Episode 187 — Derek Spears, VFX Sup


Episode 187 — Derek Spears, VFX Sup

Derek Spears is an award-winning VFX Supervisor. His career in Visual Effects started with the founding of Cinesite’s 3D department where he was involved with the production of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld and helped develop Cinesite’s 3D tracking system. Over the years, Spears served as the Digital Effects Supervisor on Face / Off, The X Files movie, as well as the VFX Supervisor for The Sum of All Fears. His other film credits include Superman Returns, The Wolfman, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Mummy 3 and Around the World in 80 Days. Most recently, he’s been a VFX Supervisor at Pixomondo where he’s worked on films Goosebumps 2 and Midway, as well as the Clio-winning “Joust” Super Bowl 2019 spot for HBO / Bud Light.

Derek has a background in Electrical Engineering and brings a deep understanding of the fusion of art and technology. Prior to working in the film industry, he worked at Silicon Graphics and was a key developer on the Academy Award-recognized Cineon compositing system. Derek is a member of the both the Film and Television Academies, serving on the executive committee for the later. He is a three-time Emmy Award winner for his work as a facility Visual Effects Supervisor of the HBO series Game of Thrones. Derek also won a Clio for the Nike spot “Virtual Andre” starring tennis pro Andre Agassi, and the inaugural VES Award for his work on The Sum of All Fears.

In this Podcast, Derek discusses his career, talks about the importance of having the passion for both the artistic and the technological aspects of visual effects, as well as the most valuable skills for VFX artists.

Derek Spears on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0817350/
Derek Spears’s Profile at Pixomondo: https://www.pixomondo.com/staff/derek-spears/
Derek Spears’s Profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/derek-spears-5a81bb9



[00:44] 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? 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 The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[02:31] I have a new course out: It’s about 18 hours, 9 videos covering live action visual effects and all the assets. Just go to: www.VFXCourse.com.

[57:46] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. 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.


[03:04] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Derek: Hi, my name is Derek Spears. I’m the VFX Supervisor at Pixomondo in Los Angeles. I’ve been doing visual effects since the mid-1990s. I came from doing graphics. I helped develop the compositing system at Kodak. I then transitioned to Cinesite and started my visual effects career.

[03:30] Allan: That’s awesome! Did you always want to be in the creative industry when you were growing up?

Derek: No, I didn’t. I was more interested in technology when I was growing up. I always had this fascination with cameras and photography and film. In my high school, I did some bad portrait photography. It was usually a technology focus. I studied electrical engineering at the university. I was planning to go build computers. But along the way, I got interested in computer graphics and that became the transition into visual effects.

[04:24] Allan: That’s cool! How did you initially get started? You mentioned earlier you were working at Silicon Graphics. Is that where you first got your first big break?

Derek: No! It’s funny! My big break is a bunch of happy accidents. It started with my first summer job from the university. My father worked for a computer company called Alliant Computer System, maybe back in 1987. They were building mini computers. This was pre-micro computers. There was this stratification. There was a need for computers without the pricing and the plumbing of a pre-instalation. Companies like Alliant were creating computer that were faster but not as expensive. This was in Boston. I started to learn programing and built this flying logo. I talked my way into SIGGRAPH 1987. And that was when I realized who I really wanted to work for was SGI. I went to summer school and then I got hired for the image processing group at SGI. I thought, “This is way better than summer school!” They paid me $3,000 in moving expenses.

[07:40] Allan: The way you describe it, it seems seamless. Did you get much resistance along the way? A lot of people have a lot of resistance because it’s hard. I find it exceptional that you were able to discover something and get obsessed with it. Was it how you describe?

Derek: Yes and no. It’s amazing how we become our parents. It’s not that difficult. You just have to go out there and find something you like. People aren’t just going to hand things to you. But there was some resistance because my boss in manufacturing wasn’t happy that I was going to SIGGRAPH. That’s not what I was hired for! But generally, everyone else was happy if you tried to help. I’ve seen that before: If you’re offering someone a solution, there isn’t going to be much of a resistance. People are in the business of doing their job and if make their job easier, there isn’t going to be resistance.

[09:43] Allan: I think you nailed that. Do you mind elaborating on that? I think it’s one of those things: When someone’s time is more valuable than yours, you should be the one front-loading the pitch. You should be providing them with a solution.

Derek: The key is that it’s a client / vendor relationship. You’re trying to provide a service to somebody. If you view it as that — if you make their life easier, their product better — then there is a natural inclination to have you around. What are you doing to make it better? So look at how you can contribute to the process by making it better? How can you make client’s experience more memorable? It applies to the work I do now. People aren’t going to hire you just because you’re good. They’re going to hire you because you make their life easier.

[11:20] Allan: I love that! From there, going onto SGI, what was it like?

Derek: It wasn’t all that simple. I went to work in the image processing group. There were so many brilliant people there! I can’t say I contributed anything to SGI. I came back over the Christmas break and they’ve developed a tool kit in their Image Division Library. It’s similar to what Apple is doing with theirs now. Foundation wise, it was an object based way to have pull based process for image processing operations. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. After that, I was going to come back and work for that group full-time. And it was my final year in school. Somewhere around March, they told me they didn’t have a job for me anymore. I went home and lived with my parents and found a job doing some systems consulting job. It was boring and I hated every second of it! It was disheartening. The crazy part was I was making a lot of money for someone out of college.

I knew some of the SGI reps. I kept in touch with them. I don’t remember how it happened. Silicon Graphics had a group called the Applications Group. They didn’t develop the applications but they helped software run better. SGI had developed the new mini computer, the Octane.

[14:42] Allan: Thanks so much! I was trying to remember what that was.

Derek: There was this idea that they would sell the hardware. There were some interesting projects I worked on. Two interesting projects: I got to work on the Photoshop port into SGI. My job was optimizing kernels. The other project was: Someone was developing software for doing high speed image compositing. Kodak built this high end film scanner. They wrote a software for image compositing. This project was getting started in December and was going to be shown in April. That’s a pretty quick turnaround. We recommended they used our image processing tool kit. I went and consulted on it for a couple of months. If something broke, we had no idea which part was broken. It was like navigating a minefield. One of the bugs I found there, we were running out of memory. I wrote a simple code of 4 lines. The operating systems operator looked at it. I got a sheepish call the next day. Because of our application, we uncovered a major operating bug. We took the product to SIGGRAPH. They opened at Cinesite. I realized I wanted to work on pictures. I got hired at Cinesite and I figured I would learn along the ways. Then Richard Hollander hired me to work at VIFX. I stayed there for a while.

[20:46] Allan: What was it like working on the East Coast vs West Coast?

Derek: California was a lot closer to Texas where I grew up. Going over to Boston was like going to England. Going to California wasn’t that much different, in terms of lifestyle. It wasn’t that different.

[21:32] Allan: Where did you go from there?

Derek: VIFX got bought by Fox and Fox decided they didn’t want to be in visual effects anymore. It got sold to Rhythm & Hues. I went on to work there. And now, I’m at Pixomondo.

[22:10] Allan: I find it interesting that you came from this highly technical side. What was one of the most interesting projects for you at R&H?

Derek: Before we jump into that, I want to touch on something: Back when I started, there weren’t any schools for visual effects. People had programs. ILM was pioneering everything, developing its own tools. At that time, there was much more need for technical people. It was beneficial to have a technical background and have some knowledge of photography. I always saw visual effects as an intersection of art and technology, unlike anything else in the world. I’m definitely more technical and then I learned lighting and composition through photography. I remember taking my students into the lab to teach them basic lighting.

[24:27] Allan: I came from Australia. I moved to the States at 21. There weren’t any schools when I started. In smaller countries, we became more generalists and got an understanding how the whole studio works. You can’t be a VFX Sup if you don’t understand how a camera sensor works, for instance.

Derek: I think that’s true! Having a well rounded understanding is important. If you want to be a good compositor, understanding the math makes you a better one. You understand the why. You understand how color transforms.

[26:26] Allan: Do you think in this day and age, it’s beneficial to have some kind of coding or scripting ability?

Derek: It’s definitely going to help you! I’m not going to say you won’t survive without it, but it’s going to make you more useful and you’re going to be able to solve more problems. The more you know — the less dependent you become on other people. You become more specialized at bigger facilities. But generalists exist at smaller places. Everybody has to understand how the art works, however!

[27:58] Allan: If you’re in visual effects and you’re looking at the output of pixel, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to take control over what you’re doing.

Derek: Every shot tells a story. As we work on shot, people get hung up on them. The lighting jumps over the line all the time. It’s about the imagery. To give you an example, I worked on Superman Returns and they’re walking in this ice canyon. The DP wanted it to be backlit. The camera turned 180 degrees. How do you become backlit? The light swings during the shot. What matters is: Does it look good and does it serve the story?

[30:00] Allan: Absolutely! A 100 percent! I was onset during all of that in Sydney. You were working on the crystal work, right?

Derek: We did that and the ocean work. Way back when!

[30:24] Allan: What were some of the challenging projects at R&H? You were there for 18 years.

Derek: I worked on the movie called Sum of All Fears. At the time, we used the volume rendering software. I can’t remember the name of it. It was a renderer that was voxel based. At the same time, they were doing Pearl Harbor at ILM. They were definitely ahead! On Daredevil, we looked at using our renderer. That was interesting. In Sum of All Fears, we also faked GI with lights. James J. Atkinson just took the script and generated 50 lights. And it looked really nice.

[33:41] Allan: One of my buddies Marcos Fajardo created Arnold in 1999. He talked to me back then. It’s not the same thing and it works cool.

Derek: It was a stepping stone. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand the algorithms. It was just way cheaper. We didn’t have the power at the time. That’s why Renderman was so fundamental. You ended up getting a lot of details out of things. The joke is: “It’ll take a day to render this.” “But you have more powerful computers now!” “Well, it’ll still take a day to render it!” The problems expand to fill the void.

[35:39] Allan: Thinking about the Orphanage and the work they’ve done on The Day After Tomorrow. They’ve done most of their rendering in Maya. But then there were some passes done in Max, just to get the better GI and other elements from it. I wondered if it would be the future. Luckily, there are more unified solutions these days. With Game of Thrones, what were some of the highlights? Was the work load smaller in the beginning, but it they grew with the budgets?

Derek: It’s interesting. The pieces I worked on (I worked on [seasons] 5, 6 and 7) were all about Daenerys and the Dragon. Production has previs-ed all the sequences. They came to us to pre-animate it so they could have practical fire on set. However, there was a moment where Daenerys climbed on top of the dragon, but it was all very static. It didn’t have that same dynamic. So in post-mortem, we talked about what we wanted to do differently the next season. It was obvious we wanted to move the camera more. We would pre-animate and them apply those moves for the moco cameras. You can see the difference! In season 8, we get taken to the Ice Lake. In the Ice Lake, we have a group of people on dragon. We pre-animated each group differently. We live action people moving independently on top of dragons that had a flexible spot. It was a fun evolution!

[40:02] Allan: Those are the critical things that make the difference! That’s so cool! What were your contributions on The Walking Dead?

Derek: I worked on a couple of seasons. I helped out a bit on it. The key things were the tiger. There was also interesting work on killing a bunch of walkers and finding interesting ways to do that. One of that was tying a wire between two cars and killing a bunch of them. Obviously, SAG frowns upon doing that to real humans, so we created a bunch of CG walkers and mowed them down. On a tv schedule, there wasn’t much time. They also shoot on 60 mm film. That was the choice in the beginning, for the practical work and how it would look on HD.

[42:40] Allan: I noticed that they were shooting the spin-off on an Alexa. Speaking of tv deadlines, have you noticed that the budgets have grown bigger — but the deadlines haven’t changed?

Derek: It’s all over the map. It depends on the budget and the timeline of the show. You have the weekly shows on traditional networks where you have a 2-week turnaround. Then you have shows that have ambitious visual effects. Then you have non-network shows for Netflix and you have longer timelines and the budgets are quite large. Show like Game of Thrones start to look more like film schedules. You see the whole gambit of it.

[44:41] Allan: And going to Pixomondo, you’ve been there for a while now. What have been some of the more memorable projects for you so far?

Derek: Wow! That’s an interesting question. I’ve worked on The Orville. Not a high budget show but I’ve enjoyed the people I worked with. But I’ve only been here for a year.

[45:24] Allan: Do you have any advice you could give to people starting out? I realize this may be the hardest question: If you were to start your VFX career now, what would you do or what choices would you make to fast track your career?

Derek: It’s a great question! I would realize something fundamental a lot earlier: Coming from a technical background, it’s not about what’s technically right. It’s a matter of what serves the film. Ultimately, you’re serving the filmmakers — you aren’t making your own film. One of the things I struggled with early in my career is I always thought I knew better. “No, no! This is how it should be!” It would be at odds with what the filmmakers wanted, which made me difficult to work with. You aren’t always the smartest guy in the room, and even if you are, that doesn’t mean you know what the film needs. Humility is the strongest thing I would go back and learn. It’s the thing that I would recommend to people: Learn to be humble. You’re in service of a film. And learn how to help someone achieve their goal.

[47:23] Allan: That’s great advice! We all come in trying to impress. We tend to be louder at the start of our careers. But your job is to fulfill the dreams of the director. You’re painting a house. If they want to paint it yellow — you go do that. Ultimately, you’re providing a service.

Derek: I’m still guilty of it to this day. I have to stop and think that I’m in service to someone else.

[48:54] Allan: Do you have advice for people starting out, be it in 2D or 3D?

Derek: Sure!

  • If you want to get a job, the key to everything will be a reel. If you’re a student, try to make something creative. It’s okay to focus on one thing and do it well.
  • Less is more. Showing one thing that’s really good is a lot better than showing many things that are average. Average sticks out. People want to see why you will add value.

[50:00] Allan: I think most people don’t realize how the industry works. You may have great stuff on your reel, but then there is that one shot that sticks out as average. You need to prove that you can sit down and do the work.

Derek: People don’t have training departments anymore. People expect you to start working and be productive relatively quickly. If you aren’t producing something, it’s not helpful to your employer. You need to prove you can hit the ground running.

[51:01] Allan: You’re right! Years ago, people would train you. But nowadays, you’re expected to know how to do that work and to learn on your own. Do you find there are common mistakes artists make early in their career? Most people should know this kind of stuff. In general, the more people are aware of where they’re making mistakes, the better.

Derek: I used to give the expectation before each show:

  • Communication. Email is not communication when you’re working with someone. Sit down and talk to them: Tell them how you did something and establish a relationship with the person you’re working with. This is a team based environment. Email is great for documentation but it’s not communication. You really need to work together. It’s not a one-man show.
  • Personal responsibility. You’re hired to do a job. If you see a problem, try to proactively get ahead of it. My dad told me there were 3 types of people: There are people who come across a problem — and want you to fix it. There are people who ask you how to fix it. And then there are people who come to you with the finished project and say, “There was this problem, but I fixed it!” You want that person! You want the person who takes care of the problem. It’s like being a piece of celery. It takes more energy to consume it that it give caloric value. So don’t be a celery!

[55:57] Allan: I love that! It’s like hiring junior people on the team. They become more expensive just by how much time they may cost you.

Derek: That’s not to say, don’t ask for help when you need it. There will be time when you need it. But don’t become expensive when you take other people’s time!

[56:27] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to chat!

Derek: Thank you for reaching out! I’d love to do this again sometime.

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Next week, I want to do another Email Teardown. I also have some awesome interviews and solo Episodes coming out.

If you want to check out the VFX Course, go to www.VFXCourse.com.

Until next week —

Rock on!


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