projects you want to work on, choosing the people you would like to work with are both great benefits to working for yourself. It will be difficult to getting started, but once the ball is rolling it’s pretty sweet.
You’re currently running your own studio “Delicate Machines” in collaboration with Jon Mitchell. What encourages you to take the decision to make your own business ?
Jon and I started Delicate Machines back in 2006 as a way gaining more experience, and gaining more control in the projects we worked on. Years previous, we both worked as freelance artists working at various companies here in town, and we soon realized that no one was really doing what we wanted to be doing; visual effects. There was the odd animated commercial, or print ad that needed some 3d work added to it, but no one was doing visual effects they way we wanted to be doing them. That was when we decided to start our own company and go after the projects we wanted to work on.
Between 2003 and 2006 I had met various people in San Francisco, LA, and London, and we used those contacts to start looking around for project to help out with. It was a great approach because we were small, and we could help out on a wide variety of projects.
I now run Delicate Machines myself as Jon is a full-time fx artist at Scanline, Vancouver.
What tools are you using in your daily workflow ?
From the very beginning I have been using 3DS Max. It was what they taught us while in school, and to this day I still use it on a daily basis. I use Maya every now and then, but my goto tool is Max. For plugins, I am currently using Thinking Particles 5, Krakatoa, FumeFX, Xmesh, Vray for rendering, and a wide assortment of scripts to fill in the gaps. For 2d, it’s mainly After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
I saw your portfolio and there are so many various projects on it. I mean you worked on movies such as Transformers 3, Tron or Sin City. Is it hard to work on such movies ?
Working on movies is a blast ! Movies are a lot of work, a lot of long hard hours, but the end result is hopefully something that millions of people will see. Movies are great in the sense that you usually get a fair bit of time to refine and develop your effects. An FX artist can have weeks, sometimes months to create an effects for a shot or sequence of shots. My first film, Hellboy, I had three full months to develop and create a sequence of shots that involved a crumbling bridge. It was a massive amount of work; back before we had tools like Rayfire and the robust toolset offered by Thinking Particles. Each rock was hand modeled, hand textured, and then a lot animated by hand. Many, many late nights and weekends on those shots.
One thing you have to realize, is that your work is going to be shown on a huge screen in many theatres; hopefully around the world! And people are paying to see your work! So you want to put in as much effort as possible to make something that not only looks amazing, but makes you proud as well. But when it is all said and done, and you got to the theater and see your shots in context with everything else, it’s all worth-while. Lots of hard work yes, but a great feeling of accomplishment once completed.
You mentioned, you were FX Supervisor on Tron the legacy. Could you describe your role and daily tasks as a FX Supervisor? Is it difficult to lead a team ?
I was CG Supervisor on Tron Legacy while working at Prime Focus in Vancouver. Daily tasks included viewing dailies in the screening room, addressing client and VFX Supervisor requests, keeping track of shot/sequence progression, making sure all artists knew what tasks they had to work on that day, and just making sure everything was running as smoothly as possible.
Working in a team of artists always has an interesting dynamic to it. You are working with people who have different opinions, different tastes, and different perspectives on what art is, and how it should look. In my opinion, leading a team of artists is all about letting the artists do what they are there to do, being realistic about goals and tasks, and trying to have as much fun as possible while doing it. In an environment that is subject to high levels of stress at times, you would be surprised at how much relief and decompression a foosball tournament can provide.
You have a family. As an FX Artist you certainly have to travel a lot. Is it hard to move in other countries for sometimes more than a month leaving your family behind ?
My wife and I both have a strong interest in traveling, and we believe seeing as much of the world as you can is important. This small world we live in is amazing place, and the people you meet are incredible. A few years back traveling was a really big part of our lives; with me going back and forth between Canada and the United States many times a year. My wife is a teacher, so she would travel to Europe and Asia to teach, which meant we were on the road and apart a lot. It was very hard being apart for months at a time but we made it it work. I have seen many relationships dissolve over the years as a result of artists having to travel for work. The FX industry can be cruel in that sense; separating you from loved ones, long hours, unstable work conditions; it can be really tough. Luckily my wife is a very patient and understanding person which makes it easier.
Now things have slowed down which is nice. We have a 2 year old son which means we want to keep things somewhat settled and stable for his, (and our), sake. Running a little company has been nice because it means I can still work on some of those creative projects, but I get to do it from home rather than having to travel to another country. Hopefully as our little guy gets older, we may look at the possibility of doing a bit more traveling here and there. When he was an infant we traveled out to Vancouver for 6 months while working on Tron, so bringing the whole family is a possibility.
What your opinion on the evolution of the CG industry ?
Everything is moving so fast! I don’t know if that’s because I am getting older? Who knows. Compared to what things were like 10 years ago when I started, the industry has changed a lot. Hardware and software is much more cheaper. Everyone and their dog seems to be doing FX now it seems. With an industry that is so heavily influenced by technology, it can be really hard to keep on top of things because they change so rapidly. I think back again to when I started out in FX, and when using 3DS Max we had the legacy particle systems, video post! (anyone else remember that?), and Afterburn; that was pretty much it! Now we have access to these amazing tools that allows us to do very specific things and create amazing visuals. Krakatoa, Thinking Particles, FumeFX, Vray, Rayfire, and the list goes on. And then you have suites like Houdini, Maya, XSI, each with their own set of amazing tools; where does one start??? It can be overwhelming.
But with that comes a greater and deeper access to FX and CG education. I look at sites like FXPhd, CMI, and Digital Tutors. These sites allow users to pay a small subscription fee for access to a huge volume of training. You can go in and only learn modeling if you want to. If you want to learn tracking and roto, there is training available for those as well. It really amazing how much material there is you can watch, and learn from.
It is a very fast paced industry, and I think it’s only going to get faster. But the work you see in movies and games today is nothing short of incredible. So much style, so much realism and detail that I can only wonder what things are going to look like in another 10 years.
Do you believe you could have been more interested in CG and FX if you were twenty years old today ?
I discovered CG and FX late in the game. I was 24 when I realized that CG might be a viable career path. I have always had a huge fondness for films, but never really put any thought into the possibility of working on them. You see, I am a kid who grew up before the internet. Times were different then and my exposure to “behind the scenes clips” from movies was very limited. I had no idea what kind work went into movies like Jurassic Park, or Toy Story. It wasn’t until I enrolled in animation school that I realized what kind of world was out there for CG and FX. Once I learned that doing FX for a career was possible, I was instantly hooked. I knew right from the beginning that this is what I wanted to do for a career.
If I was 20 years old today, my views would probably be the same to a degree. I probably would have started into computers much earlier, and maybe have gained much more experience in computer programming. (Something I wish I had now.)
Some people say that when you’re a FX Artist you keep focusing on details either than watching the whole shot as it is. What is your opinion on that fact ?
Yes I am guilty of this all the time. Even today when I watch an older movie that I worked on, my eye still goes to those little details that, if I could go back, I would want to change. Little things like, “Oh I would change the way that particle bounced”, or “maybe if I had added a little more bounce light here, you would see more detail”. I think all artists are guilty of this, whether you paint, sculpt, draw, or push pixels. A good FX artist will always try to focus on the details because the details are what makes a good shot, great.
What would you recommend to young students willing to get involved in movie today ?
This is something I have been thinking about a lot over the past few weeks, in light of Digital Domain Institute Florida closing. Getting involved in movies today is a lot harder than it was 10 years ago when I started. There are so many schools, and with that so many people trying to get into this industry. Going to school is also a lot more expensive; it’s borderline ridiculous if you ask me. I cannot tell you how many emails I have received over the past 5 years asking me which school is the best, or how do I get a career in VFX. The best advice I can offer anyone looking into VFX, is do your homework. Know what you are getting into and make sure this is your passion. Nothing could be worse than spending $20,000-$40,000 on an education, only to find out this is not something you want to do as a career.
I highly suggest trying out some online courses before anything else. I have used FXPhd for the past few years and it offers a great, and reasonably priced model for learning visual effects. They offer a wide variety of subjects so you can get a taste before committing yourself to a two or three year diploma at college or university.
Thanks you very much for your time and your experience Joël.
Interview by Sébastien Tafani