Episode 346 – DNEG’S VFX Supervisor Tom Proctor – Last Night in Soho


Episode 346 – DNEG’S VFX Supervisor Tom Proctor – Last Night in Soho

DNEG (www.dneg.com) is one of the world’s leading visual effects (VFX) and animation studios for the creation of feature film, television and multiplatform content. DNEG employs nearly 7,000 people with worldwide offices and studios across North America (Los Angeles, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver), Europe (London) and Asia (Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Mumbai).

DNEG’s critically acclaimed work has earned the company six Academy Awards® for Best Visual Effects and numerous BAFTA and Primetime EMMY® Awards for its high-quality VFX work. Upcoming DNEG projects on behalf of its Hollywood and global studio and production company partners include Dune (October 2021), No Time To Die (October 2021), Ron’s Gone Wrong (October 2021), Last Night In Soho (October 2021), Ghostbusters: Afterlife (November 2021), The Matrix 4 (December 2021), Uncharted (2022), Borderlands (2022), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2022), The Flash (2022), and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023).

DNEG’s VFX Supervisor Tom Proctor talks about leadership and relationships skills, fine arts versus craftsmanship in VFX, the impact of virtual production on pipelines – and discusses his work on iconic titles like The Matrix, Justice League, as well as most recently, Last Night in Soho.

DNEG: www.dneg.com

Tom Proctor on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0698421

A Conversation with Visual Effects Supervisor Thomas Proctor: https://www.focusfeatures.com/article/interview_visual-effects-supervisor-tom-proctor

DNEG Wins Big at VES Awards with Seven Honors: https://www.yahoo.com/now/dneg-wins-big-visual-effects-190100730.html



[03:11] Tom Proctor Introduces Himself

[07:48] Leadership Skills in VFX

[10:51] Tom Talks About Working on The Matrix and Its Sequel

[18:47] Fine Arts vs the Craftsmanship of VFX

[31:16] Working on Justice League and Other Iconic Titles

[39:38] Maintaining Relationships in VFX

[44:31] Last Night in Soho Sequences by DNEG

[48:16] Virtual Production and How Technology Changes VFX Pipelines



Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 346! 

I’m speaking with DNEG’s VFX Supervisor Tom Proctor. We talk about leadership and relationships skills, fine arts versus craftsmanship in VFX, the impact of virtual production on pipelines. We also discuss his work on iconic titles like The Matrix, Justice League, as well as most recently, Last Night in Soho. I’m really excited about this Episode! 

Please take a moment to share this Episode with others and show your support for this Podcast.

Let’s dive in! 



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[03:11] Allan: Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Tom: Sure! My name is Tom Proctor. I’m a VFX Supervisor working with DNEG.

[03:25] Allan: Did you always want to be an artist growing up? Or did you fall into VFX later on?

Tom: I went on a creative path pretty early on, but I was also into science and technology. At one point, I wanted to be an inventor. I grew up in upstate New York, in a pretty artistic family. My father is a fine woodworker and a teacher of woodworking and furniture design. We were always surrounded by artists. I liked drawing and thought I’d be an illustrator. As I got older, some of my dad’s colleagues were using 3D for furniture design and I became interested in that. I got into computer art. I went to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) for design and I also did a bit of animation. My neighbor at the time was working for Kodak and he realized I was into computer art. Kodak was making a software named Cineon. He needed to have someone answering the tech support line part-time. So it was my first job.

At the time, my girlfriend and I decided that we wanted to transfer to San Francisco Art Institute and study there. We wanted to go for a more Fine Arts education. I had the balls to ask one of the VFX Supervisors who was calling for tech support if they’d be interested in having an intern for the summer. They said, “Stop by the office when you’re in town.” When I went out to San Francisco, I visited Manex in Alameda. It was a long drive to a very unfamiliar place, on an old Navy base. Kim Libreri was the guy I’d spoken to. He is now the CTO of Epic and he’s done so many amazing things in the world of computer graphics. But at the time, it was a relatively obscure VFX company working on a low budget VFX movie. I showed them my reel of demo stuff I’ve done. They told me, “We don’t do internships, but if you want to put off school for a year – come and work for us.” I ended up on the first Matrix. I was comping the bullet shot with Neo on the rooftop which was a great learning experience! It ended up being huge! The initial impression was this ransacked office with freaks doing weird stuff. When I walked in there, I knew there was nothing I wanted to do more than work with them. It was a great fortuitous start!

[07:46] Allan: That was such an iconic shot! How do you feel seeing several years of people imitating that sequence?

Tom: I feel proud to be part of that legacy. It’s classic VFX. And more specifically, the most valuable thing I got out of it are the lessons that Kim taught me: discipline, rigor and exactitude in the early stages of your work. If you get all of these steps right, you can build great things on them. It’s something I try to ask artists. Later you learn that you sometimes have to throw some of these things out the window, or you’ll never get the shot done on time. Hopefully, your Supervisor is letting you know when to let your baby go. But I still think it’s a great start. You can build upon it.

[09:10] Allan: For you, are there any other principles that come to mind, from early in your career?

Tom: Manex was such an informal place to work, with a bolder personality. There is a certain respect for confidentiality. I think that maintaining that type of respect for the NDA and for the sanctity of your client [is important]; and their trust in you to bring something to screen. There are millions of dollars invested in it. Your job is to not let it slip. 

[10:51] Allan: It’s such a small industry! I’ve gotten so many calls from clients because an artist has put something on their reel while the project hasn’t been released. I did a bid for Matrix 2 and we bowed out of it because we were pitching with 3DS Max. But I’ve heard stories over the years. What was it like for you to visit The Matrix sequel?

Tom: I was at Manex for 2 years. I did go back to the Art Institute and I realized I was learning more in the world of VFX. I saw myself working in VFX. I did that for a little bit and dropped out for the second time. I did Mission Impossible 2, 13 Ghosts. A few of the people who’ve worked with us on The Matrix have gone on to Weta. They were encouraging me to come work with them. I decided to take the plunge, move to New Zealand and work on Lord of the Rings. Weta was a smaller company at the time. That first experience at Manex was tenfold. It was an exotic location in the South Pacific. There was also a different approach to visual effects. I did Fellowship of the Rings there. When we were on hiatus, I got a call from Dan Glass who needed help with some texture photography that would be used in the projections of the city, in the sequel. I did a bunch of photography. I finished Two Towers at Weta and decided to go back to San Francisco, to work on the sequence. 

[15:49] Allan: With The Matrix, I cannot not see Sydney everywhere. The first time I heard your name was from Lord of the Rings.

Tom: I did a couple of great shots of Golum. I did a shot where Golum is flopping down the stream, chasing a fish. Andy Serkus wore his mocap suit. I comped in Golum over the top and filled in the water elements. In terms of my contribution, it was just late nights, blood, sweat and tears.

[18:11] Allan: I had Bay Raitt (www.allanmckay.com/102) on the Podcast a while ago. My big question is: Do you miss Shake?

Tom: No, not at all! I didn’t miss the move from Shake to Nuke. I’m excited to see what the next development will be.

[18:47] Allan: With you deciding to go down the path of VFX versus doing Fine Arts, what were the reasons for you?

Tom: There is a certain glory in being the originator as a pure artist. I found it really challenging and frustrating. I had so many ideas, but they weren’t worthy of the type of living I wanted to make. I could see that quite a lot of the people at the Art Institute, they would never have to worry about their income. I felt that if I wanted some financial security, I needed to learn into my strengths. To be quite frank, I really liked the craft of the discipline, and I liked the personalities I was working with. I have a hard time articulating my conflict about that. I do work on my own art, I have my own outlet. I think it’s a good balance. I also didn’t have a problem with having a craft. My father’s creations were also functional objects. Craftsmanship is a perfectly noble discipline.

[21:31] Allan: What have you learned to invest time into, have you managed to balance that in your day-to-day work, in terms of composition or color theory?

Tom: You nailed it! Composition and color theory are the two things right out of the gate that will pay off the dividends. It’s so massively important! I’m always amazed when I work with people who come from a more technical background, how much time it takes to guide them through the basics like taste and aesthetics. It’s culture literacy and film theory. You need to know when a shot is an homage to something else. Getting to work with a range of people early on is important. But there are outside people who’ve brought their knowledge to VFX as well: scientists, astrophysicists, the people who got into motion capture from a martial arts background. One of the beautiful things about working in film is that there are so many different, fascinating people with different knowledge. I try to stay better at it and consume culture to maintain relevance.

[24:07] Allan: As people transition more into being VFX Supervisors and they have to communicate with directors, producers and other people on set, cultural literacy is so important. What were some of the skills you had to adopt to get more proficient?

Tom: One of the first things I needed to learn was how to convey notes and feedback in a less harsh manner. A lot of people who move up into head departments aren’t trained in personal relationships or public speaking, or management. I spoke overly harshly to people on my first few shows. It wasn’t because I’m cruel. It was just the way I was used to receiving my feedback. You have to be able to convey your knowledge to people who may not necessarily have the same skills. You’re going to work with people of all ranges and you need to bring people up without sounding condescending. I think that was the most important thing I’ve learned. There are lots of people I want to go and apologize to, from my first shows. 

Among some of the more practical things is being able to not necessarily draw well but to annotate quickly and efficiently a visual direction. I had a great experience working on Cure for Wellness with Gore Verbinski, and he is such a master! It’s like a masterclass in filmmaking. He is really quickly able to sketch an idea. It’s very economical and swift. I found it to be really instructive. I think just being able to draw – especially when working remotely – people can save it as a note in Shotgun. Playing Pictionary a lot was key in that skill. You had to get across an idea. If you futz around with details too long, you’ll run out of time. 

[28:31] Allan: To touch on Weta, what I always found fascinating was that the majority of Americans were working on the other side of the world. What was it like for you to go work over there?

Tom: I think my wife and I like to describe it as a summer camp for people in visual effects. It was people from all over the world. When it comes to Manex, they had people from a massive amount of different backgrounds, more so at Weta though. And everyone was doing it to escape a “real job”. It was the antithesis of anything corporate. We were all in it together. It was not a corporate culture. Whatever culture it was, it would not fly under today’s standards. I’ve heard about some of the culture changes there since I left. It felt like summer camp and it was crazy and fun. 

[31:16] Allan: What was it like to work on some of the big titles like Man of Steel, Batman, Superman, Justice League? How much of the process did you see evolve?

Tom: I’ve done some work on The Man of Steel as a Comp Sup. John “DJ” Desjardin was the overall Supervisor on it. It was my introduction to the usually gung-ho, bombastic style of filmmaking of Zack Snyder. I was a little skeptical at first. I didn’t think I wanted to work on it, initially. It was an uphill battle and there were a lot of growing pains. I was going through some of those shots recently and they hold up pretty well. I was happy with that. I VFX Sup-ed a couple of small things for DNEG at that time, and then I moved onto Batman vs Superman, and we got to do a really fun chase sequence in Detroit. I was shooting with DJ. It was fun to revisit some of the sequences myself, as a VFX Sup. We got to do a shot where there is a post-apocalyptic Batman fighting Superman soldiers and a bunch of insect creatures. It goes on for a really long time. There were a lot of digi double takeovers. Zack kept throwing out a bunch of new ideas. “What about some helicopters in here?” By the end of the shot, there were loads and loads of CG characters. Everytime we were getting closer to the end, we had to go to the next boss. (It’s an analogy I like to take on, in my shows.)

[35:17] Allan: Do you ever get to navigate around that?

Tom: Around this time, as I was stepping into the Sup role, I thought my job should be to keep the quality up and keep the director happy. There is going to be someone in production who’ll have a difficult conversation. Don’t be that guy! Be a creative guy. I’ve come to learn that’s partially it. I have to be disciplined and responsible. As much as I love working with my producers, it’s not the job I want to be doing. For the most part, I’ve been lucky. At the time, there was a new level of accountability. The studios wouldn’t screw over the vendors. It seemed that we were able to ask to be paid for. I think that’s the way Zack’s productions are structured, and there is the immense decency of DJ and Josh Jaggars. On other shows, I’ve had to talk sense into clients. You knew it was not going to turn out well. For the most part, I’ve been lucky to work with upstanding studios. I think that accountability is great. I’m happy to be working in that environment now.

[38:16] Allan: I think 2007 is when a few shows ended up impacting the industry negatively. And that inspired the discussion that there has to be a better way of doing things.

Tom: I’ve been with DNEG for 12 years now. I think I’ve enjoyed that accountability. There’s going to be a bunch of films coming down the pipe. They know they need to do their best and it’ll look great. And it goes the other way as well, on the internal side of it. In order to maintain a company that can deliver, I have to keep in mind the bottom line and look out for what else is coming down the pipe. There has to be a progression and we need to get it out the door. 

[39:38] Allan: I think relationships are so critical. I’ve been in those rooms with directors who said no. It impacts everything. You’ve worked with a lot of the same people. How important are relationships for you in terms of landing work and having a better line of communication?

Tom: The first couple of outings working with directors can be quite intimidating. I’ve come to respect that the director’s job is one that is really difficult, and their strength of focus and concentration is not to be messed with. I can see how if you’re the director, they will be coming to you every 5 minutes, asking if they can compromise your vision. You have to protect that! I’ve quickly learned that my job is to help them protect that too. That’s what I need to be bringing to the table. You can’t show up at work every day and be confrontational. You get to choose in our line of work. You get to choose if you work on a nice project but with a nightmare sort of people; or you get to work with a nice crew. You need to make the best of whatever situation you’re in. You also need to maintain great relationships.

[42:34] Allan: Well put! What were some of the more memorable sequences you’ve worked on, on Fantastic Beasts?

Tom: DNEG has done lots of the Potter films. I must admit I wasn’t a huge aficionado, but by that time, being in the UK, it was nice to be part of the franchise. It was nice to work on some of the shots of Hogwarts. There was a sequence at the end with fire creatures flying around the cemetery. It was great to go to the locations and do the scouts, and scan things. One of the highlights of my career has been going to the Highgate Cemetery for this shoot in late October. There was fog rolling in and they’ve turned one of the most spooky gothic cemeteries into a spookier set. It was so good! Unfortunately, it started to rain and we had to do it all in CG. It was a great reference.

[44:31] Allan: To talk about Last Night in Soho, how did you get onto that project?

Tom: DNEG’s got a long history with Edgar Wright. I think he’s done every film with DNEG. He’s got a lot of trust there. I met with him a few times. We had a great conversation about the tone of the film. There was a list of films to watch that grew with every meeting. I really enjoyed locking in with him and what he wanted. We quickly got into shadowman figures which needed a VFX methodology. We needed to explore some period enhancements from the 1960s. The thing I relished the most was the mirror shots on that show. We had a lot of magical shots where the character switched places in the mirror. Edgar designed the shots but then we got into watching mirror gags. What could we do that’s new? How can we keep the audience guessing? My favorite ones came from a collaboration with our production designer Marcus Rowland who made doubled sets. We had actors performing in sync with one another. Our choreographer Jen White helped the actors get their timing. We had this steadicam operator Chris Bain who could repeat his moves flawlessly. I really enjoyed the collaboration with that team! We took pride in nailing the technique. It was great to see the team in person at screenings. 

[48:16] Allan: In terms of the future, there is so much innovating going on. Is there any new technology that you have your eye on?

Tom: All the developments with Realtime have been exciting. I’m waiting for some key improvements in virtual production. AI and machine learning is going to bring a lot of changes. I’m nervous about that. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with matchmoving and roto. I’m interested to see how people will take on more advanced tasks. There will be a path, I’m just curious to see what it is. 

[49:09] Allan: That’s a good observation! You’re right! A lot of people are afraid that it will eliminate their positions entirely. It’s more about adapting and learning new tools. You’ll need less people to execute them.

Tom: Working for a global company that has a lot of value in large workforce and lower cost centers, moving toward Realtime is going to create really capable tools that will take a lot of the bruntwork away. We’re going to be looking at smaller teams. There will be a paradigm shift, especially for larger companies. But there is a lot of content that needs to be created at this moment. Go for companies that are going to look after you and employers that have your values.

[52:15] Allan: I want to thank you for taking the time to chat, Tom! 

Tom: Thank you very much! It’s been a pleasure.


Okay, what did you think? I hope you enjoyed this Podcast. I want to thank Tom for taking the time to do this interview. It was so insightful! 

Please take a moment to share with others. That would mean the world to me!

There are loads of other great Episodes coming up, including Tim Miller, one of the Founders of ILM. But next week, I’m doing a solo Episode about perfectionism being the enemy. 

Until next week –

Rock on!


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