Episode 288 — Lux Machina
Episode 288 — Lux Machina
Lux Machina Consulting is a design, management and technical consulting firm focused on complex, large scale live shows, film production and installations.
Lux Machina uses innovative techniques and technologies from various markets to connect artists with their audiences like never before. The company prides itself on the balance between technical and artistic decisions, and works to maximize their clients’ resources to build their visions effectively and efficiently.
Since its inception, Lux Machina has collaborated on such groundbreaking projects as The Mandalorian, The Irishman, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rogue One; as well as consulted for clients that include Lucasfilm, Epic Games, ARRI Camera and many others.
In this Podcast, Allan interviews the team at Lux Machina — Co-CEO Phil Galler and CTO Kris Murray — about the company’s history, its most groundbreaking projects, as well as the biggest challenges and the future of virtual production.
Lux Machina Website: https://www.luxmc.com
Lux Machina’s Collaboration with Unreal Engine: https://www.unrealengine.com/en-US/blog/lux-machina-brings-real-time-control-to-live-event-broadcast-effects-with-unreal-engine
Lux Machina on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/lux-machina-consulting
Lux Machina on IG: @luxmc_
Lux Machina on Twitter: @luxmc_
[04:09] Phil Galler and Kris Murray Introduce Themselves
[06:16] The Origin of Lux Machina
[13:31] Resistance to Innovation
[18:55] First Projects by Lux Machina
[30:18] Lux Machina’s Collaboration with Unreal Engine
[32:08] The Biggest Challenge with Every Virtual Production
[44:36] Phil and Kris Talk About Working on League of Legends
[47:06] Lux Machina’s Contribution to Solo and Rogue One
[50:25] The Company’s Work on The Irishman
[52:51] The Future of Virtual Production
[1:05:30] Phil and Kris Recall the Creative Process on The Mandalorian
EPISODE 288 — LUX MACHINA
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 288! I’m speaking with Philip Galler, Co-CEO of Lux Machina, and Kris Murray, CTO of Lux Machina. We get into everything that has to do with the future of virtual production.
Recently, I did an interview with the creative team on the short film Jeffrey and Phil Galler was one of the guests on that Episode (www.allanmckay.com/277). I thought it would be more fun to dig into the subject of virtual production. Both Phil and Kris have a massive amount of experience. We dig into a lot of awesome subjects, including their work on Solo, Rogue One, The Irishman and League of Legends.
Please take a moment to share this Podcast with others. I’m super excited to dive into this Episode!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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[1:17:04] 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 LUX MACHINA
[04:09] Allan: Again, thanks so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?
Phil: Hi, I’m Philip Galler, one of the CEO’s of Lux Machina. I’ve been in the entertainment industry in various roles: production coordinator, supervisor, VFX artist, and I’ve been in business operations for about 15 years. My background is in theatrical lighting and I pivoted to video and broadcast engineering until 2009 when I found myself on the set of Oblivion. And that was the start of everything.
[05:08] Allan: What about you, Kris?
Kris: I’m not that dissimilar from Phil. I came up more through video into lighting, but sticking to video centric and large scale systems. I did work with Disney for many years. I did that cycle for 8 years and wound up on set with Phil on Solo.
[06:16] Allan: How did Lux Machina come about? Can you talk about its origin story?
Phil: It started, actually, as an excuse to write off some bar tabs. Honestly, it started as a mechanism to do work out of LA and take up jobs. I joined Lux right after Oblivion. Zach Alexander, the other CEO of Lux Machina, and I lived through the pain of large vendors and doing something really complex. That film was beautiful but it was a nightmare to get there. We crafted Lux Machina as a go-between. We were planning to be a liaison between the client and the big vendor. That was why the business got started. We realized we were able to provide more for our clients, and we started to do shows, film and tv. After I landed from Oblivion, I was doing a live tv show. We were going from one show to the next. At first, we did some boutique stuff. We worked with Fincher on House of Cards. But in the last few years, it’s become less boutique. The things we are doing now are the stuff we do every month because the demand is growing.
[09:24] Allan: For you, guys, to pivot from a bigger vendor to starting your own thing: What was it like? Was there friction in the beginning?
Phil: Because of the nature of the entertainment industry, we were already working inside that vendor and being called to do shows. From a client hiring us point of view, it was tough in the beginning. But they’d already known about our work. It was more about changing our billing address. The biggest friction was we were in the place of not costing too much money and creating good revenue for the vendor. That made the process pretty good. We delivered win-wins while turning around large orders. We were able to charge our clients for some of the work. The friction was about whether clients would be willing to take that risk for a smaller business. We realized that in the film industry, UPM’s tend to gravitate toward smaller businesses for good and bad reasons. We were successful taking some of those jobs as our own. And people thought we were already operators.
[11:31] Allan: With the services you were providing, how did you decide which technology and trends you’d jump onto?
Phil: I think, Kris, you can echo this: We do what we like to do.
Kris: First, there is interest. We are generally at the edges of technology and we see things as they’re coming and how we can leverage them. We’re using technology from that lens. First, we’re motivated by the newness of it and the challenge of it. We want to see what we can do. It’s turning into something.
[13:31] Allan: With that, has there ever been a need to convince your clients what a good solution would be, technology wise? Even though it’s not as traditional? Or does that come as part of the gig of being a consultant?
Phil: I think it’s part of the gig. We were always having some resistance.
Kris: I think it’s not so much of a resistance as it is an education process. With new technology or new workflow, a lot of it is about education. It may be clear in our minds but other people don’t have the experience. So you’re explaining it to them. It usually leads to needing to show it to someone. COVID makes it a huge challenge. Now, it’s about 3 days of testing and verifying everyone’s emails.
Phil: That’s exactly what I was going to say! We are educating clients most of the time. When people get it, they buy in. When they don’t, it’s just about getting them over that hump.
Kris: The other side of that is when they think the other other side of it should exist. So it comes down to educating them that technology doesn’t exist yet [for something like] real time human inclusion.
[16:27] Allan: “Why isn’t the talent showing up in the reflection of our virtual environment?”
Phil: Exactly that!
[16:30] Allan: That brings up a great point. Did you find any innovations during COVID? I was chatting with some of VES Handbook contributors about how everyone is having to get back to work (www.allanmckay.com/272). Has that given you new ways of exploring things?
Phil: The first answer for me is that we were already on the trajectory for 2021-2023 for studios to adopt in-camera VFX, with the technology being more prevalent. COVID truncated that for us substantially. The challenge for us during us was how to scale with limited capital, how do we grow and conserve the entire market? We are just seeing this now. We’ve hit the number of people we could have in the office, during COVID. And we need to double that number in the next year. Now we’re starting to explore what that’s going to look like.
[18:55] Allan: To touch base on some of your projects, what were some of the first projects you’ve done?
Phil: The first show was Oblivion. That was the first time we sold something as a business. They were so excited about that at the moment. After that, we did Tomorrowland which was Disney sci fi.
Kris: It’s a sci fi adventure.
Phil: Yeah! It’s a time travel sort of thing. We had a great time. This was our first time interfacing with talent and the director, the VFX sups, the DP. We did all the system of 3D mapping of LED to a real world environment that we tracked to a cylindrical video feed. And as the LED moved, we matched the place in the real world. That was fascinating. We did House of Cards. There were some small movies like Let’s Be Cops. We went out to Atlanta and did some rear scene projections for police cars. We did a ton of that! We picked up tv and corporate. We’re extremely diverse! Kris gets involved in our research projects that may not even be related to the entertainment business.
[22:22] Allan: What’s the weirdest project you’ve ever worked on?
Kris: We did a birthday on the Bahaman island.
Phil: That’s a good one! I had to do an LED test in front of a live goat. The goat lives in LA and it’s not allowed to travel more than 50 miles out of LA, or it forgets its training. So we had to travel to Glendale to do a test with a goat from Santa Clarita. I’ve done tests with tigers and wolves, and all kinds of green screen stuff. All kinds of weird real time tracking, even prior to The Mandalorian.
Kris: Like bump-ins and bump-outs to commercials.
Phil: It’s been fascinating! Most of my career has been riddled with ridiculous requests. I was on a gig in NYC once (and it’s super NDA) where the client decided that they didn’t like the color of a piano and they sent a private jet and the only passenger on that jet — was the piano.
[24:29] Allan: I’ve been pretty fascinated by that! Virtual production is becoming such a massive focus of the production process. How early did you guys been at it? And how quickly did you realize it would be a game changer?
Kris: I think it was like two Junes ago when we started saying, “We should start using this vocabulary.” The in-camera visual effect terminology was something we’d been using for a while. And then all of a sudden, there is this virtual production train that rolled over us. And we went with it.
Phil: I don’t even know if we agree with the terminology. We’ve always called it “in-camera visual effects”. Virtual production is a massive topic! It covers so many things from photogrammetry to asset making, to mo cap. For us, it’s a tough question to answer. It’s something that the client responds to.
[27:07] Allan: I agree! There are certain genres of technology that a lot of us work in. But a client hears a buzz word and goes, “Do you guys do that?” And it’s like, yes, we’ve been doing that forever. Whatever resonates with the client! What were some of the early innovations that made you do what you’re doing?
Kris: High end projectors. Really bright, high end projectors are the catalyst for all of us starting on this journey.
Phil: And it’s not just bright high end projectors. It’s high end projectors that are able to be toured. The fact that they’re movable was a huge thing! We used some of the first 40K’s on a camera test. I don’t think we won that show, but we did this in 2011. They were the biggest we’ve ever used. They were half the size of a VW, 400-500 lbs each. For me, that was the moment where I realized they were large enough to expose film but small enough to be moved. It allowed us to deploy shows anywhere.
Kris: LED also is the new hot topic. The Mandalorian gets a lot of credit for it.
[30:18] Allan: You guys brought up the motorcycle test [with Unreal Engine]. How did that project come around?
Phil: So there were some politics involved. But politics aside, everyone realized there needed to be a showcase for the Epic team with partnership with other people, including ILM. We found avenues to create solutions that were needed. And that led us to realizing that we needed to turn this into something more than a showcase, but something that shows off what’s possible. That was the inception of it. The goal was to focus on camera tracking. On top of that, there was realtime rendering.
[32:08] Allan: With camera tracking, what are your thoughts on doing more of an automated approach? How painful or painless is it these days?
Kris: The biggest challenge I see that there is not just one solution that works for every case. It depends on what the set environment is like, what the venue is like. Because we’re in so many verticals, we can’t just say, “Let’s throw up a mo cap rig everywhere”, and the budget doesn’t always allow for that. Generally, we utilize different technologies and the pain point is deciding which one to use on which production. They all come with their own advantages. I wish we could say, “This one is always going to work.” That’s the biggest pain for me right now:
- What is the right one to use based on their needs?
- What are the actors doing in the scene?
- Can we put dots on the ground?
- Can we put dots on the ceiling?
- What does the coverage look like?
- What’s the budget?
[34:28] Allan: On the topic of real time, what are the areas you’re most excited about?
Kris: Asset management!
Phil: For sure! There is asset management and there is a parametric control organization. On the live tv side, there is this thought that by going into real time, you can change everything on the fly. It’s not necessarily not-true. But more effort needs to be put into control interface and control workflow. What is actually important to control? It’s specific to users or specific creators. Right now, it’s difficult to expose controls to something really simple. Unreal and Unity are great tools but getting easy access to their controls can be really challenging. And then there is so much future stuff! If we’re going to do this, we have to have compositing on set. That’s where we want to be and where we need to get.
[37:14] Allan: Do you think there’s a lot of room to build a wrapper so you can have external controls? It is more that the limitations are because you’re working with Unreal? If you give artists the tools to be creative, they can have more creative control.
Kris: It’s also about balancing the time to do all those things. How much does a project allow for developmental time to allow for building controls of surfaces or interfaces? We don’t have a good repertoire with clients yet. We know how important it is, but I don’t know if clients know that yet.
Phil: For us, from a business point of you, there are so many verticals that we touch, there is not one that fits all. We’ve tried to use a designer in the past and it worked. We have a place to aggregate stuff. We’re always looking for a better mousetrap.
[39:26] Allan: A lot of the time what everyone is dealing with is what you’d be dealing with in post. You’re now having the pressure of doing it all in realtime.
Kris: I also think that productions are more unique than people imagine. A lot of conversations have to do with how much nuance there is to production. The amount of custom DI work we did on the League of Legends, just so that it was easier to trigger things. But they are all particular. We can’t take this work [to other projects].
[41:01] Allan: They’re also the ones that are really protective of their IP. They might be more specific with that.
Kris: It’s also a button specific for that character. Production will always want to have a version of it and the streamlining will be done by our operators.
Phil: I think it’s clients that say, “I want you to use that color you used on Solo.” Those are interchangeable interfaces. The reality is it’s not transient.
Kris: They all interconnect in a specific way.
[42:26] Allan: That brings me to an interesting topic. What has it been like on set for you? Have people been quick to adapt, especially with people like DP’s?
Kris: I think so! I think people adapt quickly and we all share the pain points. Everyone is pretty interested in it, and people are engaged. One thing I noticed on the AD side is: Who’s responsible for making which change? With all this technology, which person is capable of making which change? Who has the answer? Why are we being held? I think these things will iron out as the process solidifies, as we flush out all the roles.
[44:36] Allan: What is it like to work on the League of Legends? What were the challenges on that project?
Kris: I think COVID in general. We had a very limited number of people we could have on the ground there. We had a small crew and were doing a really ambitious task. There was a lot of work!
Phil: The amount of brain power that it takes to execute something like that in a good year! When you look at different entertainment verticals, the most challenging aspect is being comfortable in a live environment with technology that’s really difficult. Even with a crew of 150 people! I think they all did a phenomenal job all around!
[47:06] Allan: What about with Solo and Rogue One? How did those projects come about?
Phil: I think we were doing camera tests at ILM for Solo when we were approached for the Rogue One reshoots. It was sort of in the family and we were the right fit to sort the other problem. From that point of view, it was an easy thing. Rogue One was a fascinating project. We saw where it was going because we were doing similar things with other work. We saw realtime happening in broadcast. We didn’t know how relevant it would be one day. Solo was a complicated project: the director changed, it was a complicated show, and it was the first big spin-off for Disney. There were a lot of nerves whether it would work. Not that people didn’t trust us. But they didn’t trust if the solution would be as good as everyone hoped it would be. It came down to client education. A lot of the stuff we did for those movies we are still doing. There is some evolution, but not new paths that we had to start.
[50:25] Allan: What did you guys do on The Irishman? I haven’t seen that movie sober yet. (I’m Australian, by the way. I like my alcohol.)
Phil: We were brought on to deal with the cover set. Zach was on set for 30 days, all the driving plates of New York City. It was apparent that it was easier to have a cover set to handle those things, to handle the 1970s. And the talent (that’s going through an aging process) doesn’t want to stand around in the rain all day. It was a really interesting approach to production. A lot of work was pretty basic, meaning that we’ve done it for years. We still do a ton of plate work. It was a really interesting show for all of us. People usually reel against the idea, but this was a great opportunity to show that it was affordable and there is a benefit.
[52:51] Allan: Do you see that being the future or the standard of how things will be done?
Phil: I think so. I can’t see there being many studios left within a year that don’t have some small poor man’s process, at least. Pretty much every studio we interface with now has either built something, or wants to build something, or is thinking about it. We know that it saves on average about 16%. From a financial point of view, it’s an easy argument.
[54:30] Allan: On the topic of building out a virtual production and it being a big trend, there is a huge cost undertaking. Are you finding that you’re more mobile and building solutions on the go? Or do you think it will be more location based?
Kris: I think we do it all. There are so many client demands.
Phil: I have so many responses. I see mass adoption at the studio level.
Kris: I think we’re ignoring the fact that this is also happening in the corporate world too. Large corporations are building out their own sets. There are people who are using them to utilize them for arbitrary things. What does the lighting look like on a car so we don’t have to cover it and drive it out into the desert. I think it largely comes down to the teams that get centered around them and whether they’re keeping up with the demands of technology. I don’t know if we have the magic 8-ball to see which way it will go. Will it become like the backlot of Universal?
Phil: The thing I’ve learned from The Mandalorian is that every producer calls and says, “I know you’ve done it for $2 million, but I want you to do it for this number.” One, it’s not the right number. And two, if you’re thinking about how big the number is, you aren’t focusing on the right thing. It’s expensive. But you should be figuring out whether you need to be doing it at all.
Kris: “I want one. I hear it solves problems.”
Phil: In that case, why would we do this? We don’t even know if it’s a financially good idea. We won’t know that for another 3-4 years. I’m sure no one wants me to say that. You have to have a good reason to build one of these things.
[1:00:06] Allan: How quickly does the LED technology cannibalize themselves? Let’s say you build one, and then 6 months later, there is new tech and higher resolution.
Kris: We get this question a lot. If it was good enough to work on something previously, it will continue to do that thing. Obviously, it has 50,000 hours before you should think about changing it. The illusion and the technique is valid from day one. There will be production on which the LED volume purchased today could do for the next 5-8 years, as long as we’re picking the right technology to center around that. If we’re doing a 4K production that we serviced on day one — but it’s 5 years later — there are still plenty of shots to be had. We should be evaluating whether something is achievable within a certain production. The facility set up for 4K isn’t that much different from facilities for broadcasts. Most facilities are in the 10-EDP range. Maybe the track is recording at 4K but it won’t get broadcast that way. It will get scaled down before it airs. When does ABC change the standard?
[1:04:27] Allan: I think these days, it’s Netflix that’s going to decide to control the standards. But you’re right, there will be special cases. “How did we do it before? Oh, right! We did it in post.”
Kris: And green is always possible. You still get great immersive, interactive lighting. There is still merit to shooting this way.
Phil: None of that has gone away.
Kris: We can still use those same techniques, we just added another tool.
[1:05:30] Allan: I’d be crazy to not bring up The Mandalorian. What was that experience like?
Phil: Kris was there every day. I went in more on the business side. People think they know a lot about a lot of things but it’s hard to communicate when we haven’t used this language before. Communication will be the hardest part of these jobs. There is this great concept that The Mandalorian was all about backgrounds. We’re talking about green screen replacements. Background was the easiest part. The reflection was the more important problem.
Kris: I think you nailed it. There were a lot of different parties that haven’t worked in this capacity before, especially with brand new technology. The first day we were on the ground, we were still trying to flush out the bad decisions. You get on site and realize certain things wouldn’t work. And that was happening on all fronts. Everyone thinks they work a certain way but they don’t. It turns into a giant challenge. You have to get all the departments together and see how they’d work together. It was a unique experience. We all called things different words. I think that’s hard to surmount when everyone is running at the speed of light.
[1:10:19] Allan: And one person is calling it a “reflector” while another calls it a “bounce light”.
Kris: Exactly! There were a lot of different parties and we didn’t know each other. We were friendly and got along, but we didn’t know who could fix what. By the end of that, it was a well oiled machine. Everyone understood their portion of it. We found our way through it. Considering the constraints of that show: It was long days, and things were getting shot fast! It will be a monument to teamwork. We’ve formed bonds in a unique way.
[1:12:18] Allan: I find that true of productions that you survive together.
Kris: There was definitely that aspect, considering how much was being asked. Everyone’s plate was full!
[1:12:44] Allan: My final question would be about what technology you have your eyes on?
Phil: I think there is some unique camera tracking that’s coming down the pipe that I’m hopeful for. But we’re about a year away before I’m comfortable with that. There are always leaps and bounds in the LED world, but not always in a presentable way. We’re working closely with partners, coming up with unique ways to control and timing systems, and synchronization issues.
Kris: I think we’re in this spot where clients that are adopting this now don’t know the pains we’d gone through. They don’t know there’s a pain coming. How do we solve that problem for ourselves and the community at large? We’ve been at this for over a decade. We’re getting to the point that in 6 months we’ll have improvement for visual fidelity. There are also improvements with LED tiles themselves. I’m excited for 425!
Phil: I’m excited for 426! I’m excited for 427! It is getting better and it’s moving really quickly. And it’s nice to see.
[1:16:35] Allan: Guys, I want to thank you for taking the time! Where can everyone go to find out more about Lux Machina.
Phil: At www.luxmc.com.
[01:16:52] Allan: Guys, this has been so awesome! I appreciate your taking the time.
Phil and Kris: Thanks!
I want to thank Phil and Kris for their time. Please share this Podcast with others!
I’ll be back next week, interviewing the CEO of EmberGen Nick Seavert. I’m sure excited about that one!
Until then —
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