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Episode 107 — Dave Walvoord — VFX Supervisor, DreamWorks
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 107! I’m speaking with the VFX Supervisor at DreamWorks Dave Walvoord. He’s worked on a lots of cool projects: Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon films. He’s also worked on Bunny (if you can remember that) at Blue Sky, as well as Fight Club.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
I. [-1:13:00] I have some brand New Training coming out this week. It’s available for 3 WEEKS only! I want you to jump on it and immerse yourself in it. What I’ve decided to do this time around — is character driven effects. Check it out at: www.allanmckay.com/decay.
II. I’m also launching the Live Action Course for 2018.
III. [-1:09:45] December 1st is the start to a Bootcamp Session. I will be releasing three Episodes per week: One with a VFX expert while the other two will be on a specific subject.
Keep an eye out this Friday!
INTERVIEW WITH DAVE WALVOORD
Dave Walvoord is a VFX Supervisor at DreamWorks who has worked on films like How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Shark Tale, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. He was the Head of Lighting for the Academy-nominated film Kung Fu Panda 2.
After receiving a Masters degree in Visualization Science from Texas A & M University, Dave Dave joined Blue Sky Studios where he worked on projects like Fight Club and Star Trek: Insurrection. He served as a Supervising TD on Ice Age and as a Digital Effects Sup for the Academy Award winning short film Bunny.
In this Episode, Dave talks about the lessons he’s learned throughout his career as a VFX Sup and the advice he would give to any up-and-coming artist.
Dave Walvoord on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0910622/
Dave Walvoord’s Profile on VES: https://www.visualeffectssociety.com/sus/dave-walvoord
Bunny, 1998 Oscar Winning Animated Short Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gzv6WAlpENA
Indie Wire Interview with Dave Walvoord: http://www.indiewire.com/2015/01/immersed-in-movies-dave-walvoord-talks-how-to-train-your-dragon-2-vfx-123639/
[-1:08:48] Allan: How did you start out? Were you always creative or did you start in a different area?
Dave: No, I started out very technical. I went to Texas A & M University. I’m from a small town in Texas and it’s a really great school. I did computer science. [When] I graduated, the only thing I really knew was that I didn’t know enough to do something that sounded really interesting. I decided to go to grad school. My whole story is about how to get somewhere amazing by making decisions irresponsibly, I think. I had no idea how early you had to apply to graduate schools, so I missed all the deadlines except two.
At that point I’d taken one computer graphics class and it was super hard but it was really fascinating. I was fascinated by light. I realized I always took light for granted. Through computer graphics, you have to care about light. I decided I wanted to focus on computer graphics so I went back to Texas A & M. In the first year, I’d burnt through every computer graphics class they had at the school. In my second year, I discovered a program at the College of Architecture: It was the Texas A & M Vis Club which turned out tons of people in the industry. It was a perfect program for a TD, at the time. The world has changed a lot since then.
It was night and day going from a college of engineering to a college of architecture. It was before CAD has even take off. We were kind of these outcasts and it had an artistic character. And the strength of the program was — and still is today — is that it brings technical and artistic people together and it shoves them into an environment where they have to learn from each other. What the program tends to produce are somewhat technical artists or somewhat artistic technical people. I am a somewhat artistic technical person.
I graduated in 1996 with my Masters. Back then, the world was a really technical place for any kind of artist. I went to Blue Sky Studios. When I went to Blue Sky, I lived in VI. We had not graphics interface for lighting. You learn a lot that way. In my first year in Vis Lab (which was my second year of grad school), I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.
[-1:03:38] Allan: Was it clear what was possible to do at the time? Was it more about learning abilities? But then how do you apply them to an actual profession?
Dave: Yeah. I was stuck in an academic environment. This was after Jurassic Park but before Toy Story came out. Awareness of visual effects or animation as a career was pretty low, especially for a small town kid from Texas. I was the worst. I tell my students now: Get your head out of the sand! I was so into what I was doing, I wasn’t looking at what was around me. I’m an introvert so I was the world’s worst networker. My assistantship was working at the Lab as their systems administrator. I’d started writing a tool, basically [for] rendering. The Lab had a few copies of Renderman, but there was no real way to use Renderman. This is long before it got integrated.
[-1:02:00[ Allan: It was an external application that you bring rib files to and you wouldn’t connect it to Maya, you just hit a button.
Dave: So my thesis project was writing a Softimage to the Renderman interface. So the idea I had was to make a bunch of GUI’s so you could control shader parameters. It wasn’t tightly intergraded like you see in Arnold or Maya. It was a really loose integration. There was no API’s developing in these things. It was so dodgy! But I wrote it and it could take a scene that was animated in Softimage and you could do your shader work and lighting work; and then get Renderman and render. I just thought it was a lot of fun. But because I was doing it, I became a huge proponent of Renderman and Pixar.
The guy I was working for who was running the Lab said, “You should really come out to SIGGRAPH. I’ve got this meeting with Pixar, maybe you could talk about a licensing deal for the Lab.” I got a conference pass and flew out to LA. This was probably ‘95. I remember going and I saw a Jurassic Park talk. I don’t remember if Joe Letteri did it [but] I was blown away by that! And then I remember seeing this Listerine commercial. It was a Listerine bottle acting like it was Robin Hood and the guys talked about making it. At that moment, it crystallized: This is what I want to do!
In that one year, I finally got focused. I started caring about networking. Great thing about going to Texas A & M, we had a lot of alumni at ILM, Disney, Blue Sky. I started connecting with guys like that. I got really lucky. I emailed a question to an alumnus — it was probably about software — and he forwarded it to his boss Hilmar Koch. Hilmar took an interest in me and became my mentor. He’d check in with me every two months and that became a really important lesson for me. I went to SIGGRAPH in ‘96. This was the time when everybody was hiring!
[-56:56] Allan: Yeah, there was a giant buzz. CGI for mainstream was put on the map by Toy Story.
Dave: There was so much work out there and so many big projects, it was unbelievable! And there was good pay. I had interviews with Pixar, PDI, Blue Sky. I was talking with ILM. I started feeling that I wanted to do animation. Hilmar’s relationship has made such a lasting impact on me. I went to Pixar and they were fantastic. It was such a great time at that studio. [But] I went to Blue Sky because of Hilmar. Because I had that relationship, it meant more to me! ILM was winning every Academy Award that year, it was silly. They dominated. Pixar came out with Toy Story. And here I am going to this upstart Blue Sky.
[-55:12] Allan: Yeah, on the East Coast, away from everyone.
Dave: East Coast, maybe 40 people. I didn’t care. When I interviewed, I met Carl Ludwig who wrote their retracer CGI studio. Interestingly enough, if you talk to Marcos [Fajardo] at Solid Angle…
[-54:52] Allan: Marcos and I grew up together, but, like, online. Since I was 14! We were buddies long before he came up with Arnold.
Dave: Marcos was at DreamWorks one day. We were chatting. It somehow came up that Carl was the inspiration for why he wrote Arnold. Get out! Carl was the inspiration for how I think about life! I went to Blue Sky and had a couple of fantastic mentors in the way of Hilmar and Chris Wedge. And it was such a great fit for me. What I liked it about it was there was so much opportunity, you just went and grabbed it. No one would tell you not to do something. You could just start doing it. It was a fantastic place to start my career!
[-53:51] Allan: I actually got asked to go to Blue Sky for a chat. Maybe I should be asking if you recommend taking a trip over there.
Dave: I haven’t been back since I left. I’m sure it’s changed.
[-53:10] Allan: Jumping around it little bit, I’m just curious about your fascination with lighting. What drew you to lighting specifically?
Dave: Gosh, I don’t even know if I know. It was just so fascinating to me! Whether it was optics which really drew me in, the physics side of it. And at the time, people didn’t know what they know now. I got to eat lunch with Pat Hanrahan a few months ago and I was asking him all these questions about the early days of Pixar and Renderman. He said at the time they were just trying to figure out how to make the pictures look right. The whole science of it, I’ve almost witnessed as my career grew. I keep reminding our guys, “You know we haven’t solved all of it, right?” Now the problems are so hard, you need to have a PhD in math to solve them, it seems.
[-51:37] Allan: It is something that gets take for granted. I was speaking with Patty Rangel (www.allanmckay.com/90) who studied at NASA’s Singularity University. She is a futurist and it’s on a whole other plain to talk to her. You take it for granted, the simplest things like light. Being a kid and holding a flashlight on the other side of your hand. Having the curiosity that drives you to know more. Light is one of those things.
Dave: It’s amazing when you learn how to control light. I can’t paint for anything, but when painters paint, they’re painting a reflective color. When we light, it’s very indirect. It’s almost like fluid simulations. You’re basically setting the inputs to the universe. So to be good at controlling light you have to understand how light behaves. You need to understand where light needs to come from, to shape things. All the time we’re hitting these looks, we don’t know how to do them. That’s when you fall back to your theory of how light works and how it behaves. How would this work in the real world?
[-49:19] Allan: It’s fascinating. Talking about the final year of your studies, when you had your epiphany, do you think it was a critical thing? How much of a mind shift was it for you to have?
Dave: It was a relief. But the funny thing is I got lost again. At Blue Sky, I started out as a generalist. Every chance I got, I’d specialize in lighting. I even wrote their first system way back when! It was always around how things looked. And then came Ice Age, and I ended up carving out a role. It was the company’s first animated film and the company looked to me to figure out how to make a movie. I ended up biting off bigger problems anyone knew to bite off. We got a deal with Compaq to supply us with our computers and render farm, and they threw in all their file servers. But their file servers were garbage and you couldn’t light up their render farm. It was crazy times! I ended up being the guy going in between everybody and building a pipeline that could scale. And it was okay.
The downside was that I started to work myself out of the creative role. And then I got a little lost. I started to think this pipeline thing was what I should be doing. Right around that time, I ended up making a move to DreamWorks and they were making their first 3D animated movie Shark Tale. And of course, what they wanted me for — was the pipeline. So I came to DreamWorks and I didn’t realize the job I was taking. Every [company] has its own slant on titles. What they called a Supervising TD at DreamWorks wasn’t what everybody thinks it is. Our pipeline was very simple and streamline at Blue Sky. And at DreamWorks they had a different idea of what a pipeline was and what they expected from it. The robustness they expected from it, it was a shock for me. I realized I wasn’t going to be doing anything else.
[-44:55] Allan: You’d be solving everyone else’s problems.
Dave: And we built the pipeline from scratch for the film. In fact, we built two of them: the prototype and the real one that would scale to feature. And I enjoyed the job, and we had an amazing team. It was the only time I’d hired every person on my team. It was an amazing experience! It’s not like I had to do any reel reviews and agree with other Supervisors.
[-44:05] Allan: Touching on that for a bit, when it comes to building teams, what were the big takeaways from that? And what are the things you typically look for when you are building a team?
Dave: I think I can wrap my story real quick. It was about getting lost. It was at SIGGRAPH where I seem to get all of my epiphanies. It was in LA, it was before Shark Tale was over. I was walking toward the Convention Center for SIGGRAPH and I didn’t even want to go in. I thought about why I wasn’t excited about this conference. I really had to think about it: At some point, I stopped being creative and I got too far away from the picture. I got into the business because of the picture. I got really lucky at the end of Shark Tale. The last six months, they let me transition into the CG Sup role. I got to run a rogue lighting team. We were over budget, behind schedule. It’s a miracle I didn’t lose my job! We pulled it all together and it set me up to be a CG Sup. I can never allow myself to get away from the pictures.
The team building — that’s a fun topic! I did build such a great team on Shark Tale. And we had a pretty rigorous process. Building the core team, that was just me; and at that point, I don’t know if I had a well codified thing of what I was looking for. Somehow, a team formed in spite of me. I don’t know if what I was doing was coherent. I learned something. Not all my hires were brilliant. You come to this crossroads. I had this realization: It wasn’t just about the hire. It was [my job as a manager] to make these people successful. It was a really important realization in my career. I felt I couldn’t blame anyone else. It was me making that decision. I think that helped make us a team because it made me invest in everyone, whether they were my strongest or weakest member of the team.
Then, we had a really small team and we needed to hire more people. At that point, my team got nervous. I had to rethink it from my team’s perspective. On top of that, I’d made the decision to hire all students for this next round.
[-39:00] Allan: Which meant more responsibility for your current peers.
Dave: Yeah, and at the time, DreamWorks wasn’t hiring students. It was a cultural thing. I even had to get an executive approval. When they came to me a said they didn’t have a lot of money, the only way to get good people — was to get students. It was something I felt comfortable with because the culture at Blue Sky was welcoming to that. I felt good about it. It occurred to me I had to make my team comfortable with that. I was going to interview them, and then my team members had to interview.
We also looked at if [my team] liked them: whether they were someone we could hang out with and who wasn’t a jerk. It all came down to what we were looking for:
- We wanted smart people.
- We wanted people we liked to work with.
- And people who were extremely passionate.
If we’d get those three things — and they didn’t know anything about what we did — that might just be okay. At least one of the people we hired was like that. She was a student who is now a very accomplished CG Sup. Her passion was so strong, I told the team she’s worth looking at in a different way. I asked them to teach her something and see if she could pick it up. It was one of the hardest interviews one had to do. At the end of the day, the two hardcore technical team [agreed] we should hire her. She is still here.
[-35:12] Allan: It’s great that you were willing to adapt. The fact that you were able to anticipate that an interview may not work for everyone. That’s a sign of a good manager. I’ve been pretty fortunate: I’ve found a way to make [people’s strengths work in their favor].
Dave: Now, I try to go and interview at schools. I love to do that! I get to go a couple times a year. The technique I’ve evolved: I try to be a hard interview. I always say, “I’m try to get to the point where I find out what you don’t know.” Everyone I like usually thinks it’s a bad interview because they leave on a question they couldn’t answer. I love those interviews!
What I’d tell anyone out there who is a student: You have to know how to sell yourself. You have to have enough confidence. Your reel matters a lot. I look at resumes quite a lot. What I look for is what people say they’ve done. If you put anything you say you know — you better know it! If you put on your resume that you know Renderman, you can expect me to come after you. I consider it fair game. I interview based on who you present yourself to be. If you put it on your demo reel, it’s fair game for the interview. People try to put too much on resume and reels.
[-31:26] Allan: You’re right. At some places, your reel is everything. Typically, I see resume as the support story to your reel. If you see something weak on a reel, you look it up on the resume. Do you think some people need to customize their resume for wherever they’re applying?
Dave: I don’t feel you need to do that. We’re hiring people who are artists and designers. I just interviewed someone not too long ago who was a good designer. Her resume was unreadable. I told her, “You’re a designer. Think of your resume as a design project.” Think of it as a design:
– What’s the most important piece of information?
– What’s the quick read of who you are and how can you present it so I don’t want to throw it away?
The other thing I want to talk about: Artists, especially young artists, tend to be bad at talking about their work. If a person wants to be a lighter and I ask them to tell me about their image: What are you trying to communicate to me [with lighting]? We’re visual storytellers. Our job is to tell stories through pictures. No matter what the content of the scene is, how I light should force that content. If it’s a depressing scene I should be doing depressing lighting. Start with: What’s the story you’re trying to tell with this picture? If you can’t tell an interesting story about why you’ve made the picture, I wonder why you’ve even made it in the first place.
At the end of the day, we’re commercial artists. Our job is to sell art, whether it’s to sell movie tickets or sell our ideas — it’s an important thing. People don’t realize that a good production designer is a good salesman. His job is to sell a vision for a film. Learning how to talk about art that communicates the visual idea of what makes it special — it’s an amazingly valuable skill to have! You should be doing that when you’re doing your work anyway. [Create] a one sentence description of your shot and don’t lose track of it!
[-26:33] Allan: That’s brilliant! Students and many people don’t know how to present themselves. When your business is doing lighting, you should be able to easily communicate that. If you say, you do 3D, how can you stand out?
Dave: On the first Kung Fu Panda, I was a CG Sup and running a lighting team. We were doing a sequence where Tai Lung escapes. It was one of the sequences I’m most proud of from a visual standpoint. The production designer’s concept was truly brilliant! It was battle of blue vs red. As you watch the sequence progress, there is this play of color. It gives it a cohesive design. There was one particular shot, we called it the super punch. It’s a slow motion shot of Tai Lung punching. The original idea was Tai Lung in blue with some red. I was looking at this shot while lighting and I did the whole shot [again] in all blue. Then I took the shot to dailies, but I brought both versions. Don’t even bring your idea without their idea! I showed them theirs and they’re having a discussion. But the way I won the argument was this was the ultimate power of Tai Lung. I gave them the reason why they needed to go with the blue.
When you leave to communicate in this language of art, there is a real language to it that helps you sell your ideas. To get more of your ideas into a film, you have to learn the language that they speak.
[-22:54] Allan: That’s great! All the days working in tv commercials, there would be so much of that! You’re right, you’ve got to sell what you’re doing and why. If I wanted to get something approved, I’d do several shots that showed range of what they wanted. You should guide people. You want to take that personal responsibility. I love the history of all the projects you’ve worked on. Going to Bunny, when you’re talking about lighting, it stuck out as having a great mood to it. What was it like to work on it?
Dave: That was crazy! So, that’s the only film I got to work on really closely with Chris Wedge — and I’d learned so much from him! I’d just done a film called A Simple Wish which was horrible. Blue Sky was a ray tracer. They didn’t have a solution for how to trace fur. I figured it out in production and I made this stupid little mouse. At the time, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. After that, Chris Wedge asked me to do Bunny. He gave me his photo reference for it. I started doing all the fur for it, and that’s how I got involved. It lingered around for a bit as we did other projects. I got to do two shots on Fight Club.
[-18:53] Allan: We they the penguin?
Dave: Yup, the penguin! I’d never had such a cushy budget in my life. We had so much time to do those two shots, I rewrote the first system (which ended up getting used on Ice Age).
Back to Bunny: At one point, they wanted to pull me out of production on Star Trek: Insurrection. They wanted me to run Bunny. I said I’d do it on one condition: That the Studio commits to finishing it for the Academy Awards. I was so arrogant! I took over running it. I’d light a few shots, but I was mostly managing the project and making sure it was moving forward.
Then came the problem: How do we render this thing? The producer Nina Rappaport had a deal with Compaq. Compaq had this giant warehouse in Massachusetts and a bunch of our guys installed the render cue up there. This would have been ‘98, we had dial-in connections to talk to Massachusetts. We left these four TA’s babysitting the project. At times, I’d be on the phone with them asking them to describe what wouldn’t look right. It was just ridiculous! Eventually, I went there for a couple of weeks.
I remember not sleeping for more than four hours at a time, for the six weeks while this thing was rendering because we were so tight on our render times. If the farm would stop running for more than four hours, we wouldn’t finish on time. This little gang of ours that pulled Bunny through, it was incredible! We’d done the impossible. And then, it won the Academy Award which was fantastic! It was getting to times where money was getting tight. [After that], the company got Ice Age.
[-13:35] Allan: That’s really great! You mentioned having a passion for encouraging students. What are the things that you think are critically important for students to have when they come out of school, that will help them get noticed?
Dave: I look for these three things:
– Are you smart?
– Are you passionate?
– Do you work well with a team?
– Of course, make pretty pictures!
I’m not the guy who hires you, but I recommend following up [with certain students]. I have to interview across every job. What I care about is that you’re really passionate about your work and you care about the quality. I always encourage students to do a photo reel. What Disney and Pixar does, we do stylized things. It’s really difficult to do style. There has to be a language built. Style is really hard to do well. With students, I encourage a photo reel. You don’t have enough time to establish a style. I’m more likely to give the job to the guy who did photo reel than the one who shows me style. The photo reel guy is going to impress me. We respond to it: It’s obvious when it’s right.
I’ve worked with Jeffrey Katzenberg a long time ago here. Jeffrey was the best critic I ever saw. He had this ability to tell you — with laser focus — what was wrong with the picture you were showing him. Once you got over your hurt feelings, you’d inevitably agree he was right. What he couldn’t do — is tell you how to fix it. It’s hard to tell an artist how to fix their work. The more you do it, the more you lose your credibility with the artist. It’s tough! As a VFX Sup, my job is not only to tell them what’s wrong with the shot, but also how to fix it. It doesn’t mean that I’m right.
I. An important thing I tell students to do is show their work and not be precious. Get the feedback constantly through, even if it’s not done. Listen to what’s wrong with your images, and stop listening when someone tells you how to fix it.
II. The other thing: Before you start your work, solicit feedback on your idea. Is what you’re doing even interesting to someone else? If you want to be in this industry, even as a student — you’re a commercial artist. When you graduate, your demo reel is how you sell yourself. If your reel doesn’t interest me, I won’t hire you. Your story may not be compelling to me. It doesn’t mean your story is bad. You haven’t found a compelling way to tell it.
We did a class with Savannah College of Art and Design. I love that school! Two years ago, this team did a project for us. It was a story about a crashed spaceship. It was so uninteresting. I kept poking at them. Finally, I said, “No one cares about spaceships. What we care about is people.” Tell a story about a person using a spaceship. It was never the story that was the problem. It was how they were telling it. We played the final film to recruiters and they gasped.
III. You can’t lose track of execution. I want to see one thing done perfectly than a hundred things done poorly. I’m just not interested!
IV. Just keep making your story smaller and smaller.
[-04:16] Allan: You’re right: Quality over quantity, especially in the beginning when they don’t know they know they limitations. Focus on that one thing and do it really good.
Dave: You can’t blame students. They’re just so passionate and excited.
[-03:32] Allan: This has been so cool to have you! Thanks for talking about your history on how you got where you are.
Dave: Thanks for having me! I do love your Podcast. I’m very sheltered at DreamWorks. It’s relieving to listen to your Podcast.
[-03:06] Allan: Thanks again!
Please review this Episode on iTunes.
Next Episode, on December 1st, there will be a Podcast for the Bootcamp. Every week in December, there will be three Episodes per week, as well as an e-book. Let me know what you think about these Bootcamp Episodes.
That’s it for now.