Episode 145 — HALON Entertainment — Brad Alexander
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Episode 145 — HALON Entertainment — Brad Alexander
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 145! I’m speaking with one of the founders of HALON Brad Alexander. HALON does a lot of amazing previs, from video games to feature films like Star Wars, Valerian, Transformers, War of the Worlds. We get into a lot of great stuff, including his being a partner at a successful studio in Los Angeles.
Brad is going to be at the San Diego Comic Con this year. I’ve always wanted to go. But if you are in San Diego, please go.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH BRAD ALEXANDER
Brad Alexander is a co-founding partner at HALON Entertainment, a full-service visualization company that provides a state-of-the-art platform of cutting edge technology, to bring their clients’ creative vision on screen. Brad has worked on such legendary features as War of the Worlds, Transformers, World War Z; as well as spent 4 years as a CG Supervisor on James Cameron’s Avatar.
Prior to co-founding HALON, Brad studied at Full Sail in Florida; but before graduating, he was recruited by George Lucas work on previs for Star Wars, Episodes II and III, as well as the George Lucas Director’s Cut of THX 1138 at JAK Films. Since then, Brad has collaborated with world-class filmmakers across the industry to help create some of cinema’s most compelling stories.
Brad has partnered with Ang Lee as the primary Previs Supervisor on the Academy Award winning feature Life of Pi. He has supervised Snow White and the Huntsman; previs and postviz supervised Star Trek Into Darkness with J.J. Abrams. When work started on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brad again teamed up with Abrams to supervise both the U.S. and U.K. teams. More recently, Brad has supervised on Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Brad will be participating on a panel at the San Diego Comic-Con this year: https://www.comic-con.org/cci/my-schedule
In this Episode, Brad talks about the importance of passion in one’s career; as well as his experience of working and collaborating with directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Ang Lee.
HALON’s Website: https://www.halon.com
Brad Alexander’s HALON Profile: https://www.halon.com/team/bradley-alexander/
Brad Alexander on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1104491/
HALON Entertainment on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HALONEntertainment/
HALON Entertainment on Twitter: @HALONprevis
International Comic Con in San Diego Schedule: https://www.comic-con.org/cci/my-schedule
[-[46:20] Brad: Yeah, basically, I grew up in the South and I joined the Air Force. I’ve always been an artist, been drawing since I was 5; and I’ve always loved technology. I put two and two together while I was in the Air Force and decided to go the film school. But before I went to film school, I taught myself Maya and ended up teaching the teachers in school. I did not graduate but ended up getting hired by George Lucas to work on the prequels of Star Wars II and III. I met my business partner there and we came down to LA. We started HALON Entertainment about 15 years ago, and we’ve been cranking out movies ever since.
[-[45:36] Allan: That’s cool! I was curious about that. Was that for JAK Films?
Brad: It was! It was named after George’s kids.
[45:25] Allan: I was meant to work on Attack of the Clones. At one point, they were looking at doing all the previs in Australia. At the time, I was doing previs and Maya. At the last moment, they decided JAK Films was going to handle the whole thing. It’s all your fault!
Brad: Were you ever on IRC?
[-[44:49] Allan: It’s so weird! I was in Vegas for the weekend. I organized a business retreat, with other artists. I used to be on EFnet.
Brad: Same here! Wait, what was your name?
[-[44:31] Allan: I think it was “Machete”.
Brad: Dude, you’re “Machete”! Get the fuck out of here! I’m “Fusion VFX”.
[-[44:22] Allan: No way! That’s so funny! For me, I never had mentors. And recently, I realized we had EFnet. There was so much amazing talent in that chatroom. I totally remember you too! I honestly feel there was so much talent in 1997-1999.
Brad: That was like the birth of the technology! It gave us the ability to get what’s in our heads out the fastest. The thing with Maya since it’s conception is the agronomics of using the controls to model something as fast as you can with sculpting — that was revolutionary! You couldn’t do that with Power Animator. Now you have Zbrush where you have full on contact sculpting. It’s insane.
[-[42:25]73] Allan: To jump around, for you with joining the Air Force, when did you realize you wanted to make films? When was that aha moment?
Brad: That was a really big decision! When I was in the military, I worked on the weapons systems, and I had to work on all the wiring. I was in Vegas. Being the military gave me time to sit back and think. I realized how much I loved technology. I started learning how to model. I did a lot of flyers in Vegas. I learned 3D modeling and I thought, “Wait a second! There is a community for this.” That’s when I found EFnet and a community of artists. I think at that time Alias Wavefront came to Vegas and they did this unveiling of Maya. I made a decision to not stay in Vegas. I wanted to do something with my life and put my passion into it and be happy when I come home at night — which meant doing something I loved. We’re actually making beautiful things and we contribute to someone’s vision — and I live for that!
[-[40:38] Allan: That’s so cool! Going back to Bingo for a second, I’m afraid to go back and watch that again. It looked so good back in the day!
Brad: After I saw Bingo, two years later at SIGGRAPH I got to sit down and have a beer with Chris Landreth.
[-[40:11] Allan: So when did you officially make the transition?
Brad: I basically was married to a showgirl at the time. I was going to school. In my progress, the marriage didn’t work out and I didn’t finish school. But I ended up being hired by George Lucas to do the Star Wars prequels.
[-39:38] Allan: But how did that happen? To segue for a second, my fiance is Canadian. I did an interview with her about wanting to be an artist (allanmckay.com/99/). Both of her parents were in the military and they kept telling her get “a real career”…
Brad: Oh, my gosh, I have a great story here! When I decided to go to school, I went to Full Sail which is in Florida. That’s what I left Vegas for!
[-38:56] Allan: Director Ryan Connolly did the same thing (allanmckay.com/133/).
Brad: So I went there and there was a class. The class was: set up a mock resume, set up a demo reel. “We aren’t going to send it out — we’re just going to practice.” Meanwhile, I’ve already been creating all of this work. I had so much to do! I got home from class one day and I started looking at some ads for jobs. There was a blind ad. In the project, you had to figure out what you wanted to work on and what you wanted to do. Mine was to work on Star Wars. There was a blind ad looking for VFX artists for a high profile feature film. There was nothing else attached to that. I sent this thing off. I didn’t expect much. Three days later, I get a response from LucasFilm.com. I was like, “Are you kidding me?!” My heart dropped. They asked me to send a demo reel. I didn’t have a demo reel! I stayed up two weeks straight, slamming and making as much as could. I sent this reel off, didn’t hear anything. I finally heard back, “Can you get here to Sky Walker Ranch on a Friday?” It was a Wednesday and I’m a broke student in Florida. I scrounge up money and fly in, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, crying — I could not believe it! And they were basically like, “Yeah, we want you to start here on Monday.” What?! It was a complete transition, it was insane. And that’s where I met my business partner.
[-[36:29] Allan: Yeah, you started on Monday because you took Allan’s job. That’s so cool! Those are the situations you do a “what if”, and most people aren’t going to do anything. But that’s usually the big, life altering event. You ever wonder what if you didn’t apply?
Brad: I do wonder if I didn’t make [those] decisions. If I didn’t go for what I wanted to do and just sat back. That’s not in my blood. I can’t NOT.
[-[35:56] Allan: I have an interview coming up with two of my buddies who are film directors. They always won these contests wherever they went because most people would never apply for them. They would see it in a newspaper and not try. They would just clean up everything.
Brad: You see the most ambitious projects coming out of one person these days. And then you see groups of 30 people make something mediocre because they don’t put their soul into it. It’s crazy!
[-[35:01] Allan: My fiance ended up trying to make her dad happy [by going into] the Air Force, into their weapons tech. It’s about the course correction. You know where your heart is so you might as well obsess about it.
Brad: You know, the funniest thing about it is one of the attributes of being in the military, you saw the flight dynamics. One of the things we do at HALON — is animate space ships. We’re the space ship guys. Everyone calls us that. I worked on Episode VII and I basically sat with J.J. [Abrams] in a room for a month, and did this desert chase sequence. But I think about all the flight dynamics I’ve seen. I actually got to go up in an F-15 and I knew the feeling of being inside and pulling the G’s. It was nice to communicate that in an artistic form.
[-[33:35] Allan: And when you worked with J.J., was he working remotely?
Brad: When we were on Star Wars, we were at Bad Robot for 4-5 months. I traveled to London with him. As they were shooting, I set up a small previs team and we did a couple of sequences while we were there.
[-[33:17] Allan: That’s so cool! It’s full circle. I love leaning into those moments. I just interviewed Kevin Baillie [at Atomic Fiction] and I feel like putting a disclaimer: You don’t go from school to working with George Lucas.
Brad: Yeah, I was right behind him and Kevin was such a rockstar! They went on to do the Orphanage. I was very proud of that guy.
[-[31:08] Allan: I think it’s really awesome! What was it like during that whole period of being at LucasFilm? Was it a culture shock?
Brad: It was amazing! When George Lucas would walk into the room and tell me what to do on my monitor, I would look over my shoulder, “Is anyone seeing this?” This is insane! I was melting at the same time and trying to digest the notes he was giving me. I was very focused. I would do everything they’d tell me to do 10 times over, until they would tell me to stop! All I wanted to do was make it perfect for his vision. That’s what we now do as a company: We make directors’ visions as best and as quickly as we can. The evolution of what it was: Using regular Maya and Viewport, crappy textures. Now we are using Unreal Engine and amazing ambient inclusion and these gorgeous models we get from the final VFX vendors. We are starting to hit a place where our previs are starting to hit final — and it is crazy. We used to joke about it, 10 years ago. George would say, “That looks great, just final it.” Now we are looking at the shots and they almost look final.
[-[29:23] Allan: Have you thought of creating a small division and take this piece of a sequence and finish it yourself? I mean you’ve already done the work. It’s probably cost effective anyway to keep it in-house.
Brad: Eh, we’re already kind of doing that, on projects I can’t speak of yet. We lay the groundwork on the show we do. We basically hand over the blueprint. We just finished Pacific Rim. I put on a mo-cap suit and walked around. We finished the sequence and sent it to final it. I did frame by frame, “Dude, that’s my motion capture on the screen!” It translates. It’s pretty awesome!
[-[28:12] Allan: How long did you stick around for? Was it for just Attack of the Clones, or for other projects?
Brad: The great thing about the Lucas team is it’s a big family culture, which is what we took over in our HALON team. We respect each other and everyone is cool and happy. When we were on Star Wars II and we knew there would be Star Wars III, but there was a lull in between. And George was like, “We have to do some stuff to THX 1138!” And I was like, “Sweet!” I think it was 200-300 visual effects shots and we went to ILM. We shaved our heads and we were doing the background stuff. We bridged us into episode 3. And then my business partner and I went to work with Steven Spielberg, he helped us a lot to get started on War of the Worlds. That’s when we opened shop in Santa Monica.
[-[26:28] Allan: War of the Worlds got a lot of attention for the previs. Spielberg gave a lot of praise to relying on previs.
Brad: Oh, my gosh, I have the best story there! I get in there and he starts to talk about doing an airport crash, he drew this thing on a sticky note. I took this 747 model and broke it apart. I structured it, put a 16 X 9 frame on it. And I said, “Is this was you’re thinking?” He was like, “YES!” Two weeks later, we’re driving into the lot, there was a 747 ripped apart into two parts on two trailers. I thought, “Is this what I modeled?” We’d walk up to to it: It was this huge plane structure ripped apart
[-[25:05] Allan: One of my buddies, who worked on Pacific Rim, building robots. Instead of doing it all in 3D, he got to see it in reality. When you start your own business, there has to be a moment of hesitation.
Brad: There is! I owe my grandfather the biggest credit. When I wanted a computer in high school — he gave me a computer. When I got out of the Air Force and told everyone what I wanted to do, everyone was like, “What are you talking about?” If I could get a message to anyone: Follow your heart and don’t listen to anyone telling you cannot do something. You can do anything you want to!
[-[23:45] Allan: Yeah! That’s critical. Knowing that everything was possible, how would you do it? Most people would tell you to give up. As soon as you get into the right mindset, you have to think — how would you do it?
Brad: You have to have structure. I studied my craft before I went to school for it. Which gave me a huge advantage! If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way. I just did it because I loved it so much, and that’s just passion! That’s what drives you.
[-[22:22] Allan: You, guys, have also worked at Lightstorm, is that correct?
Brad: Oh, yeah. I CG Supervised Avatar for 4 years, with Jim.
[-[22:17] Allan: I love how casually you say that! The first time I saw Avatar in Lucas’ theatre, at the Ranch. Such a massive film! How did that come to be?
Brad: After we finished doing War of the Worlds, Dan [Gregoire] set up an interview with Brook Breton. I walked into this room, in a building I didn’t know. It was at Lightstorm Entertainment. They asked me to tell them everything I’ve done. Brook told me to previs a sequence as a test. They threw 60 storyboards at me. I was working on it by myself for a week and a half. There was no mo cap. It looked terrible! I was able to tell the story enough. They wanted to pull me into this mo cap realm. I said, “By the way, I have some artists I could pull in.” They started bringing people from elsewhere. It was awesome and everyone got along. We worked together as a family. I can’t urge that enough when it comes to production. You can’t pressure too much. If you do, the work won’t come out. Keep it cool. The team kept growing. I ended up supervising. My job turned from creative to very logistical, left-brain stuff. We made the film. After Avatar, I made some great contacts. Some of the guys worked at HALON for a while.
[-[19:03] Allan: Starting out HALON, how did it get going? Was there a lot of traction from the get-go?
Brad: We knew we could to this for Star Wars. For Dan and I, that’s the conglomerate of sci fi. We did that! So we thought we could do this every other film. We knew how to set up a composition and tell the story really well. That’s what we did. Steven helped us out a lot on War of the Worlds. We met a lot of people and started networking. Now, it’s film after film. These days, we have up to 6 films going at the same time.
[-[17:36] Allan: That’s so cool! For you, what’s the attraction to previs? Does having the close relationship with a director [play a part]?
Brad: Yes, definitely! But also, we are a service company. It goes different ways. There are some projects [on which] we don’t interact with the director. But then there are projects on which the director shares the vision and is with us every day. It runs a gambit. We do commercials and those are the ones we don’t get a lot of director interaction on. On films, we do a lot! The reason I wanted to stay in previs all my life is because of having that creative decision alongside with the director. They and supervisors give us a lot of say. We have an opportunity [to collaborate]. What if I add this shot here? What if we do this epic idea here?
[-[15:34] Allan: That’s exactly it! You have a chance to put in your idea. How do you think HALON stands out from the competitors?
Brad: I think we’re more of a family cultured company. We aren’t a revolving doors kind of company that hires and fires on every project. We try to keep good artists going. For me, I care a lot about people. I hate politics! Business is business, but I want people to be comfortable in order to do what they love to do.
[-[14:20] Allan: That’s cool, man! In general, the work you’re doing is fucking awesome. To talk about some tools: What are the main tool sets you use? Obviously Maya and Unreal Engine. I’d love to hear about the realtime rendering.
Brad: Before Viewport 2.0 came out with Autodesk which is a nightmare…
[-[13:37] Allan: Can I interrupt? I love how in May 1 and 2, you’d hit play blast and the screensaver would kick on! It took them 70 versions to fix that. If you didn’t catch it, you’d send that to the client!
Brad: Been there, done that! The evolution of getting your vision on the screen from Maya: Before Viewport 2.0 came out, I thought it was fluid but it didn’t look great. Viewport 2.0 came out and you can’t play blast anything. We had scenes with so much texture and geometry loaded — working on epic films — and Maya is choking on it. Here comes Unreal, which is fantastic! The pipeline, the way to work into Unreal is very intricate. It took us a long time to figure it out. We still work a little differently on each show. It takes a bit of front loading, but once you’ve done that, it looks frigging gorgeous! It plays quick and looks solid in the end!
[-[11:36] Allan: What was the transition like?
Brad: As a company, we want to make our images look amazing. I want my clients to say, “Holy fuck, that looks great!” With Viewport 1.0, it didn’t look that great. With Unreal, you don’t have to do all that work. It doesn’t have the speed. Doing Unreal stuff is a little slower.
[-[10:40] Allan: What about the other tools you rely on in your productions?
Brad: We’re constantly evolving, it’s crazy! When we started, we had no motion capture. Now we have a small volume. We have a fancier camera. We’ve given our stuff to Pacific Rim and they’re actually using it, it’s crazy! Motion capture is an amazing tool. Like I said, we’re on the cusp of video game engines starting to final things. I think we’re on the cusp of facial capture, give it 5 more years. Think about 10 years ago!
[-[09:40] Allan: Yeah, it was so disconnected!
Brad: Think of the old IRC days. The one thing I had passion for was character and how to rig it and do muscle systems. ILM was my dream, how did they do that? That’s when I got into particle physics and dynamics and effects. That’s how I came across you, you were like the Fume guru! I found out you worked on Destiny.
[-[08:32] Allan: Going back to IRC, do you remember Jesse Hayes. He is a modeling Sup at ILM. Jesse was creating all of these characters back in the day. It’s amazing to see where everyone went!
Brad: I stayed in touch with him for while. I think he was in Northern California at a game company.
[-[07:23] Allan: He is always making things. It’s interesting to see that. It’s a valuable lesson with networking. You never know where people are going to end up and how you end up working together.
Brad: I still can’t believe you’re Machete! You have to stop by our office and grab a beer. We have this huge facility with a new client. I think I can give you a tour.
[-[06:40] Allan: I’m coming back in June. Having a few beers would be fun! One question I do have is about VR. I have a sneaking suspicion you’ve been messing around with that a lot.
Brad: We are using some VR tools to help directors see their vision! I’ve worked with directors who embrace technology. I worked with Ang Lee on Life of Pi. Anytime I brought up motion capture or virtual camera, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He likes to keep it simple and I think that [style] has its place. It gets the story out quicker. I have my own sci fi projects. Personally, after I get off work, I don’t want to look at them.
[-[04:20] Allan: This has been fucking awesome! Thanks for doing this.
Brad: Seriously, man, I was completely in shock when my producer said you messaged us and wanted to chat. But I had no idea you’re Machete! I’m full circle happy.
[-[03:46] Allan: We are in different places in our lives now. I was a little kid, 14 years old. I was in Australia and the internet was pretty new. But none of us would have connected if it weren’t for that.
Brad: Where were you from?
[-[03:15] Allan: Brisbane. Just up north from Sydney.
Brad: In between us landing Ghost Rider, I got to live in Melbourne. We had such a good time there!
[-[02:23] Allan: This has been fucking cool! I’ll let you know when I’m in LA. I’ll give you a heads up and we can get some drinks together.
Brad: It’s super cool to reconnect with you! I’m smiles right now. Rock on, dude!
[-[01:43] Allan: I’ll definitely stay in touch.
Brad: I’m going to go cook steak and lobster for my mom. Bye, man!
I want to thank Brad for taking the time to chat. Next Episode will be with Kathleen Ruffalo, Crew Manager at Framestore. If you want to work at Framestore — this is the Episode for you!
Please review this Episode with Brad on iTunes. If you’re attending the Comic Con in San Diego, say hello to Brad!
Sign up for the free training at allanmckay.com/plasma/.
I’ll be back next week. Until then — rock on!
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