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Episode 141 — Sony Pictures Imageworks — Adam Holmes
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 141! I’m speaking with Adam Holmes, a Layout Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Adam is a buddy of mine. We met back at Digital Dimension, working on a movie. Adam has worked for a number of studios throughout his career: Lucasfilm, Sony, Digital Domain, Disney, Imagi and a lot of other places. What I was really excited to talk about is Superman Returns and negotiating to be a part of that production.
Let’s dive in!
INTERVIEW WITH ADAM HOLMES
Adam Holmes is a Senior Layout Supervisor, Director of Photography and Editor. He has worked for a variety of international studios, such as Lucasfilm Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Digital Domain, Disney, Warner Bros, Imagi and several others. His credits include large budget films like Alice in Wonderland, Superman Returns, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Elf, Freddy vs Jason and many more.
Adam has 20 years of experience in VFX. While working at Imagi Studios, Adam helped build a team of artists and technicians to produce new CG animated films with smaller budgets but blockbuster results. He was handpicked as a Senior Previs Artist for a CG feature film project at Lucasfilm where he collaborated daily with the Directors, Producers and George Lucas himself.
In this Podcast, Adam talks about his passion for visual storytelling, working in both VFX and on live action sets, having a plan and being open minded about your opportunities — and taking ownership of your career.
Adam Holmes’ Website: www.adam-3D.com
Adam Holmes on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1583543/
Adam Holmes on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/adamholmes/
Adam Holmes on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/adam3d
[-1:14:13] Allan: How did you start out? Did you always want to be an artist as a kid, or is it something you got into later in your life?
Adam: Yeah, I always wanted to tell stories and make movies; since I saw Star Wars at, like, twelve years old. That was definitely a big influence since the early days of visual effects, just the classics, sci fi stuff. I watched all that stuff when I was a kid.
[-1:13:24] Allan: Whenever I ask that question, “What was the thing that got you started?”, for the more mature crowd it’s Star Wars. For the next generation it’s Jurassic Park and Terminator. (I fall more into that category.) Then, all the stuff starts to catch up afterwards, Lord of the Rings, etc. For you, how did you get started?
Adam: It’s been a unique journey. Somehow I got interested in computers, probably just by osmosis. Back then, the only computers around were Apple and Commodores, really rudimentary. I was in a music band as well. Music and math always go together. I just learned everything I could about computers at the time, and then eventually [about] graphics and software 3DS Dos.
[-1:11:36] Allan: Was that your first 3D package?
Adam: Pretty much! As far as the proper 3D package, [that was it].
[-1:11:28] Allan: I’m always curious about this: You just said that you did a lot of music — so programing was easy for you.
Adam: I think they go hand in hand. Learning music as a kid helped that process. I would recommend [programing] to anybody, so you can at least understand how all of this technology works. You have plugins these days that can do anything — but how do they actually work?
[-1:10:42] Allan: That’s just it! How can you actually automate a lot of the things you’re doing. I always think, if you’re doing something at least twice — you should automate it!
Adam: Even if you are not a Supervisor, you can make your life easier by designing tools like that.
[-1:10:23] Allan: That’s right! There were so many people whom I’ve had on the Podcast who have said because they studied music, picking up programing was easy because of that structure. I’m always fascinated by that. I don’t have any musical ability at all! Going from there, what was your first gig? Having that intrigue and learning 3D, when were you able to put it to use? Was it a bit of a struggle to get your foot in the door? Were you in Chicago at the time, right?
Adam: Yeah, I was in Chicago. I went to film school because I figured I could learn things on my own as far as software goes. Learning film production and film theory, and working with cameras, you couldn’t do that at home. It wasn’t available [in those days]. It was a bit of a struggle [because] I was going down two different paths: Do I want to work on set and learn live action stuff? Or do I want to do full CG? There weren’t enough opportunities in Chicago. Eventually, there was one: The Big Idea Entertainment which produced some of the stuff for Disney Channel, an animated vegetable comedy. They’ve been going on for 20-something years. It was a long running show. We were a small group of people from a similar background, all hungry to learn new stuff. That was around the time when Toy Story first came out. We were all so inspired by that! From that, all these people I know [have become] super high-up heads at Pixar and Disney, and Blue Sky. It was a good breeding ground.
[-1:07:44] Allan: That’s cool! I love looking at where people have gone in their careers. There were certain people you knew who would blow up. And then there were people who you’d think blow up — but they’re doing something completely different. It’s pretty interesting!
Adam: Yes. It happens in [an interesting way]: You’re seeking out what you want to do, you scope out what kind of artists are around — and eventually the right opportunity comes along. I made a goal in mind and was doing whatever it took for it to come to fruition.
[-1:06:53] Allan: I think it’s kind of interesting [to make a choice]: Which do you do: 3D, VFX and animation — or live action set? All of us have that aha moment later in our careers when we realize that all of it that’s creative — is the same genre. Just because you’re going down the avenue [of visual effects], doesn’t mean you can’t go and make a short film later. Where is the fine line that one isn’t the other? They all fit into the same universe. They’re all different tools that help tell a story.
Adam: You’re absolutely right! We shouldn’t be belittling ourselves just because we’re a modeler. Branch out and try out different things! We used to work 80-hour weeks while making short films on the side. Your passion fills that and you can cross-pollinate that into different aspects.
[-1:05:19] Allan: That’s exactly it! Now you’re making 3D but it’s very heavily influencing the filmmaking process. You get to tell stories. It’s really amazing!
Adam: It’s kind of cool to see people coming into our realm of visual effects who have never touched it before. On a project I worked on recently, we had a live action consultant. He’s worked on mega-million budget films. And you see that pretty often! Someone comes in fresh and it’s amazing to see their “Wow” reaction. It’s impresses people what we do.
[-1:04:16] Allan: I’ve worked with a bunch of DP’s in New York who came in from Production. We’d bring them in to work on 3D projects. It’s pretty cool to get someone who’s honed their craft — and apply it to a different medium. It allows you to create the same vision.
Adam: I’ve focused my career around cinematography. I love that visual storytelling. And I try to look at traditional filmmaking. It references what we do. It’s important to know where we’ve come from. That terminology and visual inspiration!
[-1:02:43] Allan: Going from Big Idea, what was the first place where you felt like you’ve made it, like you’ve gotten your big break?
Adam: My big break? Um. It’s kind of a mix. I was going into visual effects.
[-1:02:14] Allan: First time I met you was at Digital Dimension.
Adam: Oh, yeah! But it was maybe after that, doing previs for live action work. When this company called Imagi came up (they had an LA office) and my friend got the gig to direct the Veggie Tales movie, we put this cool, small team together. We were making cool stuff from a basement in the Valley, in California. I think that was the moment when I thought, “Okay, cool! We’re making this movie.” It’s a small creative team. There was more creative freedom. That’s when I thought this is what I want to do.
[-1:00:55] Allan: I don’t know if you remember this or not, but there was one night when I flew in from Australia. I was talking about you [at this bar] and you were standing right behind me, with all the guys from Imagi. Prior to that you’d worked at DD. What was the first feature you worked on?
Adam: Um, it was probably Freddy vs. Jason.
[-1:00:12] Allan: I watched that again. That was the first movie premiere I’d ever gone to.
Adam: I also got the gig to do the effects for Elf. It’s a really small but such a popular film. And we had so much fun making those snowball effects and green screen stuff. That was awesome! Doing visual effects for something you really enjoy is really satisfying, for sure!
[-59:06] Allan: I was really fond of that team at DD back in 2003. All the people there were such rock solid talent. It’s a shame it didn’t last!
Adam: [For me], it built up to working at Frantic Films. We talked about Superman Returns project. That was the next big movie and we had to come up with some big effects. That was about a year of [doing] previs.
[-58:09] Allan: That’s right, with McG. Do you want to tell a bit of that story? Why that movie went away?
Adam: Well, it’s one of those things. They were trying to make that movie for ten years, with several different directors and all the stuff that came with it. But the team was awesome! Very visual and action heavy, Michael Bay-ish in a way, I guess. He was so passionate about what he does! In a way, a lot of big action sequences were kept.
[-56:33] Allan: I was around at the time. I would have preferred to see that movie. I was on Superman for a year and a half. When it finally came out, I fell asleep during the opening titles. I couldn’t stand it. Visually, it was great! And with McG, you know that story why that movie went away, right?
Adam: For him? They were trying to shoot in Australia. And he refused to go scout.
[-55:26] Allan: All the Warner Bros execs were on the plane and he was still in the limo saying, “I haven’t told anyone but I have a fear of leaving the United States”. Since then, he’s gone to therapy and he’s been able to go to places. Then, it was “You’ll never work in Hollywood!” I feel like you haven’t made it until you’ve been told that.
Adam: I remember Kevin Smith and the story of his working on Superman. He was working with Producer Jon Peters on a project. And then I was invited to Jon Peters’ house in Malibu and it was exactly how [Kevin Smith] described him. It was so surreal! You hear all these stories, and it is how it is. It’s opposite of your normal existence, as a guy from a small town.
[-53:49] Allan: You realize how small the industry is and there will always be two perspectives on a projects. But Superman, there are so many fascinating stories around it. Someone had this idea that Superman loses his cape. There are so many more. I learned so much about Superman just by being on a project.
Adam: The other cool part about that experience is that after Bryan Singer took over. Other companies ended up doing some of the work. That’s when I had this opportunity to work on a set. I got to intern with the DP and the camera department. There were so many amazing people and I’ve learned so much by working on a giant set, with millions of dollars a day…
[-51:13] Allan: Burning millions of dollars a day, waiting for Bryan Singer to shake up his hangover.
Adam: Yeah, I know! And it’s interesting to see how live action is being made. You don’t see money being wasted, it’s behind the closed doors. It’s in a room of computers. We’re nameless artists in a room. Whereas on set, you can see it! It’s the same problem: waste is waste. [For example], when you’re redoing a shot because they’ve changed their mind. It’s a huge issue.
[-49:55] Allan: With visual effects, there are certain things that are in store: being paid overtime, for example. On set, as soon as you go overtime, it’s a lot of money involved. Everyone in the crew is unionized. You don’t want to go in overtime because it will double the cost of production in no time at all. With visual effects, you’re right: Even Bryan previs-ing dialogue scenes. Usually, you would just previs the action sequences. So how much money are you burning?
Adam: There is a difference between using it as a tool vs. using it as crutch, just because you can.
[-48:09] Allan: Can you talk about how you went from working in LA to working in Sydney? There is always a bit of a bridging from one to the other.
Adam: I set a goal and wanted to have that experience. You have to plan it out. It’s also about making the right connections. What connections can you make to get there? It could’ve easily not have happened as well. It’s about being persistent and honest, and not being an asshole. Also, being humble. I’ve had a lot of VFX experience, but going to live action sets, I was the new guy. I didn’t have the level of knowledge of people around me. It was part of my film education. I ran around and lifted camera boxes all day long. Even if there wasn’t something cool for me to do, I would just be watching: If I were the Director or the DP, what kind of decisions would I be making live, on set? And I’d see I would have made the wrong decision. I was just observing and had that mentality to learn.
[-45:15] Allan: I was on set a couple of times. Richard Branson was doing the scene, right? Out of every movie I’ve worked on, on that one you can never run out of stories. What were some of the key takeaways you got from that project?
Adam: I think really seeing how what we did in previs to how it was brought to life, technically and artistically. What kind of plates they shot? What was the timing / budget to get the shot? How this all came together? It’s good to have that experience because it makes you appreciate the collaboration.
[-42:52] Allan: So many times you see a terrible visual effects shot. Before I start judging, I always want to know the story behind it. There is always a story!
Adam: The things that are constructed, the rigs, the things that make the plane move with 40 people on it. There are so many people involved! Originally, they were working with the guy who did the original puppeteering [of Superman’s cape] in the old film. He had this finger rig on his back and it would wiggle the cape. It didn’t work. So they had people in green moving the cape.
[-41:35] Allan: That’s cool! From there, when you headed back, what was the next thing you took on?
Adam: I did the Ninja Turtles film right after that. I was trying to take all of this awesome live actions experience and do a CG film. It’s how we made that film: The way we shot it was very live action, with that type of workflow and visual elements. This was back in 2005. Back then, the films were very generic.
[-40:39] Allan: I never got to work at Imagi but they did some really cool stuff, like Astroboy, giving a new style to these older things. I was really excited about that.
Adam: Yeah, they were really focused on that. We did Ninja Turtles first. We were developing Battle of the Planets movie [which is an American title], it was in that genre of action heroes in costumes that would transform. That was really exciting to do! But then it went bankrupt.
[-39:24] Allan: Back then, visual effects were hit really hard. There are dips. It’s one of those things where there is fluctuation in between.
Adam: There were certainly gaps in the work.
[-38:40] Allan: You were working at Digital Domain for a while too. You were working on Thundercats film?
Adam: Yeah, we did a really test on it. We had a guy who came from video games who was directing it.
[-38:19] Allan: How many people worked on that? How big was the team?
Adam: Oh, shoot. Not big: I’d say 40 maybe? We were writing this real time rendering. It was technology was really ahead of its time. It was really fluid animation. Kim Lavery was working on it. I was bummed it didn’t happen.
[-37:11] Allan: I love that there were all these CG features. It would have been a great IP to go after.
Adam: Yeah, it was awesome. The team was super impressive.
[-36:37] Allan: The last time I’ve caught up with you, you were at Lucasfilm. Were you at Big Rock?
Adam: Yeah, Big Rock Ranch. It was one of those random things. A friend got a call from Lucasfilm, they were doing a film about fairies and it was a musical. He got the gig and he’s the type of guy who would call up his buddies. We were all like, “YES!” It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever worked on, really awesome people! It was probably different working from ILM.
[-35:25] Allan: Very different companies! One is a vendor that creates visual effects. And then you have Big Rock and the likes that create intellectual property for the Lucas empire.
Adam: I’ve met George randomly before. We were shooting some video for the Grand Prix that they do there in September, in Long Beach. They have a celebrity race before the main race. Hugh Hefner was the grand marshall. George Lucas was there. He originally wanted to be a race car driver. He wasn’t a filmmaker out of high school. He was in his full jumpsuit. We would go and do interviews.
Fast forward 3 years later: I’m working for the guy, making CG. Back to the connection thing: Working with people you like and who like to work with you, you go places. You make connections and have fun together. That person takes you along on their ride. I guess it’s about being open about that as well. You should be open to the opportunity to travel and move for the work. That was a really great opportunity for me!
[-32:58] Allan: The more you work, the more connections you build — and the more opportunities you create for yourself; the more you can choose where you work. In the beginning of my career, I was less serious about the work and more serious about the locations I was choosing. I think we can all have that. Make the opportunity work for you, instead of being in a reactive mode. The world is your oyster. We have the technology these days to work remotely.
Adam: You’re absolutely right! It’s about taking ownership of your career. There are certain things you don’t have control over. It’s also a mentality thing. If you treat it like it’s [something you don’t have control over] — just flip it on it’s head.
[-31:09] Allan: Absolutely! Why not make it an adventure? This is a chance to do exciting things! We are in an exciting industry.
Adam: That relates to this topic. I was still very interested in software development. I made a connection with the local Autodesk people. I was helping them with some demo. They approached me: “You seem to know what you’re talking about. We have a position here for a demo guy.” I thought it sounded like a great idea. It was a different opportunity. For me, it was an amazing opportunity to travel the world, meet the best artists all over the world, work the trade shows. It opens up so much stuff! That was another big point in my career. If you get a chance to do something like that, go for it. It helps you build the connections.
[-28:15] Allan: Yeah, definitely! There are so many friends of mine who’ve worked at Autodesk and met all these studio heads. So when it’s time to leave, they have all of these connections. Getting face time with these people who are high up in the company is invaluable — and they’re talking to you about how to improve their teams.
Adam: And it was really cool working with the developers of 3DS Max. You could influence how the product could work better. And then you’re helping artists do their job better. That’s really invaluable! And meeting Shawn Steiner was really epic!
[-26:51] Allan: Steiner is pretty awesome. Fred Ruff is just down the street from me in Portland (www.allanmckay.com/100/) He is doing Refuge VFX. My neighbor across the street is the head product manager of Autodesk. Nike is also down the street.
Adam: Fred and I have the same birthday. Say hi to him.
[-25:49] Allan: You’ve worked on and off with Sony. Now you’re in Vancouver. What has your relationship been like with them?
Adam: Um, I worked a couple of projects in Culver City: G-Force and Alice in Wonderland. We had a cool layout team there. A lot of people worked on cool stuff. Sony has always put a lot of effort into doing the art and the cinematography aspect of it. They’ve been very focused on that, almost on Pixar’s level. I respect them for that. Coming back to Vancouver presented new opportunities. They were growing the layout team. It was a great opportunity to jump back and see how far they’ve gone. We’ve been building some great new technology, including new motion capture technology. Layout has grown massively here. A lot of studios are focusing on that. It helps the movie, the storytelling, the budget.
[-23:44] Allan: It’s the foundation of the whole film!
Adam: Yes! We are figuring out new tools, it’s really fun. It’s more of a home now.
[-23:25] Allan: In the current position, what’s the typical day-to-day you’re running?
Adam: We’re working with the clients who are in LA; and up here, we’re doing the effects. The remote aspect is challenging but it’s something I’ve been prepared to do. Working on Ninja Turtles, we were working with Hong Kong and a different time zone. It’s easier here. We’re working closely with story and director on how we’re making the movie and sequences. That’s really exciting! We get to pitch ideas to the director. We get to put in some stuff that ends up in a movie.
The other side of it is that it’s quite technical. So it’s taking our work and passing it on to the animation department and making sure that the data is rock solid. It’s that creative aspect and helping other people develop their sequences. Both sides feel like a 50/50 split between the creative and the technical. I get satisfaction from both of those worlds.
[-21:08] Allan: I always find that either doing more concept illustration or previs, you have a lot of creative influence. That’s a misconception: We are 3D artists and we expect to have a lot of creative say. All of us in visual effects usually don’t have that creative say. We’re brought on to do a creative service. If you do more previs, that’s a chance to have more input. I’m sure you find that really rewarding.
Adam: Definitely! It’s also cool that we’re so international here. We have people here from Japan, Mexico, Australia, Europe. It’s really cool to work with all of these artists and they’re bringing some great ideas to the table. We cultivate that. We’re collaborate on a lot of stuff. It’s not just a stereotypical North American point of view.
[-19:05] Allan: What was it like coming from LA to Vancouver? I know the answer to this. Vancouver and LA are not that different from each other.
Adam: Well, I supposed to come up only for four months. I’ve been here for four years — if that tells you [how much] I like it. I’ve been up here before, I like the North West. And there are opportunities here to work on a lot of cool projects. Health care is amazing.
[-17:45] Allan: You don’t think about this stuff until you go to a new country. I ended up breaking a wrist before going to Vancouver. I didn’t know if I had any health coverage. Even as foreigners, you can just go to the doctor.
Adam: It’s not a perfect country, but it’s pretty close. It was easy to make the transition. The pace is great. I got a little tired of the LA stress. Here, I can walk to work. It’s clean.
[-16:30] Allan: I love Vancouver so much. I was sad to leave. I had to go to Berlin. I was living in Yaletown and I liked it there. For you, what are you thoughts on the growth that has happened in four years? When I left, the place blew up and became the heart of visual effects industry.
Adam: But it could have easily gone the other way. The momentum was building. Studios were realizing they were getting business incentives. And the artists came. You build up the infrastructure. The same way with CG: You build the infrastructure and it builds on itself. It’s a massive growth! It’s unbelievable. I think it will stay that way for a while.
[-13:42] Allan: In Australia, we had tax incentives on and off. Once you take them away, all the studios go away. I do want to see what Vancouver will be like once the incentives are taken away. I do think that there is enough business there, it’s hard to let it collapse. There are so many people there! It’s like Fox saying, “If you want to do business with us, you need to have a studio in Vancouver.” It’s one of these things you have to keep in mind. The only way to compete is to have a studio there.
Adam: And there is also competition in Toronto, Montreal. Friends have been getting job offers there.
[-12:02] Allan: Montreal jumped into it right away, which is great for the East Coast.
Adam: The talent here has grown. The projects are A-level. It’s pretty exciting. You get to meet people who are doing pretty cool things. It’s easy to move around and find work that you want to do.
[-11:03] Allan: The big question is: When I pop up there, what bar are we going to?
Adam: Plural: What bars!
[-10:55] Allan: Good point! I knew all my favorites in Yaletown. For you, where can people go to find out about you?
Adam: I have a website www.adam-3D.com. It’s more of a portfolio site. It has some of the cool stuff I’ve done.
[-09:57] Allan: In terms of finding work, by being smart and sustainable relationships in the beginning, most people won’t need to be applying for jobs. That’s an interesting aspect you need to focus on. You need to build healthy relationships. In 10 years, you shouldn’t be in a position to cut a reel. I loved Frantic Films, I was really fond of working with them. The last reel you cut should be a long time ago.
Adam: For sure! There will always be people who don’t know about you. You may not need to make that reel to get the gig. But there is something about that if there is someone you haven’t worked with, that you can present yourself in the best light. That’s valid! One of my friends just left Rainmaker, he’s been there for 18 years. He never had to cut a reel. It’s so rare these days. For me, I would bounce around every 3 years because I wanted a variety of experience. Other people like the stability, and that’s awesome. But if you’re going to bounce around, you still have to present a portfolio.
[-06:35] Allan: I’m the same way. I’ve only had 2 staff jobs in my entire life. One was Frantic, the other Ambience back in the day. There are so many opportunities around. I missed out on some great opportunities because I’d agreed on working on some shitty project. But you want to chase these opportunities.
Adam: Don’t let that get you down. Every project shapes who you are. Learn the most you can and do the best work you can on that! A brief side story on that: I’d finished Storks for Sony. It was something really fresh. They didn’t have another CG film lined up. In the meantime, they had this other movie called The Meg. I learned a lot from it, doing CG.
[-04:34] Allan: What’s the state of that film? Back in 2011, there were a lot of monster movies with all these ridiculous things.
Adam: You can Wikipedia its history. It’s based on a book series. It’s Jurassic Park on the water, basically. It’s a shark film. It’s been delayed but it looks amazing. We were laughing all the time, but someone is going to think it’s great!
[-02:26] Allan: This has been awesome! Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Adam: Thank you, Allan! It was great to catch up! Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s helping the industry!
I hope you liked this Episode. I want to thank Adam for doing this Podcast! Please leave a review on iTunes.
As I’ve mentioned, if you want to check out the free, high-end training that I’ve just put out, please go www.allanmckay.com/energyball/.
Next week, I will be back with Kat Evans. She’s been on a Podcast before: www.allanmckay.com/127/ and www.allanmckay.com/132/. She will be talking about insights on the industry and her career advice.
Until then — rock on!