Episode 229 — Mr. X — Trey Harrell



Before joining Mr. X, Trey Harrell was a 15-year ad industry veteran. Trey’s forte for balancing the technical with the artistic has garnered numerous ADDY (American Advertising Federation) and New York Art Director’s Club Awards for his work as both an Art Director and Creative Director for broadcast, web and print ads.

Trey joined Mr. X in 2010 to work exclusively as the Lead Lighting TD on Tron: Legacy. Supervising the lighting department for many years, he’s been instrumental in re-engineering Mr. X’s lighting and rendering pipeline. Since joining the team at Mr. X, Trey has won two Canadian Screen Awards for Achievement in Visual Effects, including a 2013 CSA award for Resident Evil: Retribution, and a 2014 CSA Award for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. For his work as a CG Supervisor on Guillermo’s Del Toro’s television series, The Strain, Trey received a Visual Effects Society nomination in 2016. He also acted as the Digital Effects Supervisor on Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. He continued to exceed the client’s expectations with his work on Guillermo del Toro’s feature The Shape of Water.

Mr. X’s VFX Supervisor Trey Harrell talks about the skills that a filmmaker must acquire, how having a versatile background guarantees longevity in the business — and why you mustn’t build your entire career on a single piece of software!

Mr. X Website: https://www.mrxfx.com/
Mr. X on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/mr–x/
Mr. X on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mr.x.inc.vfx/
Trey Harrell’s Website: http://www.treyharrell.com/
Trey Harrell on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3848577/
Interview with Trey Harrell on Art of VFX: https://www.artofvfx.com/the-shape-of-water-trey-harrell-digital-effects-supervisor-mr-x/


[03:47] Introduction
[06:19] Trey Harrell’s Background
[13:51] Trey on Breaking into Film
[19:49] Trey Gives Advice on How to Switch Careers
[24:07] Allan and Trey Talk About NOT Relying on Software Trends
[27:01] Allan and Trey Talk Specializing vs Being a Generalist
[29:33] Industry’s Fear of Being Replaceable
[34:30] Importance of Coding Skills
[38:02] How to Get Onset Experience
[42:12] Trey on Working on Resident Evil: Afterlife
[45:49] Trey Talks About His Experience Working on The Thing
[47:08] Trey Talks About Shifts in Mr. X Pipeline
[50:31] Trey Gives Advice on How to Break Into the Industry


Welcome to Episode 229! I’m speaking with Trey Harrell, a VFX Supervisor at Mr. X in Toronto. I’m really excited for this Episode. Trey and I talk about his work on Ad Astra as well as many other projects at Mr. X.

Please share this Episode with others.

Let’s dive in!


[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!

[02:37] I have an Inner Circle which is a free mailing list: www.allanmckay.com/inside. I share a lot of resources and tutorials with people on that List. The content is exclusive to only those who are in the Circle because I want to reward those who take action.

[56:22] 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!


[03:47] Allan: Again, thanks for taking the time to chat. Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Trey: Sure. I’m Trey Harrell. I’m a VFX Supervisor at Mr. X. I’ve been here for almost 10 years. I’ve seen a lot of change in that time!

[04:05] Allan: How does it feel to have been there for a decade?

Trey: It’s a different place. We were acquired by Technicolor about 4-5 years ago and we went from a scrappy little, rock ‘n’ roll place with 150 people to pushing — God, I don’t even know what it is now! — 500, 600 globally! And that’s got its pros and cons. The infrastructure we have now is amazing! But steering a bigger shift takes a lot longer now than when everyone is sitting in the same room.

[04:56] Allan: It’s kind of funny! I’m always fascinated when studios scale. I was [visiting] a studio in Paris where they have 50 people and they were looking at doubling that by the end of the year. I think when you hit a 100 people mark, you’re looking at another layer of management. Bit by bit, when you get to the 250 mark, it begins to require a lot more maintenance. The bigger the number of people — the more it requires to track people’s work.

Trey: Certainly! Just to touch on the security element: There is no studio in the world that’s working on a major film or tv show that’s allowed a direct email access. All the email attachments, and the things you take for granted! It’s the cost of doing business these days, I think.

[06:19] Allan: Yeah, Technicolor gave me a call during the Thor project. They were saying, “Post has wrapped but we’re doing another project, can you come in?” I work from home even in LA. As soon as I found out it was a Marvel project, I thought, “I don’t want to drive to Hollywood because I can’t work from home (because the security is so tight)!” It’s part of the way the world works these days. To jump around a bit: Did you always want to be a creative, or is that something you discovered later in your lifetime?

Trey: I’m one of those guys. Some kids want to be astronauts. I was 8 years old, watching Clash of the Titans and Empire Strikes Back. I really wanted it to be a mix of Ray Harryhausen and Dennis Mirren back then. I’ve always interested in art, and photography, and film, and music. For me, to become computer literate was a means to an end, in terms of having this amazing tool I could bend it to my will and get it to do anything. I remember being in sixth grade and we were doing some video report on the French Revolution. My friends and I took it seriously and did stop animation for a school project! In my teens, I would always go to the Halloween stores and buy out all the liquid latex. This has always been what I’ve been into. It took 20 years to break in, but it’s always been what I wanted to do.

[08:57] Allan: I think that’s so cool! I think so many people struggle to find what their thing is. These days, it’s a lot more mainstream. People are learning Maya, Houdini, 3DS Max in high school. I would struggle to explain what the hell this 3D thing was that I was working late nights on. When you discovered 3D, what was your tool of choice and what resonated with you?

Trey: I worked at an ad agency as an Art Director / Creative Director / Web Developer for years and years. I would freelance and take on whatever gigs were available. I did a bunch of commercials, print, web. I would say Strata Studio was the one that I started messing around with pretty regularly. I would make a sphere, start to model. Then I found that I could do a flying logo, so I moved to Cinema 4D. In the background, I taught myself Maya and Nuke, because increasingly I was directing commercials; and no one could do that work locally. This was before video. You would have to wait for 72 hours to get the footage. I taught myself how to fix things. That was the last thing I shot on film willingly.

[11:33] Allan: I was working on Superman Returns back in the day and we were using the first ever digital camera which was the Genesis. I remember it seemed so revolutionary. But it was this monster of a thing you couldn’t move around. At the same time, you were shooting clean. You’d have to add grain to the shot to match the grainy film shots.

Trey: Yeah, that happened almost everyday. Back in the day, we were archiving everything on Digibeta [tapes]. Around 2005, that industry started imploding on itself with tons of layoffs. So many people would leave larger agencies. Suddenly, your hourly rate went down from $200 to $35. A lot of the VFX industry started migrating up to Canada. I’d gone every couple of years to SIGGRAPH and try to get in. Because that’s how you got in.

[13:51] Allan: For you, making a transition into film, did it feel like the right time to shift gears?

Trey: It was! Although deadlines are deadlines. I’d been doing various VFX for commercials and illustrations for clients. There wasn’t enough hourly work to keep the lights on. I told my wife I’d do SIGGRAPH again. This time (I believe it was at the end of 2008), I got hired to come on as a modeler at Mr. X, for Tron: Legacy. There wasn’t much of a distinction between 2D and 3D. I’d geeked out on lighting and shading side of the business. The studio was switching to Vray for that. I dove in and became a lighting TD over the course of that show. I always coded a bit. So it was an easy transition for me.

[15:46] Allan: I’d like to add if I never touch MEL for the rest of my life, I’d be happy.

Trey: People say that, but I have to say I’ve never had a MEL tool break!

[16:11] Allan: I guess it comes down to the API too. I quit high school in grade eight, so I never learned math. When I learned scripting is when I learned math. When you think of the big picture, it’s a different conversation.

Trey: A lot of it was even 5 years ago, getting Python PI consistent across was not a trivial task. In some respect, it’s not these days either. These days, I code mostly in Python.

[17:21] Allan: Talking about Tron, what was it like to move into feature film? Was it much of a mindset shift? What was the transition like?

Trey: I moved up here and my wife stayed behind for the first two years. It was a “3 month gig” that kept getting extended. There wasn’t much of a pipeline when I moved. The lighters would light scenes that had all the rigs in them. There was a publishing workflow and an archiving workflow. I built a fair amount of the farm submission tools at the time. The scale of the project was bigger than anything I’ve worked on! Also, for a place that didn’t have a pipeline, adopting a rendering pipeline it wasn’t that big of a deal. I moved from freelancing and coding 18 hours a day to keep the lights on to Tron and coding 18 hours a day — to keep the lights on. It was a pretty steady transition. Deadlines are deadlines. It’s essentially the same business but on a different scale.

[19:49] Allan: That’s cool! I have a couple of questions around this. I get asked that every day: “I’m 33 and I want to switch to VFX. Is it too late?” I understand the fear of having to give up everything. Do you have any advice for those people, so they can transition safely?

Trey: [20:35] Well, the single biggest mistake you can make is to base your career on a single piece of software. The industry is fairly mature these days but software changed constantly. And the labor eventually goes to the lowest bidder. There is not enough people in the world to cover the type of work we’re doing. So what I would say to people is: Refine your eye. Learn how the camera works. Learning to push buttons is all well and good; but you’re not a Houdini or Nuke Artist. You’re a filmmaker! Really approaching your career from that perspective: How do you approach a story? How do you make it look photo real? It’s always a mix of disciplines. In the past 5 years, all the disciplines became more segmented than in the past. You now have DMP artists who are Photoshop artists; and then you have DMP artists that use Nuke and Maya and every tool in the box. Those are the artists that are looking at longevity. There is a real risk in become specialized into a one trick pony in this business! Speaking as someone in his mid-40s, there is only so long that you can work those long hours. The economics of the business are such that anything that qualifies as brute force labor will get shipped to the lowest place. I always encourage people to think as filmmakers and bring something to the table. All the tools in the toolbox are viable for different things. These days, I’m not so sure about specialization. I think being a well rounded specialist — at least in the North American market — is probably likely to give you more long term success and viability.

[24:07] Allan: I one thousand percent agree! I think it’s so critical to touch on the software: It is always going to change! People run around and preach the cool flavor of the month, instead of realizing that the work will speak for itself. There is definitely that identification with self worth!

Trey: I would certainly agree. We’re in Toronto. It’s definitely a Houdini religion. I talk to the Autodesk guys as much as I talk to the Side Effects guys! I think on the daily basis, when I was still on the box, I used every single tool at my disposal. We have Vray, Renderman, Arnold on the floor, just in terms of the rendering pipeline. With a 100-shot tv show, you don’t necessarily want the tv overhead that would come with Renderman. There is something to be said for that. There is balance to be had.

[27:01] Allan: Absolutely! I’ve worked on some shows where render passes are being done in Mental Ray and Renderman. That’s absurd but it happens. It’s about picking the right weapon for the right job! The more you can adapt, the better off you’ll be. To touch on specializing, I think it’s so important to start out as a Generalist. I started in Australia and moved to the States where in the early 2000s everyone was segmented. If you start out as a Generalist, you can at least understand where your stuff is going to go. If you don’t understand the pipeline, it’s hard for you to move up to become a CG Sup.

Trey: Back in the day, almost every CG Sup came out of the lighting department because they every responsible for fixing the broken shaders and things like that. Most importantly, they could prove that you could make a shot out of beauty renders that were completely broken. That happens on some shows. I am a bit proponent of sending all the shots and assets through the pipeline to see what everyone brings to the table. [You have to understand] how to use your crew and how to approach a set of shots. As much as we would like for it to be an assembly line, it’s really not!

[29:33] Allan: We’re creatives! One last question around that: You touched on being replaced. I think in a way, it’s relevant to think about AI replacing our jobs, or jobs leaving for other places. The earlier you are in the pipeline, the more replaceable you are. There are some things like photogrammetry, where the tools are easy enough to work with remotely. It’s at the end of the pipeline — lighting, comp, effects — where things tend to be more specialized. There is a high demand, low supply for those. What is your advice for those disciplines that fear being replaced?

Trey: Well, I would say to be as versatile as possible. The more skills you have, the more useful you are.

  • Do you have onset experience? That’s a huge one!
  • Can I put you in front of a client during a review and not be embarrassed?

Once you start moving out to be a Department Sup, you stop being on a box and you start being in the people business. It’s a transition: understanding budgets, understanding deadlines, understanding casting; knowing who the right person is for the job. I would say: Earlier in the pipeline, there are some technical things. Rigging could become specialized (animation is always going to ask for customized rigging)! I would say our India studio has been doing amazing work. They’re doing full shots from rigging, to comp, to lighting. And I’m not talking set extensions! I’m talking creatures! We have a talented crew there. But when it comes to hard surface modeling, it’s going to go to the lowest cost. And you need someone supervising that because quality control is all over the map. You’re going to have growing pains bringing people up. Knowing how to code and how to build tools is incredibly important and rare! Being able to interact with clients and lead your team is the most valuable thing, in addition to being able to handle yourself on set.

[34:30] Allan: I want to shift gears but you keep bringing up some great points. Do you think it’s valuable to learn to code, for artists? Do you think there is a lot of advantage to being able to build tools and solutions?

Trey: Of course! I would argue there is not any 2D compositors remaining. I think the A over B compositors are a dying breed.

[35:54] Allan: I think in general, once you start to automate tasks, you can free up your time and be an artist in areas that can’t be automated.

Trey: Well, it doesn’t have to be scripting as a tool. It could be putting together an HDA in Houdini. Increasingly building tools doesn’t mead that you’re coding. Understanding how Python works, or how to pick apart a script is the starting point. If you have 50,000 pieces of geometry from an outside vendor and their UV’s are all flipped, do you send someone to fix that? No you spend 20 minutes to write a script. Again, at most studios you go to, Maya, Nuke and Houdini are almost unrecognizable based on how they’ve been customized.

[38:02] Allan: One of my friends just came back from Weta and went back to DD, and he was so depressed when he opened the Deep Menu. You end up building robust proprietary tools for everything. Do you have any advice for people who want to get onset experience? Let’s say, you want to start looking at the bigger picture. How would you recommend getting that chance to shadow a Sup?

Trey: You’ve got to be hungry and you have to prove that if I put you in front of a client, you aren’t going to embarrass yourself. I think pestering the VFX Sups and Producers can help. There is always a Second Unit and you can stretch too thin on set. You can really express an interest in that scanning booths. It’s learning about how to manage the on set data. Most people start from texture shoots or processing scans. Then they learn to take camera reports. It comes organically.

[40:34] Allan: I was talking to a camera tracker over the there, Fadi. I’ve known him for quite a while. The more he got into tracking, the more he fell in love with it.

Trey: Fadi is a great example. He is writing tools now and he is basically duplicating our Vray tracking pipeline for all the wireframe shaders, inside Redshift. He is making himself indispensable. That’s a great example

[42:12] Allan: Just to jump around a bit to actual projects, Tron and Resident Evil were some of your first ones there. What were the challenges on Resident Evil: Afterlife?

Trey: I gotta remember which one was Afterlife! That was our first show that we had our fully alembic pipeline for. Gone were the days of opening scenes from the past, and Maya scenes. We were building scenes from scratch. It was a fairly challenging show, but it’s a lot of fun to work on. We were given so much flexibility in terms of being a filmmaker and pitching cool stuff. I have a soft spot for splatter horror. Resident Evil films are in that vein for me. That was about the time that our pipeline started coming together and we were able to scale for larger scenes, like the Tsunami scene. There were ridiculous fluids. There was a clone chamber with 400,000 digi doubles with skin and hair, rendered simultaneous. That was the time when we could start saying, “Yes, we can do creature work! We can do skin. We can do fur. We can intelligently approach complexity.”

[45:49] Allan: That’s cool! What about The Thing and the sequence you did for that?

Trey: We did the ice block in the beginning sequence of the film. I was lighting and shading TD on that and I spent 6 months trying to get a decent looking ice shader out of Vray. That was not trivial! There was a lot of compositing love and a very hero vehicle. That ice box cap, the yellow bulldozer looking thing! That was the time we still only had rudimentary pipeline. We did that vehicle. It was about 100 shots.

[47:08] Allan: Seeing Mr. X grow over the years, in terms of the pipeline shifting, what were the biggest shifts that made an impact?

Trey: It always comes back to the complexity issue. What type of work can you pitch? It’s the big shots that not everyone can do, based on the overhead. I would say, the biggest shift really was admitting reluctantly that we hit a wall with Maya as a lighting and rendering package. A lot of studios went for Katana. We built the equivalent of Katana inside of Houdini. We could build insanely complex scenes! I still joke that lighting in Houdini is like lighting in Excel. It’s not the most visual task. If you’re on the technical side, it’s all about managing data. It can be terabytes of water sims. You have to figure out how to render it locally. It’s all about the complexity. In order to be competitive at the scale we are [at], we have to provide huge scale environments and creature work; and we have to operate intelligently. Because somebody else is always going to have a better tax credit, you’ve got to give the clients a reason to come to you. Client services are part of it. [We] built relationships with filmmakers and we have a lot of repeat clients as a side effect.

[50:31] Allan: I want to respect your time. For those who are aspiring to break into the industry, do you have any advice? Or, more specifically, do you see any mistakes that people are doing when they’re reaching out?

Trey: Well, I would say my biggest piece of advice is to pick up the camera, put it on manual and learn how to use it. Learn how the lenses work or defuse light. Learn how images are made. For any discipline in the industry, that’s incredibly important. Learn how to make props, to send out to set for pre-production. And from a mistake standpoint, I see a lot of people sending unreleased material on their reel. I can’t trust you in that case! You’re going to do it to us.

[52:54] Allan: I think empathy is a big area. If people were to step out and take a look at some of the actions they’re taking — and the big picture — they would understand things (like badmouthing someone). They will be doing that behind your back as well.

Trey: It’s been a long time but we had a lighting TD who sent another studio (that was working on a show we were working on) one of their shots on his reel. Lying to get a job is also a big mistake. I’ve seen reels with the shots that I worked on. I have no idea how they [got] them. People are desperate to get into the industry and you see stuff like that.

[54:47] Allan: I’ve had my reel sent to me a few times, that’s for sure! Which is always fun! That’s really great advice! Thank you again for sharing all this, from the pipeline to how people show approach their career. It’s about leveraging the core skills. I want to thank you for sharing this information!

Trey: Thank you for having me! It’s been fun!

I want to thank Trey for taking the time to chat.

Check out the VIP Inner Circle: www.allanmckay.com/inside.

I’ll be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!



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