Episode 78 – Jeff Okun – VFX Supervisor – 38 Years in Hollywood
Check out www.VFXRates.com
Jeff Okun is a Visual Effects Supervisor who has worked on wide-ranging effects in award winning films such as Blood Diamond, Stargate, Sphere, Red Planet, Deep Blue Sea, The Last Starfighter, and many more. His career spans for nearly four decades.
In addition, Jeff is Chair of the Visual Effects Society, a global community of visual effects artists and businesses. Jeff was fundamental in starting the VES 2.0 initiative which brought together studios, facilities and artists to explore new business models, pipelines and technologies. Jeff has also created and co-edited the VES Handbook of Visual Effects, a 980-page reference book covering all aspects of creating visual effects, techniques and practices.
Jeff A. Okun on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0645799/
Jeff A. Okun’s bio on VES: https://www.visualeffectssociety.com/sus/jeffrey-okun
Jeff A. Okun at Gnomon Workshop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8Yrgh8TycQ
Episode 78 – Interview with Jeff A. Okun
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 78. I am interviewing the legendary VFX Supervisor Jeffrey Okun. Let’s dive in!
[-1:30:55] I’m really excited about putting out this Episode. Jeff is a VFX Supervisor who’s worked on a lot of phenomenal movies like Sphere, Blood Diamond, Red Planet, Deep Blue Sea, and a lot of other influential movies. On top of that, he has also been Chair for the Visual Effect Society, for quite a lot time! Diving into this Episode has been fun, going over 38 years of experience, going over these massive titles. I’m really humbled to have him on here.
[-[1:29:50] A couple of things before we dive in:
- Finally, after a year and a half, I’m opening the FXTD Mentorship again, in about a week! It’s really cool that it’s happening. I imagine it’s going to fill up quick. Get on my inner circle, which is my private email list, for announcements and training: allanmckay.com/inside.
- I’ve been doing a lot of Facebook Live lately, including one on confidence (which is a subject people mention in my surveys), as well as career intensives, 3D tutorials on dynamics and scripting. I’m going to also interview some Podcast guests, which will include live Q&A sessions. I’m trying to do at least 3 streams a week. If you want to check that out, go to www.facebook.com/allanfmkay and click the like button.
- Check out www.VFXrates.com. This is a website that I created to solve a massive problem that we all have: What should we be charging? This is the giant mystery that we all have and most people feel very uncomfortable talking about is what we should charge as a freelance rate. And the worst part is when we go apply for a job, if we ask for too much, we risk alienating the employer and never getting that call back. Whereas we play it safe and ask too little, we not only get taken advantage of, but on top of that, we leave a lot of money on the table, which potentially over a span of a year, can add up to 10’s of thousands of dollars.
[-1:25:56] So this is chance for you to go to the website www.vfxrates.com. Put in bits of information, like your city, your experience, your discipline, software, little things that are important to figuring out what you should be charging as your base rate when you’re talking to an employer. This is based on a lot of research, but more importantly, it’s based on the braintrust of the industry experts from different fields that we’ve pulled together to collect a very accurate way to generate what you should be charging.
[-1:25:28] The best part is not just what you should be charging — but what you could be charging by tweaking a few things:
- how you present yourself
- building a brand
- learning to negotiate better.
Also, there are factors like:
- building an irresistible reel
- learning to approach employers the correct way
- learning how to network.
I want to share all of this information for free! Go to www.vfxrates.com — and find out what you should be charging for your hourly VFX rate.
A couple of cool Episodes coming up: I’m interviewing a couple of guys at id Software, developer of Quake and Doom. Some Episodes coming up with some really big studios. I’ll leave that as a surprise.
I want to dive into this Episode with the legendary Jeff Okun!
[-[1:24:54] Allan: Alright, Jeff! Can you just give a quick intro to who you are and what you do?
Jeff: Well, I’m Jeff Okun. I’m a Visual Effects Supervisor and have been for way too many years! What it is that I do:
- I really try to create the uncreatable. If they could create it, they would — and they’d shoot it.
- And the other thing that I do is I try to get inside a director’s head and I try to figure out what story he’s telling and how he wants to tell it; and enable ideas that would help him tell that story better or on whatever constraints are thrown his way. It’s fun!
[-[1:23:48] Allan: It’s a good point. As the VFX Supervisor, you’re the connection between making everything happen. You’ve got such a massive history. What I nerd out about is that you’ve been doing this for longer than anyone. There are so many classic films. How did you initially start out?
Jeff: How far back should I go? First and foremost, I wanted to be a magician. That followed after wanting to be a comedian. Those two things taught me focus and how to look at things different. Those are the key elements. There were no schools for visual effects back then. You were either the son or related to somebody.
My career path came from a disappointment. I thought that as a young adult, I would be a rockstar, like everybody else. That cratered. The depression of that cratering lead into my dark room. Literally, into my dark room where I would do photography. I spent a lot of the time in my dark room.
My neighbor was a composer named Jeff Alexander who arranged for Gershwin. Jeff was doing a film for Saul Bass. I went in and begged, and got hired. I was a gofer, took care of people, picked Saul up. Which was always uncomfortable because I drove a lime green Dodson 510 wagon — and here is the god of graphics world! After a number of months of working for Saul, he got this job (he used to do these montage sequences) doing a sequence for NBC. He let me cut the sequence from 5:00 p.m. after work to [6:00] in the morning. Gary, [the producer], and Saul looked at it and it got on national television and Saul said: “Now you’re my editor.” So I did gofing in the daytime and editing at night. Saul was world renowned for his imagery. He was detail oriented.
[-1:15:41] I eventually became a consultant in optical effects, which was a no-lose position. I did that for about 5 years, which is how I got to do Die Hard 2 and a couple of other things. That’s how I got involved in the last Starfighter. So I did my first film and I’ve been a VFX Supervisor since.
I think the key to the whole thing is admitting what you don’t know and asking for help. So along the way, there was a guy called Peter Donen. Peter was my go-to guy. He worked a lot with [director] Ken Russell. Through that, I ended up joining the Visual Effect Society. When I met Dennis Miller at VES, we became vast friends.
[-[1:13:15] VES just like a pantheon of the greats! I’ve never had a shortage of people to go to with problems. And what I’ve learned is: Nobody knows how to solve them, but everyone has a theory on how to solve them. I like to say that visual effects is nothing more than problem solving. That’s what we do.
[-[1:12:50] Allan: I couldn’t have said that better. The more difficult projects, you end up cherishing them more down the line. Do you think by coming on a consultant, do you think you helped grow artists?
Jeff: Learning to dance is an amazing skill. You learn color timing, you learn to read spec sheets. One of the things I’ve learned in the industry, I could divide all the artists into two categories: There’s the techies, and there are the visionaries. The techies will tell you what the specs tell you, [but] they forget to use their eyes. Look at what’s on the screen. It’s about the tools that you need: Sometimes all you need — is a hammer. It’s not the equipment, it’s the eye!
As a supervisor, sometimes what I have to do is redefine the reality. I’m on the show right now. It takes place 20,000 years ago. But the director wants it to be like a graphic novel. So we come up with the term “This film lives in a non-static reality.”
Saul taught me that too. We did the opening for MacNeil / Lehrer Report and what Saul liked to do is use new technology. I was producing it, as well doing special effects. Saul would spend two hours talking about the color red. When I told him that and he said, “We were establishing the vocabulary”. You’ve got to establish your reality and your vocabulary.
[-[1:06:18] Allan: You’re right, you establish that vocabulary, especially if you have finite time.
Jeff: We always have finite time and money. They tend to set the release date, then figure out who’s going to be in it, and who is going to direct it. On Day the Earth Still, we did a budget on that film. We kept coming in too high. Every couple of weeks, they’d come up with a new script and we’d come up with the budget.
[1:03:38] Allan: You mentioned before, the techies and the visionary. Is there a happy medium? Do you think artists benefit them in more ways?
Jeff: What drives the box office for the last two decades — is visual effects. Marvel would’ve have a movie, if it weren’t for us. We’re generating the box office. At the same time, we have so little respect, in the real world: We have no union, we have no health insurance, we have no pension plan. They still think of us as pocket protector wearing geeks, on set. But back to your question, by having roto, by having compositing, by having light on my own, operate camera on my own under a tight budget and deadline — taught me oodles and oodles of things. So that when I’m on set, I can make the sacrifices knowing what the costs are going to be; or I can dig my heels in.
[-[58:51] If you want to be a popular guy, don’t do visual effects. Unless you want to say, “Blue screen? Don’t need that.” Or, “Make-up? Don’t need it.” On this last project, I had costume people come up to me and tell me how easy it was to add snow to the costume [afterward]. I was able to explain in the middle of the set what we have to do to [make that happen]. It comes out to half a million dollars versus just throwing the snow at the actor.
[-[57:21] Allan: You’re totally right. People don’t have an understanding. Do you think with the new breed of directors coming up with some kind of an understanding of the process, help?
Jeff: No. There are two principles of operation there:
- First: Visual effects people screwed themselves because we never approached it the way cinematographers have approached their art. We’ve sold computers and software and all the behind the scenes. So the majority of the perception out there is that visual effects are easy.
- The second fork in the road has to do with the director. You have to understand the politics of making a movie. A smart visual effects director (of which I believer there is only one) will throw you under the bus. There is so much pressure on a director. Their knowledge of what we do would mean they’d have to spend more money. Wouldn’t it be a different industry if studios or directors knew the name of this compositor, or that modeler [instead of noticing that they have] three thousand names in the credits.
[-[53:51] Allan: It’s really mind blowing. I remember working on this movie and Sony wanted to save some money by really cutting down half the credits.
Jeff: And god forbid I need the 37 producer [credits] on the film!
[-[53:10] Allan: What are some of the memorable projects you’ve worked on?
Jeff: My favorite project, for a different reason, was Blood Diamond. That was an experience, living in Africa for 8 months. That changed my life. Last Samurai was another one. Deep Blue Sea, the movie that was released was not the one we went in to shoot. The Last Starfighter. And another one that no one saw was Lolita. We did incredible stuff!
We made Deep Blue Sea. Renny [Harlin], the director, wanted to make a serious horror film. We shot that. We previewed that and it didn’t not test well. We went back and re-edited it. LL Cool J was a throwaway character. It was my third film with Samuel L. Jackson. Sam called me up one night (we were in Mexico), and said, “Have you read these pages?” Sam was telling me how horrible the dialogue was. He said, “You should just kill me”. We got on top of that. We put it together with one of the takes, and Renny was furious with me because I killed the star of his movie. We tested it. The test went through the roof and it was because Sam didn’t want to say the dialogue. We had fun and that’s what it’s about.
One of the reasons Blood Diamond was such a life changing experience: There is no shortage of people in Africa missing a limb from an unchartered minefield. But we were told we couldn’t cast anyone who was missing a limb. So we had to cast a kid and digitally take his arm off. It was a weird day. We racked the focus to the kid. We tried to explain what we were doing. The kid kept trying to drag his friend in who was missing an arm; and they kept separating the two.
We got all these kids from an orphanage. They were fed breakfast, they could keep their costumes after we were done. On the way back to the orphanage, they were robbed and everything was taken from them. So the crew got together and donated their per diem for one month — and started a foundation. We shot that movie in 1994, but the foundation did well until about three years ago. But it did well! It gave school kids pencils and paper. We got doctors. It was the most amazing thing to see the crew come together.
Leonardo DiCaprio did some amazing stuff there. The [actors] all ended up pitching in. We ended up learning so much and getting involved in people’s lives. I got stuck in revolving doors with Nelson Mandela. There was a lot of other stuff. It just changes your world view for the best. You meet people who have nothing and are happier than we’ll ever be. And we made a good movie! It was an amazing experience.
[-[43:52] Allan: Occasionally, you worked on something that you can be proud of, like a Robert Zemeckis film. Some are just jobs, with visual effects you can’t even tell if it was yours. I hear you like to put penguin shots as in. How does that start?
Jeff: Well, it started on The Last Starfighter. All the studio executive were wearing these suits. And the director Nick Castle said to me, “They kind of look like gumbies, don’t they?” I said, “Yeah, they look like gumbies. We can texture the whole underside of the alien ship with gumbies. What do you say?” We did that and no one knew it, and it tickled me.
When I realized that, I started to study the brain: How much of the screen can you actually take in? I decided that I should try to experiment. I started with a moose, I started putting moose in the shot. The most prevalent one is in Cameron Crow’s film Elizabethtown. Then we started sticking penguins everywhere because I thought they were funnier. If you look at The Last Samurai, there is a sequence over the Japanese army looking at the Samurais, every one of those Samurais is a penguin. In Blood Diamond, there is a mass exodus, if you look in the bottom right corner, there is a family of penguins. And nobody sees these things!
We do it for two reasons. One, I love the optical illusion. I love being able to put something plain and obvious. And I think it’s fun!
[-[38:09] Allan: I never personally worked for Animal Logic. They’ve been smart enough to put a conflict of interest in their contract.
Jeff: I love Animal Logic now. Back then, we had difficulty scheduling things. There is so much politics going on that you don’t know. Just know that there is something behind it that’s making people make irrational choices.
Allan: When it comes to certain projects, just trust your gut.
Jeff: It’s not that I’m smart. I learned a lot of the politics the hard way. Start looking at the agenda. We all think that everyone involved just wants to make a movie. That’s not the case! I did a talk on that at FMX.
[-[35:45] Allan: There are a lot of interesting talks [of yours] floating around. There is so much more I wanted to dive into! When did you get involved with Visual Effects and all those guys?
Jeff: The Visual Effects Society is an honorary society whose goal is to do two thing:
- Build a trusted community of visual effects artists;
- And raise awareness and shine a spotlight on what that is we do. To get more respect and more attention. It’s hard power vs. soft power. We don’t have the hard power. Short of that — because we are not a guild by law — we cannot get involved in a strike.
I like to think of it as a big clubhouse where you can [network] and meet people you wouldn’t normally meet. It started 20 years ago. I got involved thinking I was joining a union. I raised enough trouble. Five years ago, the union called me and said they had a file on me. They wanted to meet with neutral terms. I worked with them trying to get a visual effects union working. It raised a couple of questions:
- Part A: How does starting a union in LA not drive the rest of the work out of LA?
- And Part B: Do you represent any other countries?
We went to a meeting with Cameramen Local 600. We asked if they would waive the entrance fee. They said no. How long before we could get benefits? They told us it could take as long as 20 years. We discovered that the way to force the producers to recognize a union is to get 51 percent [to strike] and then you may need to go to court, to testify. But it doesn’t go there.
[-29:59] You know I’d to kill to be in a union! There is so much missing information what that means. It might be 20 years, it might be never. We worked pretty diligently. A lot of it turned into a debacle. What the Society ultimately arrived at is we write a white paper to educate business owners on what’s involved in a good and bad business. If we can get more business owners acting in the right way, they might be able to get to a place where we can get as human beings. It’s a complex subject matter.
[-[27:39] Allan: It is a huge subject!
Jeff: One of great things about the Society is it’s a place for people to get together and talk. Things happen when people get together.
If all the visual effects people got together and said, “We’re going to stop”, the minute they stop — all hell is going to break loose. They tried to do it in early 90s. There is always somebody (and it’s the same as the sound industry) who will go below the line and [get paid] the lower number. But if everyone in visual effects said there is a bottom line and I’m not going to do it for less, the industry would change. The studios (plus Amazon and Nexflix) are dictating the rates. Part of the problem is that it gives you a false sense of security is no company thinks they’re too big to fail.
There are several models of doing a business: There is time and material. You pay for the time and material. When you look on a movie set, there is a director and a producer. At the end of each day, the producer tells the director, “You’re a day ahead.” But in our case, it’s “you’re two days behind, what do we cut”. There is nobody there telling the director [who says, “I know I wanted a panther, but now I want a tortoise”], there is nobody there to say there is a huge difference between the two! Instead, the studio thinks you bid it so make it happen. In the same way, who is to go tell the director that we bid on 12 visual effects and now there are 48? Who can ask the director to fix that because there is no money for it!
[-[21:03] That’s where the businesses could say no. If you want to pay for it, then fine. Because we’re already giving you 5 million worth of work for 2 million. But they play us off against each other. There is only one facility where the normal laws don’t apply to them. All the other companies — ILM, Double Negative, Framestore, all of them! — they are being dictated to. It’s better than laying everybody off. We’re not smart enough business people.
[-17:06] It’s a crazy business. It’s amazing that anybody makes money. The number of companies that have been squeezed out! And the small companies can’t make it. There are a lot of talented people who’ve gone bankrupt or folded. And it revealed interesting personality types. If nothing else, we, visual effects artists are passionate. We’ll make something happen just because it’s cool. One of the coolest things for me is when I work with visual effects artist I tell them what the lowest bar of expectation is. I have absolutely no qualms about telling the director or the studio who came up with the greatest idea.
[-[15:16] Allan: I wanted to dive into the Handbook. How do you make something like that?
Jeff: We’re actually starting the 3rd edition today. It’s supposed to do a couple things:
- Be an educational tool for people;
- To serve professionals who don’t have experience in a certain area.
Not only do you have a quick reference guide, but it also gives you people to contact. The 3rd edition, we have so much work to do. We have new stuff to throw in there: software, hardware, new cameras, modern techniques (VR, AI), and weed out some of the antiquated stuff. You need to know your history for the future.
According to the contract, this will published in July of 2019; but we have to turn it in this year. We hope to have a more robust online version. What a wonderful platform to say, would you like to write a section, Allan? We are looking for new contributors.
I studied international marketing in college. Those courses taught me the foundation that helped me earn money, which is awesome.
Allan: I think that’s a critical knowledge.
Jeff: One of the incidental consequences is it gives you a confidence to ask for things you may not have asked for before. It helps your demeanor when you negotiate.
[-[10:30] Allan: What’s your option on remote work?
Jeff: I’m a big fan of that. The only downside are the security matters. Marvel is holding out. I get their [confidentiality] concerns, but there’s got to be a better way without penalizing the people who are make it.
[09:16] Allan: Do you have any advice for the people starting out?
Jeff: I’ve got a few things! The night before I went to work for Saul Bass, he called me over to his house and told me to follow these three things and said, if you follow these three things you’re going to be fine (and this is a guy who started in the 20s!):
- You don’t need the experience.
- It’s not going to be that much fun.
- No matter what they say, they’re not going to “make it up to you on the next one”.
What’s key to driving that is you have a value and value is based on two things:
- What’s your market worth based on your talent and experience?
- And, what do you view your market worth at?
You end up taking a job for free just to get your foot in the door. But then it’s going to be an uphill struggle from then on, to get paid [by that same guy].
Learn to get an eye and learn to pivot. I understand lens size and all that. I spent a lot of time learning software because I need to know how hard what I’m asking for is. On the other side of that: If you’re on a boat and there is a current, you need to learn how to pivot. You can land on the shore if you tip the boat to the current and row really hard. But sometimes, you need to let the river take you where it wants to take you because it’s providing an opportunity to do something else. See what the forces are directing you to do! Learn your art, develop your eye, take a wider scope. You never know where something is going to lead you. Which contradicts knowing your worth. Sometimes it is worth it to take the job!
[-[03:09] Allan: I love it! I appreciate all that. For anyone who wants to find you, [how do they contact you]?
Jeff: I don’t have a website, but anyone who wants to write to me — or send me hate emails — contact me at [email protected]
I hope you enjoyed the show notes at allanmckay.com/78. Check out all the free training I’ll be putting out this month. Next Episode will be on accelerated learning. I figure it would be great to jump on that.
I’m going to be interviewing the guys at Image Engine, as well as Main Road Post, id Software. There is so much coming out! I’m excited.
I’ll see the next Episode. Rock on!
“Visual effects is nothing more than problem solving. That’s what we do.” For more bits of wisdom from Jeff A. Okun, VFX Supervisor and Chair of VES, tune into Allan McKay’s Podcast: www.allaymckay.com/78
The legendary VFX Sup Jeff Okun gives advice to the up-and-coming artists in this Podcast with Allan McKay: “If you follow these three things you’re going to be fine: 1. You don’t need the experience. 2. It’s not going to be that much fun. 3. No matter what they say, they’re not going to “make it up to you on the next one”. For more, go to allanmckay.com/78.
Allan McKay interviews VFX Supervisor Jeff Okun in this Episode (allanmckay.com/78) who shares his wisdom and experience: “Sometimes, you need to let the river take you where it wants to take you because it’s providing an opportunity to do something else. See what the forces are directing you to do! Learn your art, develop your eye, take a wider scope. You never know where something is going to lead you.”
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Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
This guide was designed for Artists – whether you’re a Designer, Illustrator, Matte Painter, Animator, FX, whatever! We all need to get hired for productions, and we all need to get what we’re worth.
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