Episode 298 — Zack Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE — Scanline VFX
Episode 298 — Zack Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE — Scanline VFX
When it comes to VFX Work, Bryan Hirota has seen a lot in his career, from his first VFX job at Visual Image to currently being a VFX Supervisor at Scanline VFX. He’s worked at studios like Pixomondo, Prime Focus VFX, CIS Hollywood, Blue Sky – VIFX. His projects include The Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Godzilla vs Kong, The Suicide Squad, Aquaman, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Green Lantern, Tree of Life, Watchmen, Tropic Thunder, Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, Armageddon, The Relic and many more.
In this Podcast, Allan interviews Bryan about his experience working with Zack Snyder on Justice League, reworking the film for the 2021 Cut for HBO Max, Scanline’s shots on Godzilla vs Kong, as well as Bryan’s advice for VFX Artists and Supervisors.
Scanline VFX Website: https://www.scanlinevfx.com
Bryan Hirota on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0386415/
Bryan Hirota on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bryan-hirota-74a1561
Bryan Hirota on Art of VFX: https://www.artofvfx.com/aquaman-bryan-hirota-vfx-supervisor-scanline-vfx/
Scanline on Facebook: @scanlinevfx
Scanline on IG: @scanlinevfx
Scanline on Twitter: @Scanline_VFX
[04:07] Bryan Hirota Talks About His Start in VFX
[07:14] Traits of a Successful VFX Supervisor
[10:42] Bryan Discusses His Early Work
[16:25] Bryan Talks About Working with Zack Snyder
[25:16] Working on Godzilla vs Kong
[30:24] Challenges of Working on a Visual Effects Heavy Film
[35:07] Advice for VFX — and Other Service Based — Artists
EPISODE 298 — ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE — SCANLINE VFX
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 298! I’m sitting down with Bryan Hirota, a VFX Supervisor at Scanline VFX. We’re talking Justice League (the Snyder Cut), Godzilla vs Kong, and so much more!
Bryan’s got a massive background working on huge films: The Suicide Squad, Aquaman, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Green Lantern, Tree of Life, Watchmen, Tropic Thunder, Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, Armageddon, The Relic. We sit down to talk about VFX and his process as a Supervisor.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:08] 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!
[45:13] 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 BRYAN HIROTA
[04:07] Allan: Thanks again, Bryan, for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Bryan: Yes, I’m Bryan Hirota. I’m a VFX Supervisor at Scanline VFX.
[04:17] Allan: Just starting out, did you always picture yourself in some creative role?
Bryan: I guess broadly I imagined I’d be doing something creative. I never imagined I’d be strictly doing something that was either technical or creative, but it wasn’t anything specific.
[04:43] Allan: I’m always interested to hear about people’s creative arcs. How did you get into VFX?
Bryan: I got a bachelor’s of science in Computer Science from UC, San Diego. I was in the engineering school but I was also taking computer classes. I was looking for a job that wasn’t necessarily all about coding. I found a job in Marina Del Rey for which they were looking for someone with similar to mine qualifications. I was still in school so I’d split my time. People were still writing their own tools, and I could code some stuff. That’s how I started.
[06:46] Allan: What are your thoughts these days about people needing to have some coding skills?
Bryan: The work that people are able to do in VFX now is so amazing, but I see more results or filtered results. I’m not qualified to say what went into it.
[07:14] Allan: What do you think some of the traits that are handy to have for a VFX Supervisor?
Bryan: [07:41] Because so much of VFX has become digital, there is room to grow with understanding of how physical cameras work. Having a point of view is important. It helps if your point of view aligns with the Director’s notes. You need to be able to handle the notes. If you have your own idea, still do the notes — and then do your own version. Don’t address notes like a robot. On the other hand, if you’re too passionate and you don’t address the Director’s notes, then you’re making your own movie. No one wants that.
[09:06] Allan: I feel that early in people’s careers they tend to be more ambitious. Later in their career, they may have some foresight and pay attention to the language of their Supervisors. When they say, “Make it 10% bigger”, you understand that they don’t just need a robotic delivery.
Bryan: I think both of those things come up early in one’s career. You need to understand what they mean when they say, “Ten percent bigger”. Rarely do they actually mean “Ten percent bigger”. You should do a 10% one, but you also make some variations. With some of that you gain with experience, knowing what that 10% means.
[10:43] Allan: It’s always frustrated me when you give them the extreme one and then the subtle one. And then they like the ridiculous one! It was meant to be a gag. I wanted to jump to earlier in your career, to Demolition Man and Timecop. What was it like to work on those early films?
Bryan: Demolition Man was the second movie I’ve ever worked on. This was before we had prisms. We definitely didn’t have a particles system. I had to create some tracers, in the beginning of the movie. If I remember correctly (this was 27 years ago), I wrote a simple particle system. I was given some artwork for spotlights, and I gave it a digital tilt, that also had the spray paint grenade.
[12:54] Allan: I grew up in Australia and for whatever reason, they did post on that film to replace the Pizza Hut loggos.
Bryan: That’s funny! That was so early on, I didn’t know anything. I just tried to learn from people around me. There were no scanning standards, at least in LA. We had our own film accords. I was just trying to learn, everything I could learn. Timecop was a bit later. We did the Director reviews. By then, we had 3D packages, we were using Renderman. Then we did Sudden Death, The Relic, and End of Days.
[14:52] Allan: It’s pretty fascinating that the 90s were an era when CGI got proven, and everyone went for it. One place would be an avid editing place. Some projects were ambitious, others had neglected budgets. How do you compare back then to how it is now?
Bryan: Back then, everything was just so difficult! Most of the crews were quite young, people who haven’t done it a lot. Everyone was trying to figure it out. We were trying to achieve things with tools that may or may not have been best suited for the job. It’s a lot of sticky tape, patching things together. People were working brutal hours. I’m amazed by what can be accomplished these days.
[16:26] Allan: I want to dig right into Justice League and Godzilla vs Kong. But do you have any projects that you specifically loved, in your career?
Bryan: I loved all the times I’ve worked with Zack Snyder. He’s a wonderful human being. Most of the stuff I’ve worked on recently, I’ve enjoyed (maybe not for the same reasons). It’s difficult for me to pick something at this moment.
[17:08] Allan: Diving into Justice League, it’d be fun to talk about the initial release versus the Zack Snyder Cut.
Bryan: The initial release was an interesting experience. We started with one Director, ended up with another Director. There were a lot of changes. It was a unique project in the amount of the shifting sands. It was a wild bull to ride on!
[17:50] Allan: What were some of the challenges on that project?
Bryan: For us, it was just the sheer quality of work and keeping up with the changes within the film. The time frame is hard to remember. It was back in 2016. We shot the original photography. We were in post, then we came back to London for reshoots. Simultaneously, it was a whirlwind. Then the other version came around. It didn’t seem like something I’d be working on in 2020.
[18:58] Allan: What was it like? I think it was something like 2,100 shots?
Bryan: It was 2,500 and we delivered about 1,000 at Scanline. It was crazy! A show that was archived got brought back with the intention of reviving shots that were eliminated. Everything in Zack’s version is different. The first film was 125 and Zack’s version is 123. Not to mention swapping out of Steppenwolf! We had to resurrect the show and had 6 months to do it. That’s 166 shots a month!
[20:10] Allan: I’m assuming there were archived assets and you had to figure out the aspect ratio. What was it like to get back on track?
Bryan: Each group had its own challenges. Shots that had been in play required one set of forensics. Some shots in the theatrical had to change. Like in the park, there was no military and [there were fewer] cops. In the park battle with Clark, the configuration of people on the grass was different. If you looked at the shot initially, you knew that “these 3 things would have to change”. As you looked at it more, you realized it would be 6 things that had to change. Why had these people been painted out originally? You don’t remember from 6 years ago. There were a bunch of annoying things like that that had to be figured out. And there were other things. The shots were never finished to 1.33:1. They were finished to the 1.85:1 [aspect ratio]. That shot had to come back, and what’s the most efficient way? Is the shot suitable for a 2D solution? Or is it a CG shot and we have to render stuff? There were a number of shots that content-wise were fine, but we had to re-render them to fill in top to bottom.
[22:25] Allan: With changing aspect ratio, you’re going to get more vertical. You have to go over everything.
Bryan: Yeah! There was that, or swapping out a major asset like Steppenwolf. Doing the Batman assault outside the nest, you’re starting from scratch. On the other hand, it’s hard because you have to do it from scratch. It’s a mixed bag! When we were done, the last two months were a push. Everyone agreed we shouldn’t do that again.
[24:10] Allan: It can be a case study for future productions when they’re thinking of swapping a Director.
Bryan: And it’s a 4-hour movie! That’s unusual!
[24:37] Allan: That’s one of a kind, that’s for sure! What are the typical tools you’ve been using for production?
Bryan: Maya for animation, Nuke for compositing. 3D Studio Max for FX work, Flowline for fluid dynamics. I think we’ve been using more Houdini, but I don’t remember the names of plugins for something like hair, for example.
[25:18] Allan: I feel like hair is always a flavor of the month. I’ve stopped caring in a way. I’d love to talk about Godzilla vs Kong. That’s a big up and comer!
Bryan: I went to the test screening that they had in February. People seemed to like it.
[25:57] Allan: Giant creatures smashing stuff! It’s a formula that’s hard to mess up. What was it like: “How the hell are we going to pull this off?”
Bryan: It’s sort of funny. Production VFX Supervisor John “DJ” Des Jardin was hired on it, he wanted to see if we could work together. He wasn’t aware of the big creature we had done. I picked up a Godzilla asset and a sculpt of Kong. We made Kong older, we rendered and comped him. It went over quite well. We got asked to continue what we did with Kong. I think by the process of doing these test shots, we felt we could do the shots and what kind of resources we had to bear. With water, Scanline was the obvious choice. The big challenge with the creatures — especially with Kong! — was that he was the main delivery mechanism for the storytelling. You can empathise with him. He had to convey his emotions to the audience. When they move him and transport him, he is unhappy and doesn’t know what’s going on. Gia and Kong have a line of communication. They need to be able to recognize what’s going on in Kong. So we had to have facial rigs for Kong and super detailed eye anatomy in geometry and shading. We had a skeletal system and fur. But then Gia visits him in the rain. Once Godzilla shows up, you have these giant fluid simulations as they interact in the ocean; as well as any kind of destruction simulations, as they destroy the ships. It was all built on top of each other.
[30:21] Allan: Looking at something like this where 85% of the work is entirely CG, there isn’t much left that’s unachievable. Yes, there is the uncanny valley. Oceans would scare the shit out of me years ago! But Scanline is known for water simulations. What are the challenges these days?
Bryan: Once you’ve established you can do a couple of these shots, at least technically, that’s awesome! On the back end, you need to sort out that you have enough CPU’s to do the simming and rendering. It’s about data management. That’s one part of the problem. A second side is that everything plays together. The third bit, like with this ocean battle, is it telling a coherent and compelling narrative? VFX carries such a heavy burden, like making the imagery. Because so many of the shots are all visual effects, you’re responsible for the storytelling aspects as well. That’s a big hurdle! You’re on these things for a year, a year and a half. The previs — for that ocean batte — was done in pre-production. We added some shots or rearranged things, but we had a version of that battle 4 months before the cameras even rolled.
[33:34] Allan: And how true did the final shots stay true to that previs?
Bryan: Yeah, it’s a mix. Some stayed pretty true. Others stayed true in spirit but needed modification in the edit. Like most things, it’s an evolutionary process.
[34:24] Allan: Were there any shots that stood out?
Bryan: I liked the shot they used in the marketing with Kong punching one side of Godzilla. That kind of silliness is what this movie is. If you think that’s a fun idea, you might like this movie! If you think that’ll make you mad, you probably shouldn’t watch it.
[35:08] Allan: I still remember watching Peter Jackson’s King Kong. I remember seeing a T-Rex and the ape fighting. That’s what we’re signing up for. I wanted to tackle some of the life lessons you get from your career. Some people put so much effort into their skills, they negate their relationships. For you, going through your career, have there been some lessons that stuck with you?
Bryan: [36:24] One thing is to keep my own ego in check. I like to give the Supervisor and Director what I think is good. They may not think the same way. I have to not be offended by that. When I was younger, if someone wanted it red but I thought it should be blue, I’d do it but hold a grudge. But at the end of the day, it’s not your movie. You’re in service of this Director’s movie. Hopefully, you’re a useful part of this machine. But the Director has the vision.
[37:44] Allan: You nailed it! People tend to take things personally, but we’re all part of the machine. We’re trying to align with the vision of a Director. People get too invested in their own vision.
Bryan: You’re asking someone to care deeply about something — and to find solutions — but be okay if they’re told their idea sucks. For the most part, I’m okay with that these days. I’m fine with it, I think. I think.
[39:12] Allan: At that point, it’s a data point. It goes back to creating a language with a Director. Their version of yellow is a warm yellow, not the greenish version.
Bryan: You have to understand what a Director or a Supervisor means by things. They aren’t literal. It’s easier if you’ve worked with people before because you know what they mean. 10% to one person may mean 5%.
[40:12] Allan: When I was younger, I worked with a Supervisor who’d say, “That’s interesting!” And I’d have to drag it out of him. His version meant, “I hate it.” Most people want to work with the same people over and over.
Bryan: It’s tricky especially if you’re trying to work on something that doesn’t have an objectively right answer.
[41:02] Allan: My last question would be about technology coming down the pipe. Is there anything you have your eye on?
Bryan: I’m really excited for the day when you have a camera that captures depth in addition to the image. Because that would solve so many problems in filmmaking, at least with visual effects. If you could just shoot stuff as you want it, it would improve quality, post production time because you can eliminate all those meetings talking about which screens we can or can’t afford.
[42:24] Allan: I was chatting with Wes Ball who directed the Maze Runner trilogy, and how working on set everything is in real time. Once you’ve captured it all, whatever you haven’t captured, it can cause so much headache! Certain cameras are able to capture depth now, but the rigs are so big that it’s not convenient. It’s crazy how the footprint can be reduced.
Bryan: There was that one company that was making that camera. Then Robert Stromberg directed a short film with that camera. But that camera was huge!
[44:31] Allan: I think there are so many things that are on the brink of that. It’s one of those things that people get excited about!
Bryan: Just imagine, we get rid of these processing screens. It’d be a better world!
[44:57] Allan: Where can people find out more about you?
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Bryan for taking the time to chat! This was a lot of fun!
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Next week, I will be speaking to Glenn Stearns of Undercover Billionaire. We’re going to talk about leadership skills, fear failure and so much! Until then —
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