Episode 348 – Foundation – DNEG’s VFX Sup Chris Keller
Episode 348 – Foundation – DNEG’s VFX Sup Chris Keller
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).
Chris Keller is a Filmmaker and Visual Effects supervisor with VFX credits that include Pacific Rim Uprising, Assassin’s Creed, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Man of Steel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Netflix’ Triple Frontier. Most recently, he supervised Foundation for Apple TV+.
Chris has written and directed several award-winning short films. His new horror short Father was released in October 2018 after more than 40 screenings. The Last Dance, a touching Sci-Fi love story which was produced with support by DNEG, has recently completed its festival run. It is his most ambitious film to date.
In 2015, Chris released his horror short 20 HZ which has been praised for its atmosphere and assured direction. His film Life External won 3rd prize out of 217 submissions at the renowned Sci-Fi London 48hr Film Challenge 2014. The year before, his romantic short Valse garnered numerous awards, most notably Grand Prize at the 2013 Movie Machine Digital Cinema Festival. In 2012, he won the “Million Hits Viral Competition” with a spec beer commercial.
In 2016, Chris published a series of carefully designed viral videos showing a giant sea monster in the river Thames that received dozens of millions of views and generated massive hype in the UK’s capital.
At present, Chris is in post production with his next short (a live action / animation hybrid), and is developing more short, TV and feature scripts to direct in the future.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Chris Keller DNEG’s VFX Supervisor and Filmmaker about his work on Foundation, his own short films, the importance of making your own work, the imposter syndrome and how to get out of a creative rut.
DNEG Website: https://www.dneg.com
DNEG at LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/dnegvfx
DNEG on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dnegvfx/
DNEG on IG: https://www.instagram.com/dneg/
Chris Keller’s Website: http://chriskeller-films.com
Chris Keller on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4850253/
Chris Keller on LinkedIn: https://ca.linkedin.com/in/christophxkeller
The Last Dance by Chris Keller: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHNWOVMRgBg
[03:12] Chris Keller Talks About Starting Out as a Creative
[04:50] The Importance of Technical / Coding Background for an Artist
[06:55] Starting Out at DNEG
[10:44] Chris Talks About His Journey as a Filmmaker
[16:30] Photorealism in VFX
[21:05] Writers’ Block and the Imposter Syndrome
[27:44] Being an Artist is a Position of Service
[32:11] Behind-the-Scenes on Foundation
[35:06] The Future of Virtual Production
[43:51] Creating the Universe of Foundation
EPISODE 348 – FOUNDATION – DNEG VFX SUP CHRIS KELLER
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 348! I’m sitting down with Filmmaker and DNEG’s VFX Supervisor Chris Keller. We talk about his work on Foundation, his own short films, the importance of making your own work, the imposter syndrome and how to get out of a creative rut – and so much more!
I’m really excited about this one! We definitely lean into Chris’s filmmaking career. One of my favorite projects of his was The Last Dance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHNWOVMRgBg). Of course, we also talk about Foundation for Apple TV+.
Please take a moment to share this Episode with others!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:12] 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!
[47:39] 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 CHRIS KELLER
[03:12] Allan: Chris, thanks so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Chris: Of course! My name is Chris Keller. I’m a VFX Supervisor at DNEG.
[03:22] Allan: Did you always imagine you’d be in a creative role starting out? Or is it something that you came upon later on?
Chris: Interesting question! My parents always encouraged creative endeavors, be it music or making films with my camcorder. That was always a strong interest I had! I grew up in Germany, and the stereotype is true: We’re really good at science, not so much the arts. That’s great! I love science and engineering. Even though I was doing creative stuff, I didn’t see myself as a filmmaker. So I went on to study computer science. And only during that first degree that I gained the confidence to do my next degree in a more creative field. That was when I started watching tutorials on Video Copilot. I knew how to use software. From there, it became more and more creative over the next 10-15 years.
[04:50] Allan: I love that! Were you able to leverage your computer science background?
Chris: Absolutely! My Bachelor’s degree was in media computer science. There was some coding but it was for games and computer graphics. It was theoretical with a lot of applied projects where we used Aftereffects for games. We used early VR. When I got hired by DNEG in 2010, they’d just switched from Shake to Nuke. Not only did I know how to use Nuke, there was no pipeline at the time for the 2D side – and I knew how to script. That gave me a head start at DNEG because I was a roto artist who knew coding and pipeline tools. That propelled my career into a much more advanced area. And to this day, the advice I give to everyone is that it really helps to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, with software or anything else you do. Don’t just be a button pusher. Understand what’s happening. You should understand the basic principles of the basic tools you’re using.
[06:55] Allan: You went straight from university to DNEG. What was it like to land your first job?
Chris: I got really lucky. They hired me when I wasn’t even halfway done with my Masters degree. I think I was the first in my class and it was incredibly exciting! DNEG has just done Inception. It was the golden era of London VFX with Harry Potter just wrapping up. It was an incredible feeling! Everything seemed magical at that time. We had all these legendary teams working. We had the Paul Franklin crew about to win their first Oscar. Partly because of my more technical background, I had an easier time picking up software like Houdini and Nuke. My first couple of projects showed enough potential. At the time, everyone was hiring local roto artists. You had to show potential but at the same time, it was just a roto position. And everyone was hiring at that time, so I don’t feel particularly special for being the first one [out of my class] to be hired. A lot of people from class got hired.
[10:00] Allan: I can relate to that golden time! Now, it’s a fun gig but it may not seem magical.
Chris: Oh, you get super jaded. You, guys, enjoy your first 3-5 years. They’ll be the best. That’s true for everything.
[10:44] Allan: I’d love to talk about your journey making short films. When did you start getting interested in that idea?
Chris: Just for the audience, I’ve made 7 or 8 short films over the course of the last 10 years. I also started getting into music production. It’s all a gradual development from high school to really enjoying how I use my problem solving skills in a creative environment. During my first couple of years in the industry, I learned how to write scripts. I gobbled up every Podcast on filmmaking. The first couple of years were terrible. Then, I started having these ideas for scenes or music videos. So I made my frist film. It wasn’t a conscious decision: “I’m going to be a filmmaker!” It was a short film about two snails falling in love. They have a dance before it’s revealed they’re being boiled in a kitchen. That film won a bunch of awards. That was fun! Over the next years, I made more and more films. Some where horror, others sci fi but an emotional core. I’m really not doing it for any other reason that it’s fun and I kind of need it. That’s how I get a lot of the things bubbling around in my head out! You learn so much by diving into these non-VFX areas. The films I make use VFX but as just one of the tools. I do use my skills but I don’t write my films around VFX. I had to learn how to operate cameras, how to talk to the camera department, makeup and production designers. It’s so useful for when you finally arrive on set [as a VFX Supervisor]. It’s overwhelming for the first time if you aren’t prepared. You constantly have the feeling that you’ll be fired if you take one wrong step. Collaborating with other professionals really prepares you for the job.
[14:35] Allan: With your short film receiving awards, what was it like to get that validation?
Chris: I kind of made the first short film for myself and uploaded it and submitted it to online things. It did feel good. I don’t put too much value on awards. It’s not too hard to win some kind of an award. I don’t define myself by the awards my films won. What’s more meaningful to me is the reception from friends and family – and the online community. I’ve received so many nice comments about my later films. I made one film about an old man who lost his wife and he makes a hologram from their wedding video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHNWOVMRgBg. People reached out to me about losing their spouse. That kind of thing – reaching people’s hearts – is really why I do it. Sometimes, we get to do it in VFX.
[16:30] Allan: Getting people to feel is the real reason why we do it. It’s not just about entertainment. That film was called The Last Dance. Did you have a level of quality you wanted to achieve with that film?
Chris: It’s interesting. I learned a lot of lessons doing that hologram which I just applied on Foundation. I have a problem with holograms in film. They’re stylized because they don’t really exist in the real world. You always have this perfect light display and it looks fake. We try to compensate in VFX by doing lightrays that come from the source. But that only helps if the room is smoky. I try to give the hologram a more physical feel. We hired all this light and laser equipment, and we filled the entire room with smoke, just to give the audience an idea that with a leap of faith, there is a possibility of projecting a hologram. But it is really low grade. The hologram is reconstructed via a VHS tape, it’s blurry in the volume. We did a lot of tests. With a lot of the choices we made, we degraded the look of the hologram. I didn’t want it to be this perfect sci fi looking hologram. [19:15] That’s how I approach VFX in general. How would it look in reality? Then I look at references and do your own tests. You also have to honor the intentions of the director and the studio. But photorealism and physical realism should be number one on the list.
[19:33] Allan: Looking back at all the films you’ve made, what lessons have you learned?
Chris: One of the lessons is to work hard enough to develop your intuition – and then trust your own instincts. Inevitably, you’ll make mistakes in the beginning of your career. And you might listen to people who might give you advice who might not be in the best place to do that. You need to get to a place where you can trust yourself. I went through that on one of my short films where we changed the ending because someone said, “I don’t buy it.” And now, looking back, I know the original ending was much better. [20:35] It’s also all about relationships. Build relationships with people that you click with and that gives your work an energy that wouldn’t get if you hire people who aren’t passionate about the work. I’ve worked with many people multiple times, and it’s been a joy because [we trust each other].
[21:05] Allan: Are there any times where you’ve plateaued and how do you get out of that feeling of getting stuck?
Chris: It’s the writers’ block question. If that ever happens, step away from it. Do something else, like taking a walk. My brain always needs to be engaged in something. If I get stuck with one project, I just leave it and go onto the next one. Right now, I’m writing 5 things and writing music. That would be my advice. Just stepping away from something for 3-5 days, it makes your brain forget all these patterns that you’re in when you think about a problem. And if that doesn’t help, then think about complete radical left turns. With writing, [for example], what if your character doesn’t go to a store – but instead, gets hit by a car? The same thing applies to any creative project. Think about radical departures from what you’d planned. Even if those departures don’t lead anywhere, at least they’ll confirm you’re on the right path. Stepping away and hot showers does it for me.
[23:18] Allan: The more you disengage, the more you allow your brain to think.
Chris: I struggle much more with imposter syndrome. My brain tells itself that my work sucks and is not worthy. Getting that out of your head is much harder. Stepping away definitely helps. Sometimes, I need to step away for years and gain more experience. It helps me look at a project with new eyes. I have so many projects that are shelved.
[24:36] Allan: Touching on imposter syndrome, so many people feel that they’re alone in it. You’re still going to wrestle with that from time to time. Can you talk about that?
Chris: I have multiple careers going on. Just focusing on VFX, I got promoted really rapidly and in the beginning that was fine. I could handle it. When I was promoted to a VFX Supervisor, the first couple of years were tough. I was missing some extremely valuable experience on how to run a show. I had ideas but I hadn’t set up a big show myself. The first few years, I was lucky that DNEG was so supportive and we had these great clients and shows. Foundation was a huge show. The way I got through it is by having a great team around me and by allowing myself to be vulnerable, making sure they understand you don’t have all the answers. Anyone should be allowed to say, “I don’t know.” I feel a lot more confident now because I’ve worked through all that.
With more personal, creative work, you shouldn’t try to be someone else. You’re not Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino. You are not those people. What’s in your heart that the world needs to know. Understanding that takes a lot of pressure off. Just take all of that off and it will help you make better stuff. There is only one of you!
[27:44] Allan: Be original and make something unique! A lot of people go into VFX thinking they’ll get to be an artist. So many people expect that they’re making their own movie. But it’s ultimately aligning with the director. Having had this experience making your own films, are there experiences you were able to transfer to being on set?
Chris: There is a honeymoon phase and then you realize you often disagree with the notes you’ve been given, [for example]. That is something you have to live with and maintain a good attitude. You still have to stay positive and make the best out of each situation. Make the best product that your show can be, given the parameters! But that’s why I started my own creative endeavors. It really depends on the show, of course. Sometimes, you feel stuck for half a year. I’ve brought my creativity to supervision work. Things do change once you get to be a Supervisor or a Producer. Suddenly, you’re a partner. You do have input. You sit down with a client or a director and try to figure things out. Having run my own sets and having gone through the process of conveying the right idea, that’s incredibly valuable. As an artist, you have less freedom to move. But if you have certain know-how – how cameras work, or what impact certain lenses have – you can have much more input in dailies and make better decisions. Even if you disagree with a note, you can go away and try that note. If you have an extra hour, you can try something else. You can come back to dailies and present both options. That always impresses me!
[32:11] Allan: How did you first get involved on Foundation?
Chris: It was by DNEG calling me and asking me. It started when I flew out to our stage in Ireland and met with Chris MacLean, our Production Supervisor. We just sat down in his office. His walls were plastered with photos of real space photography. He had these 3D printouts of spaceships and all these models he wanted to make. We started talking about the approach we wanted to take for Foundation. A lot of it was based on practical locations. We talked about using LED screens as much as possible. We sat down and watched movies and tried to pinpoint the things that worked for us (or didn’t work that well). One of the things we discussed was how we wanted to minimize the use of greenscreen. Successful greenscreen requires that you set it up properly. We were on a tv budget and schedule. So we talked about LED screens and trans lights. On set, it was brilliant. You had actual lighting for actors to react to. It was a fantastic approach!
[35:06] Allan: What are your thoughts on where it’s going with virtual production?
Chris: I’ve actually worked with VR back in 2007-2008. I did an internship in Germany. That was way before consumer VR. Every production is now trying virtual production without thinking. It’s definitely the future. The cost will come down. Training will get better. At this moment, you still need a large amount of crews. Tools will get more intuitive. Our set up on Foundation was pretty realistic. Five years from now, both vendors and hardware suppliers will be ready to plug it in. What’s really exciting to me is that it forces everyone to think about things ahead of time. VFX comes in earlier in pre-production. The old “fix it in post” attitude isn’t going to work! That’s a good thing. Filmmakers and DP’s and actors get excited about that. And of course, I love getting involved with the process earlier on, with the director being right there.
[37:38] Allan: I got more intrigued by where it borrows from the budget. Post- is always the aftermath. And you’re burning your budget before you get into post-. Now, it’s a chance to reinvent the process a bit.
Chris: It’s great to be treated like a regular department. I think the old attitude has been fading away, where the VFX was the ugly duckling on set. DP’s never want to shoot the plates on set. Now, we’re part of the work we’re all creating.
[39:20] Allan: With tv, do you feel we’re at a point where it’s getting the budgets that it needs?
Chris: I definitely think so! Aren’t they spending a billion dollars on the Lord of the Rings series? There is a bit of misconception that on Foundation we had all this Apple money. Right now, tv and streaming is here to stay. It’s replacing theaters. Long form storytelling is good for the studios and better for the audiences. It is where I see budgets going in the future. When it comes to VFX vendors, we’ve learned to repurpose our pipelines for tv. So many vendors used to do only features. The first years were clunky. But everyone has learned to work on tv schedules. Foundation was in 4K in HDR. It’s a higher resolution than most movies. But technology advances. Realtime technology and the Unity deal, they provide a fantastic way of getting out shots – and even final projects – quickly. I think that’s where the future is.
[42:01] Allan: Is there any particular technology coming down the pipe you’re really excited about?
Chris: That would be Realtime! I’m also really excited about USD, Solaris pipelines where artists from every department work on the same scene. Everything is merging together and there is a lot more immediate feedback. And the other thing I’m really excited about it AI and machine learning. It’s going to make huge waves in the industry.
[42:58] Allan: I was chatting with Paul Lambert (www.allanmckay.com/323). He was talking about how he was filming the talent for Dune 2. He’s already got the material ready. I’m excited to see new tools. My background came from 3D and we’re getting more intelligent tools.
Chris: Robots will come but our industry is about the safest right now. They’ll take other jobs first before us, creatives.
[43:51] Allan: Were there any sequences in Foundation that stood out as more memorable / challenging?
Chris: DNEG was the lead vendor. We were responsible for the concept and previs, post-vis. We had our hand in everything. The most challenging thing about Foundation is that we had to create not just one world – but the whole galaxy, 10+ thousand years in the future. We deliberately didn’t look at other sci fi franchises. A lot of our holograms, for example, are sandograms. There is an actual particle that gets lit in the ear. DNEG created the city of Trantor where the emperor resides. It’s 50 levels underground with a space elevator. Just the scale and the scope of it! I have concept art here in the city. We had to figure out every component. I could give you more examples. And there was an immense pressure because it’s such a seminal work of science fiction. The pandemic did delay the whole project so we had a year longer to develop it.
[46:32] Allan: You’re right! When you’re creating a universe, you have to create the vocabulary and think about the thoughts behind it. I really appreciate your taking your time. Where can people go to find out more about you?
Chris: I am on LinkedIn. I have my own website: http://chriskeller-films.com. Please reach out ot me.
[47:30] Allan: Thank you so much! This has been amazing, Chris!
Chris: Thanks, Allan!
Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Chris for taking the time to do this interview. This was such an insightful Episode!
Next week, I will be interviewing Kemer Stevenson, Head of Character Effects at Blur Studio.
Until then –
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