Episode 148 — Kevin Baillie — Atomic Fiction

 

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Episode 148 — Kevin Baillie — Atomic Fiction

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 148! I’m speaking with Kevin Baillie from Atomic Fiction. He is one of the Founders. He is also CEO of Conductor Technologies, a cloud-based renderer. Kevin is definitely an authority and early adopter of cloud rendering. Atomic Fiction is one of my favorite studios to work at! It’s located in Oakland, California and in Montreal in Canada. This is going to be a really cool Episode.

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

I. [-1:06:17] I have a brand new website now: www.allanmckay.com. It has a lot of great resources and assets for your career.

II. [-[1:05:42] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. Typically, we go on job interviews; and when asked what we charge, we 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 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 charging. 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 beyond that and learn:

  • to negotiate better;
  • to ask for the right amount of money in the right way;
  • lots of other additional 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.

 

INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN BAILLIE

Kevin Baillie is a Co-Founder and VFX Supervisor at Atomic Fiction, a VFX company with studios in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Montreal. His career began when he joined Lucasfilm’s JAK Films division at the age of 18, as a pre-vis artist on Star Wars Episode I. After Lucasfilm, Kevin supervised at ImageMovers Digital and helmed VFX at the Orphanage on critically-acclaimed movies such as Hellboy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Since launching Atomic Fiction, Kevin has supervised visuals for two Star Trek movies, two Transformers franchise installments, as well as the award-winning effects for Robert Zemeckis’s live action films Flight, The Walk, Allied and most recently, Welcome to Marwen.

He is also CEO of Conductor Technologies, a company that offers high-capacity, on-demand rendering to its clients (both freelancers and big studios) using cloud computing technologies.

In this Episode, Kevin talks about joining Lucasfilm straight out of high school, gaining experience and insight by supervising at other studios and eventually co-founding Atomic Fiction and launching Conductor.

 

[-[1:04:19] Allan: Do you want to introduce yourself?

Kevin: Yeah, sure! I’m Kevin Baillie. I’m a Co-Founder at Atomic Fiction, a visual effects studio, as well as the CEO at Conductor Technologies where we build a platform for cloud rendering in animation and visual effects space.

[-[1:03:59] Allan: That’s awesome! Did you always want to work in film or was it something you fell into later?

Kevin: Yeah. We’ve worked together so you know I’m passionate about this stuff to the nth degree. When I was a kid, my good buddy Ryan and I used to go to the movies in Seattle. [We saw films] like ET and Back to the Future. We were passionate about those but it wasn’t until we saw Jurassic Park and the making of it that we realized that there were people behind it. We were so inspired! We picked it up as a hobby at our high school. It wasn’t until we were filmed for a documentary that was funded by George Lucas about how public education and technology were working together — and we were invited by Lucas to visit the Skywalker Ranch — that we thought, “This could be an actual job!” I was convinced I was going to be a lawyer and then this switch flipped in my head: This hobby of mine could lead to something! Twenty four years later, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

[-[1:02:19] Allan: That’s so cool! Why did you want to be a lawyer? What about that made you gravitate toward it?

Kevin: Um. Type A personality! I love to be right! I loved debating. My mom said I used to love arguing. In my early years, I had to fight that — [because] visual effects is such a collaborative space, right? I’m very glad I didn’t become a lawyer. I probably have Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park to thank for that.

[-[1:01:33] Allan: When I post on Facebook, “What’s the movie that got you started,” it’s either Star Wars or the next phase is Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. Occasionally. But when someone would say Harry Potter, then it’s like, “Man, you’re way too young!”

Kevin: You know what’s crazy is there is a generation of folks who’ve worked with comic fiction. I was in an interview the other day. An artist we hired sited Hellboy as their inspiration and that was one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on. I forget how old I was, 23-24. That was my first CG Supervising gig. This movie I’ve worked on inspired someone to get into the business — how frigging cool is that! It also made me feel old.

[-[1:00:34] Allan: That’s awesome though! It’s great to see that connection! I’m always interested in diving into one’s history. Your going to the Skywalker Ranch and meeting George Lucas, for a lot of people it’s a dream come true. What was it like for you, guys? You were, what, 15-16?

Kevin: We were 16 years old. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. We showed up on a Sunday. They meant for us to show up on a Monday, they just got the dates wrong. They put us up in this beautiful cottage [where] they put up directors at. Ten minutes into being there, this green BMW 7 Series pulls up and George Lucas steps out. Ryan and I ran out and accosted him like fan boys. He was like, “Oh yeah, you’re the guys from Seattle”. We spent the rest of the day babysitting his youngest daughter and son and watching movies that “Uncle Spielie” had made. The next day, we got a tour of the Star Wars Episode I art department. We were two of the 12 first people to have seen concept art for the Star Wars prequels. After that, we got an e-ticket tour of ILM with Rob Coleman and Dennis Muren and all these people we’d seen on…

[-[58:41] Allan: Oh, the making of! I remember Rob Coleman being on everything. It was this whole other world.

Kevin: Yeah, they were artisans, yes? We sat at the theatre at the original ILM getting sneak previews of the Star Wars trailers. We were just floored! When we got back home, we knew we had no choice but to do this for a career. We set out crafting a video — that was loosely based on the previs we had seen — aimed at getting us a job after high school. We would send out a letter and a videotape of our progress. About 2 weeks before graduating, I remember picking up a voicemail from Rick McCallum saying, “Stop sending us letters and videos. You got the fucking job!” That’s how that went down.

[-[57:08] Allan: That’s so awesome! When you were young, it’s important to have that fire under your butt! That’s so cool to be able to go off and be persistent and send your work. Do you experience that a lot now?

Kevin: You know, it doesn’t happen as often as I want it to. That passion and determination in the face of impossible odds is somewhat of a rarity. When I see it, I grab onto it tightly. Those people are special and I relate to them closely! If you have a passion for this, there are avenues out there. It’s enough of a rarity to see great work that people pour their soul into it. If you’re one of those people, you can do it and annoy people; and if your work is great — it will stand out, I guarantee it! My story can be your story.

[-[55:21] Allan: So what happened after you and Ryan got the job?

Kevin: Well, we showed up at Skywalker Ranch not knowing if we were going to be getting coffee and making copies, or doing art. To be honest — we didn’t care! We did make some copies, but we were also sat down in front of these power Mac work stations with Electric Image in Form-Z and After Effects installed and we were taught previs for Episode I. On 2-3 weekly basis, we would go to the editor’s rooms and work with Martin Smith and Ben Burtt and George Lucas. We were working with George Lucas directly. It was an insane learning experience! That was a crash course in how to tell stories with visuals. There were some amazing people and we made friends, one of whom was Doug Chiang who went on to co-found ImageMovers Digital with Robert Zemeckis. That was another important lesson! These relationships, even early in my career, have come back again and again.

[-[53:30] Allan: I think relationships are so critical. You definitely leverage that with many creatives. How important do you think for people to take relationship building seriously?

Kevin: It’s everything! For a company that values humans! The people that I work with make or break it, I’m not going to set myself up to have a bad day. I want people who are going to support me. It’s not just centered around skills but relationships. There are places where there is a flurry of hiring, like in Vancouver. What it breeds is [a mindset that] after you walk out of the door, you can get a job two hours later. Which is true. But that bridge that you burn will come back to bite you eventually. Every great relationship has come back to me over the course of the last 15 years. I’m really thankful for that, even when things weren’t going right. Anytime there is hard stuff happening, we can approach it collaboratively — even if we’re just honest and end a relationship — it pays dividends down the line.

[-[50:44] Allan: That’s really great advice! To fast forward a bit, how long before you jumped over to the Orphanage?

Kevin: I was at the Star Wars art department for a couple of years and then took a brief break in between Episodes I and II to do some previs for Titan A.E. The Orphanage was just getting started and they were looking for their first employees. That was 1999. I was there for 7 years and it was one of the most profound learning experiences, for both my artistic and leadership skills.

[-[49:40] Allan: I think that place is amazing! I always wanted to pop over there and see the work you were doing. The stuff you were doing was definitely smaller shots but they were amazing, be it Hellboy or Sin City. What was it like to see that company grow?

Kevin: It was the best kind of chaos! The company was started by artists. The business is hard and it was really hard back then. We, as a company, didn’t have a culture of investing in technology. We were also in a historic building so it was hard to get enough power to cool the render farms. The team was under-resourced. To make up for it, people poured their souls into the work. It was almost like going to war. On Hellboy, I worked a 134-hour work week, followed by 128-hour week. But I loved it! It showed on the screen, the heart that the artists put into it. It just ended up being too hard and not getting the right jobs at the right time.

[-[47:25] Allan: Having that experience and the lessons of good and bad, do you think that you were able to leverage that into your studio? One of the things I’ve always talked to you about was how to leverage your clout or avoid growing too quickly. You’ve always managed that well. Was that beneficial to have the experience at Orphanage?

Kevin: Yeah, most certainly! This is the thing that Ryan and I strive to do: To look at the good and bad lessons and give those the same weight. Let’s figure out why things didn’t work. It’s about being introspective. Growing too fast on Day After Tomorrow and Hellboy, that was bad. But there were some great things too! It gave Ryan and I major opportunities. I was supervising on Harry Potter when I was 25 years old. Where else does that happen? That happened because they had no one else to do the work. Sink or swim! Fortunately for me, I was either too naive or had some skill managing people and visuals, I was able to parlay that into successes. Which allowed me to move onto ImageMovers Digital and being a supervisor there.

[-[44:28] Allan: You, guys, have always had a long standing relationship with Robert Zemeckis. Is that were that was formed?

Kevin: Yeah, so Doug Chiang had been Zemeckis’ digital art department up until that point. Zemeckis loved working with him so much he [invited him] to be at the genesis of the new studio when Disney offered that opportunity. He pulled together a team of the best people he’s worked in the past. I happened to be one of the non-concept art employees that started there. Over the course of 4 years, we’ve expanded that place to over 700 people over two sites. We did Christmas Carol. We did Mars Needs Moms. Six month before we finished [that film], Disney said, “This will be your last movie”. We finished it ahead of schedule and under budget. We knew that everyone was moving on after that movie, so we just had fun. At ImageMovers, I learned the polar opposite lessons of what I saw at the Orphanage. We had the resources, we could hire anyone we wanted — but there was still a lot of problems. It was sad to see these resources see sitting unused. Leading into the idea to start Atomic Fiction, cloud competing played a big role in that because we’d seen both the starvation and abundance of resources. We thought, “Let’s find the best of both worlds”.

[-[41:42] Allan: When did that idea come to you and Ryan to go do your own thing? That’s ballsy to do. I’ve been in that situation on a smaller scale. Having experience with two big studios closing, what made you decide to do it?

Kevin: Well, I think we were a little naive about the business ownership side of it. We kind of knew the basics, but neither one of us ran a business before or had an MBA. We had a consulting business back in high school. That was the closest we’ve ever come. So we knew enough for it to be dangerous — but not enough to scare us off. I’m pretty grateful for that naivete now. Seeing that come to a fruition and to being true from doing this video that got us a job with George Lucas. My mom still has a picture of our living room being a mess while Ryan and I are passed out: We worked 80 hours while going to high school and while holding a job at Microsoft! It was impossible, yet our ignorance sort of helped us persevere through that. Atomic Fiction has been just a grown up version of that.

And at the time, Digital Domain was going bankrupt. So was Cafe FX and the Orphanage. But there was so much work out there! There was a log of bad news in the industry. But there was so much work! How was it possible that everyone was shutting their doors. We just had to figure out how to skin it right — and then we’d be alright. And it turned out to be true.

[-[38:39] Allan: I remember 2011, even in LA everything was drying up a lot. How did it happen for you? How did it get off the ground.

Kevin: We came from ImageMovers Digital. Our first employees had the pedigree of doing animation. We started there naturally. We had a pretty well rounded team. We had other ideas: Like we wanted to use cloud computing instead of building render farms. That idea panned out. But we also wanted to build an infrastructure for remote workers — that idea did not pan out, for people and technical reasons. In order for this to work at scale, but we weren’t big enough yet. Then along came Looper and Flight, two movies that didn’t have any digital doubles and we could focus on the stuff we wanted to do. And that helped us grow up to 40 people.

We kept parlaying those into more growth. The Walk came from Zemeckis and we started our Montreal studio from that with about 100 artists. That was a lot of environment work. We started peppering in face replacements. We started taking these skills and growing responsibly — but not lose sight of what we wanted. Now we have 200 people in Montreal. The team in the Bay Area is focused on character work at the highest end. We were able to take the work as it came and be picky and choosy, but keep the success of the business. Now we are able to come back and achieve the goal that we set out for. It’s a little bit about having flexibility and not getting too precious about things — but staying true to your values. Anybody can relate to that! It’s harder to do when there are dollar signs.

[-[35:12] Allan: That’s cool! I have praised Atomic Fiction a lot on this Podcast! I hate kissing your ass! It’s been my favorite place to work. Transformers had a fast turnaround, but we were able to turn out so much more because we were able to make the right decisions early on. 

Kevin: That’s awesome! I think you’re spot on. With so much of things going right on a movie have to do with timing. When is the right time to do the pie in the sky shit, while you’re coming up with ideas? I’ve worked with supervisors on large budget movie until the end. It’s possible to get so much more if the pie in the sky then goes into refinement, then the detail — and then you’re done. Part of what you felt was being able to achieve something and have everyone work toward the same goal. We don’t always succeed at that, but it’s my definition of success: when people feel happy and fulfilled in their creativity.

[-[32:30] Allan: On Flight, it was initially six shots, or something like that. Overnight, it blew up. Do you want to talk about that?

Kevin: That was the aha moment: Cloud isn’t just about saving money for a company like us. At that time, cloud was a lot more expensive than today. Everybody thought we were crazy. But we knew it wasn’t a hundred machines at all times — but only when we needed it. A month before the project finished, Zemeckis called me after a screening and told me what they were thinking at the studio: It was something like a hundred more shots! Even if we had the option of [bringing in] machines and a diesel generator, we wouldn’t have time to set it up. But having cloud, we were able to increase the resources. The last day they were mixing sound at Skywalker Ranch and Zemeckis walks in to see the final shot on the movie — this really long shot — and he had one last change. I was able to submit it to render from my laptop sitting on a farm in the Marin County in California and show it to him an hour later. And that’s the shot that’s in the movie! That’s really powerful from a workflow perspective, not just a financial one!

[-[30:24] Allan: I love that so much! Man hours or down time that’s wasted, it escalates. You brought up at the eleventh hour of Transformers: If you’re waiting for a render to go by, send it to the farm. It’s cheaper than having you wait around. When you look at a studio and the network goes out, I wonder how much that crash costs. The amount of wasted time accumulates. Whereas with the cloud, you can just flip the switch. 

Kevin: The unfortunate thing is it’s a lot harder to do that. We’ve been working on perfecting it for years: how to get effectively unlimited cloud resources to work at performance levels that are good enough. Every year things are changing, but the concept is there. It’s not just about the money that’s being wasted when people are sitting around. If you have an idea and you’ve changed the parameters, the longer it takes for the idea to come to fruition — the less fresh it is in your head. The chance of your next iteration be successful becomes smaller. In terms of the creative process, the turnaround time is so valuable. Cloud showed a lot of promise. In 2015, we decided to write our own solution. We called it Conductor. A year into using it on Game of Thrones and Deadpool, it was working so well. The lightbulb went off and we decided to spin it into a standalone company that other people can use.

[-[27:02] Allan: I think that’s the best way to test if it’s going to be a success. For you, was it an easy decision to create a sister company and do software? It might be easy to do it internally. How straightforward was it?

Kevin: It was… Get ready for it: If I’d know how hard it was going to be, I probably would not have done it. I thought it was going to take six months to get it to a point of other people using it. It took a round of venture capitol funding and two years to bring it to today’s level. We have an architecture customer and he rendered something today: this 1,300 frame long animation which he got back in 2 hours. We also have larger studios and they’re using it on high value production films. It was a hard road though. It took Atomic Fiction dog-fooding it. We don’t even get a discount on it now. We want people to save money and get the product they want. I think that’s what we’re doing for them.

[-[24:31] Allan: That’s so cool! Everyone isn’t aware of Conductor. You want to give some lowdown of its advantages?

Kevin: Yeah! It’s effectively a place where you can go and create an account — and start rendering in the cloud. It’s attached to Maya and Houdini, and Katana, and Nuke and other tools and renders (Renderman, Arnold, etc.) It does that in a way: Conductor is a plugin in your Maya scene, [for example]. It will handle all the uploads to the cloud. If you’ve already done a render, it doesn’t need to reupload [everything]. It just does data reduplication. Once it’s in the cloud, it spins up the nodes, it renders it as fast as it can be done — and downloads the result back to your local machine.

  • There is no management of uploads and downloads.
  • There is no management of starting and stopping cloud resources.
  • We have a proprietary file system that makes file IO super performant, even with thousand of nodes running.

It takes the complexity of the cloud and manages it as a service. A freelancer can use it really easily. Or a studio [can]. We’ve built it with API’s which allows studios to tie in with their custom pipelines, even if they have custom tools. It’s a platform that gives animation studios access to the cloud without having to build the functionality to get in. The pricing ends up being better.

We have relationships with all of these software vendors. We have a per-minute licensing agreement with Autodesk. It’s really living the dream of per-second usage base for rendering as a service.

[-[21:39] Allan: I love the fact that its origins are production proven rather than an architectural solution, for a example!

Kevin: That’s a thing we’ve been fighting for a while. There are services out there. When we came to the scene, everyone assumed we were just another shitty cloud service. No, no, no! We’re actually for A-list movies. Blade Runner just won an Oscar and parts of it were rendered in Conductor. Oscar-winning visual effects can be done in the cloud through Conductor. You can be up and running in two hours, instead of two years. The proof is starting to show.

[-[20:31] Allan: The obvious resistance anyone is going to have to Conductor is that the MPAA is always going to have their restraints about having their stuff up there.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s interesting. A couple of years ago, the security thing was scary. Atomic Fiction wanted to use Conductor on Pirates of the Caribbean. They came back saying, “No way you’re putting our stuff up in the cloud!” We said, “No, Conductor is secure! And how can you make us believe us?” They told us to contact their security auditor. We did and we entered into a security code with them. By the time we started rendering, it was blessed for use by Disney. We know that a single security breach of our platform would spell the end of it. We take security on Conductor as we do the life of the business. It’s insanely important. A couple years later, the MPAA and Disney, Marvel have started to come out with published standards about security. With these guidelines, there is this box and it’s a lot more clear.

[-[18:03] Allan: I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t dive into some of the amazing projects you’ve done. What do you think is your most challenging project up to date?

Kevin: Oh, man! Every project is challenging for a different reason. We just did some work on the last season of Stranger Things. And that was episodic so it’s tv schedule. The schedule was the hardest. The show that I’m on right now — Welcome to Marwen — is based on a true life story in which a guy who is a victim of a hate crime is giving himself therapy by building these miniature doll village in his backyard. It’s an incredible story and you spend 40 percent in his imagination. There is a lot of shots. The workflow to get an honest look to it — and get the actors’ performances onto these dolls — it’s bananas and it’s never been done before. That’s a kind of challenge I like! How do we tell a story that hasn’t been told or seen before? That’s the kind of stuff I get a real kick out of!

[-[14:48] Allan: That’s so cool! I could ask you a million more questions. You have the Montreal and Northern California office. Are they self-contained or do you share projects?

Kevin: We’ve experimented with different models. It’s a real challenge. You’re dealing with moving data back and forth. What we’ve settled into is: The Bay office is the high-end creature animation birthplace, with ILM, Pixar. Everyone wants to work where there is a better rebate. But what is something that can’t get there or hard to find. Even the studios know that exception animation talent is in California. So we’ve focused our office here around that. So we do share projects. But the front end of character animation braintrust is in California. We also have a really talented team of animators in Montreal and they share mindshare. But the front end is born in California, but some of the execution happens in Montreal. So we kind of find the split in the workflow to be a successful model. We’ve honed into a sweet spot.

[-[12:25] Allan: It’s smart to play into the strength of each area. I have some questions with staffing. Do you have any advice for people who want to stand out [when applying for job]?

Kevin: I think some of my answers would be standard demo reel advice:

  • Only put your best shots on your reel. I’m still surprised when I review reels. Have someone else look at your reel: People who are reviewing your reels don’t have time to look through a 5-minute reel.
  • If you’re more junior, the big thing is taking some initiatives. If you know the company is hiring for a certain position, cut a reel that plays into that. Or create some content that speaks to that. I once interviewed a girl who crafted an image that catered to what we were looking for. It made it an easy decision to hire her.
  • Do some research on the company before interviewing. There is nothing more impressive than sitting down and telling the interviewee about the company — and they already know most of what’s publicly available and they’re asking really smart questions that actually matter. Find out about the culture, the tools they use, or what they want to do. We’re ramping up on the character side. Ask us about where we want to take our character work. It can make the interview more effective. You can get more out of it, as a candidate.

[-[08:25] Allan: The only time I’ve seen someone do too much research, the person knew every person in the room, when we were working on Priest. What happened was the person sent thank you letters but they were very long and intimate. But you’re right: I’ve had people email me and CC me and all the other studios they were applying at. It’s a reflection of the effort you put in.

Kevin: I think what it does that there is a real opportunity. There are all these applicants who apply in a wrong way. It’s a good platform for you to rise to the top. Have your act together and make the interviewer’s job easier and pleasurable. If you can do that, you would be one in a hundred.

[-[05:44] Allan: Do you know any red flags that happen commonly? I’ve been gravitating toward this question recently. All it takes is one bad shot. Most people forget that altogether.

Kevin: 

  • Well, there are times when we get cover letters that are super cocky. It blows me away when we get those. Don’t make any assumptions about what the company needs. It’s a dialogue.
  • The other thing is: We do a lot of reference checks. If you’ve been not a great employee on another project, all too often it gets around.
  • This is a creative industry. The most common mistake I see people make is putting their own creative pride against the head of the show / company. It shows in a disagreement with supervisors. At the end of the day, it makes great reputations when the show is your first priority — but if it needs something else, don’t strain too far from that. Out of all the red flags, most of our background checks come out to that. You’re there to support the vision of the director. And I’ve been there.

[-[01:44] Allan: Where would people go to find out more about you and Atomic?

Kevin: Yes, you can go to: www.atomicfiction.com. I am on Instagram as @FXNerd. You can find out more about Conductor at www.conductortech.com.

[-[01:15] Allan: Cool, man! This has been really great!

Kevin: Yeah, it’s always a pleasure to chat with you. We’ll have to connect for a beer sometime soon.

 

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Thanks to Kevin for taking the time to chat.

I’ll be back next week with a solo Episode. This subject has come up a lot: Should you be a Generalist or a Specialist? We’re going to get into the mindset for your career.

Until then —

Rock on!

 

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