Episode 29 – Andrew Kramer of Video Copilot

Click here to listen on iTunes!

Get on the VIP insiders list!

Check out www.VFXRates.com.

Upload The Productive Artist e-book.

Allan McKay’s YouTube Channel.

Allan McKay’s Instagram.


Episode 29 — Andrew Kramer, Video Copilot.

Hi, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. I’m interview Andrew Kramer from Video Copilot. This Episode I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while. I’m excited to talk with Andrew because he’s had such a huge impact on the industry by selflessly creating tutorials on his website. He is constantly releasing new material, as well as creating his own product. On top of that, he works with J. J. Abrams at Bad Robot. I can’t say enough about him!

Let’s dive in!


[04:05] I’ve launched my FXTD Mentorship program. It’s been my baby and I’ve taken a year off to focus on it. This year, I want to focus more on giving back by coaching artists on their career and the level of work that they do. It’s been a lot of fun!

I will be opening doors to it again in the next few weeks. I won’t be announcing it publicly. I want to keep a certain standard for the applicants. I will give a bit of head start to you by inviting you to join my VIP Insiders List: www.allanmckay.com/inside/. Once you sign up, you will receive exclusive access to my Course.


As the host of over 160 tutorials and creator of title sequences for tv’s Fringe and the film Star Trek, Andrew Kramer has participated in many forms of production: from visual effects artist, to directing commercials and promos. His website Video Copilot has been a progressive force in the visual effects industry, with his upbeat training style and innovative plug-ins.

As a freelance artist and web designer at age 20, Andrew began to work on the Video Copilot website from his apartment in Southern California. The website started with a single product and a handful of short After Effects tutorials that were featured on the Creative Cow community. His unusual training style and off-beat humor intrigued viewers by showing them powerful techniques for visual effects that were detailed and also entertaining. The site’s online presence has also led to collaborations for Andrew to work with major companies and even the unique opportunity to work with Director J.J. Abrams on film & tv projects.

Video Copilot has since published over 40 hours of training and has over a dozen professional products and plug-ins used by creative professionals around the world. Andrew continues to work in the film industry in addition to publishing new, exciting products and tutorials for the growing motion graphics and visual effects community.

In this Podcast, Andrew talks about what inspired him to launch Video Copilot, his experience working with J.J. Abrams, as well as gives advice on the most important skills when starting out as a VFX artist.

Video Copilot’s Website: https://www.videocopilot.net
Video Copilot on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/videocopilot
Andrew Kramer on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3135304/
Andrew Kramer on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/andrewkramer


[07:25] Allan: I’m here with Andrew Kramer from Video Copilot. Andrew needs no introduction! His videos and tutorials are well known and followed. Andrew could you introduce yourself?

Andrew: Sure! Thank you for that introduction, Allan! I’m a VFX artist and I also create software and plugins that make me excited. These are things I run into during my projects. It’s a great balance: The thing that I’m most passionate about, I get to create tools that help me do it better. That’s my main focus on www.videocopilot.net. We try to show people what’s possible and how to create better art.

[08:40] Allan: That’s awesome! There are several versions of you: You work in production of feature film, plus all the training. There is also the development side too. It blows my mind how you manage all that and still have a family.

Andrew: It’s a challenge. I probably seem a lot calmer now than I am on a regular basis.

[09:22] Allan: Yeah! This is a trick question but what’s your typical day at the moment.

Andrew: So a typical day: I work on Bad Robot. We work on feature films and other projects. Any kind of design or VFX projects I get involved in. I’m working on some projects right now that are part of the action effects app that my company help create. I wake up and have some coffee and take a crack at whatever project is the priority at the moment. At night, I have dinner with the family, put the kids to bed — and spend a couple of hours picking up on things with Video Copilot. I usually do all the tutorial stuff during the week, but I don’t make the tutorials until the weekend. We don’t do as many tutorials as we used to do, but we do more elaborate ones. I just try to make them more complete to give people the full picture on what’s involved in creating a shot; a more in-depth training. We develop software and we have programmers that help bring that to life.

[11:33] Allan: That’s pretty impressive! I take pride in being efficient with time, but I end up working a lot. I’m pretty blown away by what you’re able to accomplish. Can you describe Video Copilot and what inspired you to launch it?

Andrew: Well, it’s kind of a place for me to post the things I’m interested in or personally learned. So if you go back, you’d see I’m talking about the software I was learning. Through the community, I would see some questions come up and I would go and figure it out. What got me excited was trying to find unusual solutions to difficult problems, that would otherwise require a tool or a plug-in to get the job done. How can I take the plug-ins that are built into Aftereffects and create some magic results? The idea of how I got started was: I was doing some VFX freelance work for film restoration, and I did website development. I wanted a place to post these videos. There weren’t a lot of video tutorials. As the site got going, people would comment and it was very encouraging to see people want to learn new things. I figured I could come up with a cool product — which was called Action Movie Essentials which had stock footage. It was exactly what I wished was available out there. Other footage sites were so expensive. I worked at a studio in LA and they had a library. I thought there should be something like that available for filmmakers. So I made it happen.

[14:40] Allan: That’s awesome! I came from effects and before we had all these powerful tools, I would obsessed with finding great material. You couldn’t make that in 3D. That’s the one thing that shocked me: I was directing a commercial in New York and we were looking for a water droplet. I was shocked at how expensive it was. You’ve developed a lot of assets. What was the most successful you’ve done and which one was used in a surprising way?

Andrew: We have two main areas: stock footage and design elements, and then the plug-ins. It’s always cool to see people use them in cool projects. It was very exciting to see Guardians of the Galaxy and see one of our optical flares that I’ve spent hours on to make it look real. That’s always cool to see! As for the products, our plug-ins and software are more successful because the artists are able to tweak them to fit their projects. It requires more work to change the element as opposed to having a plug-in move the camera around. We have complicated camera flares. But we see people doing insane lens flares.

[18:16] Allan: How many people are working with Video Copilot?

Andrew: Anywhere from 10-15 people. We have our staff and development team (3-4 programmers) and 3D designers and modelers to build our assets. We’re working on a city destruction packet. It’s a really cool thing: These are the element that are hard to source, 3-dimensional matte painting tools.

[19:33] Allan: How did you get into the software development side? I assume your background is from being an artist who got into motion graphics. How did you decide to start developing tools?

Andrew: I got into some expressions in Aftereffects. I developed an expression-based version of our plug-in called Twitch. It’s a randomizer to change frequency changes. It wasn’t fast enough originally and I wanted to build a smoother operation. That’s what got me excited! I was a beta tester for various company’s software. I wanted to shape the features that would help me with my projects. That ambition to create tools that I wanted to use is what I brought to our flares. It’s a 3D rendering tool for Aftereffects. It’s not something you can do an entire movie in, but your can do titles. It’s a tool that allow you to go: “Do I need to go through the entire pipeline to add this 3D building or add a car in the background?” Something that’s going to be subtle. This allows you to composite these objects without getting stuck in a 3D render path that’s already been handed off. Element was my dream product. We did the title sequence for Star Trek: Into Darkness. And it allowed us to make a lot of changes to the camera movement. Anytime you tweaked it, it would change the whole camera flow.

[23:25] Allan: Having that instant feedback is crucial. If you can have it all in one world, the more you can experiment.

Andrew: Sure! There are so many of these tools kits — things like Zbrush — I’ve seen people use an entire software package to change one thing. Even with our plug-ins: You can get in there and use the one tool. Everyone is trying to use the entire software to create the whole thing: What’s better, Maya or 3DS Max? Everyone spends all this time trying to figure it out. Who knows?

[26:04] Allan: That’s a great point: It’s about finding the right tools for the right job. I remember Digital Domain was doing everything in Nuke (I forget for which project) and their couldn’t get these flares done. So they did all the compositing and then pushed it through Aftereffects for the flares.

Andrew: Those are the guys who helped us get the optical flares for Nuke. We would hear people say they wished there was a native solution. Even if you’re using Nuke, people find those cool little tools to help them make their shot better. It helps us focus on finding a specific solution, as opposed to find a solution for all every thing. It’s hard to innovate on top of that.

[26:36] Allan: That’s exactly right! Initially, there was a trend of having all these tools — Power Modeler, Vista Pro — but bit by bit, Maya would come out with all-in-one solutions. But now it’s starting to go back to the previous way, to that phasic solution. It’s dismantling again. You use the best tool for the job.

Andrew: Actually, Allan! We should talk about how I found out about your work. This must’ve been 10-12 years ago. You had a tutorial of a tea pot with smoke that was blowing away. That was one of the first tutorials I remember watching and realizing you could do that with Particle Flow. You had like a training DVD. I forget what it was called…

[28:28] Allan: Advanced Visual Effects.

Andrew: My buddy and I threw our money together and got it. I want mine signed ASAP.

[28:57] Allan: That’s really cool, thank you! You’ve been doing this for as long as I have. I started doing tutorials for the same reason you did: I would create it and tell everyone, “Hey, you don’t need to figure this out anymore.” I got to the point of wanted to make a DVD. I love the production value of your stuff! I had to fly back to Australia to make my DVD. I recorded it at the house and you could hear the lawn mowers in the background. I played some of that stuff recently.

Andrew: At the time, the content of it was way more important. I was blown away. Now, there are so many tutorials, it’s hard to find stuff that’s good. Sometimes people make a tutorial that’s not by the greatest people in that effect. You’re never sure who knows their stuff. We want to create tutorials that have the depth of knowledge. We try to find techniques and ideas that explore the tools deeper.

[31:13] Allan: Exactly! You want to put the time into the quality, not quantity. I appreciate that! The training you’ve done is so phenomenal. When you got into this live action stuff, you would actually go out and shoot something. You go through the entire thing. You have this reputation for cracking jokes — and for doing the live action. When did you start doing that? How much preparation went into that?

Andrew: There was a bunch of projects I was starting and I wasn’t good enough to get them done. I couldn’t make it look good enough. There was a lot of trail and error. Part of it was condensing all the important information in 30 minutes. You don’t ever want [to cut] a tutorial. You have to assume whoever is watching it doesn’t know anything. It’s good [for the viewer] to not get stuck on something trivial. Written tutorials had that challenge also. It was frustrating for me when I was learning. Whatever the content is, I can’t always do the most intricate version of what I might do. But what’s the most impactful way? Staging all that and shaping it is something we continue to work on. We try to keep it as light as possible, but we don’t want to waste people’s time. But you have to have some fun!

[35:01] Allan: That’s what I love! It’s so easy to listen and fade out. Out of the ones you’ve shot, which ones were most fun to do?

Andrew: The train one was definitely fun. And I tell you: The original idea was not to blow up the train. I was going back through raw footage. It was a set extension. I was just going to make more train cars. That was fun because we broke into the area behind my house, the renegade way. The one where Sam gets his head smashed through the window was fun. The lightening one was funny. The meteor one. The car hit one was like, “Someone needs to crush a car.”

[36:31] Allan: What’s your typical process for shooting? Do you plan ahead or just going out to shoot a bunch of stuff and salvage it later?

Andrew: It’s a combination. The lock and load: The original idea was to show some sci fi effect. But then I was driving and there was a locksmith, and I thought, “Maybe we should do something little like a punch line”. We decided to do something fun. Then later on, we did a different tutorial for sci fi effects. As much as possible, I try to show people the most you can do with what you have available. So we’re doing sci fi effects. In every movie, there are different effects and weapons. In that tutorial, we showed variations of that. I always like to have something that’s not an obvious solution: maybe it’s a cool way to duplicate things, or a productivity thing. Something you may not expect. It’s not for every tutorial, but I don’t want to repeat the subject matter; and I don’t want to have cool effects get lost in the tutorial. People don’t have as much time as I have to play with effects. I like to be the beta tester for that.

[39:13] Allan: That’s a really powerful way to evolve beyond the tutorial. It exhausts the ways you can use something. That takes it further. I like picking your brain about this stuff. I’ve always found that shooting anything is not always as straight forward thing. For you, was it a learning experience? Did you run into mistakes you didn’t expect?

Andrew: No doubt! And that was something that, as a filmmaker who wants to do more of that, it’s always been a great experience and relevant today. We’d go out to shoot something and it wouldn’t work, or there was a better way to do something. When we shot the plane wing on fire, we couldn’t track the shot because we didn’t have enough 3D track markers in the right places. We reshot it and added markers. If you could shoot in the studio, check out if it’s working. It makes it easier on the set. Knowing the post-production process gives you confidence. You’ve probably done visual effects where what you get, you know they didn’t consider the work that you have to do after.

[41:49] Allan: And they don’t give a shit because, “Production is done, fix it in post!”

Andrew: We’ve all been there! For me it’s great because I know what happens in post. If I can make my job easier, I’m only helping myself — and the more ambitious you can be. It works both ways.

[42:31] Allan: For anyone listening, you realize if you go out and do your own stuff, you can understand it more. The more you do it yourself, the more competent you’re going to be. 3D and 2D, if you go and learn compositing — even if you don’t plan to be a compositor — you’re going to make it easier on your compositors to deal with the elements.

Andrew: And always look at: What is the best way to do this? I cannot tell you how many times I found 2D solutions to what people thought was going to be 3D. There is just so much ground work you need to do in 3D. I do a lot of work on tv shows (Fringe and Person of Interest) and you have to get it done really, really fast. That motivation would lead me down the road of, “There is no time for 3D!”

[44:29] Allan: That’s cool! How did you get started in this industry? Were there any hick-ups?

Andrew: I did a demo reel and worked freelance for a few studios. Video Copilot was always my way of contributing creatively. The fact that it picked up after a couple of years allows me to work on it more; but it was never the same satisfaction of working on movies and tv shows that people see. I was just focusing on working really good tutorials. And then I get an email from J.J. Abrams and that lead to the title sequence for Fringe. I was just putting all my effort into creating cool content and that helped me get noticed. Working with Abrams is really amazing. He gets the post-production process so he isn’t asking for impossible things. It’s great to work with him creatively and he’s a great guy! I don’t know if I would want to chase the freelancing gigs. I like the stability of cool projects that are always changing. And in addition to that, I have Video Copilot as my outlet for all the crazy ideas I want to do.

[47:02] Allan: That’s awesome! I don’t do much personal stuff, but I find the outlet of doing stuff on your own fulfilling. That’s why I find that you will always end up doing what you’re most passionate about doing. So why not do it as your day job?

Andrew: I’m thankful and lucky to have the opportunity to do both. Somehow, they benefit each other.

[48:10] Allan: What was the first professional project you’ve ever worked on?

Andrew: It was the Fringe title sequence. It was amazing! Abrams invited me to Paramount and I showed him a few ideas. I spent a few days putting it together. He already had the music composed. Three weeks later, my title sequence was on tv.

[49:11] Allan: I can’t say that about may tv shows, but I remember the first time I saw that. I loved it! I remember sitting on the couch in Vancouver and thinking it was a cool concept. It’s been iconic and effective!

Andrew: Thank you very much! We did a throwback episode for the 80s. I was looking at old tv shows, down to the VHS lines. It was a fun challenge.

[50:26] Allan: To go off the topic, where in LA are you based?

Andrew: I’m in Manhattan Beach. My office is in Riverside. Bad Robot is in Santa Monica. We do most of our stuff remotely. I email and connect. When we shoot something, that’s when we all get together.

[51:17] Allan: Manhattan Beach is beautiful! I remember when I first came to LA, I drove past the street called Cloverfield in Santa Monica. What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on to date?

Andrew: I’m working on something challenging right now but I can’t talk about it yet. Let’s say: When I did the title sequence on Star Trek in 2009, that was a big eye opener to do it at 2K, and it was such a long sequence. I did about a 100 shots on a film called Super 8. Every shot was different, some were 3D. I always to bring an asset to whatever I’m working on. I’m not satisfied to do it comfortably, but the ultimately best way / smartest way to do it. I’m impressed by everyone working in this industry. I have to push my skills.

[54:08] Allan: What’s the most fulfilling project you’ve worked on?

Andrew: Working with J.J., every project feels good and cool. It never feels rushed. We did a title for Revolution (tv show). We filmed some stuff in New York. We didn’t have a vision or the time. We came up with a time lapse. That was a fun project to execute. I have some idea on how I would do it better today. We had to come up with a solution pretty fast.

[55:40] Allan: What are some of the aha moments you’ve had in your career? I went into commercials and I felt I had to relearn everything. Even today, I still look back at that a lot. Were there pivotal times in your career?

Andrew: I can think of a few different ones. When I realized that the ultimate goal of when you’re creating art for a project is making it as good as possible. The film has get done and come out by a certain time. When I realized what it meant to be a part of a team — and not be a pain to work with and work well with other people — we’re all in this together. I love working with people who are positive. We going to have a long night — let’s make the best of it! There is a difference between who motivate you.

[57:57] Allan: You hear that a lot when you go to job interviews. You hear stuff that’s fluff. Most of the time, people want to find out if you’re cool. If you’re someone people want to have beer with, it’s going to be more enjoyable. It’s valuable to have people like that around you.

Andrew: When you’re around passionate people, it’s going to be more fun and rewarding.

[59:01] Allan: You do compositing, 3D, motion graphics, tutorial, you shoot your own stuff. What’s the one thing that drives you?

Andrew: It’s probably the area I talk about the least because I don’t want to waste the energy. I want to do more filmmaking and tell stories. I’m more into spy movies and thrillers. I would love to direct a feature. I’m working on a cool short with 3 filmmakers. It’s not my life’s work, but anytime I create a short video and learn the process of filmmaking — the amount of attention that goes into everything Bad Robot does — it elevates your expectations. You see some okay ideas. I want to try to create films and be better at it. That’s what I really love doing. And the VFX thing started from creating films with my friends. It’s been a continuous growth. I’m still blown away with what’s possible. And the industry continues to outpace, so I have to learn even more. I’d love to be able to direct. I don’t like to talk about it.

[1:02:10] Allan: Anyone who knows your stuff could tell that about you! You ties stories into bigger pieces of narrative. You do a great job with production values. You introduce humor, too.

Andrew: I think it’s fun to have some type of a narrative. I think the more interest you have in something — even if you aren’t as motivated originally — I want to make something out of that. I am already making the tutorial. Why not spend a bit more time and create a trailer. You can create a punchline. I always wish I had more time. I remember doing the aliens one. I’d love to focus on a short story that wasn’t just for a tutorial. Then I can say, here are the things I’ve learned from it. In the future, the evolution of that will help with Video Copilot. It will elevate our content. Or, it will be the end of it!

[1:05:00] Allan: Absolutely! One thing you talked about: Was it Film Riot that’s getting the sponsorship? Do you want to talk about that a bit more?

Andrew: The guys at Film Riot do a lot of behind the scenes, on set tutorials. We do more of the post-production stuff and effect. Ryan Connolly who runs the channel invited me to participate in this showcase of short films. It forces you to focus on making something people will watch. We’re going to have something with humor and visual effects. You look at the way people consume internet videos. There is a difference. I’m still trying to learn the subtleties. It’s harder to do dramatic stuff online. You don’t allow yourself to be invested in that moment. I’ve learned that it you need to grab the audience’s attention. The short film we’re doing, there is not subtlety to it.

[1:08:11] Allan: It’s like with showreels. People like to put a big intro and when you’re reviewing them, you’re ready to fast forward. I want to mention a key note you mentioned. I don’t hear a lot of people talk about their careers. I’ve got my opinions on this industry and what you should be doing. You’ve mentioned stuff like thinking about the problems before their happen. Most people are in such a race to get in there and do the most complex shot, they don’t think about it. The more you’re able to learn from your mistakes, the more you will be able to avoid future catastrophic mistakes.

Andrew: That’s a key note for me. I was working on After Effects. I was thinking that I didn’t want to join the whole process. As I began examining what people would be interested to hear — how they got somewhere or how they began their career, and the mistakes — I realize people benefit from this stuff. You aren’t going to do everything perfectly. Here is where I’m at and here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

[1:11:30] Allan: At the same time, you’ve managed to have a sense of humor about it. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone starting out, what are the key foundations they need to have?

Andrew: That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s necessarily software.

  • Being able to work in a team;
  • Being able to problem solve;
  • Being able to interpret direction;
  • Being able to manage yourself and figure things out on your own;
  • Trying to do something unique.

We encourage people to go shoot something on their own and do their visual effect on that footage. You’re never going to have a tutorial telling you exactly what to do on a shot for a film. You get comments on Video Copilot. I realize it’s important to encourage such deviation. There are so many ideas there!

[1:15:20] Allan: I was talking to a buddy of mine who said you should take pride in what you do. If you do a hand grab shot, do the best hand grab shot. Anything you touch — make the best it can be. It’s never below your standards.

Andrew: You always want to work with those people. When everything you touch has that level of care, that’s when people will trust you and want to work with you more.

[1:16:43] Allan: You’re right. You will get rehired. If you were to start all over again, what would be some of the pivotal things you would apply to your career?

Andrew: I’m not sure I know exactly how to answer. I wish I could’ve learned 3D modeling earlier in my career. It’s something that I got into more. When I see some people create amazing models, I realize how many great ideas I’ve had. I wish I was more competent at that, so I could create my ideas. The stuff that people create, it feels like a free form of creating.

[1:18:16] Allan: You see some amazing stuff out there! Are there any online resources you would recommend.

Andrew: Video Cop… No! I’ve seen some cool stuff on Digital Tutors. I’ve been following a lot more creative people who post the work that they’ve worked on. Even Pinterest is such a creative content site. It blows my mind! You’re looking at some amazing stuff and it inspires me.

[1:19:46] Allan: Pinterest though! It sucks you in. One last thing: You’re a role model for balancing work and life. How the hell do you manage to do that?

Andrew: I would say you have to keep reevaluating how you spend your time. I was using my time today to look at the plug-in developments. I had my son Josh on my lap and we listened to some Beatles music. There are so many ways you could incorporate being a good dad and be productive. Sometimes, you need to turn your computer off and give your family undivided attention. It makes me feel more that I’m not letting one thing go. I don’t want them to suffer from my lack of attention. My family is there for the future. They’re more important. If you look at the things that are important to you, it’s easier to decide on how you spend your time.

[1:22:40] Allan: Are there other resources to find out about you?

Andrew: We’re on YouTube and on Twitter.

[1:23:07] Allan: Thanks, man! I really appreciate that time you’ve put into this!

Andrew: I had a lot of fun! Let’s do this again.

Thank you, Andrew, for doing this! To get on the insider’s list, go to: www.allanmckay.com/inside/. I will be sending more information shortly.

Thanks for listening! The next Episode will be with Dan Roarty who is a phenomenal artist.

Rock on!

Let's Connect

View my profile on