Episode 96 – Interview with Motion Graphics Designer and Director Niels Prayer


Click here to listen on iTunes!

Get on the VIP insiders list!

Check out www.VFXRates.com


Episode 96 — Interview with Motion Graphics Designer and Director Niels Prayer

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 96! I’m speaking with Niels Prayer who is a Motion Graphics Designer and Director. He’s worked on Minions, RoboCop and dozens of other really cool projects. We both [spoke] at the IAMAG Master Class earlier this year. Niels has done workshops for CG Society and other places. He’s worked for Illumination Mac Guff, the guys who do the Minions [movies]; as well as Framestore [where worked on RoboCop].

I am drowning in work at the moment. There are some really cool Episodes coming up, as well as some solo ones. I really enjoy designing Episodes that deal with issues that arise in our careers. The next Episode is with Nerdstrong, a gym in LA built for nerds (http://www.nerdstronggym.com). I think it’s really cool to have these themed gyms that have different motivations. I think it’s important to not be intimidated. I’m looking forward to putting out that Episode!

Let’s dive in!



[-[36:59] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. Typically, we go on job interviews and either shoot ourselves in the foot by saying we charge less than we’re worth and getting the gig — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars accumulatively over time, on the table; rather than asking what we should be charging. At the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much and leaving yourself out in the cold.

I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your information — 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 worth. This is something I’m going to continue to build and flush out over time.

The key thing is, I don’t want to just showcase how much you should be worth — I want to hand you the tools to grow and learn:

– to negotiate better,

– to ask for the right amount of money in the right way

– lots of other tools!

The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! Put in your information and you will get instantly notified with how much you should be charging per hour, as a VFX Artist.



Niels Prayer is a Motion Graphics Designer and a Director based in Paris, France. He has worked on films like RoboCop while at Framestore and the Minions films at Illumination Mac Guff, a Paris-based studio. Niels is also a musician and a composer which has influenced his storytelling as well.

In this Episode, Allan McKay and Niels Prayer discuss the importance of daily discipline and the artists’ responsibility as storytellers.


Niels Prayer’s Website: http://www.nielsprayer.com

Niels Prayer on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/nielsprayer

Niels Prayer’s Short Film Marvelous Machines: https://vimeo.com/197956086

Niels Prayer on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4091991/

Niels Prayer on CG Society: http://www.cgsociety.org/news/article/1844/reel—2k16

Niels Prayer on Art Station: https://www.artstation.com/niels

Illumination Mac Guff’s Website: http://www.illuminationmacguff.com


[-[35:31] Allan: Do you want to give a quick introduction on who you are and what you do?

Niels: Yeah! I’m honored to do this interview with you, Allan, because you’re just a superstar! I’m a director, for now. I’m also in freelance. I used to be in VFX. Three years ago, I started working at Framestore. After that, I moved back to Paris and started working at Illumination Mac Guff. I’ve done animation films and feature films.

I started creating my own personal projects. One day, I got a call and I started doing this for a living. So I became a freelancer. Now, I’m freelancing between jobs and I create my own short movies — and produce my own content every day! I’m pretty happy with my life now.

[-33.35] Allan: How did you get started in your career?

Niels: I’ve graduated from Georges Media School here in Paris. I just posted my reel for an online challenge. Framestore called me to work on RoboCop, right after school. I graduated in June. On the 1st of July, I was at Framestore. That was the beginning for me, in the industry. I’ve met a lot of talented artists since. I’ve been pretty lucky, actually.

[-[32:38] Allan: That’s really cool! I love the diversity in what you’ve been doing. Very different work! What’s your proudest project up to date?

Niels: You mean my personal project or a project I’ve done for living?

[-[32:19] Allan: All of them. Whichever you find the most fulfilling, whether it was the most challenging or the fondest for you.

Niels: I think it [would have to be] the film I’ve done for the VFX Houdini challenge (Marvelous Machines: https://vimeo.com/197956086) because I think it’s my most challenging movie. It’s complicated to write a story and direct a story implementing a lot of symbolism. It’s challenging to just start with an idea. I’m learning a lot right now, doing things like that. I’m very proud of it!

[-[30:53] Allan: I agree. In the past two years, I’ve started to spend a lot of time experimenting with things that I want to do, rather than the things I was hired to do. I think it’s so powerful to work with a big group of people and grow; but then later having the time for your own passions so you can fill in the gaps; and having the foresight to take your own ideas to completion. When you started on Marvelous Machines, did you have in mind a concept of what you wanted? There are so many visuals in here!

Niels: I wanted to talk about Artificial Intelligence. When I saw the contest with the title Marvelous Machines, I thought, “Wow! What an amazing title!” I developed an idea around those two key words. I started writing scripts about the idea when a machine can be marvelous. I wanted to talk about consciousness and [what it’s like] to be a machine with an almost human consciousness. The main idea was to create a script [in which] a machine is thinking about creating a better one. That’s the main concept. As for the visuals, I wanted to play with very important symbolism and give some messages within the framing and composition of each shot.

[-[28:09] Allan: I think that’s great! There is so much in there! By the way you’ve approached it, there is definitely that backstory to it. How long did it take you, from start to finish?

Niels: I did in my spare time. I think it took me a month and a half; from the production process: the story boards, the intentions. I wanted to make something special and something that’s well done. Sometimes, I start creating shots and I add the message or the intention later, in the final frames. This time, I wanted to create an actual movie and build frames from my ideas. It was pretty hard but it worked, I think.

[-[26:54] Allan: You initially started in VFX. You’ve made the transition from motion graphics to directing. For you, how did you make that transition? When did you make the decision that you wanted to switch? Usually, FX to motion graphics isn’t very common.

Niels: It’s pretty simple, actually. Every day, I’m creating things on my lunch break. Some days, I create abstract things in Houdini, just a simple sphere, for example. I did that for a long time until I realized I could create projects. I started to assemble some shots and put music to them. I started to create stories with these abstract things. I started to make more things like that and fewer casual effects. Even now, I’m not destroying things much. 

[-[24:57] Allan: You’re creating, not destroying! That’s cool! As for the tools you use, Houdini and After Effects are your go-to tools, right? 

Niels: Yes.

[-[24:46] Allan: Are there any other tools?

Niels: For some of my images, I’m using Vue, for epic landscapes and great atmospheric mood. Maybe a bit of Nuke when need camera tracking and deep compositing. But my main tools are Houdini and After Effects.

[-[24:16] Allan: That’s awesome! I was curious: When you’re learning new techniques, do you spend a lot of time experimenting? Are you constantly learning? What’s your process?

Niels: Yes, I think I’m just constantly learning and saving everything. We also need some weird tests in production, so I have a lot of [archives] in Houdini and After Effects. I’m keeping everything just in case.

[-[23:05] Allan: I’m always curious about [an artist’s] process because it is so different. How do you usually approach a shot from the beginning? Do you start with an intention or do you let it grow into whatever it becomes?

Niels: It really depends. When I have my intention, I have a storyboard. I have a precise idea. I have my framing in my head and I know what texture or light I will use. When I am taking my lunch break images — for 30 minutes or an hour — I start with a sphere or a grid. I put in some light and I see a shadow. I start scaling, adding effects. I want to make an image in 30 minutes so I have to work fast. I’m [pretty bad at drawing] actually and I use Houdini to make sketches, just to be confident in my software. It’s pretty much like drawing for me.

[-[20:50] Allan: You’re right! You don’t need to be an amazing sketch artist. It’s more about your process [of figuring] something out. I’m the same way. I problem solve in my head while using pen and paper. Once I get to a computer, the process becomes really slow. For you, what’s the most important part of your process: Is it the lighting or the effects? What’s the most critical part?

Niels: I think it’s the overall mood. Because I’m a musician first, I believe we need to feel something, just like with music. I think that’s the most important part of creating or animating. [I want to make people] feel something with my work.

[-[19:14] Allan: That’s really cool. I forgot that you have a background as a musician. I know a lot of visual effects artists who’ve come from studying classical music and they’ve sworn that it was the most critical part for their growing as an artist. They’re able to see things differently from writing music. 

Niels: I come from a classical background. I think when I started to learn 3D or CGI, I took the same approach [as with music]: It’s just another language. We are creating stories. Even if we put a black background, we’re telling something. We have to be careful. We have to pay attention to the details. In CGI, we’re layering things with animation, compositing, FX. For me, it’s the same approach. It’s two languages. We’re layering things. We have to be careful about what we put into our frames.

[-[17:09] Allan: That’s cool! What about reference and things like that? Do you rely on any references? And what are your resources?

Niels: I’m spending a lot of time on Art Station. I’m being influenced by some great artists. And of course, movies are my main source of inspiration. I’m a big fan of Terrence Malick’s films and the photography of Emmanuel Lubezki. I think that’s my main inspiration. And a few years ago, I’ve discovered the work of Patrick Clair and Ash Thorp (allanmckay.com/56). I just [thought it was] insane how they could create such powerful pieces in a really short amount of time, like Patrick Clair’s title sequence for Westworld. When I saw that, I was inspired: We can create short [films] with great impact! That’s something I want to create.

[-[15:10] Allan: That’s cool! Looking at all the stuff you’ve been doing, Ash is the same way. He’s really dedicated. Whenever I talk to him, he’s on the go. I don’t know how he manages to have a personal work on top of everything else. But you’ve mentioned that too: You spend your lunch break working on a piece, on that time constraint. Do you find that you’re creating that time for yourself? Everyone complaints about not having enough time. 

Niels: I think it’s a question of organization and scheduling things. I’m not doing as much as Ash is doing.

– When I’m in a studio, I spend my lunch break in front of my computer.

– When I’m at home, I can work on a personal project while rendering complicated images; or doing something else like cooking with my wife, composing music, playing the piano.

I want to have a life, next to my projects, next to my work. I think that’s pretty much it. It’s just about scheduling things.

[-[12:27] Allan: I think you’re right. You [have to] start learning to schedule things. If it’s not in my calendar, it doesn’t get done. Because you do that, that means you can see this bird’s-eye view of your week. For other people, it means getting up an hour earlier to create. It’s easy to create time when you see how your time is being allocated.

Niels: Of course!

[-[11:40] Allan: You do a lot of training on CG Society and at other places. I love giving back too! Many years ago, when I would figure out how to do something, I would share that. For you, what’s your experience with that? What are some of the resources you’ve created to help others?

Niels: I don’t know if I help, but sharing is an important thing. You learn a lot when you share. Just when you discuss approaches, you’re able to take some distance and see things another way. I’ve learned a lot while creating my workshops for CG Society. I was able to share things directly with my students. It takes a lot of time to create all the content. I was exhausted.

[-[09:42] Allan: It’s hard managing your personal life with your work. What’s the talk you’ll be giving in Paris?

Niels: It will be my first time at a conference like that. I don’t know what my talk will be on yet, but I think I’m really lucky to participate. I’m pretty excited!

[-[08:36] Allan: It’s going to be a lot of fun! There will be so many speakers. Ash will be there. When you were working on Minions, what type of work were you doing for that?

Niels: I’ve done pretty smokes and explosions, just basic things. When you’re working on these types of films, the animation comes first. You have to create FX, of course, but we still need to see the animation.

[-[07:25] Allan: What’s your preference? Do you prefer to work on larger projects or do you find smaller teams — and shorter projects — to be your preference?

Niels: I like both. When you’re working with a big team, with a lot of talented guys, it’s amazing! You’re learning a lot of things, you’re able to create with talented artists. I think I prefer to work with a small team, 5-6 people. [That’s when] you’re able to create an entire shot [by yourself]. Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll go back to long feature films, I don’t know.

[-[05:58] Allan: What about Framestore? What were you doing there: Was it RoboCop and some other projects?

Niels: I just worked on RoboCop because after that I had to go back to France. It was an amazing experience. I’ve learned pretty much everything about Houdini and how we can create effects in actual production. When you’re an intern at Framestore, there is a mentorship program. A supervisor mentors you and it’s pretty amazing because you get feedback on your work really quickly, and you’re not lost in the industry.

[-[05:02] Allan: I think that’s really cool. I find that when you have a direct access for someone to share their experience, it’s really crucial. For you, are there any big resources you could recommend for people to learn? Obviously, you’ve got your courses.

Niels: I think it’s more than my little things. I study your tutorials, Allan. Maybe: Experiment with things always. Every day! With tools, we have to understand what we’re creating. I think it’s important to experiment with that.

[-[03:12] Allan: I think that’s really great advice! Both to experiment a lot and have fun with it. If it’s not for a client, you can go in a direction that you want. What would be the website to drive people to, to find out more about you?

Niels: I think my personal website has everything: www.nielsprayer.com. And of course, I’m on Art Station: https://www.artstation.com/niels.

[-[02:14] Allan: I appreciate your doing this, man! We’ll have some beers in Paris.


I want to thank Niels for doing this Episode. Take a moment to leave a comment on iTunes. That would mean a lot to me! Next Episode, I’m interviewing the Founder of Nerdstrong Gym Andrew Deutsch.

My new website is coming! I’ve been struggling with hiring these different firms to get it done. I want to put so much new content out but I’ve been holding out until I have my website. That’s my big goal at the moment, on top of Game of Thrones.

In the meantime, go kick some butt! Be out of your comfort zone and create things, challenge yourself.

Rock on!