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Episode 101 — Interview with Ben Snow, ILM VFX Supervisor — Iron Man, The Mummy, Star Wars, mother!
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 101 with Ben Snow, a VFX Supervisor at ILM. We just did Episode 100 (www.allanmckay.com/100/) and that was epic. Thank you for all of your emails! I always read all the emails, but it takes me a while to respond.
I have an email list to which I send a lot of free content:
– chances to sign up for special events;
– lots of great stuff!
Feel free to sign up at www.allanmckay.com/inside if you aren’t on that list yet.
This Episode is with Senior VFX Supervisor Ben Snow. Ben is another Australian. He’s worked on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Twister, Iron Man, Pearl Harbor, King Kong, Noah, Deep Impact, The Mummy — and dozens of others! He recently finished working on Darren Aronofsky’s mother! I have to admit I was really obsessed with The Mummy when I was a kid, so it was great to chat with him about his career and insights.
There is less than 90 days left in the year. I’ve mapped out my goals for 2018 and tried to compact them into these 90 days; then I’ve broken it into weeks and days. I’m getting so much more done because of this.
1. What are your goals for the remainder of your year? If you would like to have an accountability partner, email me: email@example.com. I will check in with you at ever 30 days, 60 days and 90 days. I want to see how much you can accomplish.
2. For BONUS POINTS: Feel free to mention the things that are likely to come up, that might cause you to fall off your horse. By identifying these things, it’s easier to recognize them when they come up.
Let’s dive in into this Episode!
INTERVIEW WITH BEN SNOW
Ben Snow is a Senior VFX Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. Since joining ILM in 1994, he has worked on such influential films as Twister, The Mummy, Pearl Harbor, Star Wars, Iron Man, Avengers and many more. He has also worked a VFX Supervisor on King Kong, at Weta. Ben recently finished working on Darren Aronofsky’s film mother! which is his second collaboration with the director since feature film Noah.
Born in Australia, Ben studied computing and film at the University of Canberra. His first job was at a graphics company in London, U.K. He later helped set up a computer animation department for a company in Sydney, Australia. There, he worked on a title sequence for the television series Beyond 2000.
Currently, Ben is collaborating on creating a virtual reality Star Wars experience called Secrets of the Empire. Throughout his career at ILM, he has been honored with four Academy Award nominations, VES and BAFTA nominations for Achievement in Visual Effects.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay and Ben Snow talk about his career at ILM, the development of the VFX industry — including virtual reality — and the best tools that get you hired!
Ben Snow on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0811240/
Ben Snow’s ILM Profile: http://www.ilm.com/people/ben-snow/
Ben Snow’s Interview for Autodesk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBoP8NPUFWA
xLab at ILM: http://www.ilmxlab.com
The Void and Star Wars VR Experience: https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/3/16084460/star-wars-secrets-of-the-empire-disney-the-void-virtual-reality
[-1:10:35] Allan: If you want to give a quick intro as to who you are and a bit about you.
Ben: I’m Ben Snow. I’m a Visual Effect Supervisor at ILM working on movies and interactive entertainment (virtual reality projects, as of recently).
[-1:10:21] Allan: That’s awesome! I figured we can start out with origins story. Did you grow up in Canberra?
Ben: Yeah, I grew up in Canberra, Australia, just outside of it. I went to school in Canberra.
[-1:10:00] Allan: Nice! Did you always intend to work in film, or how did you fall into that?
Ben: Yeah. I’ve always wanted to. I had become a big fan of film, [like] my dad. We used to make our parents take us to drive-in movies all the time. I think I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Jungle Book. We were on a farm. Canberra had two tv stations and we had to pick one. We had bad reception. Watching Lawrence of Arabia on a small snowy screen, I was still blown away by it. I really loved movies! My dad had a Super 8 camera, by grandfather gave me an 8 mm camera. You could do things like double exposure and I [experimented] with a lot of that in high school.
I read a lot about movies. When it came time to go to a University, I talked about college courses to my parents, they said, “Look, why don’t you get yourself a profession, and then you can run off and do this movie thing. You’re good at computing, why don’t you do that?” I was into Star Wars and used computers to control the motion control systems. Being a fan, I read about Francis Ford Coppola using computers. So I studied computers and film at the University of Canberra.
Upon graduating, I was part of a film group, making small projects with friends. Then I ended up traveling and doing the overseas experience, going to the U.K. and spending 3 years in Europe. During that time, I decided to try my luck and get into tv or movies, or media production in London. I ended up getting a job at a small company. At that time, they had 3-5 person visual effects department, doing commercials and corporate videos. When it was time to go back to Australia, I got a job at a small company in Sydney.
[-1:06:48] Allan: Which company was that?
Ben: It was Conja. It was a small place. I was the 3D department.
[-1:06:37] Allan: I remember they closed down in ’99 or something like that.
Ben: That’s right. I joined them in ’91. They’d been outsourcing their 3D. I set up their internal 3D department. Then we hired other people. Then I went to Siggraph and ran into someone I’d worked with at MPC, Jeff Campbell, who was working at ILM. It was ’94 by then. Jurassic Park has just hit. Every company in Hollywood was suddenly going digital. They were looking for artists [at ILM]. I sent my reel over. They set up a phone interview and basically hired me a few days later. I flew over as soon as I could get the visa sorted out.
[-1:05:41] Allan: That’s pretty awesome! What was the industry like back then? I had just started getting into VFX in ’94. I actually grew up in Australia and there were just a couple of places.
Ben: When I was in London, companies had a bit of a rivalry and they started something like the Visual Effects Society (www.allanmckay.com/78/). It was good and a smoothed things out. When I got back to Sydney, we didn’t have time to do that. Animal Logic was the big dog in town. We were an upstart place. We were mostly doing commercials. I remember us going for a meeting with George Miller’s company because we were talking about doing Babe. I think Animal ended up doing some of the work. At least, they go their foot in the door. And that was about the time I started talking to ILM.
When I got here, at Siggraph, ILM wasn’t openly recruiting. I just happened [to go to this] giant party ILM and Maya sponsored. That was a great era! When I started at ILM, there were about 30 people. Over the course of the year, it went up to about a hundred. (That was about the time they were doing Casper and all of the post-Jurassic films.) My first film there was Star Trek: Generations. It just kept growing and growing. I think we ended up with something like a thousand people by the time we got to those Star Wars prequels. All the star visual effects artists were the rockstars of the 90s. I don’t think it was quite a glamorous, but it was pretty fun. It spoiled us.
[-1:02:09] Allan: It’s interesting these days. Sometimes, instead of you getting the credit, the studio may get the credit. ILM is really great at making sure everyone gets their credit.
Ben: It’s really hard. The work is much more spread around the world than it used to be. It is harder for artists. During the 90s, I [worked] two Sundays: one on The Mummy, one of Pearl Harbor. Now, it’s not that unusual for companies. ILM tends to have perspective, but everyone is aware of the toll. When I got hired, we were all project hires. “Gosh, are they going to hire us back, on the next film?” It rapidly became that digital effects were the only way to go and ILM was nicely positioned. We also did miniatures. You were pretty secure there for a few years.
Now, it’s more of a gypsy culture. Some of my colleagues and I are lucky to have [such a stable environment]. But even for us, in the current film industry in California, it’s pretty hard. There aren’t tax credits. We are uniquely talented artists who are fast. We now have branches in Vancouver and Singapore. The hard thing is having some perspective as an artist that you’re A. trying to have some stability and B. have a good enough life style that you’re able to see your family.
[-59:22] Allan: That’s the Holy Grail, I think! You’re right the industry is globalized. I just moved to Portland after 15 years in LA. I do think some people in LA feel threatened because it is a massive shift from what they’re used to. Everyone else has a chance to have the piece of the pie. There is good and bad with that. If anything, it’s helped our business grow.
Ben: It’s weird. There is way many more projects and way more visual effects than we’ve ever had. There is much more demand. But the playing field has gotten much more level. It becomes a commoditization. What’s weird about it: If you’re at a higher end house, you end up doing higher end shots. It’s difficult to get a spread of work. It’s weird. Our goal is to do show where we do as much of the show as possible, but even that’s increasingly uncommon. Usually, you’re dealing with a couple of layers. If you’re working for a third party vendor, then you look for those people to be good communicators. If you get a message from the director, how do you get it to the artist as accurately as possible? Maybe in the 90s, we had a lot of direct contact. Now, we don’t have that as often. It becomes a big communication game.
[-56:12] Allan: It’s kind of shocking. I’ve worked on projects when you finally deliver this giant tornado, you get, “I never wanted a tornado to begin with”. Where did the miscommunication happen?
Ben: No, it’s a real problem. It’s difficult at the level of the studio: What are my ways around that? One of the tools that I use as a VFX Sup is to pitch ideas to the director so that there is some to-and-fro. But that’s one of the tools in your arsenal. You still end up doing that with people you’re working with. I’ve been pretty lucky, I have to say!
[-55:03] Allan: You’ve worked on so many projects. Over your career so far, do you have any nostalgic projects you’ve kept close to your heart?
Ben: It’s funny. There is two different things:
– There is the results on the screen: How much you enjoy them.
– And there’s the actual working on the project.
I love Galaxy Quest as a film. That was an interesting project, it was my first supervising project. I had a lot to do with the creature shots. It was a fun film, it was fun to go on set.
I had a great time on Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. I had my own unit. They were trying to do it as efficiently as possible:
Every shot was a visual effects shot.
– We were trying new technology.
– We shot that film digitally.
There was a lot of exploration going on. We’d meet with George Lucas once a week. He was / is the god in that universe. What he said would go. It was a great experience.
I also have a great time with the Weta folks on King Kong. Great team of people! Several of them I knew from ILM. I have to say, I’ve been lucky! I just a finished Darren Aronofsky’s film mother! I was doing other projects at the same time. It was great to work on something that’s different. I’ve done Noah with him. There was a good relationship there. I found it really exciting! He’s open to suggestions and that was an interesting art exploration. He really draws it out of you.
[-51:51] Allan: That’s cool! What was it like working on that film? I always find it interesting when you work on non-typical VFX films. Someone like Robert Zemeckis is really confident with visual effects but at the same time, their films are of a different caliber. What was that like?
Ben: It’s pretty interesting. There is a lot of work in his films that [would be about fixing something]: her hair is out of place and he’d fix that. mother! was interesting. I had just done Avengers. On Marvel shows, you have a big team, you have your own video village, it’s pretty amazing! You go to a low-budget film.
In this case, Dan Schrecker who was the Sup on Noah was working with editorial. I was doing The Great Wall in Singapore. I flew over, they had 3 units going. It was a very different experience: I had to remember how to program my own camera. I know that team like I know Darren, they’re almost family. I fit right in. By the time I got there, we were doing really long days. There was such energy about it, it was really exciting. When we got into post, we ended up doing most of the work in Singapore. The team I had over there was small but really good! Then we ended up doing some other shots, which we did in Montreal. It worked out quite well. Because it was small, we’d get the feedback. It felt like being part of the family. And of course, the film is interesting in terms of the polarizing effect of it.
At the same time, I’ve been working on a VR project; and they were great with my bouncing back and forth between the two.
[-46:41] Allan: How is it over there? One of my friends Maggie Oh just came over there [to ILM].
Ben: We have a really great team! One of the things we’re looking at doing it trying to match the film assets in such a way that they match more easily. We’ve taken our ILM’s mega shader material that we’ve developed on films like Iron Man. The first time we’re seeing this [VR] stuff was for The Void, the Star Wars experience called Secrets of the Empire. It has been announced: https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/3/16084460/star-wars-secrets-of-the-empire-disney-the-void-virtual-reality. I think we’ll have the trailer out pretty soon. We’re doing things like taking the assets and getting them in real time. I wanted to match the material. It’s been interesting to push the stuff. In VR, you have to run 90 frames per second; you’re going to have certain challenges there. The funny thing is that the challenges are not unlike when we were doing Twister or Galaxy Quest: You’re trying to be really efficient, you use cheats on the looks. The thing that you miss is not having a really strong set of compositing tools.
[-44:07] Allan: Are you specifically focusing on VR or the tech that you’re developing for realtime previs?
Ben: This is about exploring the VR medium. I see realtime being really important for visual effects. We already see that with certain systems. Realtime isn’t going away. One of the things I value is getting more comfortable dealing with those concepts and efficiencies. One of the most interesting aspects is the creative involvement we have in the storytelling, the performance issues, script even. It’s a bit different from normal work for hire situation and it’s the exciting part of the xLab experience.
[-42:32] Allan: I think it’s really exciting to be a part of a whole new platform. I was talking about this at dinner. The first time I bought an HDT 5, I paid more on games than the device. It’s still early days, but it’d be pretty exciting to see where it goes.
Ben: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. And The Void experience is really interesting because you’re essentially walking through a real space, and you’re touching walls, and the walls match what you’re touching and seeing. There is tactile component to it, an immersive component that’s exciting to work on. At the same time, we’re working on experiences for all kinds of platforms. I think it’s just a time of exploration and there are no rules. And if there are rules, you should probably ignore them and try that crazy idea. One of the first things I did was a 360 movie, really, which was a speed bike ride that was tied to Episode 7. And that we did with a small team. J.J. Abrams was involved, but it was sort of: “Let’s try this!” All you could do it try it, right? It’s like when they work on movies in the 40s, technicolor technicians would come out and say, “Oh, you can’t do that”. But they would try it anyway. There are all these stages of saying this is the right way, and this is the wrong way.
[-39:41] Allan: I think that’s the secret to visual effects and everything, really! The ones who try the what-ifs, and all the failures and solutions that you were able to patch together — that you’ve never even thought of!
Ben: You have to be willing to put it out there. When I was doing Twister, coming from a programing background, I’m someone who wants to understand every aspect of what I’m doing. I don’t like making a change and not know how I got there. But I working with other artists who [were able to] shoot from the hip, try this and that — and then would get really good results. And I thought, wow, I have to be less precious. There is a bit of magic and it doesn’t hurt it to wing it sometimes.
[-38:15] Allan: I think there is something to be said about building things to scale because the minute you take things apart, they might work for that particular shot — but as soon as you move some assets, it might fall apart. In this day and age, you have to do things right, or it will cost you in the long run.
Ben: It’ll bite you in the ass. It’s like previs is a big part of it. Like, working on mother!, there was a lot of “What the hell is it?” type of effects. This is kind of a metaphor, we wanted to make it realistic but it wasn’t a real thing. It’s more of an art project. It is different when you get to a more abstract project.
[-36:25] Allan: That’s actually one question I was going to ask: When you start on a new project, how do you typically staff your team? Do you handpick the Leads and other Sups to work with?
Ben: That’s the advantage of working for a company like ILM with different people you’ve known for years. Of course, there are always artists who are in demand for every single show. But then there are artists who are not a go-to everyone, so they end up being someone you can rely on. It’s crazy! One great things about ILM is Production Managers here try to be fair and spread the work across a project really well.
I like working with people who are really talented. It’s not such a problem here. The environment we’re in, San Francisco is not always the hub. Even Noah, it was split between San Francisco and Singapore which was amazing! It’s a different set of things. I was talking to Charlie Gibson, a VFX Sup I’ve worked with on a couple of projects. I now know it to be true: You end up making these alliances with vendors. But nothing beats being able to stop by an artist’s desk, have them ask a question and move on. It’s still a preferable way of working. I do a lot of video captures and talking through the work. And I got really good at writing notes!
[-32:47] Allan: I’m always fascinated by remote working. The reason I left LA is because even when I was working with a studio three doors down, I would still be working at my desk, in my pipeline. So I was always obsessed by that. Obviously, you have the had the pod for a while. For you, what do you find works really effectively: either communication wise or having work done remotely all over the world?
Ben: It’s interesting. One of the things that was odd for me — when I was doing the shots for The Great Wall and went off to do mother!: You’ll end up having a support team that’s smaller because you’re now having the vendor’s support team. What I would do:
- For the Supervisor, it’s important to go over and visit. There was a terrific presentation a third party vendor did for us and it was really funny. But beer was the thing: You have to fly over and go down to the pub or socialize with these people so that you understand there are people on the other end [of the communication]. When I went to work on The Great Wall, it really worked!
– ILM uses a version of Aspera called Speeder Bike and it can do really fast transfers. If I’m not at the facility: They can Speeder Bike things to me.
– I’ve also written a bunch of tools myself. I had different levels of compression.
– We have a really good internal review queue. It allows me to take a real quick review and give feedback.
– The Production team will prep a spread sheet with a shot submission, the last notes from the clients and myself. I can go shot by shot on my laptop.
– I try to do calls. It’s better to do 2 a week. mother! was interesting because I would Facetime with Dan Schrecker all the time — and I like having the visual contact, even by phone. But having the person’s face there, it makes a difference. (I was helping on a Michael Bay film. Having the direct contact helps everyone to get on okay. I do like the visual, if it’s possible.)
[-27:02] Allan: You mentioned King Kong. I’ve attended your talk in Sydney about King Kong. I remember your talking about a bunch of the tests. For you spending so much time at ILM and then going to Weta, how did the two pipelines compare? Were those two places similar in terms of workflow?
Ben: Well, when I got to Weta, I had worked with Joe Letteri before, but oddly he was in a CTO type of a role when I most working with him [on Pearl Harbor]. We decided we wanted to use Scott Benza. Joe championed us: Pearl Harbor was a film on which we were starting to use Ambient Occlusion techniques. I really wanted to work on King Kong. I was a huge fan of the 30s version.
When I was there, Weta was still a one-show shop. By the time I left, they were doing 2-3 large shows. We made the effort at ILM to consolidate pipelines. That would be a big problem in the 90s. Because Joe is from ILM, he wrote the version of the pipeline I got to use. We knew each other. Chris White was there. He was on Twister. A lot of the CG Sup level people and Joe were from an ILM mindset. It wasn’t hard to jump it. Things there were a bit more agile. Joe was pretty much calling the shots. Since then, things at ILM got a bit more agile in many ways as well. We switch our pipelines every few years. It’s a fact of life.
[-21:39] Allan: Yeah, you’ve got to evolve! A few projects to mention: Mummy, Pearl Harbor. What were some of the challenges on those projects?
Ben: Mummy was a fun one: Great team! It was one of the first times we wrote an asset management tool. We did a lot of motion capture on that show. We set up a portable motion capture studio. So there was a lot of new ground being broken on that show, so that was really exciting. The challenge there was to make the Mummy itself as believable as we could. The director Stephen Summers was a blast to work with! I was the CG Sup on that show but I wanted to get onset experience. Honestly, I still enjoy the movie. It’s well made.
Pearl Harbor was really interesting. Lighting and material wise, we were really pushing a lot of new technology. We had a lot of backing from ILM to explore that. We were trying to retrace the whole ship. Ken spent a month to get that up and running. One of the things that Michael Bay was skeptical about was our ability to realistically light an airplane. I discussed that back on Galaxy Quest: What can you get with indirect lighting? We talked about that and the problem we couldn’t solve was: How do you shadow? They spent a couple of week experimenting. We did have a lot of resources and time to experiment.
It’s also a bitter-sweet film. Titanic and Speed 2 had come out. I came to ILM to work with miniatures. In a lot of the projects, I look for practical effects and motion control. Even as a Supervisor, I was able to work on them. [For Pearl Harbor], we built these two beautiful miniature battle ships. And in the Marine County, we shot outside. We also had two shots of the Arizona ships exploding. When we nailed them, Eric Brevig came to me and said that the CG ship was looking as good as the miniatures. So we had to go with the CG. The sort of shots that Michael had in mind, it would take 8 passes. That was kind of the moment, compositing went from chemical to optical. It felt like an era change. But we still use miniatures a lot.
[-13:07] Allan: On Speed 2, did ILM do the big boat explosion at the end of the movie?
Ben: I don’t remember. I wasn’t on that show.
[-12:56] Allan: I just remember that old website VFX HQ. I remember reading up how they snuck in Cal from Twister into the explosion. I was talking to Jeff Okun and he likes sneaking penguins into his shots (www.allanmckay.com/78/).
Ben: Yeah, we used to have time to do that and do gag reels. It is something you don’t have that much time for.
[-11:13] Allan: One thing I like asking has to do with hiring. Have you found any red flags that cost people their jobs?
Ben: I’m probably more out of touch with that. When I was a CG Sup, I’d do a ton of interviews.
1. It’s personality stuff: That never changes. If someone comes off arrogant — although you don’t want a yes-man — but if they become belligerent about something, how are you going to work with them?
2. You want to be able to own your stuff on the reel. That’s really important! If you get 5 or 10 reels and 2-3 of them have the same shot, you have to be able to explain what you did and how you did it. When I did a phone interview for ILM, one of the things they asked me was about this sphere shot in Beyond 2000. I’d done everything on that shot down to the compositing. I was able to speak to it and about the struggle I had. It was an impressive looking shot and I knew what I was doing.
3. My main recommendation is go to a smaller house and do everything: animation, compositing, modeling, onset experience. It’s a great experience! When I first got into the industry, I really wanted to make movies. Now, it’s a rough industry. You have to get into it for the passion of making movies. If you do that — you’ll be successful. Your love of making the best shot you can make will help you win the day!
[-6:00] Allan: That’s a really great advice! I always say: Start as a generalist because then you’ll have an understanding of everything in the pipeline. The final question is: What’s your opinion, is it important for FX TD’s to have some coding ability and know how to script?
Ben: When I first joined ILM, I had a programing background in Pascal. Even by the time they hired me, it was almost out of date. ILM didn’t grow as much of their software (which I think it’s still the best approach). I looked for opportunities in Casper and Twister to do scripting, so I would get control of the script. I think it’s really useful! I don’t think it’s essential — and a good eye will get you a long way — but if you start poking around, it’s good to look under the hood. Absolutely, it’s a big advantage. And you definitely you don’t want to be afraid of it!
[-1:56] Allan: Thank you again for taking the time!
Ben: It’s my pleasure! Great talking to you!
Special thanks to Ben for doing this. If you would like to leave a review, please take a moment to do so on iTunes.
Next week, I will be talking to Bay Raitt who was the 30th employer at Weta and was responsible for creating Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
Shoot me an email with your 90-day goals: firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to kick your butt! A lot of you aren’t going to do this is, so this is my challenge to prove me wrong.