Episode 212 — Image Engine — VFX Sups


Episode 212 — Image Engine — VFX Sups

Welcome to Episode 212! I’m going to be speaking with two of the Image Engine Supervisors on Game of Thrones: Jörn Großhans and Thomas Schelesny. I’m really excited about this one. Both Jörn and Thomas have been involved heavily on GOT. We get into a lot about pipeline to what it took to supervise something as big as that show! I think it’s going to be very inspiring!

Let’s dive in!


[00:45] 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!

[02:28] If you haven’t signed up for the free VFX Class, I just brought it back: It’s my City Destruction Course (www.VFXCourse.com). You will learn to create a high-end visual effects shot and take it from start to finish through a VFX pipeline.

[1:00:07] 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!


Image Engine is a high-end visual effects studio based in Vancouver, BC, that specializes in creature design and animation for feature films and television. Founded in 1995, the studio has worked on films like District 9 and Chappie, Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World; shows like X-Files and Game of Thrones. In 2010, the company was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, for their work on District 9.

In this Episode, Allan McKay moderates a round table with the Emmy Award Winning VFX Supervisors Jörn Großhans and Thomas Schelesny about their experience on Game of Thrones and how that show changed the realm of VFX for tv.

Image Engine’s Website: http://image-engine.com
Image Engine on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/imageengine
Image Engine on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ImageEngine/
Image Engine’s Twitter Handle: @ImageEngine.


[03:56] Allan: Again, guys! Thanks for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?

Thomas: Hi, I’m Thomas Schelesny. I’m a VFX Supervisor at Image Engine and I work with…

Jörn: Hi, I’m Jörn Großhans. I’m a VFX Supervisor at Image Engine.

[04:12] Allan: I love it! You, guys, are destined to be tag-teaming. That’s great! I appreciate your taking your time. I figure we’ll start with how you, guys, got started. You both have been in the industry for a thousand years. Thomas, you started on Sliders. Was that in LightWave 3D? What were you using back then?

Thomas: No, my career started like everyone else’s: I was a failed athlete who did not make the Olympic team in bike racing. I did the natural step of moving into the film industry. They are in some ways related. Both of those careers have no guaranteed outcomes! You get in and you try like crazy and hope you have the talent and luck, and work ethic to get anywhere! Fortunately, after going to a film school, I ended up working on some tv programs in Vancouver. We were using… what was that thing before Maya? Wavefront! Incredibly unintuitive, but by the time I was working in tv, it was all Soft Image.

The funny thing I never used the software. Everyone had their own workstation that was protected by the login. If you didn’t have the login, you couldn’t access the software. So what I did was get my hands on a manual and I photocopied them. I taped them to my monitor at home where I had some 3D software. I pretended to be using Soft Image. I basically memorized how it worked. Then an opportunity came up and they asked, “Does anyone know how to model a Sessna Airplane?” I apprehensively raised my hand and they gave me the login — and 3 years later, I was a Supervisor of that department. I was super lucky. It’s all about timing and being ready to say yes to an opportunity.

[06:44] Allan: Most people aren’t, so that’s great!

Thomas: [06:46] The trick is you don’t want to say yes to something you aren’t ready for. Because then you’re setting yourself up for failure and you may never bounce back from that! So for me, I’m always getting ready to say yes to the thing I’ve been getting ready to say yes for! I’ve been super lucky, I spent 3.5 years working on tv shows in Vancouver. I applied for 10 different job positions in California, where all the film work was being done. Nine companies responded so I went down and did 9 interviews and never liked them. The one company that I wanted to work for never responded. It was Tippett Studio. Phil [Tippett] was my hero! He was a legend in animation. So I just stayed in Vancouver. A year later, my phone rang. It was someone from Tippett Studio. Unfortunately for that person, his voice sounded identical to my best friend Brad’s, so I said “Very funny, fuck you!” The phone rang again and the person said, “Don’t hang up! This is not Brad.” And 72 hours later, I was a coffee shop across from Tippett Studio, doing my job interview and I spent 14 years working for my hero. That’s where I learned how to be an animator and a professional in the industry. It’s something that is hard to find — a master in visual effects — and to be able to stay with him for 14 years. That’s where I consider myself to be super lucky! That’s how I got into the industry and VFX Supervising.

[08:29] Allan: That’s amazing! You’re absolutely right: I’ve loved Tippett Studios since all the work they’ve done on Starship Troopers, and Jurassic Park before that. You always imagine it as this massive studio, but then you go there — and it’s this brick building with a bunch of people in it. That’s just it! The amount of talent at that place!

Thomas: Well, in those days, it was easier to create a concentration of talent because there was less work. Now there is a hundred times more studios and each studio needs its star talent. It’s hard to concentrate all of that talent in one place anymore.

[09:21] Allan: Jörn, what about you? What was your experience like?

Jörn: Well, I didn’t start out as an athlete. So that’s a bit of a difference from Thomas already! I started in Germany. When I started studying, I wanted to do more of a Pixar animation thing, you know? But when I got to study, I learned more about live action movies. I didn’t a couple of internships. These days, you can work on Hollywood movies in Germany, but it wasn’t like that back then. When you worked on a smaller budget movie, you did it all yourself: You rendered it yourself, you comped it yourself, etc. I still think I have that as an advantage because I understand the whole process, especially the 3D part. It was not HD quality either. Bigger movies started coming to Germany; and I was lucky to become part of a bigger company in Germany that grew over 2-3 years, over 500 people worldwide. It was a stressful time also, you learned it by doing it. It was great to work with so many talented people in Vancouver. I ended up here at Image Engine in Vancouver and met Thomas again. Five years later, we met again in LA.

Thomas: It was 5 years ago and what was funny, we immediately had a bond. There are a lot of production challenges on GOT, it’s one of the hardest shows I’ve ever worked on! So whenever I meet someone who has been through it — and come out on the other end with the same results as Jörn — you immediately bond with them. You look at each other and recognize that you’ve both been there!

[12:54] Allan: Yeah, I’ve just dug up some old storage closet. One of the things I found was a wrap-party shirt that said “I Survived Superman Returns”. I just remember how much that film burnt out half the industry. So you recognize people who’ve been through it!

Thomas: Part of what makes it fun to work in it — is the camaraderie!

Jörn: GOT pushes the quality and how it works in the tv sector, to the next level. When I started on GOT, you had to separate artists who just did tv vs those who did film. Nowadays, everyone wants the highest quality, even on tv. That tv show changed the industry, I think.

Thomas: I’ve been in the industry for 28 years, I think. I remember when on Starship Troopers, everything seemed like the first. I remember alien bugs, “Wow! That’s all CG!” That’s a first time. At ILM, they were working on Casper, the Friendly Ghost or The Flintstones. And then, we went through a long period of time where there wasn’t many firsts but more a refinement period. I feel like that’s where we are now: [With] the 19th sequel on the original, you sort of know what it’s going to be like. That was the challenge for me on GOT: to be able to accomplish the amount and quality of work in the amount of time allowed. And it was a massive challenge and it exposes your own weaknesses. Because if you’re leaking man hours somewhere because you’re being sloppy, it really shows on GOT. It was a real first to try and hit it on tv and keep raising the bar!

[15:17] Allan: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I just want to grab a beer with you guys and nerd out. Especially when it comes to man hours, I keep hearing people talk about software, which one is cheaper. But I’ve always said it’s man days that are the most expensive part of a project. All it takes is a bad decision that will bleed out the hours, especially on a show with the highest level of an output. What has it been like for you, guys? Have the expectations grown? And have the budgets grown with them?

Jörn: For GOT, on Season 2, the environments were mostly 2D. And now everything is 3D! There are complicated camera moves. On Season 2, there were only 5 dragon shots. On the last Season, every Episode has dragons. That’s changed a lot! But not only the tv complexity has changed. The movies have changed, the whole process is more fluid. You have to deal with late edit changes and changes to the story. Marvel shows are highly demanding. You have to adjust to the filmmakers’ vision. I think there are changes in the whole industry.

Thomas: Jörn and I have talked about one of the biggest mistakes you can make today is working today with yesterday’s ways. Back in the old days, everything was super black and white. You couldn’t email the work at a couple minutes’ notice. Now, you have to work quicker and pivot much faster. There are some things that aren’t black and white. For me, as an older dog, I have to keep my mind open to create more work that I used to do — but faster today. And that means letting go of some of the things and adapt.

[18:55] Allan: You’re right! Usually, at the end of a project, someone could travel half way around the world to drop off the drive. Now, you just throw it out there.

Thomas: Or you find out the next day, “Thanks for that! Here are some new plates for the same shot. We have a new idea!” Now, it’s game on again. And it’s fair play! And you’re right, I used to travel from San Francisco to LA every week. With us, we’d carry a hard drives and cans of film. When you did your final reviews, you played it on film on a projector, in a theatre. There was never frame by frame. In some cases, [nowadays], your client is on iPad reviewing your work on a plane. And it’s impossible to predict what those conditions will be.

[20:12] Allan: Yeah! That’s so true. As you mentioned, even with color grading: One of my friends recently bought the RED EPIC [camera]. He invested in RED for years. He’s a Comp Sup at DD. He eventually positioned himself as the expert on color science for RED. He’d go from being a Comp Sup to being in every meeting with the DP’s. Having your finger on the pulse allows you to position yourself ahead of the curve when something new comes out. How important do you think it is to pay attention to what’s coming down the pipe?

Jörn: For sure, technology drives our industry. As Thomas said, it’s so important nowadays to learn and adapt to new ways, new workflows. I have to say, here at Image Engine, our pipeline is awesome. It’s the best pipeline I’ve ever seen! There is a lot of smart people involved in the process. You have to have your specialists! If you don’t know it, for yourself, you know whom you can ask.

Thomas: For us, as VFX Sups, we have to pick out battles. For us, there is still only 24 hours in a day. There are so many details we can sink our teeth into. There are so many specs are coming out. Ultimately, we have to trust the experts and technically minded people around us!

[22:47] Allan: You’re absolutely right! Having the right people — and knowing everyone’s strengths — is so critical! Looping back to Jörn, coming from Germany, you felt that knowing the pipeline was your greatest strength. In a way, I was always jealous of artists in the US. People could just send their resume anywhere and not worry about work permits. We, however, had to work our way out of the country, so we had to know every part of the pipeline. In a lot of ways, that became a strength for anyone who came from a smaller country. You had to have the understanding of the whole pipeline. What are your thoughts on that? Should artists invest in learning about the pipeline?

Jörn: I think it’s important especially if you want to climb up the latter to lead people or to become a Sup. It’s crucial you understand what each step means and what requirements each department has. I think some studios in France still do that. One artist does the whole shot. It was fun for me, to be honest. I learned a lot and I still rely on that.

Thomas: How often do you have people asking you how to become a VFX Sup? The one advice I always give is: “Quit the job you’re good at — and learn all the other jobs!” It’s very hard to do that. In this environment, everyone comes out of school as a specialist. There is very few generalists anymore. It’s the hardest thing! Jörn, you were a compositor primarily, weren’t you?

Jörn: Yeah, I started with wanting to control the final image (and I was also annoyed with all the render times). I went down the compositor router.

Thomas: I’ve done a bunch of rigging, modeling, lighting. My real primary talent was in animation. But Jörn had to stop doing what we were recognized as being good at and go learn something else. That’s super hard! Ultimately, you walk away from what you were good at, to become a beginner Supervisor.

[26:22] Allan: I love that though and I think that’s such brilliant advice! It’s very easy to stay in your comfort zone, and it’s really humbling to step up to the new group. One of my friends is a CG Sup. Coming from lighting, he is having to learn compositing, photography and learn the pipeline. In a lot of ways, it can be refreshing. In the 90s, it was exciting to see how the next CG movie is going to look. When The Transformers came out, I thought, “Alright! Too much CG!” I worked on Transformers 3. Some of us had excitement in the beginning, and then it becomes a job. Exploring a new territory can be scary but you can start exploring again. You can start getting invested again.

Thomas: Hey, Jörn. What was the most exciting project you’ve ever worked on?

Jörn: The most rewarding? That’s hard to see!

Thomas: I’ll give you a second to think about it. For me, the most unlikely project: I am a monster and creatures guy. When I was at Tippett, someone slipped me a script and I read the title and went “Ugh!” I read the script and fell in love with it! I kept it on my desk so no other Sup got to it. It was that Amy Adams film Enchanted. The best movie I’ve ever worked on! It was such a fantastic shoot, with a fantastic director; and the work was so unlikely that I fell in love with that project. I got to spend 4-4.5 months in Manhattan shooting it.

[28:56] Allan: And what about you, Jörn?

Jörn: It’s hard, really! I can’t say I have a favorite! There were some highlights on each projects, but it’s still a stressful job. Of course, when I worked on Hugo, that was great! Ben Grossman was the Sup on that, in LA.

[29:22] Allan: It was Ben and…

Jörn: Alex Henning. The overall Sup was Rob Legato. That was great to work with these guys! GOT was also [great!] To make that transition from a more 2D approach to 3D, more complex shots. I just did my first Marvel show too.

Thomas: I remember when I was interviewed at another VFX company in Vancouver and they said, “Okay, we have a project lined up for you” — and it was GOT Season 4. I wasn’t familiar with the show. I thought it was a bit of a demotion to go from film to tv. So I took the job anyways. They wanted me to do the skeletons coming out of the snow, fighting those heroes. And then I realized I was brought there by design. That was an homage to Rey Harrihousen. He was Tippett’s mentor, and now Phil was my mentor. Suddenly, these things take on special meaning. And as it turns out, it’s changed my career!

[31:21] Allan: I love that! It’s like those projects that inspired you in the beginning, like the Rey Harrihousen projects. They’re the things that ultimately inspired us. It’s great to touch back on those things!

Thomas: It’s like honoring the shoulders on which you had to climb on top of, to advance the industry.

[32:00] Allan: I love that! How do you feel about GOT, now that it’s done. You’ve been tied to it for a long time.

Jörn: I didn’t work on all Seasons. It looked great! I think it’s more of a Thomas question. When did you finish this Season?

Thomas: We finished sometime in May. The Season was already being aired. Now that it’s over, it’s quite shocking that it’s behind me. It was a hard project. It got more complicated every year. Clients want more and they want it to look better. This last Season was the most rewarding. Joe Bauer and I had a trust from Season 7, so it was really easy going. We both dealt with volume and quality without having to figure each other out; or having to dig in what the notes might be. It was very collaborative. I will miss the show! We felt we were driving tv VXF forward. Anyone who wants to top GOT, I wish them luck. They will need years of experience doing it. You look how the show went year after year: It got more and more complex. They’ve built content around the vendors they could trust to get to the point [of doing] over 3,000 shots in the last Season. It was a massive amount of work. They couldn’t do that from zero to 60. It was great to be part of that evolution!

[34:32] Allan: That’s really great! Do you mind elaborating on how important it is to build those relationships. Joe pushed the limits on a lot of houses, to set that level of expectations. But having that repeat relationship on the client side means that you speak the same language. There is plenty of times when you want to make something to look a certain way. You both have built that synergy: you know what their wants and fears are.

Jörn: That’s one advantage of working on episodic stuff. You have more seasons so you can build the relationships on a long-term base and have a better understanding on a client side.

Thomas: Jörn, did you do any commercial work when you first got into the industry?

Jörn: Yes, we did commercials.

Thomas: My start was also commercials and tv work and I think if you approach GOT as a vendor, having only done tv work, you would be at a disadvantage. I needed to have the understanding of the reality and limitations of tv — and then bring my film experience in to that context. It can be a big struggle: You’re making a tv show that looks like a movie. It’s a whole different thing. The easiest thing to do on GOT is to lose a few million bucks on it, so you have to be really smart with your days.

[36:42] Allan: What are your thoughts on that? I always look at commercials as a gem. I give advice to start out on them because you’ll have 30 or more shots to choose from for your reel, by the end of it. The growth that you have with 2-week turnarounds — and smaller budgets — you have to push the limits creatively and technically. It’s about wearing all those different hats too.

Jörn: I think you have to learn to improvise a bit but still be really precise. You have to know how to piece something together so it still holds up; and to get the understanding of the whole process.

Thomas: [37:50] If you’re working in a smaller shop, every week is a new idea. You have to whip up a new technique without the support of a massive pipeline, or the history of doing that type of work. You have to do it really quickly. And when you’re then working at a larger studio, that skill set is highly valued. We’re all specialists in that environment. But to have someone who can come up with a new idea! For example, our Animation Sup Jason Snyman can sit down and come up with something in Maya. “What do you think of this?” And we immediately built not only a pipeline around that nutty idea, but we also built a department to put at the end of it. That’s how we came up with the technique for all the shots in which Drogo is being attacked by Whites crawling all over his body. It was done by a simple test done by Jason. It was one animation cycle. They’re all doing the same cycle, if you look closely enough. And that’s the kind of simple troubleshooting that’s really hard to find in a film VFX studio.

[39:29] Allan: I love that! I saw the breakdown on your website. That’s so cool! Do you tend to recycle your assets for the next Season.

Thomas: We need to recycle the assets. There’s far to much data that’s being generated and shared between the vendors! If you look at the case of the Whites crawling all over Drogo, on our reel they’re all gray. We never rendered them. Those whites are assets that came from other Seasons; they were modified by Weta for their needs. We took them, applied our technique and sent the Whites to them as caches. It all plugged back into their pipeline. Our other partner vendor was Scanline which made buildings collapse in Episode 5. We generated all the dragons. We sent them the animation caches and they were all lit for those shot, in their environments, in a common 3D space. We all had to work as if we were one facility.

[41:18] Allan: What was that experience like? It’s rare to have studios collaborate like that these days.

Thomas: The only way to survive on GOT is for everyone to put their swords on the floor and say, “How do we help each other?” Right upfront, we asked Weta and Scanline how they needed their files. We just made full-on building tools to support that. Once we were in production, we were delivering a dozen shots to them everyday. The idea was that once we were in the heat of battle, they could ingest our material, drop it into their world space directly. Anything short of complete collaboration would’ve been a complete disaster. That was impossible to do 20 years ago. But considering where tv is at, I think it has to be the way of working.

[42:56] Allan: Were there any, “Oh shit! How are going to pull this one?” sequences? And what were some of the concerns that came with those?

Thomas: Once you found out what Joe had in mind, your first thought was, “How can this ever get done? Joe, did we say yes to this? Why am I in the industry? Should I get a job at a gas station?” The stuff they were taking on was so huge, everyone’s heads would spin. You would take one impossible task and break it down to a million doable tasks.

Jörn: At the beginning, on Season 2, there was only one vendor. After that, it got split up. You had 10 Episodes. The delivery was 1 week. Nowadays, you have more time, you have some weeks between deliveries. Where it felt like real pressure was they would already start airing stuff, and you’re still working on the animation. This is for real!

Thomas: One of the things I appreciated about Joe and Steve was that they were always evolving on how to be more efficient. This last season, Joe split up the duties with another Sup, on his side. Our initial work on the show was not as big as it turned out to be. How to become more efficient at delivering this massive amount of work was important. Our responsibility expanded in a specific areas: For us it was all the dragons; for Weta, it was the battle scenes. Everyone had to focus. That was the strength of getting through the last Season.

[46:21] Allan: Speaking of dragons, approaching something like that, there were some massive sequences. There were not cuts. You’d be lucky if there was some fog. How do you approach something that epic?

Thomas: Anytime you see someone sitting on the back of a dragon, 99% of the time it’s a live action person. It’s very rare for us to do digital doubles. How do you approach that? You don’t cheat! You don’t cheat how the dragons are flying or where they are in space. In house, we had something we called “Super Animation”: an animation that was 30-40 seconds long and cover many shots. It built in continuity. We needed to get it right the first time because we’re fighting schedule limitation. If you look at Season 8, there was a fight with Rhaegal in mid-air, over the castle. That was animated as one long Super Animation. It was taken to 80-90% completion. Then we divided that among other animators to take them to that completion. If you’re clean with your work, you need to be super respectful with your partner vendors. In that regard, it creates certain honesty. We have to be clean and clear with everybody.

[49:27] Allan: In terms of live action shots on a hydraulic rig, is that problematic? Or is it easier to matchmove?

Thomas: That technique for that, the thing they’re sitting on is a buck. Even though the device is pre-programed it’s not pan accurate. The idea is to continuously move with a common camera. We would layout the previs shots in 3D space so we build a correct continuity overtime. We would then animate that shot with a CG background, dragon and people to 90% completion. After those are approved, they would be sent to a previs company that would convert it to what a buck could understand. The buck has limited motion. They’d have to convert that to the movement on the buck — and the camera movement. It’s very complicated stuff! After they shot the actors, we’d have to reinterpret that to a performance that would respect our camera movements. We would then create a new camera that worked for both. We’d reanimate everything to work correctly. Every time a dragon blew fire, it was live action. And that exact same technique was used to remote controlled flame thrower. That’s assuming we had a digital background. Many, many steps! But the goal is to have one camera that sees everything! Nowhere did I mention performance because it has to be the icing. I’d have to explain that to everyone involved.

[53:15] Allan: That’s impressive! Looking at the turnaround time, how big are your teams? And what would you expect from start to finish? How big were the teams and the turnaround time on Season 7?

Jörn: It stretch out a bit in the last Season. It was 8-10 weeks which is now. I think now, what was the turnaround time?

Thomas: It’s hard to say because we were working on sequences. We wouldn’t have a shot that landed. We were building entire sequences for layout, entire sequences for animation to support the buck plates — getting all the approval. We were doing this in giant layers. Looking at the actuals, we had 60-70% as much time as on a film, but with lots of iterations. Teams wise, I think we had 120 people. The hardest thing is taking the labor intensive work. All of that stuff I described, that’s not normal animation. It was a huge challenge for them! They would go through the struggles of coming up to speed.

[56:16] Allan: If I were to ask one last question, out of all the GOT experiences, what would be your most memorable shot / sequence?

Jörn: It was the collapse of Braavos shot. That was my favorite because it was one of the biggest establishments on the series, at that time.

Thomas: For me, Season 8 was one giant shot. I remember the 2.5 D shot, the red-leaf tree. It was super hard because I had to learn the sensibility. It was a huge challenge and accomplishment!

[57:39] Allan: Do you remember the shot code for each of those?

Jörn: No.

Thomas: I don’t remember my home phone number.

[57:47] Allan: I feel like when it comes to painful shots, you remember those much longer. This has been so great! Is there anything you want to add?

Thomas: We have this secret connection through this show.

[58:17] Allan: Thanks for taking the time to chat!

Thomas: [58:33] If I have any parting words for young artists out there: Find somebody you respect and stick with them until you learn everything they know!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Thomas and Jörn for taking the time to chat. I got a lot of value from this Episode.

  • Next week, I will be talking about some actionable steps with Instagram and how to build your brand.
  • I will also be talking to Dan Katcher, the Father of Dragons on GOT. He’s responsible for all the dragons on the show.
  • I’ve got the new free training at www.VFXCourse.com. It’s free. Download it there!

Until next week —

Rock on!


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