Episode 234 — Lon Molnar — MARZ
Episode 234 — Lon Molnar — MARZ
The mission of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ) is to deliver feature-film quality visual effects on television timelines by harnessing GPU clusters, game engine technology, AI and senior industry talent. Leveraging these pillars allows us to consistently execute with both speed and quality for our premium television projects.
Lon Molnar is the Co-President of MARZ. With more than 20 years of experience, Lon has contributed a vast amount of visual effects to film and television as an artist, VFX Supervisor, and former CEO of the award winning VFX company Intelligent Creatures.
Inspired by the magic of Toy Story, Lon attended the Vancouver Film School with the single goal of opening up his own VFX studio. As he built his resume, he became dissatisfied with working on VFX for tv, and set his sights on feature films. He became a VFX generalist, working in animation, lighting, compositing and modelling, while using a vast array of software. After serving as the CG Supervisor on the groundbreaking films Chicago and The Cell, he fulfilled his earlier dream and opened up Intelligent Creatures in 2002. Working with talented creators like Mark Forster, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Tattersall, Oliver Stone and others, Lon quickly built the Toronto-based VFX house into an award-winning studio.
Intelligent Creatures lent its creativity to dozens of projects such as Mr and Mrs Smith, The Witch, and Babel. They built robust pipelines to tackle critically-acclaimed projects, such as the Watchmen‘s famous Rorschach mask of moving inkblots. Some of their later work, such as the award-winning series Orphan Black and the Emmy-nominated Curiosity: Battlefield Cell pushed the boundaries of visual effects on TV.
Fifteen years after the formation of Intelligent Creatures, Lon recognized that unlike when he had started in the industry, TV was no longer the “lesser” medium for VFX. When he spoke to Jonathan Bronfman, the two found themselves sharing symbiotic ideas. They saw a gap that others didn’t. What if, they asked, we can build a company that focuses on serving only one market, and defines the standard of excellence in that market? That was the beginning of MARZ. the boundaries of visual effects on TV.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Lon about the history of MARZ and the company’s commitment to technology and talent, a philosophy that ensures high quality effects for television timelines.
Lon Molnar on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0597163/
Lon Molnar on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lon-molnar-2287ba5/?originalSubdomain=ca
MARZ on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/marz_vfx/?hl=en / @marz_vfx
MARZ on Twitter: https://twitter.com/marzvfx?lang=en / @marzvfx
MARZ on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Movie-Television-Studio/Monsters-Aliens-Robots-Zombies-VFX-532236013937689/
Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies’ Website: https://monstersaliensrobotszombies.com/
[04:22] Introduction of Lon Molnar
[04:51] The Beginning of MARZ
[08:40] Lon Talks About MARZ’s Philosophy
[10:30] The Origins of Name MARZ
[12:30] Lon Discusses Picking a Niche for MARZ
[15:02] Allan and Lon Talk About Embracing Technology
[27:13] Lon Sheds Light on Negotiation — and How That Landed Watchmen
[31:36] Lon Talks About MARZ’s Contribution and Methodology on Watchmen
[34:12] Allan and Lon Compare Budgets and Timelines of TV versus Film
[39:15] Allan and Lon Discuss New VFX Trends
[45:09] Lon Talks the Importance of Staying Openminded in Terms of Tools / Software
[51:16] Lon Gives Insight on How to Become an Artist at MARZ
[51:16] Allan and Lon Talk Demo Reels and Industry Relationships
[59:22] How to Learn More About MARZ
INTERVIEW WITH LON MOLNAR
Welcome to Episode 234! I’m speaking with Lon Molnar, one of the Founders of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (or MARZ) one of the new and leading studios in Toronto, like Boys, Watchmen and many more projects. I’m excited for this one. This is one of my favorite Episodes.
We’ve been hitting a great stride with this Episodes lately. Last week, we had Filmmaker and YouTuber Matti Haapoja (www.allanmckay.com/233) and next week, I’ll be talking to Seth Polansky who is a Lawyer who focuses on Intellectual Property for artists. Within the first 20 minutes of that Podcast with Seth, I’ve learned so much.
I can same the same thing about this Episode. I had such a great time with Lon and we got to talk about so much: how he got started, how he started MARZ and how they niched down to specific subjects and began to stand out pretty quickly. That resonates with what we talk a lot about on this Podcast.
Please take a minute to share this Episode with others.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:58] 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!
[1:00:04] 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!
INTERVIEW WITH LON MOLNAR
[04:22] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Lon: Yeah, absolutely! I’m Lon Molnar. I’m a Co-President of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies, also known as MARZ. We’re a VFX studio in Toronto. We opened about a year a half ago. Before that, I owned a VFX company called Intelligent Creatures in Toronto. And I’ve been working in the industry pretty much since ‘97.
[04:51] Allan: That’s awesome! How did your studio get started?
Lon: MARZ is basically an amalgamation of myself and Jonathan Bronfman. He comes from the production side. Jonathan and I worked together on a project called The Witch. We started talking and realized that we had similar paths. He embraced the technology and service side; and I embraced the production side. I had my own IP’s I’ve built over the years. VFX has [become] a critical component to productions, be it film or tv. We sat down with our Managing Director and started talking about the concept of a new company, what that company should look like and what its focus should be.
Out of that conversation we quickly came to the conclusion that we should build a studio that focuses on premium television, realizing that there are two paths you can take in VFX — and every vendor does it — film or tv. As we know, they’re completely different paths and pipelines. Film is a much longer process, you can do different things with film. Whenever you fumble, you can “throw more bodies on it”, as they say. TV has definitely a more rapid pace and these days, tv has the quality level of film. So how do you do that? How do you give clients what they need? What I’ve learned is that film has a lot of money behind the marketing and there is a lot of prestige. When you are a VFX vendor, you steal the budget for the higher priority projects. What suffers are the tv projects. We didn’t want to do that. We have a lot of clients in LA and they dedicate their livelihood to television and they’ve been doing it for 20-30 years. So how do we build a custom shop and pay them the respect that they deserve? And I’ve worked on tv for many years and in the ‘90s it was not good. And now you can see that’s where audience spend most of their viewing time. So let’s keep film out of the room, essentially, and focus on television. And the next phase was: How do we do it successfully? And how do we become number one at it?
[08:40] Allan: I love that and I think that’s so smart! There is such a massive shift in tv. These days, the budgets are bigger and the schedules are more forgiving. A lot of people are getting home theaters set up. I’m glad you’re focusing on that!
Lon: Absolutely! And a lot of filmmakers I’ve respected are heading into tv. If you look at House of Cards, the effects aren’t visible; but [that show] put a stake in the ground of what tv could be. You can play out these characters. It also attracts A-list talent. A lot of the shows in the 90s weren’t up to standard. If I am going to put any efforts into anything, I want to do it on good quality work. When you see tv at the level it’s at, this doesn’t seem crazy so say, “Let do it! There are some great things happening on tv, and it’s okay to leave film off to the side.”
[10:30] Allan: I love that! I have to ask: Where did the name come from?
Lon: A good friend of mine and I were on a train back from Montreal, years ago. We started spitballing. Essentially, they were words [based] on films on which we grew up in the 80s and 90s. When you hear Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies, you just see visual effects in those things. I came a bit naturally. It was just a name off to the side, until we were trying to name the new company — build it brand! — and my daughter came to me and said, “Why aren’t you using MARZ?” So I went to Jonathan and said, “What about this?”
[11:46] Allan: Your name definitely stands out!
Lon: And fun! It says a lot about the culture. For me as an artist, every one of our talent can lean on something like “I’m more like that!”
[12:30] Allan: Obviously, you offer a wide variety of services. Is there any specific area that you identify with more?
Lon: I think at some point, everyone has to pick their specialty. What we didn’t want to do is be all things to everyone. Down the line, we could nail every one of those specialties, but in the beginning we wanted to find our niche. When you look at our name, it’s obvious that’s what we have to do. I’m a huge fan of character animation but I’ve been avoiding it because I knew how difficult it was and how many iterations it takes as a director, for that character to carry the piece. Those takes are revisions and those revisions mean lots of profit, and they can destroy the company. You do amazing work and you have to be careful when you go into that area. I had to wait for the technology to catch up. Everything came together at the right time. Character work is what we’re starting to focus on, and on getting high iterations. How do we do that? It comes back to the focus on technology. Not just saying it! We’re embracing it and making it an integral part of our company.
[15:02] Allan: I definitely want to touch on that more. What’s your opinion? The studios that embrace the tech part of things definitely get the most growth. If you’re captive to out-of-box software, there are going to be limitations. Are there technologies that you’re embracing?
Lon: What we realized in the initial meeting is the two metrics that separate tv from film are: speed and quality. Once we wrote those down and started breaking them down. How do we maintain speed but hit the levels of quality close to film (because that’s where tv is headed)? It’s not just your typical software. When we broke down the metrics, we realized it was going to come down to two things: talent and technology. So we decided to go all in on talent. Let’s attract the best talent we can possibly attract.
We are in a tax credit location so let’s just hire the best. We decided to skew the company to a more senior level because you’re going to get low iterations and get high quality straight out of the gate. And that’s how you get the speed and quality metric. The other benefit to getting senior talent is you get all the innovations that these [artists] have stumbled upon over the years. They’re directing videos on the side and making apps. When we bring them in, we get all the innovation with them. That’s how we stumbled upon Redshift and GPU rendering. One of our senior guys Nathaniel Larouche directs music videos on the side and he was using Redshift. He wanted to get the high quality and deliver quickly. I could analyze it pretty quickly and I saw what Redshift could do. I was extremely impressed with the increase in quality and delivery times. You essentially have a rendering farm next to you, for every artist. When I saw that, we decided to go all in. We embraced that and built a lot of tools around GPU rendering. It works beautifully for tv. Anything you see on Watchmen, it’s all realtime rendering. That’s an example on the technology front. Unreal is another thing we’ve embraced. Everything is on the table. You look at where AI is today. It’s been in many industries for a decade. VFX is just starting to scratch the surface of AI that could be doing a lot of the tasks that artists shouldn’t be, really. It’s the pursuit of the art in its purest form that artists should be focusing on. They shouldn’t be pulled back by menial tasks because [it disrupts] the flow. How do we remove these menial tasks from the artists’ plate?
[20:54] Allan: When I started coding, it changed my mindset a lot. We do so much repetitive, uncreative work; pretty much 80% of it is uncreative. If we code and create tools that focus on that, so we can be the artists we were hired to be.
Lon: And I think a lot VFX companies have embraced that but there is always that fear of technology overtaking the art. Art isn’t about that. Those menial tasks shouldn’t be bogging us down. That’s how it has to be. How do we use the technology to free up the artists?
[22:18] Allan: I love that you mentioned GPU. That was a philosophy at ILM. It was the only technology that would get recycled. CPU would get thrown up. So from an efficiency point of view, you can salvage it for longer.
Lon: The other great advantage is that Unreal relies on GPU as well. Good for us! AI relies on GPU as well. We can leverage it in all these other ways and you can see where the industry is going. It was a fantastic call that was completely accidental, actually!
[23:36] Allan: [Your studio] has been around for only a year but you’ve already tackled a lot of difficult projects. What were the key things you used to grow as rapidly as you have?
Lon: As I mentioned, our Managing Director Matt comes from the technology world. He comes into the industry. I find VFX is a young industry and we haven’t adapted some of the business mindsets. He comes in and looks at what he’s doing, and he looks at it differently. Why can’t VFX be like the tech industry? He helped us rethink how visual effects can be. I’ve always thought about bringing outsiders into the industry, but who’ve been trained as coordinators and they can bring that knowledge and training to our company. If they’re really smart, they’ll learn VFX. But it’s much more difficult to learn to manage projects. He enlightened us to a lot of things. We went to LA and started testing our initial pitch. It was by far different. You could see they were looking at us differently because we were speaking differently from other companies. It wasn’t, “Look at our demo reel and all this great stuff!” It was much a deeper and more thoughtful conversation with lots of follow up. We were focused on different areas, besides our reel. I think it really helped propel us.
[27:13] Allan: It’s so important for branding and positioning. You’re coming in and offering the same services — then you’re just competing with the price point. Instead, you’re leveraging the tech and the people, and the way you approach everything.
Lon: It’s a much more meaningful conversation. They’re saying, “You’re on the show but here are our challenges, budget wise or tech wise. What solutions can you create?” It’s that kind of conversation. I’d rather be in that [conversation]. You have the relationship and they trust you, and now you’re talking about the quality and timeline they want. It’s less about the budget and more about how do we do it? And that’s how Watchmen came about. How do we get the takes of the artists and project them onto the masks; and that actually matches on the day when you’re shooting it? We set up a prototype camera that captured the 360 environment. We had a remote so we could turn it on and off, so we wouldn’t get in the way of the actors. We created the pipeline from that the prototype camera (we had a partner on that) and we used that onset. It worked, we built 3 more. We had the process on how to stitch the footage and get it onto the mask; how to get the footage of him actually talking; how can we automate a lot of the process because we know how much the budget it?
[30:32] Allan: So the 360 camera is not used as a witness camera, right? You’re actually using it to capture the information and reflections as well?
Lon: Exactly! That’s the initial task and how do we sync the footage and the sound properly? It was a integral part of that process. There is a lot of jittering that’s happening on set and we had to remove that stabilization. A lot of other cameras we tested couldn’t do that.
[31:36] Allan: And what other contribution did you make to Watchmen?
Lon: It was primary that main character. We have some things that are coming up in the next episodes and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone! But primarily it was the looking glass and making sure that mask looked real. That was a lot to handle!
[32:24] Allan: I’ve been waiting to see the reviews first but I’m excited to check it out! Are there any other projects that stand out in terms of the technical feats or the type of the work you’ve done?
Lon: The other one that stood out is Living with Yourself with Paul Rudd. It’s a show on Netflix. We had to replicate him on tv time. We captured his head and scanned it and a lot of his reactions. We built a library of them and pushed that through the pipeline. We started finding that niche of building up a library and automating head replacements, for example. In the end, there is a lot of cloning and you can’t tell where our stuff starts. We’re definitely pretty proud of that project as well.
[34:12] Allan: You touched on tv versus film. What are your thoughts in terms of budgets and timelines? These days, tv is taken a lot more seriously. It’s about treating it as film.
Lon: The difference is, because of the timeline in film, there is a lot less restriction. I think directors have the opportunity to play a little more. That causes a lot of revisions, major ones. The studio is behind those. The frustration as an artist as how much waste happens with changes. Although we are getting paid, there is less pay off in terms of your work being seen [because it’s been thrown away in the revision process]. That builds up over time. Just seeing the waste is not a good thing. I find that with tv there is a lot less of that. It compresses the deadlines. You don’t get the time of film, but everything is laser focused. You know everything you’re doing is going to be on the screen. You may not see the massive budgets, but there is a lot more efficiency. We embrace that! At least, it’s very focused in terms of direction and execution.
[37:26] Allan: You’re right! The tight deadline allows you to make the decisions that matter. It’s Parkinson’s Law.
Lon: I’m all for flexibility. There have been some films over the years that have entertained but they didn’t have the long process of post-production. Back in the day, they had to make these rapid fire decisions. When you’re on set, you see the director making those decisions. I like the rapid fire. I like when every department is collaborating.
[39:15] Allan: What do you see as the upcoming trends? I see de-aging becoming the thing everyone is embracing. What do you predict?
Lon: The major changes you’ve touched on: Thanos was the first time my brain had to reconcile, “It is real? No, it’s not real!” There are subtleties. You compare Golum and it didn’t have those subtleties. As children, we’re always looking at our parents’ faces and analyzing them. Now, embracing AI, you can see we’re hitting our stride. I think the trend will be the pursuit — and the technology is there — to replicate these things. Are we going to run with that, things like de-aging? Absolutely. For our company — Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies — it says it right there, what we’ll be focusing on. You look at the possibilities. They’re going to bring back James Dean, in a film. And it scares a lot of current celebrities. But you know they will rely on VFX companies to make it happen. TV viewership is demanding film quality these days. How can we do that on a tv budget? Let’s get ahead of that curve and figure it out now, so we’re ahead of it!
[42:35] Allan: I find that fascinating. Talking about de-aging, it’s interesting that actors see that as a threat. But in a lot of ways, you will get mature actors go and play roles they wouldn’t be able to. It’s opening up doors.
Lon: You also looking at directors who are chomping at the bits. Someone like Tarantino can direct Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western from the heyday. He can do that now! That possibility now exists. That’s exciting! I think about art and paintings, you see Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, they can now come to life. If you write a compelling story and they can come to life. If there is a director who has that vision, it’s a possibility. Is it right or wrong? It doesn’t matter! It’s a possibility.
[45:09] Allan: In terms of software tools, what are the key tools you tend to rely on?
Lon: We [rely] on Foundry, Nuke, Houdini, Maya. Those are the mainstays. Then we have secondary tools after that. I’ve always been the kind of artist where the tool doesn’t matter. No matter the tools, I’ll embrace them. I remember using Phoenix plug-in for 3DS Studio Max and we had to stretch everything by 8 times, render it 8 times, and then squish it back. [46:26] You come up with whatever techniques and whatever software to solve that problem. I think it’s more about teaching the artist to not be stuck in their ways, with certain tools. You need to be open minded to embrace any tool because you never know which one can solve the problem. If you’re open, you can stumble upon something like Redshift and writing tools around it. By the time everyone realizes what it is, you’re way ahead!
[47:10] Allan: You’re absolutely right! A lot of people fall into the trap of working with what they know instead of embracing change. It’s more about picking the right tool for the right job.
Lon: You don’t realize that 3DS Max is at ILM. You don’t read about those things. Sometimes, it’s about the fear. But it opens your eyes and you realize as a TD what other people are using. You don’t read about it, so artists get caught in their ways. There is a lot of great software out there! Who cares! If it does the job and does it quickly — embrace it!
[49:37] Allan: It gets pretty political pretty quickly. A lot of people want to have a certain image with their tools as opposed to getting amazing results.
Lon: I’ve seen that too. I remember seeing a tour of a studio and you come into the Inferno [Visual Effects] Suite, but they aren’t introducing any of the talent in the Suite. They’re just showing off this million-dollar Suite but so what? When we started our company, we had no money. We built our company off Ebay. We were working on big projects from the get-go because we were so nimble.
[51:16] Allan: I am sure many people would love to be a part of your team. What do you typically look for when looking for candidates?
Lon: I like to talk about it in-house. I want to build a studio in a non-typical fashion. So many places get to a place of 500 [artists] and you get projects and just start throwing more bodies at them, more computers, more software. I’m looking at it as: Let’s build our elite Navy SEAL’s Unit, essentially. Let’s pick 75 guys who can make the equivalent of 500 artists. For us, we want the best out in the field. I want the company that studios put at the top of their list. [53:11] As an artist, I find that you want to surround yourself with the best people because that makes you better. You don’t want to be the best while everyone is weak. That means you get the heavy burden. But it’s a fantastic environment where everyone is amazing and everyone can be leaned on. We want to bring in the best. There is room for those rockstars who are young. I used to teach and I would collect the reels of those rockstars. That’s what I did in film school as well. You can learn and learn, but at some point you have to get your best reel possible. That is the thing that will get you work. When I went to school, I cut off the education at some point and focused on the best reel. I want to see the best reel from young people. Don’t submit a shot that’s not good. If there is a weak shot, it makes me question it.
[51:16] Allan: Your weakest shot is what you’re willing let slide. I always think in production, during late hours, what is the shot you’ll let slide? It shows the lowest acceptable quality to represent you and the studio.
Lon: As a student, I remember cutting shots and working day and night. Titanic was about to come out and I remember hearing that Cameron was cutting million dollars worth of shots. I remember thinking I had to be willing to make that [kind of a] tough choice.
[56:39] Allan: That’s an important point you made about learning versus reel. It’s your demo reel and relationships that matter. You demo reel is what gets you the job. It reassures that you can sit down in the chair tomorrow and do the work.
Lon: Those two rules apply to a vendor as well: the demo reel and the relationships. How do you build that trust? As artists, it’s tough building those relationships. That’s why there is always that argument of people being overworked. This industry creates the highest level of work. I look at myself as an artist. It was never a job — it was a career. I dedicated my life doing it. And who doesn’t want to get paid to make art? There is a stigma of a starving artist. But there is a career in it. I wasn’t going to complain about the hours. You need the balance. But for certain individuals, it is a life. If you want to do great, you have to put in the time into relationships. And that goes for all industries: Those who are the best — are putting in the work. It’s not luck! It’s hard work and there is no way around that!
[59:22] Allan: I love that and it’s so true! I appreciate your time. Where would people go to find MARZ?
[59:55] Allan: Thanks again for doing this, Lon! It was pretty insightful and amazing.
Lon: Thanks for having me! I appreciate being here!
I want to thank Lon for taking the time to chat. There is so much insight and value in this interview!
I will be back next week talking to Seth Polansky on the subject of Intellectual Property, International IP, contracts, Infringement Laws, and so much more!
If you’re interested, please check out the Demo Guide: www.allanmckay.com/myreel/.
Until next week —
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Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
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