Episode 314 — Corridor Digital — Wren Weichman
Episode 314 — Corridor Digital — Wren Weichman
Wren Weichman is a VFX Artist and a YouTube Host at Corridor Digital.
Corridor Digital is a Visual Effects Studio based in Los Angeles. They’re best known for creative short-form viral videos, as well as producing and directing the web Series Rush and YouTube Red’s Lifeline. They company has also created tv commercials for companies like Google and Machine Zone.
Founded in 2009 by Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer, the company now produces five YouTube Channels, including VFX Artists React and the Corridor Crew which consists of behind-the-scenes content and has almost 5 million subscribers (as of 2021).
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews VFX Artist and YouTube Host at Corridor Digital Wren Weichman (AKA @sirwrender) about creating viral content for YouTube, perfectionism versus creativity, inspiration as a muscle and the importance of finding your creative community online.
Corridor Digital on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsn6cjffsvyOZCZxvGoJxGg
Corridor Crew on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/corridorcrew
Corridor Digital Website: https://www.corridordigital.com
Wren Weichman on IG: @sirwrender / https://www.instagram.com/sirwrender/?hl=en
Wren Weichman on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfKs3muLSkJxMLM0A5nscwA
Allan McKay on an Episode of VFX Artists React: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TwGKcrtGmQ
[03:00] Wren Weichman Introduces Himself and Talks About Starting Out
[06:16] Finding a Creative Community Online
[11:55] Inspiration as a Muscle
[20:25] Finding a “Perfect” Idea
[25:42] The Future and Implementation of AI Technology
[39:07] Wren’s TEDx Talk Why Most Visual Effects Suck but Some Don’t
[55:40] The Importance of Captivating YouTube Titles and Thumbnails
[1:10:38] Perfectionism and Creativity
[1:18:58] Tech Experiments and the Future of Production
EPISODE 314 — CORRIDOR DIGITAL — WREN WEICHMAN
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 314! I’m sitting down with the amazing Wren Weichman from Corridor Digital. You might know him from his profile @sirwrender. We talk about creating a community online, creativity as a muscle, perfectionism being the enemy, building a successful business and so much more!
Please take a few moments to share this!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:18] 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!
[1:30:23] 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 WREN WEICHMAN
[03:00] Allan: Thank you so much for coming on the Podcast, Wren! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Wren: Yeah! My name is Wren Weichman. I go by Wren. You can find me online at @sirwrender (which is a pun).
[03:30] Allan: Cool, man! This is something I always ask my guests. Did you always imagine you’d be in a creative career?
Wren: No! When I was growing up, I had no idea what I was going to be! I wanted to be a fighter pilot but I realized I wouldn’t do well. I actually went to school and graduated with an engineering degree. Two or three months before I graduated, I realized YouTube videos were my calling.
[04:16] Allan: How did that come about? Have you been getting a lot of traction by doing those?
Wren: It was more that I was really enjoying it! I got into video editing. In college, I started doing super simple visual effects. Super simple! And I thought I was a genius! It made all the difference that you could do this stuff on the computer. It spiraled into becoming a hobby. I learned After Effects. It was purely a hobby all through college. I had no expectation those videos would do well. There were a few channels that were doing well, like Corridor Digital. I realized that was something really cool and I wanted to do that. I realized I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle at Boeing designing a bracket and stress test it everyday for six months. That wasn’t interesting to me!
[06:16] Allan: I was chatting with Sam Wickert (Director of Chalk Warfare). I was telling him how envious I was of you, guys. I love that you’ve found this creative team of people to collaborate with, at a young age. Early on, were you finding that community more online?
Wren: When I was starting out, I was the only person I knew who was doing anything like this. I had friends who were funny and creative. I was part of an improv team in college. But as far as filmmaking, no one else was doing that. The only people I knew of were doing that on YouTube. (This was at the time of YouTube where the success of a channel was related to the number of views you got.) I ended up visiting LA and meeting up with the Corridor Digital guys. It was such an inspirational trip, I decided I was going to do that.
[08:20] Allan: It sounds like a big turning point for you. What was it like?
Wren: It was a big, scary step. I graduated college in 2011. That’s when I realized I’d rather do this video stuff, and it was because YouTube rolled out this program called YouTube NextUp. They would support the creators to become better. They ran it as a competition. I made it into the top 100. It was the act of getting into this that made me realize I had a shot. So I spent that summer making YouTube videos and it wasn’t going that well. It was the actual act of moving to LA that forced me into a position to try and make it happen. The moment I decided to move, that decision — and sticking with it — helped give me the confidence to continue pursuing it.
[10:56] Allan: I think people aren’t always committed to it. You gave yourself no point of return.
Wren: Before I moved, I was living in the same house, with the same roommates. I had no schedule or deadlines to keep me going. As a result, I wasn’t very productive. I just finished school and it was nice not to do much for a bit.
[11:55] Allan: That’s such an important thing. Most people go off to travel after high school, to try it out. Where do you typically seek inspiration? I’m always amazed how you guys at Corridor Digital come up with ideas. So where do you also find inspiration as a group?
Wren: Coming up with ideas is very much a muscle. You have to constantly work on it. An idea could be for anything! It’s hard to come up with ideas, unless it’s your job. Every week, we have brainstorming sessions. We talk about what would be compelling to watch? The more you do that, the easier it becomes. I take a lot of inspiration from whatever interests me. Which is why I’ve done a lot of videos about drones. Obviously, we have VFX Artists React. I also find inspiration from other people’s videos. Some random statement would get me to think. That’s where I find that inspiration, that curiosity. I’ll start researching that idea. I have a list of notes because I have to note these ideas down. Whenever you do find inspiration, grab hold of it!
[15:53] Allan: Do you have any creative exercises you try to do every day?
Wren: I don’t. It’s more of an endurance muscle. I’m never not doing it. Last year, I 3D-printed a new finger for my friend. The reason that video did so well is because of its thumbnail and title. (Titles and thumbnails are so critical to our videos! As a creator, that kind of sucks!) That video came about because I was on a 3D printing website. I was interested in researching it. I saw that you could design a finger. Then, it was about making a video about that. So you start branching out from there. But it started with my going, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Click! We try to do idea exercises when we’re out of ideas. There is an AI that creates an image of you and then it can change you. So Niko [at Corridor Digital] had this idea, “You ever see those missing child flyers. What if we’d get AI to do that?” And then it branched out into methods and strategies. The core of it is there, but generating that seed is hard. We’ll throw out a 100 ideas and maybe two of them stick.
[20:25] Allan: Talking about perfectionism: People tend to think, “These ideas suck so I’m not going to pursue them”. As opposed to realizing that you’ve got to go through a bunch of duds to come up with something great. The more you’re doing it, the quicker you get to something good.
Wren: Exactly! Just look at it on a surface level. It took no effort to come up with the idea, but you forget the hard work behind it. You always hear about the concept of shower thoughts (when you come up with an idea in the shower). The thing about that is that the lightbulb can’t turn on without the previous ideas. The moment you step away from it and think about something else, some kind of a connection happens and it clicks. But it’s the fact that you stepped away from it.
[22:17] Allan: Einstein and Edison both said to never go to sleep without having a problem solved. I’ve always been bad about going to the gym. I now force myself to step away. Stepping away is the only chance for your brain to process something. You really need to step away from a problem. Going back to the aged child photos project, do you think it’ll have a different effect?
Wren: If you see the video, it doesn’t really work out as planned. You can see the resemblance but they don’t look the same. It’s not about the final product, it’s about the decisions that AI makes about that final product. What needs to be done to continue training it to become more accurate? We made another video where we made me look like Marge Simpson. That’s what that AI is meant for. For aging up, that AI model needs to be trained on hundreds thousands examples. That’s the crazy thing about AI. The models are inherently stupid but they can be trained.
[25:42] Allan: Is there any AI technology or implementation that you’re excited about?
Wren: As far as visual effects go, it’s Deepfakes. We’ve experimented with those for a year. The things that excites me the most are the things that allow me to do the normal things I do — but faster! Rotoscoping is becoming a thing of the past. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years, you can tell one of these models to identify “a bike”. We’re already there to some degree. It does work on people, for instance. But it doesn’t work on objects yet. It’s all about training the software. Additionally, I’m excited about motion capture derived from 2D videos. So you don’t have to mocap suites or rooms, or studios. Record a video of someone and the AI will be able to identify the pose and animate a bone system. That’ll be really cool! Stuff like that! Being able to generate 3D models. All these things are becoming easy. And no one is prepared for how quickly this stuff is developing. These AI’s are getting more creative. So are our jobs, as creatives, in jeopardy? I think the answer is no!
[28:53] Allan: I think it’s such a big conversation topic. The ones who don’t understand AI are scared by it. You just mentioned roto would be out of a job. The things at the beginning of a pipeline will most likely be outsourced because it’s a one-directional thing. Those are the ones that AI will have an effect on. What are your thoughts on that?
Wren: I think it’s important to remember that all of these AI models are just tools. It’s not a program that thinks for itself. It’s a piece of code designed to do what it’s designed to do very well. It can only do what it’s trained to do. But I do think creative people have to prioritize skills in decision making. In the early days of my career, I had the option of working at a VFX studio. I could’ve become a cog in the machine, while working long hours and destroying relationships I had. But I loved doing visual effects! So I decided to focus on being a creative director. For a long time, I thought it was like being a movie director. But then I realized it’s more about being the one to make creative calls. It’s going to take for AI to replace that job. They may eventually be able to come up with ideas, but it will still come down to your deciding which parts work and which don’t. We had an AI write a real time script and we’d follow it in real time. We’d only say what it wrote. It went in some wild directions and was really funny as well. It took an hour of failing. We ended up rewriting an ending to a movie, but none of them were really working. But it was a whole hour trying to finesse this AI, and none of it worked. You still have to have the intuition for what is good and what’s not. AI can draw a fantastic backdrop for your scene but you still have to decide if it’s pleasing or if it fits. Those calls are still going to be made by us.
[32:04] Allan: It’s a tool, a hundred percent! Tools become more intuitive which allows me to do more ambitious things.
Wren: I think we also take ambition for granted in general. What usually ends up happening is you get a cool tool that allows you to make VFX faster. But that means you can now make more things now.
[38:23] Allan: Something that you mentioned earlier: Working in VFX and working crazy hours. Instead you decided to be a creative director. That’s the core identifier of people who will go do more things in our ecosystem. It’s about having the foresight about how you’ll fit into the world you are in. No matter what work environment you’re in, it’s about seeing opportunities and going after them. If you know the direction you want to go in, it’s about leveraging what you see around you. I think it’s a smart decision on your part, early on.
Wren: It’s the whole idea of automation. Anything that can be automated will be automated or replaced with cheap labor. If your job is straightforward, chances are — it’s a replaceable job in the future. It doesn’t mean that all jobs will be replaced.
[39:07] Allan: You did a TEDx Talk a while back (https://www.ted.com/talks/wren_weichman_why_most_visual_effects_suck_but_some_don_t). Can you talk about that and how it came about?
Wren: That Talk was at the University of Pennsylvania which I didn’t realize was an Ivy League school. I was recommended to do it by a friend. I remember back in college I sent a tweet, “One day, I’ll do a TED Talk.” And 10 years later — I was doing one. My friend connected me with the TEDx team who organized the event. They had me audition to get that role. I think there’s a difference between a TED and TEDx Talk. A TED Talk happens once a year and it’s with incredibly successful people.
[37:53] Allan: They’re brutal! I read an article about the process of getting greenlit for a Talk. That’s why I’m always fascinated by it.
Wren: It’s very much their thing and you’re being contracted to talk for them. It’s unpaid, but they work with you on setting deadlines for your drafts and presentation. You stay on track and deliver something of quality. I think everyone can relate to procrastinating. That does lead to diminished quality. You still crunch through writing your script at the last moment, but you’re doing it past these gold post deadlines. You at least have gotten something done. You end up with a final product that had a lot of time put into it. For me, it was a 4-5 month process. It was late fall / early winter that we got the ball rolling and I did the Talk mid-March the following year.
[40:16] Allan: What was it like? I watched it and thought it was pretty cool. Did you feel more pressure with this one?
Wren: I don’t give a lot of talks. I thrive in front of an audience. Public speaking is considered to be the biggest fear. I do enjoy being in front of the audience, but it doesn’t make it less nerve wracking. It’s about that threshold. Have you ever done cliff diving? I’ve done that and I stood there for an hour, trying to work up the courage to actually do it. The moment you jump, you realize it’s not bad at all. It’s just doing it for the first time. So leading up to the Talk, I was super nervous. I started having panic attacks 30 seconds prior to walking onto the stage. I managed to stay calm and take deep breaths. The moment I took that first step, I was calm. It helps that you can’t really see the audience. You’re exposed to all those lights. It’s a bizarre thing that helps you roll through it. You start going on autopilot. At the end of it, it’s done. Then all the emotions hit you. It’s a very relieving feeling.
[46:26] Allan: You have that fear and the resistance because you’re doing something different. Your brain is going to tell you not to do that because it’s keeping you alive. But when you step out on that stage, you’re committed to doing it. Most people don’t embrace that thing that makes them uncomfortable. It’s one of the most painful things. I was watching a presenter once fail on stage in Finland. He kept acknowledging it. The only time I bombed on stage was shortly after that. But it was liberating in a way.
Wren: One thing about being on stage is that no one knows how nervous you are. No one knows what you’re thinking or feeling. The moment you acknowledge it, people are going to notice it and think about it. If something goes wrong, just roll with it. That does so much! Things are only as awkward as you allow for them to be. I’m not an orator, but I’ve done a few speaking engagements by now. If something awkward happens, just roll with it.
[50:05] Allan: That’s a good point! One of the best pieces of advice my friend gave me was that when he approached a girl, he still got butterflies. That gave me some reassurance. Just roll with it! The first 5-10 seconds on stage may be screwy. Besides, everyone gets nervous. I noticed that you tried memorizing your speech. How do you approach that? You mentioned writing and re-writing the speech.
Wren: I tried doing that but I ended up not doing it for the second half of the script. I wrote pages and pages. I think it did help. There is something about the act of writing something that commits it to memory better than typing. It’s slower to write something by hand so maybe your brain memorizes it better. Even in spite of doing all that, I struggled to memorize my script, or rather indexing it. I just didn’t know what the next thing to say would be. That’s where the bullet points came in. When I was planning to do the talk, I wasn’t allowed to have any notes. But I could have slides and there were quadrants that would have the notes. That changed everything! I’d write down the first few words and that would trigger the thought process.
[55:40] Allan: I’m fascinated by this stuff. You brought up YouTube titles and thumbnails. What are your thoughts on that and what’s the science behind it?
Wren: You hate that you have to play this game, but you have to! I wish to believe that if the video is good, it’ll be seen. But when it comes down to it, it’s all marketing. It happens in movies. If a studio doesn’t advertise a movie, not many people are going to see it. Which is why they spend so much money on advertising. For a very long time, we’d come up with the title at the end of the video, after we finished shooting it. The problem with that if you fail creating something enticing to click on, you’ve failed as a video creator. Over the last 5 years, we’ve put more effort into coming up with ideas from the standpoint of the title. That helps a lot when trying to come up with a compelling video as well. You still have to deliver on the promise of the title. If you don’t, I call it clickbait. These days, I think of the titles as an elevator pitch. You have 42 characters to describe the content of your video in the most compelling way. As for the thumbnail, there is a whole science behind it. Big faces, arrows, big text and outlines work well. We consider thumbnails important enough that we have a full-time artist who makes thumbnails, in addition to his other tasks.
[1:02:53] Allan: Going back to the thumbnails, I know it’s a common thing to plan it. Do you guys know what it would be?
Wren: Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, it still comes down to last minute concepts. Videos are always better when you come up with the title and thumbnail earlier. With the 3D printed finger, for example, I came up with the title early on. We’ll try to do titles that way. The titles are so successful that the video performs well. The agency is compelling. There is an implied journey in that type of journey. That video was the most successful video of last year.
[1:05:17] Allan: I watched the Attack on Titan video. I loved the format. What was this video like?
Wren: That was a video in a series of videos we’ve been making for 2 years now. Or, coming up on 3 years! It started when I was in a creative rut. I was moving from video to video. I’d be working on VFX while the team is shooting the next short film. I felt like I was grinding away. I was thinking about it late at night. I thought about what I was good at. In terms of VFX, I’m okay. But I can do a bunch of different kinds of effects; plus I’ve developed a skill of talking on camera. After a few years of doing it, it started feeling more natural. I realized that when I get passionate, people pay attention. So I looked into what I could explain passionately while doing effects on that. It was about things easy to understand but hard to explain (like the size of the universe). I’ve done a few videos like that. Attack on Titan was just part of that. It was just more intense in terms of the effects. It was a team effort. Most of the time though, those videos are just me working on them alone. I can see how it feels different because I make them so infrequently. They take longer to produce. (I also broke my collarbone in the middle of making that video.)
[1:10:38] Allan: Creativity is a muscle. The stuff you make is phenomenal in the time you’re given. There is always so much pressure people put on themselves, they can’t keep up. I think that the best thing you can do is make yourself work on constrained deadlines.
Wren: I have such a huge love / hate relationship with deadlines! I hate them! But yet, I cannot live without them. They’re the reason I’m able to get anything done. I think they’re critical to the creative process. You can spend infinite time on a project. You don’t have that time. There is this concept called diminishing returns. The next step of effort yields a lesser amount of result. So YouTube videos exemplify that. You can spend a year working on a short film, or you can spend a week. You have to be able to finish and move onto the next thing. That’s where I believe growth comes from: How can you readjust the next time, judging from what you’ve learned? So I’ve been a big proponent of quantity over quality. Your quality will increase. Yes, your quality won’t be as high if you’re doing things rapidly. If you’re making something everyday for a single year — versus every week for a year, versus twice a year — the things that you’re making twice a year won’t be that much better. Ideally, I’d like to spend a month making a video. If you’re making something everyday, by the end of that year, you’re a professional! It starts warping how your brain works and how you’re going to tackle things. Going back to comparing what took 6 months versus once a month, that first video will be better of the first 6 videos, but then videos 8, 9, 10 will be of way better quality. The more you do something, the better you’re going to be at it. You can either spend your time perfecting it, or you could cut your losses and move onto the next thing. The more you move onto things, you’ll start noticing how much better you become.
[1:16:02] Allan: I love that! Progress over perfection! In terms of Corridor Digital and Corridor Crew, what’s the funnest experience you’ve ever had?
Wren: Well, that’s another problem of quantity over quality. I can’t remember all of it! I think the Boston Dynamics series comes to mind. Both videos went really viral. It was us just parodying Boston Dynamics. It was an interesting journey we went through: It was the first time we experimented with motion capture (like character mo cap) and integrating it with a real plate, and adding a CG robot. It was a fun project to work on! It had 25 million views on Twitter in the first two days. Everyone thought it was real. The effects were real enough but they weren’t that great. We took it to another level and it had another great reception. There were celebrities having philosophical arguments.
[1:18:58] Allan: I saw you did a test of your iPhone doing photogrammetry.
Wren: Yes! So I love my iPhone 12 Pro Max! I’m not one to get a new iPhone every year. This one has a LiDAR scanner and it allows you to scan your environment really easily. It’s not hard to do photogrammetry but it requires a bunch of work. But it’s so easy with this iPhone and it’s not that bad. There is an app called CamTrackAR in that phone that tracks your scene in real time, as you’re filming. It’s not that hard to do tracking these days. What if I just cut out that entirely? I scanned that same spot; and I was hoping to bring back that model, match it with some footage, drop some reflective objects into a 3D scene (and because I have this 3D scene, I’m going to have a proper reflection). I was just wondering what I could do only with my phone. I used Google street view images. Just using assets from my phone, I was able to make this video. It looked pretty good. I ended up being fascinated by the quality of the scans. I did use the camera track. I used the audio from the footage, with the sound of my walking. A lot of people were surprised that none of that shot was real. In motion and with that sound, it has a real presence. It’s amazing these little tricks you can pull on our brain.
[1:23:07] Allan: Just to recap, what were the apps you used for that?
Wren: Totally! I used PolyCam, 3D Scanner. Now that Apple released the project capture API, we’re going to have a lot more photogrammetry happen. I used CamTrackAR and Google street view images. That gave me the 3D scene, the camera track.
[1:24:14] Allan: That is so cool! I have a legit LiDAR scanner here and I was thinking of doing a comparison. I was experimenting with a VFX sup, a friend of mine, who was in town. The iPhone LiDAR was very comparable with my LiDAR. The iPhone feels more like a scanner. It’s really interesting to see where it’s all going.
Wren: I think that’d be really interesting!
[1:26:09] Allan: My final question would be the follow-up to this: Where do you see the iPhone in the future of film production?
Wren: Love it! I do feel that we’re moving more and more toward virtual production. Show, even if they aren’t shot on volume stages, I think we’ll see more collaborative experiences. People will be able to jump in and brainstorm from anywhere in the world. Apple will release a VR headset (or more of a mixed-reality thing). It’s going to be connected to your iPhone. I’ve got no idea how that will be! Apple is laying the groundwork for 3D camera tracking and scanning your environment — in real time! In the future, we’ll be more in the VR environment. We need people to be able to create experiences. The biggest downside is that the LiDAR is of small resolution. But I think in the future, it’ll get better. And I think we’ll be able to use these features to create things easily. I’m super excited for it!
[1:29:45] Allan: Me too! This has been super fun! Where can people go to find out more about you?
Wren: I’m on social media. I’m on IG. I’m on TikTok now! I started it 3 weeks ago, and I’m at a million followers by pure accident. @sirwrender is my name.
[1:30:12] Allan: @sirwrender? Got it! In fact, I just got your whole triple pun thing!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Wren for taking the time to talk. So many great value bombs!
Please click the share button! I’d love for other people to hear this.
Next week, I will be talking about How to Become a Technical Director. Thanks for listening!
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