Episode 196 — Spin VFX Roundtable


Episode 196 — Spin VFX Roundtable

Established in 1987, Spin VFX is a creative and technically dedicated visual effects studio producing captivating imagery for feature film and television. Over its 30 years of business, Spin VFX has evolved into an internationally recognized studio working with respected Directors, VFX Supervisors and Producers.

Its film credits include Suicide Squad, John Wick and John Wick 2, the Academy Award winning biopic Spotlight and many more. Spin VFX’s television credits include the Emmy award-winning series Game of Thrones (HBO), the thrice-nominated show The Borgias (Showtime) and the Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy and the SYFY show The Nightflyers (available on Netflix), based on the 1980 novella by George R. R. Martin.

In this Round Table with Allan McKay, the Supervisors and Artists at Spin VFX talk about the company’s history, some of its most memorable projects and its new technological frontiers, as well as the skills they look for in new artists.

Spin VFX Website: http://www.spinvfx.com/
Spin VFX on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/spin-vfx
BRIO VR Website: https://briovr.com/
VR Experience The Expanse on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zd4kHG6PJWQ
Spin VFX on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SPINVFX-173906056034365/
Spin VFX on Twitter: @SpinVFX



[00:42] 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!

[02:16] I have a new VFX Training Course available right now at www.VFXCourse.com. This is almost 20 hours of high end live action training. This is a massive Course and you can download all the assets! It’s going to be available for just a little bit longer.

[53:45] 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. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!


[03:24] Allan: Again, thank you for taking the time to introduce yourselves?

Chris: Sure! This is Chris Cox. I’m the CG Producer. I don’t necessarily work on specific projects. I touch every project that goes through CG.

Kirk: I’m Kirk Brillon. I’m a VFX Supervisor.

Mahsa: I’m Mahsa Ghorbankarimi. I’m a CG Supervisor here at Spin.

Mark: I’m Mark Krentz, one of the CG Supervisors working on various projects.

Kelly: I’m Kelly Singh, the Head of Communications.

[04:06] Allan: Cool, guys! Can you talk about Spin and a bit about its history?

Kelly: Everyone is looking over at me. Spin VFX started about 30 years ago here, in Toronto. It’s owned and operated by 5 partners. As a company, it worked on commercials but moved into long form a few years ago. And it’s now what we do exclusively: film and television projects. The company has grown in the last few years. We’re over 220 people. We’ve come a long way. We had offices in Atlanta and Vancouver.

[05:05] Allan: In terms of platform software, what do you use typically?

Mark: We use the standard software. We’re Maya based, for most of our modeling and asset builds. For texturing, we use Substance quite a bit, largely for the hard surfaces. We also use Mari for creature stuff. For rendering and lighting, we use Katana, Arnold and Renderman. Every once in a while, we jump into Red Shift.

Kirk: And to finish it all off, every once in a while we jump into Nuke, all the compositing.

[06:11] Allan: What kind of artists do you typically look for? Do you look for technical or creative backgrounds?

Chris: Specifically related to CG, we tend to look for more creative artist who are going to fit nicely. We have a culture we want to maintain. We do have rules that are technical as well. We want to make sure there are fundamentals there and creative chops. On the CG side, we lean more toward creative. On the compositing side, we look for a combination. As the roles differ, we value the two worlds differently.

[07:24] Allan: You’re absolutely right! I think there is always that bridge. In terms of Spin and the projects you take on, are there specific genres you focus on? Or is it a wide range?

Mark: I think a lot of it has changed over time. We try to get more complex stuff, so lately we’ve been pushing a lot more for creature stuff. We’ve been pushing on fur harder as well. It changed over the years. We go after bigger and better shots.

[08:39] Allan: And with effects, you’re mostly working in Maya?

Chris: That’s mostly Houdini based. We have an FX team of about 13 people that works mostly in Houdini, for 95% of the work. The 5% slides more into Maya. We’re pushing on Houdini 17 right now.

[09:01] Allan: That makes sense. You have them down the street from you. You can knock on their door if there are any problems. That’s awesome! I’d love to dive into The Nightflyers right away. It sounds like you’ve been working on that one for quite a while. Can you talk about the process and some of the challenges?

Kirk: Yeah, I guess we can get into that! That was a year of my life. We started in Ireland working with the directors and producers, trying to figure out how to build this massive thing. Everything about The Nightflyers was huge: the sets were huge, the assets and props we had to make were pretty large. The Nightflyer itself is a kilometer long spaceship. We had to be prepared to go in through any window. Sometimes we had to upgrade it.

Mark: Based on the size of it, we had to dice it up into a bunch of different parts. It was easier for the assets. We had an amazing team that enjoyed working on it. We wanted to keep the communication with the artists close, so we could move along quicker. It was an ever evolving assets. As the shots started coming in, we had to add more detail. Parts were revisited often.

Mahsa: We were using Katana for rendering even though the ship assets were quite large. We pretty much rendered the majority of the shots with Katana 5. Which is quite amazing!

[11:51] Allan: I’d love to know your thoughts on Katana. Has it become something that allows you to rethink the process in general?

Mahsa: [With] Katana, my most favorite aspect is that you can set up a shot in high intensity right in Katana. Any lighting artist can easily set that up. It helps speed up the process. We normally work with one Katana pipeline and we render hundreds of shots within that one pipeline. It allows for our lighting department to be quite small but produce a large number shots.

[12:45] Allan: With Nightflyers, were there particular shots that were more challenging than others?

Kirk: There were the three major challenges. There is the ship which was its own challenge. Then we had the Volcryn at the end of the season. We had the Heiress at the end of the season which is a full CG character. I’m giving the spoilers here! The Volcryn we got down from 26 hour frames to a couple of hours.

Mahsa: A lot of optimization has got into it. Creating the look of the Volcryn was a challenge. After that, we needed 26 hours of rendering to create that look. We had to render it a lot faster: How much could we create in comp? How much could we create in FX? How much of it can be a lighting effect? After all that, we came to the solution of a couple of hours of pre-render and comp work that created the same look.

[14:24] Allan: With The Suicide Squad, what contributions did you make on that project?

Kirk: I worked on it briefly (some comp help) before I took off for a job. I’m not sure of the entire scope of what we did.

Kelly: We were involved in the heavy action sequences. We were fortunate enough to work on some of the iconic shots in that film. A lot of the work was compositing and some other things.

[15:04] Allan: What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on to date? Workload or challenge wise?

Kirk: One of the bigger ones I’ve faced here was the work we did for The Game of Thrones on Season 3. That really stood out as a lot of work. We did a lot on the ice wall that brought me to my knees at one point. There was so much work and so many hours! But in the end it was all worth it! We got this amazing project!

Mark: There’ve been some epic environment since I’ve started. I’m on a year and half here at Spin. We were working on The Shannara Chronicles. The environments in that were a real challenge! But it was a lot of fun to work on. It was epic in scale. Our current project is expansive as well. We brought on a couple of artists and we’re trying new things. When you’re thrown a big task, you’re just trying to brainstorm together on how to overcome it.

Mahsa: Last year, we worked on a project Hunter Killers. That one was a challenging one because everything was happening in the ocean where icebergs exist. That’s not a lot of people travel there, so not much footage of it exists. We had to use a lot of our imagination for footage under the water. We had a large number of explosions under the water with submarines and all of that. Artistically and technically creating that feel and look under the ocean was quite challenging!

[17:59] Allan: I love that there was such a variation in your challenges. There was space, then there was under water, doing ancient Game of Thrones times. With GOT, what were some of the problems and bigger tasks you had to work on?

Chris: The bigger stuff was the ice wall sequence. The wall was infinite in length so the detail on that was challenging. At the time, we didn’t have all the tools. We couldn’t render it all at once. We had to go at it in comp and then do ice textures to fix it up. We had completely fix the look of the wall they climbed because they didn’t like what they shot. That came down in the eleventh hour! That we weren’t prepared for! Just the size and scope of that!

[19:29] Allan: Just in terms of the renders you use, how do you decide which one is right for each project?

Mahsa: We primarily render everything in Renderman. We started looking into Arnold and its render times can be faster. We’re getting experiences on what we can save time on.

Kirk: I think we used Red Shift on Nightflyers for the trees. We had a forest that was in one of the bio domes.

Mark: In terms of the choice, costs come into question. We can get the speed or how many times we have to hand off the assets. We have to see if the cost and the time of each is reasonable for that project. And that’s how we make our choice.

[21:05] Allan: I’ve known Marcos who wrote Arnold since I was 14. I’m always curious about that stuff! Digital Domain has had some success with getting their render times from 8 hours down to 2 minutes a frame and their pixel perfect — with Red Shift. Of course, it depends on the scenario. It’s one of those things. Renderman is obviously such a powerful and robust renderer. But there are some that have been coming out recently.

Kirk: [With] one of our partners, we’re looking at where the industry is going to go, especially with GPU. We’ve got a lot of investment in Renderman, Arnold and Houdini at this time. We’re doing our investigation and we want to make the decision about it at the right time. We want to see who gets there first.

[22:39] Allan: Kelly, I want to ask you about VR. Did you, guys, contribute to the VR experience with Nightflyers.

Kelly: We didn’t not do the VR experience for The Nightflyers, but we do have a sister company called Spin VR. It’s operated by the same partners who run Spin VFX plus an additional partner Dave Cardwell who is a VFX Supervisor. That team created a number of tailored VR and AR experiences. They did one for The Expanse which is now available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zd4kHG6PJWQ). The major product that Spin VR has developed is called BRIOVR. It’s a web-based, cloud-based, realtime VR and AR platform. The artists here at Spin work on heavy assets and they can drive and drop them there; and it converts them into VR format. This is heavily influenced by our history. One of our Partners Nigel McGrath came from a background of Alias Research in which he was an early investor. So part of the culture at Spin is to be innovative and create new technology. And BRIO is very much a product of that line of thinking.

[24:44] Allan: That’s really cool! When approaching tv projects, it used to have these tight budgets 15 years ago and lower expectations. But in the last 4 years, the budgets and the standards have increased. What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between doing film and tv episodics.

Chris: I think one of the major differences is the deadlines. TV budgets have significantly increased. They compete with films. But the schedules are compressed as always. We approach them in ways to get the same quality as we would for a feature film, but compress it. We have to find ways to find solutions on a compressed schedule. Which is exciting! We are choosing the work based on:

  • What’s going to be interesting for the artists?
  • What’s going to produce the best quality?
  • What are we going to be excited about?
  • And what is the schedule and the resources allocated at that time?

[27:01] Allan: That’s so cool! So delivery schedules are relatively the same?

Chris: Between the two? No, tv is far more compressed. They have the same requests for quality. We had a really complex creature on The Expanse. It would have been a feature film quality but compressed down to 10% of the schedule for a feature film. We had a lot of camaraderie to get it out.

[27:38] Allan: Good. I wanted to hear you say it.

Kirk: The difference between tv and film is so blurred now.

[27:53] Allan: I’m usually tied more to feature films. Whenever I see some of the creatures that wouldn’t have in a tv show 10 years ago. Now, you see the same challenges but the turnaround is so much tighter. It’s impressive to see CG going that distance. It’s pretty impressive!

Mark: Some of the tv, we know the creature is coming. Like the creature in The Nightflyers wasn’t happening until Episode 10 so you start working on it much earlier. You’re starting to do it ahead of time. Which is what allows to get there.

Kirk: We had a great project recently called The Haunting of Hill House. There wasn’t a ton of CG work but there was some interesting work that pushed our pipeline. Not that it was complex. We were learning new procedures and adjusting the pipeline. It was received well critically. But we had a really compressed tv schedule with high quality expectations. We pushed through some interesting creative work: like tearing skin off of a face, or rendering a dead kitten. It wasn’t our favorite work but it was pretty creative.

Mark: What I’m finding out: We work on a lot of projects. The ones that are landing are the ones we have to push ourselves on a little further. Any new project has new challenges. One thing we’re pushing more is we’ve built our character department. Cesar [Dacol Jr.] is running that. We’ve brought in some amazing Sculptors. All these guys are brining their experiences and help us grow. Our FX department is also growing. They’re trying new things there as well. A lot of these projects that are coming are exciting.

Mahsa: To follow what Mark was saying, one of the really great things here at Spin is that the importance of a good, solid pipeline has been understood here. For a medium sized company, they’ve spent a huge effort on creating a solid pipeline. That’s something that’s being worked on. Every new project, we always think of the new challenge. If our pipeline cannot handle it, how can we improve our pipeline so it can handle it? That way, the next time it’s not a challenge anymore. That’s the mentality at Spin which is pretty incredible. Going forward, the same things are never a challenge anymore.

[32:41] Allan: Pipeline is everything! Do you use Shotgun for asset tracking?

Chris: Yeah, we use Shotgun for all of our tracking.

[32:51] Allan: That’s great! When you bring on new artist who need to adapt to your pipeline, do you have a training period? Or how do you prime your artists?

Chris: I guess it really depends on the experience of that artist. If we’re looking at a junior artist, we’re going to be more lenient. As long as there is a fundamental understanding of the visual effects pipeline, we make sure that artist is supported. We have a general on-boarding about how Spin works. But if we’re going to ask an asset artist to understand how our pipeline works, then our CG supervisors are there to overlook that. We have some great artists who are willing to spend that time welcoming artists to the studio. That’s what we preach here: Offering insight, welcoming people! If we have intermediate to senior artists, we expect them to understand the limits of our pipeline. Sometimes the best trial is to give them something complex and see how they handle it.

Mahsa: The culture here at Spin is very family-like. Face to face time matters. When a new person comes into a department, the lead will sit with that person and everyone else helps out as well. It’s very important that everyone asks questions. People are ready to answer questions. The culture is really open here.

[35:57] Allan: Thank you for that! When you’re looking for artists, do you find that having a scripting background helps them?

Chris: It’s not something we consider a prerequisite. We want to make sure an artist has a great eye for composition and the creative side of it. It’s definitely beneficial to have some insight into coding! We have some fantastic FX artists that generate tools that support one another. I think we’re up to 13 people there. It’s not a prerequisite though, but it’s a bonus.

[37:29] Allan: A lot of artists are curious about firing out the reel to the studio and what the process is. What is your process? Does the reel go through HR? Most artists tend to be a bit oblivious.

Chris: Our HR team does a really great job of looking and screening artists. They don’t make creative assessments on the reels. They make sure the artist has a solid fine arts or visual effects background. Then, a reel will be sent to the appropriate people to the right departments and supervisors. A solid breakdown on the reels is important. Solid composition has to be there. A lot of the times, we have a committee that looks through reels. If we see something in an artist, we’ll talk to them. We do take a lot of input on how the person is going to operate in the environment because we’re family oriented. About 50% of the process comes down to the interview.

Kirk: We actually have a few supervisors who are on career emails list as well. Anytime an applicant applies — I’m on that list — we comb through it as well. I’m always looking for stuff as well. For me, I’m looking for someone creative. Even if it’s a simple asset brought to life, given a story point to whatever you’re showing. Telling a story about that piece of art that you’re making. If we find someone interesting, we bring them in. Then you just want to know if you would gel with this artist and how they would get along with other artists. It’s something that we look forward to. I love seeing new talent that applies.

[41:09] Allan: Creative industries attract creative characters. It’s important to have these interviews to see their personalities. When you’re working crazy hours, it helps to know that you’re around people you like.

Chris: It’s important! It’s a pretty cool job and it’s nice to share proud moments. When we were finishing The Nightflyers, we came out of it proud of each other. We can celebrate as a family; and have a beer after and come back to work the next day!

[42:28] Allan: Are there any soft skills you tend to look for? Self management or being a team player? I think a lot of young artists invest in technical skills. What soft skills do you look for?

Chris: I think a key one is willingness to collaborate. Like Mahsa said earlier, the fact that someone is willing to stand up and go over to another artist and to ask if they need some help [is important]. We look for someone who is willing to support one of their team members. We look for someone who can admit when they don’t know what to do. Asking for help — at the right time — can save money and an artist’s confidence. Collaborative spirit and nature is the key soft skill.

Mahsa: Another thing is important is to see the person take pride in what they do. That they aren’t in this industry to make money. They’re actually here to produce amazing work and create something amazing. It’s an important quality I prefer for the members in my team to have: If I ask them to do something, that they are going to go an extra mile to do it even better for themselves. This is a model I live to in my career: Pick a job that challenges you that you’re going to learn from — not the job that pays more. When you grow, the money will always follow!

[45:26] Allan: I completely agree! Taking ownership of your shots is important. You want to make it the best you can. And visual effects that can pay really well. There are careers that pay just as well but without the stress. We do what we do because we love it. Can you talk about the hiring process again? Do you do multiple interviews? I ask this because some people might be curious about the process. When you go to a job interview, you’re already 80% there.

Chris: It kind of depends on the department. Once the group that’s been assessing the reel and resumes, there will be a group of 3-4 people interviewing the candidate. We do like having a group of people because we put value into that mentality. We really want to get to know the person. We want them to be a little weird too. What we make our choices off of — is that interview. We have so many talented people here and we want them to interact. Each department may want to get to know that person.

[48:52] Allan: I think it’s awesome that you take care in bringing the right people, with right personalities.

Chris: Another component to that is that we aren’t just trying to commit them to a project. We’re committing to them as much as they’re committing to us. We tend to not think, “We just need them for 3 weeks.” That’s just not okay. We want to make sure that this artist is taken care of and they can be the rest artist they can be. We want to invest in them as much as they invest in us.

[50:01] Allan: So when you’re on that first date, you’re already thinking about the wedding? Cool! Guys, this has been so cool. Where can people go to learn about the company?

Kelly: You can visit www.spinvfx.com. We’re also active on all the social media. If you’re interested in getting in touch with our recruitment team, they’re active there. We’re very responsive.

Mahsa: About this hiring process, I just wanted to add one thing. It’s important for people to mention what they do outside of the 9-10 hours that they’re at work. If they do anything creative outside of work, that really helps. Normally, people who get into higher positions in our industry have those creative needs outside work as well. A lot of people do artistic work outside VFX. That allows us to get to know them a lot more. That’s a bit help to introduce themselves.

[52:08] Allan: That’s a great point! We’re all artists. Thanks again, guys!

Everyone: Thank you, Allan!

I hope you enjoyed that Episode. I want to thank the team at Spin VFX for taking their time. I would be grateful if you would share this Episode.

  • I’ll be back next Episode talking about should artists build a brand.
  • I have some free training available at www.VFXCourse.com.

Until next week —

Rock on!


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