Episode 361 – ILM – David Vickery
Episode 361 – ILM – David Vickery
David Vickery is a VFX Supervisor at ILM, well known for his work on films such as Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2, Fast & Furious 6 and Jupiter Ascending. His work has been recognized with an Academy Award® nomination and the 2012 BAFTA Award for Special Visual Effects for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in addition to numerous Visual Effects Society Award nominations and wins.
Vickery joined ILM having spent the past 13 years at London effects house Double Negative where he worked his way up from CG Artist to Lead 3D artist then CG Supervisor on such films as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Ultimatum, Cloverfield and The Dark Knight.
Having strong ties to the visual effects community in London, Vickery formerly sat as Co-Chair on the UK board of the Visual Effects Society and is a member of BAFTA. After completing a Degree in Industrial Design at De-Montfort University, Vickery went on to receive an MA in Digital Moving Image from London Metropolitan University.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews ILM’s VFX Supervisor David Vickery about his journey from a VFX Artist to supervising on set, dealing with rejection, working at ILM, working on projects like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Cloverfield, Die Another Day; communicating with creatives and the importance of mentoring younger artists.
ILM Website: https://www.ilm.com
David Vickery at ILM: https://www.ilm.com/people/david-vickery/
David Vickery’s IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1316134/
David Vickery at CG Society: https://cgsociety.org/news/article/1438/david-vickery-joins-ilm-london
[03:20] David Vickery Introduces Himself
[05:46] Breaking Into VFX
[10:36] Working on Feature Films
[20:34] Communicating with Other Creatives
[27:07] Skills of an On-Set Supervisor
[29:13] David Discusses the Cloverfield Sequence
[32:59] Transitioning to ILM
[35:56] Dealing with Rejection and Failure
[37:39] Working on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
[45:01] How Virtual Production is Changing the Future of VFX
[48:29] Importance of Mentoring Younger Artists
EPISODE 361 — ILM – DAVID VICKERY
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 361! I’m speaking with ILM Supervisor David Vickery about his journey from VFX Artist to being a Supervisor on set, dealing with rejection, working at ILM, working on projects like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Cloverfield, Die Another Day; communicating with creatives and the importance of mentoring younger artists.
I’m super excited for this Episode. David and I got into some really great stuff.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:20] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was that 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!
[50:08] 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 DAVID VICKERY
[03:20] Allan: Again, David, thank you so much for joining the Podcast. Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
David: Yes, my name is David Vickery. I am currently a VFX Supervisor at ILM. Part of my job there is working as the Acting Director for the London Studio. I’ve been there for nearly 7 years now. But by ILM standards, I’m just basically starting out.
[03:49] Allan: I had Ben Snow on the Podcast a while ago (www.allanmckay.com/101). He started in the late 80s. Growing up, did you always imagine you’d end up in some kind of a creative role or did you discover visual effects later on?
David: I think I always wanted to do something creative but my idea of what creative was architecture for a long time. My father had a lot of connections to the industry. And he looked me in the eyes and said, “Don’t be an architect [because] there are too many architects.” This was in the late 80s. He said, “If you want to make good money, think about doing what you love. Because then you’ll be good at it and people will pay you money for it.” Then I decided I’d be a graphic designer. He looked at me and said, “What’s a graphic designer?” So that’s what I wanted to be.
[05:13] Allan: It’s great to hear positive advice from a parent, even though he wasn’t aware of what a graphic designer was.
David: He was even less aware about what a VFX Supervisor was. But I think his advice was really sound: Do what you love because you’re going to do it for the rest of your life.
[05:46] Allan: I love it! How did you break into visual effects?
David: When I went to the university, I studied industrial design. And that was a broad course split between the creative concept of design as well as engineering (electrical engineering, fluid dynamics). So I sort of became a jack of all trades. That was the goal. As part of that process, I started looking into rapid prototyping, photography and started using 3D Studio Max to do modeling. And I really enjoyed it! When I got to the end of my degree, there were a lot of product designers graduating from universities. I was really worried that I’d end up designing office furniture while what I really wanted to do – is work for Apple. My wife asked me, “What do you really want to do?” I said, “I’d like to work on Star Wars.” And she said, “Go on and do it!” So I did a one year MA in digital animation and the selfish goal was to get a show reel at the end of it. By the end of that year, I had an interesting reel and I started applying to companies. I had conversations with Double Negative, MPC. I ended up working at a company called Solid State Industries that was run by Gary Brozenich who is a VFX Supervisor working at MPC now. He gave me my first job in the industry. And then I worked for a company doing animation for children’s programs for 6 weeks. Then Paul Franklin called me and said, “Do you want a job?” Yes, please! I went straight into the 3D Department at Double Negative.
[08:13] Allan: What was it like to switch from a smaller house to Double Negative?
David: I think I was employee number 35. Over the years, they said they’d get to a hundred. Then they’d get to a hundred and say, “Maybe two hundred max”. Then 500 max. The thing is you’re trying to keep everyone employed and if you’re bringing in work to keep everyone happy, the natural tendency is to bring on a bit too much which means you have to bring in more people. It’s such an expensive business that we’re in! The biggest thing for me is working with other people and being part of a team. Suddenly, there are so many influencing factors on what you’re doing. That was the biggest hierarchy for me. I’m a social person so I was enjoying that teamwork spirit.
[09:53] Allan: One of your first films was Die Another Day. What was it like to work on your first feature?
David: It was amazing! I wanted to work on movies! And the first one I worked on was Johnny English. Then I was working on Die Another Day. The crazy thing is I’d be modeling and texturing the airplane on that film and then I’d go work on Bond and be modeling another plane. Then I moved onto The Chronicles of Riddick, texturing Judy Dench’s character that had the ability to become transparent. I worked with Martin Hill on how to run smoke simulations through this cloth pattern. Nowadays, when you take an artist and say, “Today, you’re texturing, tomorrow you’re lighting, then you’re doing some cloth,” [that would be hard]. We really had to be a jack of all trades. I really enjoyed it!
[12:06] Allan: I started out in the late 90s. That to me is normal. I started in Australia. How important is it to have a broad understanding of what you’re doing?
David: I think it’s important for growth, but it’s also important for success. You need to understand the impact of what you’re doing on the next department. It’s easy to put your headphones on and work at your desk. But VFX is such a massively interconnected, complex web of deceit. Everyone has to understand what’s going on above and below them, in order to be successful; and the ramifications of what you’re doing on the next department / person in the pipeline. I still think my degree was grounding, and it helps me talk to people in other departments. I can understand and communicate ideas well.
[13:48] Allan: Can you talk about your experience on Fast and Furious 6?
David: It was an opportunity to be a client side Supervisor. It’s pretty terrifying and exhilarating to have that opportunity to make complicated decisions quickly. I remember bidding a film at the time with Chris Cram who was at Universal at the time. Then I met Justin Lin, to see if we’d get along. We spent 2 hours reading the script with Chris Cram, then we counted the shots. We got to a number at the end of it: 1,500. Then you need to assess the budget and you need to do it quickly. You have to do the finger in the wind test. You can spend weeks coming up with a methodology; but I get the gut number would be within the 10% of the actual number. Doing that for the first time, I thought you can’t budget films this way, can you? You go into much more detail later on. But at first you realize: We just bid $14 million worth of work in 1.5 hours. We didn’t have 3 weeks to break it down.
[16:08] Allan: Talking about that film specifically, were there any sequences that stood out?
David: There is always that idea where alarm bells go off. That’s the bid you really need to focus on. It’s not how you break it down and shoot it. I try to paint a picture of every shot and how do I make it believable? What would that taxi speed be – at 150 miles an hour – and the car harpooning it. How do we make it feel real? Then I go to this place where it could all be done in CG. That feels like a copout. Nowadays, it’s more possible. But you have to think about the Director and how they film, and what the aesthetic of the film is. All these factors start weighing in. Then the Director comes in and says, “Nope, we’re doing it practically.” So you have to completely rethink your way. I love that process of discovery. You’re advising the team of filmmakers of what options they have.
[18:40] Allan: How do you know how to pick your battles when it comes to certain sequences?
David: It’s a really good question. I’m not a person who enjoys conflict, so if I really need something – I’m willing to go into battle for it. That’s the gauge I use. There are so many ways you can go about filming something and get the same result. But if it’s really critical, really vital to do it a certain way, I can sell it. It’s when I believe in something truly, it comes off in the tone of my voice and my body language. It’s just about being honest, actually and making sure that people understand the pros and cons of every scenario – and letting them come to the same conclusion.
[20:34] Allan: Do you tend to educate the people around you in terms of the friction points?
David: Some directors are much more interested in those friction points. Some have been very budget conscious and they want the money to be spent in the right way. Painting out lights or crew members is not what they’re interested in. So it’s important to explain the implications to them. For other directors, time is precious and the actors are precious. The moment of the shoot is the only important thing and they’ll sacrifice the financial gain. We had a puppet of an inflatable dinosaur on Fallen Kingdom. The idea was that this performer puppet would interact with the cast in this complex way. And we needed the cast to react in the right way. We needed the camera to know what it was looking at. We’d rehearse with the puppet. When we take the puppet away, the energy dies and the eyeline goes haywire. We ended up recording one version with the performer and the others were clean. It’s about the performance that has to be right. You can make a great shot out of a good performance, but you can’t make a great shot out of a bad performance.
[23:05] Allan: I realize virtual production has its time and place but it’s removing some of the restraints. How do you feel things have changed?
David: I think it’s massive! There are so many different tools we can use now. Just having an iPad out allows me to line up the shot. The number of times that has saved us the pain of having to completely reconstruct the plates! Even the silly little things are vital to the filming process. I hope I never have to do another car greenscreen. They are really difficult to get right. They’re the unsung heroes of VFX.
[25:31] Allan: I was chatting with Peter Chiang (www.allanmckay.com/319) about F9. I was blown away with the rigs they were able to set up!
David: A lot of the special effects people we’re working with at the moment are putting BioMuse on crash vehicles so you can recreate all the angle and the tilt, and the crash acceleration speeds in post. We even had Dan Bradley – who is a stunt person by trait – doing the same stuff. The stunt team was borrowing our dinosaur rigs which I love. What I love about this technology is that it’s bringing all these teams – like stunts and visual effects – together and helping us achieve the same vision.
[27:07] Allan: What are your thoughts for people who aspire to work on set? Is it easier to have come from a comp background?
David: I don’t think it makes any difference. One of the biggest challenges a VFX Supervisor faces is having the tools to interact with different people and disciplines. Reading the room at any given point is really important. How you communicate ideas and the right time to communicate them is as important as anything! One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever gotten was from Paul Franklin. When I first started supervising, he said, “You’re going to come across people who are better at every single aspect of the job than you are. Don’t try to be better than them. You work with them!” Know your strengths but don’t try to pretend that you’re the best CG Artist in the world. You need to enable people to be the best that they can be.
[29:13] Allan: I believe you worked on the Statue of Liberty’s head sequence in Cloverfield. Can you talk about that a bit?
David: That was such an amazing show to work on! And I worked with Mike Ellis on that. I was a CG Sup and he was a VFX Sup. It was chaos! Imagine trying to track that and the camera never stops, it’s always shaking. It was a nightmare! They were really long takes. They were stitching new shots together. The Statue of Liberty shot was inspired by Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. It was a pretty fun thing to do! I can’t remember anecdotes about it.
[30:58] Allan: It was one of the earlier films that introduced stitching. I couldn’t help but think about all the matchmoving when watching the film. And the film was shot in LA to look like New York.
David: We shot in LA. Then we shot a bunch of stuff in Manhattan. It’s not easy to get access to those locations. I remember they kept changing the name of the production company at the top of the callsheet. That thought that by doing that, they’ll disguise that it was a secret J.J. Abrams project. One day, everyone walked to lunch (including all the AD’s), and the public was taking pieces of the set. Maybe some of the AD’s should’ve stayed!
[32:59] Allan: When did you decide to head over to ILM?
David: I was working on Jupiter Ascending and I met Ben Morris who was working from the Framestore side at the time. We got in touch. I remember saying, “Whenever Framestore comes to set, they end up bringing the most complex rigs.” And he said, “I always thought the same about DNEG.” Then he left to set up ILM. He reached out 18 months later saying he’d be supervising the next Star Wars. He was not going to have any time to be the Creative Director for the studio. I’d been back to back. I’ve had no break. So the idea of taking in a holistic view of a company really appealed to me.
[34:30] Allan: Was that a moment of reflection for you? You were getting to work on Star Wars.
David: I still haven’t worked on Star Wars. I remember the story of John Knoll getting a rejection letter from ILM and pinning up on his door. I wish I’d kept my rejection letter. I tore mine up in anger. It was a really nice letter.
[35:56] Allan: Looking at rejection early on, do you have any advice for people in terms of having more perseverance?
David: The way our industry works is that today we don’t have enough work – but tomorrow, we have so much work, we can’t find artists. When you ring on a day when we don’t have enough work, you’ll get a rejection no matter how brilliant you are! Every company that I can think of, I’ve rang them all. I think I just called Double Negative one day when they needed some artists. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time – on top of having talent. So you have to persevere! As a Supervisor, you get a lot of rejection. Every time you go into a review, you’ll see some great stuff and some not so great. You better learn to embrace rejection.
[37:39] Allan: It’s progress over perfection. It’s not your movie. There will always be studio notes. Do you want to talk a bit about Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom?
David: Every movie you start on is intimidating and exciting. You’re discovering the people you’ll be working with. Trying to tread the path of Dennis Mueller, you can’t find anyone who won’t say Jurassic Park is an amazing film. So trying to live up to that is a pretty awesome challenge which I really enjoyed. I had a number of opportunities to talk to Dennis and show him the work. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Rosenbaum. He did the Raptor for Jurassic Park. It’s such an amazing thing to work with these legends of the industry, but who are also generous with their time! They’re kind people who want to make cool stuff. And they still are!
[39:46] Allan: What were some of the biggest challenges on that project?
David: The biggest stuff was the pyroclastic flow and the volcanic stuff. It was really difficult. Really long sequences. We go into the water at some point. There were numerous technical challenges. The creatures were really great fun! The Director wanted to do some animatronics. I worked with Neal Scanlan really closely. We ended up posing the animatronic with our own digital models at ILM. These were really high resolutions and he 3D printed them. It was a massive puzzle of the T-Rex. He said he could pour silicon inside. I really enjoyed that collaboration. I love working with Directors as well and seeing through their eyes. There was a shot when the island was burning. And I remember talking to our CG Sup and he said it took 70 hours to run the sims and then we had to render it. And we only had 4 days to do it! How am I going to convey this to J.A. Bayona, our Director? He wanted to show the emotion of the scene: It’s like when E.T. ‘s heart is glowing through his chest. That’s what that dinosaur is looking at in the midst of that fire. He gave us the emotional point to make it work. I try to do that with our Artists: Arm them with success by telling them what you want to achieve (not how you want to achieve it).
[43:59] Allan: What advice – yours or from other people – that sticks with you?
David: I think just being enthusiastic and enjoying your work. Being positive goes a long way! I love seeing people who love what they’re doing. I can forgive a multitude of sins. It’s hard to see people who don’t enjoy it. There are so many people who want to get into this business.
[45:01] Allan: It comes back to what your father told you about doing what you love. You touched on 3D printing. I know directors are creating their own prop shops. Is there some technology you got your eye on?
David: I’ve only recently started getting into virtual production. I know it’s not new. We’re all familiar with that now. I’m so interested in real time and the collision course. I love the idea of putting that into the film pipeline. I’m interested in departments not needing as much rigging on set, or stunt cables, or lights and cameras poking in with bad reflections. Maybe we don’t need post-production?
[47:15] Allan: I was fascinated with that aspect of virtual production. As soon as I started seeing it become mainstream, I’m seeing the budgets shift.
David: There is a massive mentality shift going on. We have to change the approach of how we work on film. Instead of VFX being treated as post-production, it is now part of production as much as art departments or stunts are. That’s the change that will slowly happen in the industry.
[48:29] Allan: You have sat as Co-Chair of the U.K. Board of the Visual Effects Society. You’re a member of BAFTA. You’ve done multiple speaking engagements. How important do you find these opportunities to give back and mentor up-and-coming Artists?
David: I think it’s really important! If you look at it from a selfish perspective, I get a lot from getting out to speak. I realize that what I do [for a living] is really interesting. I gain a lot personally. But it’s really important to mentor up and coming talent. I’ve always felt that bringing on junior talent is an opportunity to come across some amazing people! Always try to find new talent. Look for opportunities to mentor people. All the advice you’re giving other people is what you have to do yourself.
[49:56] Allan: This has been really great! Thank you for your time!
David: Pleasure! Great fun talking to you!
Okay, what did you think?
I want to thank David for coming on the Podcast. This was an absolute blast! Please take a moment to share this Episode with others. That would mean the world to me!
Next week, I’m sitting down with a VFX Supervisor and Founder of NOX VFX Henrique Reginato. It’ll be a great one!
Until then –
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