Episode 105 — Ruben Mayor — Senior FX TD at Weta


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Episode 105 — Interview with Ruben Mayor, Senior FX TD at Weta Digital

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 105! I’m speaking with Ruben Mayor, Senior Technical Director at Weta. I’m excited for this one. I’ve known Ruben for I don’t even know how many years. He is a super talented Technical Director who’s worked for places like Mr. X in Toronto, Sony, ImageWorks, Weta and other places. This Episode is really cool. We got to shoot the shit about a lot of stuff:

– migrating to New Zealand;

– working at Weta;

– his career path to get to that point.

It is quite intentional how he’s planned out his entire career and moved through it successfully, and done some successful stuff along the way. I have an Episode coming with Willy Sussman, the top Immigration Attorney in New Zealand. So if you have any questions about working or visiting out there, tune in.

Let’s dive in!



There is a lot of cool stuff coming up. I’m super busy and super excited!

I. [-[1:00:28] I’ve mentioned my 90-Day Plan of Action. It’s crazy how much I’ve been getting done. One of the big things is a lot of solo Episodes. If you like the value of those, rest assured: There are more of those coming!

We’re getting close to the end of the year. I want to hear about your goals as you lead into 2018. I want December to be one of those months when we can hit hard.

II. [-[58:59] I’ve got NEW Free Training coming out. We just finished the shoot last week for that. It’s going to be a very character driven training. There is nothing like this online at all! I can proudly say that the quality and the level we’re going to hit with this — is pretty exceptional.

III. [-[58:23] I will be opening registration for the Live Action Series toward the end of the year. If you didn’t make it in last year because we sold out pretty quickly, I’ll be opening doors pretty soon.

If you’re not on the private mailing circle so that you can get the latest updates on all of this, go to sign up at allanmckay.com/inside. It’s free to do, of course. You’ll get a notification ahead of time on all the training and announcements.

IV. [-[57:10] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. Typically, we go on job interviews and either shoot ourselves in the foot by saying we charge less than we’re worth and getting the gig — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars accumulatively over time, on the table; rather than actually asking what we should be charging. At the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much and leaving yourself out in the cold.

I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your information — your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be worth. This is something I’m going to continue to build and flush out over time.

The key thing is, I don’t want to just showcase how much you should be worth — I want to hand you the tools to grow and learn:

– to negotiate better,

– to ask for the right amount of money in the right way

– lots of other tools!

The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! Put in your information and you will get instantly notified with how much you should be charging per hour, as a VFX Artist.



Ruben Mayor is a Senior FX TD at Weta Digital. Over the course of his career, he has traveled the world while working for giant studios like Sony Pictures Imageworks, The Mill, Mr. X. Ruben has worked on high profile films like Avengers: Infinity War, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dr. Who, Resident Evil, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and many more.

Ruben began his career in 2011 when he worked for nWave Digital Studios in Belgium. Before he discovered his passion for visual effects, he was an engineer for BMW.

In this Podcast, Ruben Mayor talks about the lessons he’s learned throughout his career: to always learn and improve your skills; to work hard and to take risks.


Ruben Mayor’s Website: http://aespid.com

Ruben Mayor on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4567614/

Ruben Mayor on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/rubenmayor

Ruben Mayor on CG Society: http://www.cgsociety.org/training/instructor/ruben-mayor

Ruben Mayor at IAMAG Master Classes: http://www.iamag.co/features/ruben-mayor-fx-reel/


[-[55:43] Ruben: Yes, so my name is Ruben Mayor. I’m originally from Switzerland. I’m currently working at Weta as an FX TD. I’ve moved quite a lot over the last few years, going from Switzerland to Belgium, London, Canada.

[-[55:23] Allan: Where have you NOT moved to is probably an easier question. 

Ruben: Well, Asia and South America, I think.

[-[54:59] Allan: That’s cool, man! What are some of the big projects that you’ve worked on of which you’re super proud?

Ruben: I’m usually not proud of my work. I’ve enjoyed it! They aren’t always the best movies. One of the recent ones I’ve enjoyed working on was Pixels. The movie really sucks, but the team was really great, more like a family. It was super interesting and technical to work on. Otherwise, the current one I’m working on is the new Avengers: Infinity War. That’s going to be a cool one!

[-[54:09] Allan: A few of my friends have been working crazy hours on Thor. I’m being really harsh on them. But I think Avengers is going to be a fun one.

Ruben: I kind of enjoyed working on Valerian. I personally enjoyed that movie. It looks cool!

[-53:32] Allan: I interviewed the VFX Supervisor Scott Stockdyk a couple of weeks ago (allanmckay.com/89/). My buddy Marc Simonetti is the Art Director on it (allanmckay.com/45/). Anything Luc Besson has directed is weird yet a fun journey. I can imagine what it’s like to work on something of that scale.

Ruben: We had to put a lot of shots into that one!

[-[53:02] Allan: As an artist, you’ve accomplished a lot. Going back to the beginning, how did you start out? Did you wake up one day and said, “I want to do visual effects! I want to be stressed and sleep deprived!”

Ruben: At some point, I was drawing some blue prints for the sports center just as an interest. I just asked one of my friends if he knew any 3D software. A day later, I got a box with 3DS Max. That’s how it started: looking at tutorials and learning the software. Then it became a hobby. Then it became a job. Learning the software got me there.

[-[51:59] Allan: Was it much of a learning curve for you? 

Ruben: Yeah, I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning, didn’t know anything about animation. I was just hanging around with primitive shapes.

[-[51:32] Allan: I remember having a few of my friends over after school because I’d made Twister in 3DS Dos. My friends weren’t as impressed as I was. I think that’s the interesting thing about VFX. It’s one of those unique occupations in which you need to be obsessed. You need to do the hard yards. Otherwise, you’ll never take off.

Ruben: You need to want it! You need to love your job. When I was teaching, some of my students were doing it because they didn’t know what else to do. They didn’t do anything with their careers. Others actually made it and have worked here at Weta. You see the ones who love their jobs!

[-[49:56] Allan: It occurred to me that Weta is one of those places: It collects some of the best artists from all over the world. There are people who will be successful and are able to get jobs. And there are others who are able to travel the world. With your career, what do you think you’ve done differently? Is it saying, “Fuck it!” and actually doing it. What are the key trends that get some careers to take of while others are staying still?

Ruben: You have to be able to take a lot of risk. It’s a challenge to give everything up and move to another country. I already had a family and a daughter when I started to move around. I actually turned out any small offers. It has to be a proper job offer with at least a one-year contract. You need to work super hard, being willing to get no in your face a bunch of times — and not give up despite of it. Just persevere and work hard, and learn from your mistakes. Try to find out: What could you be better at?

[-[47:26] Allan: What were some of the learning experiences for you? I know someone who just interviewed at Weta and talked crap about his former employer — and almost didn’t get the job. Have you had any realizations? 

Ruben: For me, it’s nothing personal. One of the times, I was turned down because I didn’t have enough Maya experience. So I focused on learning that. Another time it was, “You don’t have enough experience in Houdini”. I started to look into it. I’ve seen same kind of [mistakes] you’ve mentioned: behavior issues, or trying to sell themselves by bullshitting (unfortunately, they don’t understand the people on the other end have more experience). It could be anything: You may need to be more technical, or have more coding experience, depending on the job.

[-[44:59] Allan: I get asked this a lot. What if they ask you, “Do you know Maya?” and you don’t know it, what would you say?

Ruben: The first gig I had, I never used Maya. They needed somebody to rewrite their pipeline. I’ve never used Maya or Python at the time. I told them, “I never used it before, but you put me in the right team — I’m going to learn it!” And that’s exactly what happened: After a week, I was already rewriting some of the scripts into Python scripts. You need to show that you don’t know it, but at the end of the day, it’s just a package. It’s a tool. You know how to work with a specific tool, you just need to learn how to transport it into a new tool. You can’t be scared or ashamed of it. You can’t know everything anyway! That’s the cool thing about our jobs: You learn something every day.

[-[43:15] Allan: It’s problem solving, especially if your a TD. We both do a lot of teaching. Occasionally, I get students who don’t want to problem solve. That’s part of our job! You have to think on your feet. You’re right, there are some people who will try to bullshit their way through a job interview. You’re setting the bar really high. Having that honesty is important. That way they can cut you some slack.

Ruben: It takes you years to build your reputation. It takes seconds to destroy it.

[-[41:37] Allan: At the beginning of your career, where did you start out? What was the first big gig that you did?

Ruben: I started in freelancing, actually. Switzerland didn’t have a lot of companies, especially in features. The first gig I got was in Belgium. It was the first real gig I got. That was pretty cool. I learned Maya and Python.

[-[40:30] Allan: What was your first gig was like? I went to a place in Australia and learned more in two weeks there than I’d learned by myself.

Ruben: I definitely learned new things there. I just didn’t want to go home to be at a studio finally. That’s how it went initially.

[-[39:34] Allan: You’ve got to be obsessed. You can’t do this as a hobby. Did you have a technical background growing up?

Ruben: I always loved math and physics. I actually started working as an electronic engineer. I was really technical and that helped me a lot. I don’t consider myself an artist at all. I love putting together workflows and building the tools — and then handing them over to artists, “You make it look pretty.” My side is more the technical side of the job.

[-[38:19] Allan: I guess places like Sony and Mr. X would be perfect. They definitely favor technical artists there.

Ruben: Yeah, Mr. X was really cool! I definitely spent a lot of time working on tools there.

[-[38:00] Allan: Your next really big break would’ve been going to the Mill?

Ruben: Yeah, it was the Mill when they still had the film and tv department. I was a TD for a whole show.

[-[37:35] Allan: What was it like to work at the Mill, London, in comparison to other places? Again, both being the Mill. In general, it’s an iconic studio. 

Ruben: The main difference was: They really trusted you. We didn’t go for dailies like other companies. But I’m talking about their film department. We were able to work really fast. It was really interesting. A lot of communication with the departments.

[-[36:16] Allan: What are some of the shows you did? Dr. Who, Merlin, Sherlock, stuff like that?

Ruben: I started on Merlin, a couple of episodes. You gives you more pressure to deliver by the end of the week.

[-[35:32] Allan: From there, you went on to work at Mr. X in Toronto. I am curious to compare each place you’ve worked at. They’re so different from the workflow, to the pipeline. How much of a change was it for you after working at The Mill?

Ruben: One of the big changes was — other than going overseas — I had to learn Houdini. Until then, I was using Max and Maya. That’s when I started working on features as well. That was a new reason for excitement, new software, new shows! Because we were a medium size team, you’re able to be involved in what you like to do. I typically like the technical side of it. Then, I would be helping write plug-ins. That kind of a small shop allow you to do different things within one department. I learned a lot!

[-[33:28] Allan: That’s cool! For example, on Pompeii, what were you doing on that?

Ruben: I was working mostly on destructions. During preproduction, we had a dude who’d worked on 2012. He [told us about the kind of tools they had.] That’s where I came in, closing the gaps, [writing] toolsets. I worked a lot with everybody working on destruction. It was always challenging to get the data from Houdini to Maya.

[-[32:33] Allan: What was the pipeline for something like that, just more from a bird’s-eye view? Say, a shot comes in for Pompeii, it needs to go through the initial modeling and match move, then it goes to the previs destruction. What would be the steps?

Ruben: Um. It was mainly a storyboard driven show. I don’t remember erasing a lot of previs. From my memory, typically it was: Switch this part of the town with higher res models, prepped specifically for effects. We we gave them a lot of requirement for what we needed. We spent a lot of time in pre-production making sure they understood our needs. They were easily switch models from one shot to another, to give us what we needed. We had a nice workflow going on on that show. We would send it back — and they would texture all the interior faces while we would simultaneously work on it. Once the shot was approved, we would send it to lighting and they would render it. It was a pretty straightforward pipeline.

[-[30:48] Allan: How big were the teams working on this show?

Ruben: For that show, the biggest team were had while I was there. We had 25 [people] working on that show. We tried to keep some specialist for each task.

[-[30:11] Allan: What’s your opinion on that? When I was at ILM, an artist would take ownership of [his or her] shot. I didn’t expect that. I expected it to be very conveyor belt. For you, what do you think the better workflow is?

Ruben: I think they’re both good. It all depends on the TD. I think it’s a case by case, each has pros and cons. If you have one guy on destruction — one on plyometrics, the other guy is going to nail destructions because it’s his bread and butter. He knows it inside out. In the other case, it might be more rewarding if you do the entire shot, on a personal level. If you do everything, it’s a matter of ownership. I like both. I like to stay on one task, while the others focus on other parts of the shot.

[-[28:29] Allan: I think you’re right. It depends on the scale of the project. If you have the time to sit down and take ownership, it’s really rewarding. Having the same task, however, helps you get in the zone for the next few weeks. Going to Sony, what drove you to move around and travel a lot? Since you do have a family, is it about new challenges? What is the big drive?

Ruben: For me, it’s been always geographically where we want to live — and then looking for the best shop in that city. We didn’t plan to go to Toronto. My wife always wanted to be in New Zealand. Weta wasn’t the easiest company to work at so we had to find a back-up solution. Vancouver would be a really nice to live. Toronto came in between. We stayed there for 2.5 years. Challenges were not there for me and my wife hated the cold. So she said, “You have to find a job in Vancouver”. That’s why I went to Sony.

[-[26:00] Allan: What are some of the differences you found between Mr. X, The Mill and Sony?

Ruben: One of the big differences was the scale. Every time slightly bigger for me: a bigger department and the tools we had available. Going to Sony, we had a way bigger [rendering] farm and so many licenses available. I was like, WOW! Now, I don’t have to worry about this kind of stuff. That was one of the big things for me. Also, the amount of people to work with. Some of the guys from CG Workshops. You learn a lot of new things.

[-[24:56] Allan: How big was Sony at the time in Vancouver? 

Ruben: We were close to a thousand at some point, I think. They literally grew from 200 to 1,000 in over six months.

[-[24:31] Allan: Anytime I talk to someone in Vancouver, they tell me they’re looking for 700 FX TD’s. I used to live in Vancouver. When I was there, there were only 3 studios and only one of them was doing feature work. Literally a month after I left, the doors were open.

Ruben: Yeah, it’s insane. Just with VFX, I think it was close to a hundred at one point.

[-[24:00] Allan: What was Pixels like? It seems like a fun project.

Ruben: It was super cool! At first, I [thought I’d be] doing cubes. When I ended up there, it was a lot more complex. We had so many things to take care of, animation issues, regenerate on the fly. Everything was attribute driven. The slightest motion would destroy everything we had. It was a super technical show, at the end of the day. You learn a lot.

[-[22:55] Allan: Was the process pretty slow or fast? Was everything pretty realtime with what you were doing?

Ruben: I would never wait for 2 days for a destruction sim. I could wait for couple of hours because we can’t afford to wait day for something. When it comes to destruction, it was pretty fast. A sim would typically take an hour and a half. The destruction wasn’t the most challenging. It was different! It was more about the style of the creatures that was the most challenging.

[-[21:31] Allan: It looks fun! I’ve seen half the movie. There will be movies like that: It’s more about the concept that’s selling the film. When you finally took the plunge to move to New Zealand, what was the like? For you wife was it like “Mission accomplished!”?

Ruben: She knew what to expect. We did it, so we don’t have to move anymore. I was finally able to spend more time with my family. I’m literally living 5 minutes away from work. So, I have time to go home for lunch and dinner. We are able to have more of a social life, even though I’m working more hours. These are the kind of things that have changed our life.

[-[19:36] Allan: Do you know Dave Clayton? He’s one of the Animation Supervisors over there.

Ruben: No, not personally.

[-[19:26] Allan: He’s been there since 2001. I remember his commenting about going home for dinner every night. Last time I was there, there were building 2 more buildings. I thought it was funny that they were taking over space. I’ve never liked staff jobs but I’ve always loved the work Weta does. For you, first day going to Weta, what was that like?

Ruben: I was expecting some more time to get used to things. They were delivering a show so I had to go straight to work. I had to do some huge explosions, hoping to not screw them up. After a few weeks, you get used to the place and the people and just do your job.

[-[16:17] Allan: Whenever you start a new job, it’s not an ego thing — but you still want to prove yourself. It’s like going to prison: You have to knock someone out. You’ve worked on a bunch of stuff there: Valerian, Planet of the Apes, Avengers, Spectral. What’s Spectral?

Ruben: It was a project for Nexflix. You have these ghosts killing everybody. They’re trying to get in and figure out how to kill them. It was an interesting project, one of the bigger ones we did in Houdini.

[-[14:38] Allan: I wouldn’t picture Maya to be a go-to tool since 2008. I was pretty surprise to see they were still using it. 

Ruben: They have so many tools they’ve build around Maya.

[-[14:05] Allan: You, guys, work pretty deep in compositing, I assume. How much has that impacted your workflow?

Ruben: Pretty much everything is in deep comp. Honestly, it has not impacted anything! It made it easier, if anything. It always takes a bit more time, but I prefer to do that than worry about holdouts. Because holdouts are a thing of the past. You don’t have to worry any kind of issues in regards to that. If I just want a specific element. It makes it easier.

[-[13:09] Allan: Are there any other advantages you’ve found working in deep? Obviously, you’re not going to get as many shots kicked back for tweaks. You have more control. What are some of the other advantages you’ve found?

Ruben: I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t have to wait for longer renders because I don’t have to render everything together. I can just render a specific element. Like a shot on the War for the Planet of the Apes. I had to take care of the prison destruction. I could easily just comp my stuff, the avalanche. Rendering it all together would have been a nightmare. Plyometrics take forever, always. I could just do my reiterations and not worry about the details you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That’s one thing I love. We had quite a small team on a destruction.

[-[10:51] Allan: I had a few friends work on Apes and message me, “The movie looks amazing! It’s really inspiring.” Then my buddy would write disgruntled little comments about getting revisions on a pixel. It is interesting. Obviously, Weta is a place where you’re going to work. But there is rarely movie that they make that’s not iconic. Once the project is finished, you can never go back and make it better. I’ve had those! Apes, Avengers are the projects everyone is going to see. You want to be able to stand behind your work.

Ruben: Definitely!

[-[09:06] Allan: For you now, it sounds like you’re pretty settled. Did you get residency?

Ruben: Yes, we just got our residency. That makes it so much easier as well. In a couple of years, we’d like to go to South Island. We’re planning to stay here and have our kids grow up here.

[-[08:38] Allan: What was it like: New Zealand compared to any other country?

Ruben: It’s completely different. People are different. You feel like you’re on an Island. The lifestyle is a lot more relaxed. You feel pressure in big cities and you realize that only when you go somewhere else. It’s super quiet here. You work a lot but then you go home — and it’s peaceful.

[-[07:35] Allan: Australia and New Zealand are almost identical in a lot of ways. I like that vibe, especially in Wellington. 

Ruben: It is beautiful. You don’t have to drive far to enjoy some beautiful beaches.

[-[06:33] Allan: What kind of stuff where you doing on Apes?

Ruben: I had two big and two small shots. The big shots were: The prison being swallowed by the avalanche and the big wall destroyed by explosions. I had to do the wall collapse in the fire. It was pretty cool.

[-[05:48] Allan: For any FX TD’s who want to follow your footsteps, do you have any advice for up and coming artists on how to break into the industry or how to grow their career?

Ruben: Get a great reel! You have to show what you’re able to do. And you can’t just copy and paste a tutorial as a reference. Don’t do the exact same shot. Use it as a baseline. I don’t need someone who can copy the settings — I need someone who understands how it works! From a junior artist, we don’t expect 50 shots. You can have just one great shot. The expectations are not the same for junior and senior artists. Focus on one thing — and do it well! Understand where you are in the workflow.

[-[03:38] Allan: I remember coming up with ideas for my reel. It’s easy to end up with a pile of crap. It’s better to have your employer ask to see more. Less is definitely more.

Ruben: I don’t think I’ve ever had a reel that’s over 2 minutes.

[-[02:29] Allan: I now have a reel over 5 minutes. But it’s not designed for employers. It’s designed for clients. It’s a sample reel. If people want to find out more about you, where can they go?

Ruben: I have my website: http://aespid.com. I have my LinkedIn and my IMDb profiles.

Allan: Thanks again for doing it!

Ruben: Yeah, thanks. It was cool.


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I had a blast. I hope you’ve gained a lot. That is it for this Episode. Please leave a review on iTunes.

Next Episode will be with Red Shift developers. Red Shift is killing it right now. I’ll leave it here for now.

Set some goals for the end of the year. I will be putting out a lot of content to help with that.

Rock on!

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