Episode 177 — Goro Fujita, PART I: Virtual Reality Movie Making

 

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Episode 177 — Goro Fujita, PART I: Virtual Reality Movie Making

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 177! I’m speaking with Goro Fujita, Artistic Director at Quill (which is part of Facebook). I’m really excited about this one! This is a two-part Episode, and it’s been a few years in the making.

Goro is a friend of mine and he’s an amazing artist! I’m sure you’ve heard of him. One of the things that I find inspiring about Goro is that he does his art every single day. The first time we met, he was doing a talk on a daily ritual of speed painting. I wanted to pick up a pen and start drawing myself. The more I got to know Goro, the more inspiring he’s become. He has so much insight about his art and Virtual Reality.

This is a second half of his interview. I will be releasing the first part later on. I’ve also been creating a lot of new content.

Let’s dive in!

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[00:44] 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 GORO FUJITA, PART I

Goro Fujita is an Art Director, illustrator and visual development artist based in the Bay Area. He started his career working as a freelance character animator and visual development artist for various companies in Germany.

In 2008, Goro joined DreamWorks Animation as a visual development artist where he worked on Merry Madagascar, Megamind, Madagascar 3, Penguins of Madagascar and Boss Baby. He left DreamWorks in 2015 and joined Oculus Story Studio in San Francisco where he art directed the Emmy Award winning VR experience Henry. Goro is also known for pioneering art in VR using tools like Quill and Medium.

In 2017 he joined Facebook Social VR to continue the development on Quill and to introduce the world to art in VR.

In this Podcast, Goro talks about transitioning his art and storytelling into the world of VR, the benefits of VR for filmmakers and animators, and the importance of practicing one’s art every day.

 

[05:32] Goro: After Penguins, we had this announcement that PDI / DreamWorks would shut down in 2015. That was a real punch in our faces and I thought, “What now?” I didn’t want to move to LA but they offered me to move to the DreamWorks’ Glendale location. But my wife and I had a home here in South Bay. There was no use to move if we liked it here and my wife had a stable job. Maybe it was the time to do my own thing? Right around that time, a friend of mine called Romero from Oculus Story Studio. Oculus was already Facebook owned and [the studio] was a subgroup of Oculus, and just created this amazing Sundance trailer introducing the studio. That was the first time VR was become for regular consumers.

[07:08] Allan: Yeah, in the 90s, it wasn’t taken seriously.

Goro: And now it was ready to come out. Romero contacted me [to see] if I wanted to go visit the studio. He came from Spain to work at Pixar. We met one day and became really good friends, but then we didn’t talk for 6 year. Then he emailed me. It was super nice to hear from him! That was the first time I was exposed to real VR. I had seen Lost, their first narrative, and I was blown away. They were looking for an Art Director back then. I never considered doing Art Direction, but I was like, “YES!” It was a super new landscape and something that could define the future. I joined the Oculus studio in April 2015; basically right after I left DreamWorks. Then we started to work on Henry. That was a project I worked on from start to finish. We also won an Emmy for it.

[09:52] Allan: That’s great! Congratulations!

Goro: Thank you! It was an amazing place to grow. We felt like Steve Jobs [must’ve felt] in the garage — except that we had Facebook as our backbone. It was a pretty luxurious place. We hired the best of the best in the industry and it was a super team of people. In that form, it will probably never happen again. It was incredible! But there were also a lot of A-type personalities, so there were a lot of heated discussions. That’s when I was finishing up on Henry. Another team already started working on Dear Angelica.

Dear Angelica was an idea by Director Saschka Unseld. His vision was to create a short film entirely from VR illustrations. Back then, we didn’t know what that meant so we tried different approaches. With every approach, we could tell how it was done. It didn’t feel authentic. That when Inigo Quilez, in a day and half created a VR painting prototype for Quill. I remember he called me [and said,] “I want to show you something”. It was the first time I was able to paint in space. For me, it was this mind blowing moment: This is going to change the world. I started painting and [I was] able to grab the painting in space. I was the second person every to paint in Quill. It was this mind-bending moment for me.

Then, fast forward, I thought: What if I created my own character in VR? That’s when I created the VR robot. I created him for a CGTalk challenge. Basically since I created him, I sent him to numerous places in the world. Never could I imagine that I would physically meet him in VR! All of a sudden the digital and the VR world bridged! I was walking around him and it was one of the most memorable moments! Then I had a bunch of milestones: They were very defining in VR. One of those moments was when Worlds in Worlds piece went viral. It was an alien planet with an alien holding a snowball. You can zoom into the snowball and there’s a human world; and zoom into the human world into the insect world. It was worlds within worlds, basically.

[15:17] Allan: That’s was the first time I used Oculus Rift, I think. You showed me that.

Goro: Yeah! That to me was proof of the infinite canvas. For me, it was another mind blowing moment. I was just talking to myself, “Holy crap!” That video went viral, got over 2 million views. When we did an animation prototype tool and I created this piece to capture a moment from multiple moments. I was thinking about enabling people to find out anything they wanted to find out, at their own pace. That was one of my proudest pieces.

[17:19] Allan: I think the version you showed me wasn’t finished yet. I remember telling you that not only you had something so exceptional, but it was your style [of storytelling]. Even if it were a 2D animation, it would’ve been fun to watch. You were able to combine these things into one.

Goro: And also it brought back the animator in me. Every step I took along the way made sense for VR. The final moment when I created weather for the first time and found the rainstorm sound. I started animating from the sound. That’s when we started moving toward Facebook and developing the tool further. I remember painting a patch of grass blowing in the wind and then I thought, “Can I select and duplicate the animated grass?” I selected the 15-frame cycle and duplicated it — and had this moving grass in my hands. I remember thinking, “This is insanity!” I remember jumping around because it made me feel like a magician. I never felt this empowered. I finished the storm piece and totally forgot that I was in the office. It was super quiet and I was in the middle of this storm.

In October last year, I was able to create a short film again. I always wanted to do a short film on my own. Knowing how long it takes to do, it felt so daunting to me. When Quill came along, I thought maybe that was the medium I was always waiting for. And then Oculus Connect 4 Conference was right around the corner. I thought maybe I could do a short film then. I was able to do it from start to finish within three weeks. That’s going to change the industry: It’s so efficient and fast [that] one person to finish a film start to finish, [VR] makes it really efficient.

[22:03] Allan: It’s intuitive, first of all. There was a disconnect before the mouse and the keyboard.

Goro: Exactly! You’re moving in the physical space. Nothing gets lost in translation. [The film] was just 2.5 weeks in production. I had a physical representation in front of me. I knew it was going to work! At that point, I just needed to finish the thing. There was nothing unknown anymore. I worried about the audio recording later on. I was super happy with the product! Knowing the pipeline, had I done it in Maya, it would’ve probably taken me over a year to do it. VR proved that it was a medium to be taken seriously. It makes production more efficient.

A week ago, at Creative Talent Animation Expo, I premiered my latest piece The Last Oasis. Every time I design something in VR, I try to use a different approach. This was more like an animated picture book. You can explore it at your own pace. It’s pretty intuitive and it’s designed for multiple users. We could actually watch it together, in Facebook. We could see each other as avatars, up to 4 users at the same time. I designed it specifically for Facebook. It’s really fun to watch it together!

[26:08] Allan: Eventually, you’ll be able to sell movie tickets!

Goro: Yes, that would be awesome! That’s my goal. It’s a new medium. It could co-exist with regular movie theaters. It won’t replace anything; but it can co-exists. The Last Oasis was an experience for the Oculus Quest that’s coming out in spring of next year. The goal was to create a narrative that you could explore and understand by moving through space. Oculus Quest allows you to walk around freely because it has inside out tracking. I wanted to take advantage of that. Putting people into that experience was another dream-come-true. We don’t know how I can release it yet. But it was received really well at the CTN Animation eXpo. I want to keep doing that! I want to keep exploring VR from all different angles. It’s such a new landscape and it’s been so exciting and interesting to drive it forward. That’s what’s most exciting for me in this medium — is that anything is possible!

[29:16] Allan: You’re right: There is so much unexplored territory! At the same time, you’re bridging to a whole new, intuitive medium.

Goro: Absolutely! What VR allows you to do is physically interact with things which we do on the daily basis. There is nothing you need to teach: “Click and move”. I can teach my dad, who can barely to send an email, but I can get him into VR and to move things. As technical as VR hardware is, it’s way more approachable for artists. That’s what I love the most about this medium. In 3D, you change values and then you have to wait to see if these values actually change anything. You know that struggle!

[31:29] Allan: I wrote a tool years ago (which is now part of my regular workflow), but I do this play blast the way you do speed painting. For me, every previs gets saved. Every couple of hours, I will review them. There might be times when they get better and better, but then they look identical. That’s when you start to plateau. Simulations are in realtime. So it’s easy to forget what you were trying to change.

Goro: I spend a lot of time doing technical stuff, and now I just do it. I paint and animate it the way I want. There are technical things that we’re trying to get away from in VR. Seeing the visuals in your rig isn’t very intuitive. You want to grab the arm and move it into its position. In Quill, anything you draw is live. You can just select and move it. I never felt this free. When I paint in Photoshop, I feel handcuffed. Now in VR, I design completely differently. I think of it as a 3D sculpture rather than a drawing. I’m much better at posing and drawing. It’s enhancing my ability to draw in 2D as well.

By the way, I’m at 345 paintings in VR since I started working at Facebook. I usually do them for 30 minutes, which is a great way to learn the tools. What I notice is that because I do it everyday and I see my characters every day, when I draw in 2D, I think differently! I think in volumes. It’s that passive learning: I’m doing one thing — and learning the other. I recently drew a photo real sunny side up egg. I was painting it from reference. I realized I had one angle. And I thought, “Let’s see how good my lighting skills are.” I painted it and it still looked pretty real. It’s a great vehicle to teach. When you paint from reference, you try to copy the colors as well as you can. But you sometimes lose track of what’s going on. But when you do it in VR, it forces you to understand what’s going on because you have more angles. So you have to ask yourself, “Why does the bounce light look red? Why is the underside of a fried egg dry?” All the why’s that you should be asking when studying in 2D. I think [VR is] going to be huge in education. People will learn faster because they’re forced to ask these questions.

[37:31] Allan: That’s so cool! I think you’re right. I think people just need to wrap their heads around the different medium. You aren’t trying to mimic what’s physically there. This is a chance to sculpt and paint at the same time.

Goro: Yes, it’s almost like supercharged stop motion. You don’t have gravity or physical structures underneath. And it’s 3D. You can reuse everything you create in your production pipeline.

I also go to studios and talk to them about using VR. Even if the output is not VR, it’s incredible helpful if you use it. You have the right scale from the character to the set, so you don’t have to fake it on paper. In most productions, you do a storyboard. When you go to 3D layout, you lose stuff in translation. Now, in VR, the storyboard becomes the physical space. So you can give that to the set designer and they can block and reference set objects using that first draft. That piece goes to the art department and the artist does the color in VR. That color key goes to the lighting department. The initial piece never changes! So when you’re lighting, you might still have that storyboard character running through the space until the animator replaces it with an animated one. It’s extremely efficient. When the director works with a VR artist, you already have something working that you’re certain about.

That’s how I worked with my short film: I already had the space. I knew it was working in 3D already. Because that’s the question you have after creating 2D storyboards: Will it actually work in 3D? What VR does, it answers those difficult questions in advance. Then you can make the difficult decision if you truly want the shot in the movie. A lot of those steps will be streamlined. I think it makes production more efficient. People aren’t going to question if that will make them lose their jobs.

[42:32] Allan: I feel like people ask that with every new development. There is a new paint brush — “Am I going to lose my job?” We’re working with technology. That’s the whole point! You have to watch tutorials and keep learning — or you will fall behind.

Goro: That’s right! Things are changing all the time. I believe that with VR and Quill, all those animation masters start to matter more than ever because we’re resurrecting 2D animation in 3D! That’s amazing! I’m super excited to talk to the masters. I’ve already talked to a few, like Glen Keane and Tom Bancroft. I hope that 2D animation becomes a thing again in 3D. I’m sure it will! I just want it to become that right now!

I always try to approach things from different angles. I see idea finding and creativity as muscle: The more you do it — consciously do it — the better you’ll get with it. The more you write — the better you’ll get at writing. What the speed painting stuff did for me — was put some personality into my paintings. I remember my mentor was telling me that I knew how to paint and that I needed to shift my focus on narratives. He’d ask me, “Why did you put the guy on top of that mountain?” I’d say, “Because that looked cool!” My mentor would say, “Tell me who he is! Take me on a journey!” It could be as easy as giving him a backpack and the posture would define him as a traveler. I really try to answer the question, “Why?” The answer should never be, “Because it’s cool!” A single person could figure out the story. I began thinking about ideas differently.

I think it was in 2008-2009, there was a daily speed painting group and we started posting stuff non-stop and it reminded us of the old days. We just came back as Art Directors. It was a healthy competitive area. It’s like we went through Jedi training and met later on in our lives.

[47:48] Allan: I love those experiences! They’re the best!

Goro: It was so cool! Everyone was posting multiple images per day. The group is now 87,000 people! It’s called Daily Spit Paint. The rule is:

  • It’s 30 minute exercises.
  • And you can’t use photo textures.

They post 3-4 topics everyday. When they post topics like “a homeless robot”, I try to not paint what it says. What can I do to twist it? The more I try it, the easier I can come up with stuff. It’s just a muscle. And I always put the why in there. Why is this character in the story? That makes your art more compelling and interesting. If you go into it, everything is consistent. You will feel that moment I’ve captured. Add narrative to it and take it to a different place. Add more value to it by adding narratives. I do not want to just paint a pretty girl — and if I do, there has to be a reason why.

[50:22] Allan: I love that and you’re absolutely right! It’s such a big subject even when it comes to composition. Where is your eye going? When you’re working on a film, you can tell where the artist didn’t think about the composition. There is stuff happening everywhere. You need the audience to focus on the key things every moment. For me, I’ve been intrigued that you come up with original concepts. You’re knocking out great looking stuff everyday. What is your daily routine? There is your personal stuff in the mornings. For me, that’s been a life-changing experience as well.

Goro: I think that’s a really interesting question. VR takes up only 5% of my day. I was hired at Facebook as an Art Director / Artist-in-Residence. They couldn’t really figure out a fitting title for me. At Oculus, it became about directing projects where we created the finished piece. At Quill, they hired me for who I am. They wanted me to do personal work; and at the same time, they knew I could build communities. Every day is very different which makes this job very exciting! It starts with daily paintings every morning. That way, when meetings start, I don’t have to worry because I’ve already done my work.

  • I get up at [4:45] – 5:00 a.m. and I drive to work.
  • I check my emails and then I do my painting. I’ll either go to the Daily Spit Group or I’ll want to test a particular feature we’ve just added. I will do that painting for 30 minutes. Sometimes, I will paint longer.
  • After that, there is a lot of meetings.
  • Think of me as a chameleon. I’m also directing live action shoots or do marketing videos. I ask for the raw footage and edit it. All the marketing assets I do myself.
  • Then I do workshops. I give talks at companies and events.
  • I create content.

It’s a lot about shape shifting. It’s a consuming job, but I’ve never enjoyed work this much. I do what I love to do and I have a lot of energy to put into it. I have a lot of creative freedom and I think about how to inspire the community with this medium. I just did a piece on how to do VR comic books; and people came back saying, “You should do one!” And my answer is, “No, you should!” I’m just a spark for a lot of things. I’m happy if I can look back and have an impact on this new medium and inspire certain people, and have new things happen. It’s all fun work and I’m super engaged in what I do.

[58:06] Allan: I, for one, am inspired by you everyday! For me not being traditional artists, it’s inspiring to see someone do their art every day — let alone, push the envelope! Where can people go to find out more about you?

Goro: I guess Instagram (@goro.fujita) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/goro.fujita/) are the most active sites for me. Twitter is up and coming.

What I wanted to really emphasize is that opportunity to define a new medium like VR will probably never happen again in our lifetime. When I started digital painting, it was not a groundbreaking thing because it used all we knew from 2D to digital painting. The concept of painting remained the same. Then came 3D and it became revolutionary. But 3D wasn’t very accessible to artists because you needed to learn how to light and rig, etc. It’s not something you can easily learn in a week. It takes years! Now, with art and VR, it’s a whole new thing. Artists, even without technical knowledge, can create highly technical things with ease. It is tangible and easy to understand. 3D was using film language. VR is a new way of telling stories. This is the time you don’t want to miss. This is the beginning in the new era of entertainment. This is the moment you don’t want to wait for the train to leave. You can still jump on the train and create art that has never been done before. I hope there is a lot more people jumping onto this train!

[1:02:06] Allan: Absolutely, man! I’m excited to see where this goes. Thanks for taking the time to chat!

Goro: Yeah! This was great!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. If you go to the IAMAG Master Class this spring in Paris (https://masterclasses.iamag.co/), both Goro and I will be there, as well as many talented artists.

I will also be doing an interview with Aaron Sims of Aaron Sims Creative later this month.
I will also be publishing Part II of Goro’s interview shortly after that!

I’ll be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!

ON A FINAL NOTE:

[1:03:22] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

  • Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;
  • Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film, tv or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

 

 

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