30 July 2014

James Lewis, Head of Previs Animation

James Lewis is Head of Previs Animation at Double Negative. ¬†Here’s Q&A from early 2014 when he was Dneg Lead Animator.

After Graduating from Bournemouth in 2004 he joined Double Negative as a generalist on Batman Begins. Keen to specialise in animation he took the opportunity to work as a Previs artist on “Fly Boys” in 2005 with that role moving forward into animation on the show. From that point onwards James has enjoyed being involved in the creative process from an early stage all the way to final animation. He has worked on a variety of pitch work and previs for directors such as Guillermo Del Toro and Andy and Lana Wachowski, then taken it to the final animation stage on films like “John Carter” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

How did you get into the business?

I was studying at Central Saint Martin’s in 2001 and absorbing a lot of design influences, I ended up getting really inspired by some music videos by a small group called ‘Shynola’. The use of 3D computer design in their videos really made me wonder how it was done. I looked into 3D packages and slowly found out about the course at Bournemouth… I couldn’t believe there was no way to study 3D animation in London at the time!

From the outside 3D CGI seemed like such a dark art… it was that allure that got me onto the path into the business.

After having met Paul Franklin through his involvement with the course, and finding out that Dneg were to start work on the new Batman film, I was chomping at the bit to be involved. I proceeded to work my behind off to get a decent final project under my belt and it did the trick in getting my foot in the door at Dneg.

I started off as a generalist, doing bits and bobs, just feeling so grateful and lucky to be involved in any capacity with a Hollywood film. I’ll never forget, in my first month at Dneg, getting tasked with photographing the Batman Begins set at Cardington and seeing Christian Bale having a cup of tea in his full Batman costume minus the cowl. Amazing!

Is there anything you wish you had done before you joined the industry which would have better prepared you for your career in VFX for Film?

At school I was very much in love with Fine Art. I would actively try and get out of sports sessions, fake injury…or forget my kit, so I could spend the time in the art studio sketching or painting. This did help me out and hold me in good stead for the career I ended up having but part of me wishes I’d been more involved with team sports. Ironically I’m more active now than I ever was as a youngster but, had I been involved in a team at school, I do think it would have given me a head start in developing certain skills that are vital for working in the VFX industry.

It may be a much overused saying – ‘there is no ‘I’ in team’ – but it is absolutely true of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Knowing how to work in a team and checking your ego at the door is essential. I feel that it’s in my nature to feel comfortable in a team environment but perhaps, had I been a team captain at school, I would have gained these kind of skills earlier and benefitted in that regard.

Is there any advice you would give to someone coming into the business?

Basically, I think working out what you are good at as early on as possible is a good thing. It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation in some regards as you need to try different disciplines to get a taste, but if you are lucky enough to figure out your strengths and specialise early then you can really knuckle down to learn your craft and realise your potential sooner.

Determining what you enjoy is the best place to start…chances are that’s the area you’ll be best at anyway. You’ll also end up spending many hours doing it!

What natural skills do you think lend themselves to doing your job?

I was lucky to find out some skills that I was quite good at as a child. I was always drawing, wherever I was… on napkins, scraps of paper or in little sketchbooks. I was encouraged and supported by my parents to continue with Art, but they always assumed that in the end I’d try to be a lawyer or a doctor. I, of course, had no intention of even attempting those professions and put all my eggs in the Art basket. Luckily my love of art morphed with my love of computers and I spent hours on end animating my own gruesome ‘Lemmings’ scenarios on Deluxe Paint on the Amiga.

So, natural artistic skills are a definite requirement for many of the more creative disciplines in the VFX world.

More specifically, in Previs and Animation, a keen open mind, observational eye and a squishy brain that absorbs inspiration from a variety of sources is good.

Generally though, in the VFX world, you could have a polar opposite natural skill set and find your place to shine. That’s one of the charms of the industry, there are very diverse roles available to sink your teeth into.

Are there any particular training / courses you’d recommend?

I’m not massively clued up on training courses. I think a lot can be done these days using your initiative and not necessarily being spoonfed. Courses have their place of course and I’m not saying don’t do them…but going the extra mile and standing out is very important. Supplement any courses you may do with something extra off your own back….get yourself noticed!

The worst and best thing about your job?’

By doing Previs and Animation I get to be involved at both the very beginning of the filmmaking process and nearer the very end of it too.

Sometimes I can be working on the same film for the better part of 3 years, but each stage is so different and the challenges morph and change to such an extent that time seems to compress and fly by!

In pre-production on Hellboy II I worked with Guillermo Del Toro in Budapest for a few months and the feeling early on was very creative and charged with a feeling of ‘anything is possible’. That’s a nice vibe to have. Ideas are thrown around and explored and happy accidents can occur. This is often the case very early on. The challenge that goes along with that vibe, is having to work incredibly quickly while still maintaining great quality in what you are doing. Also, actually doing your work with Guillermo’s hands on your shoulders, with him staring at your screen waiting, is daunting…but very rewarding if he likes the outcome and literally slaps you hard on the back as a result!

In contrast, further down the line when animation is getting refined and things are more focussed, you have to get into an entirely different head space. Although, by the time this comes around you feel ready for a change and the more methodical approach required makes for a refreshing change.

So, i’d say the best thing about my job is the diversity of challenges that arise from the long gestation of the filmmaking process.

The worst thing about my job is certainly it’s sedentary nature. It’s as simple as that. Sitting for so long in front of the computer isn’t hard for me to do and I can easily get lost in it all and enjoy it… but you do have to be conscious that the human body is designed to move a lot more than this line of work has you do. As a result of the job, i’ve become quite a gym junkie and find it a great way to get those endorphins flowing – something I find essential for keeping the positive attitude that is so beneficial for working in a collaborative environment.


From Derek Ho: I recently graduated specialising as an animator. I have been reworking my showreel to apply for a runners position. Is it common to see breakdowns on character animated sequences? or is it preferred to have final snippets of animated sequences similar to Animation Mentor and ianimate student showreels? and then include other skillsets at the back of the showreel. Thank you for your time, it is greatly appreciated.

When applying for a junior position, showing potential is key – having keenly observed and well crafted personal animations is a great first step.

Something to always keep in mind is that the person reviewing your showreel will often be trying to imagine you on their animation team. If you can show final snippets of animation then that’s really what we’d like to see. VFX animation is often so grounded in reality that having realistic animation on your reel will really help your chances. A studio like Dneg doesn’t do fully CG animations, so showing range is important. Having realistic creatures and convincing bipedal animations, focussing on convincing weight and believability will go a long way to impressing us!

We see a lot of reels with animation mentor style clips, and, whereas it’s easy to spot natural talent in some of these clips, backing this up with more VFX style animation is what you want to do.

From Bianca-lee Burgess: How does one get into a big VFX company like double Neg, I mean is there more one can do other than just apply for runner/entry level positions? It is especially hard for someone who has just graduated and has little or no experience. Any pointers?

The route into the industry is definitely via running/entry level roles, it is the best way to get your foot in the door in big companies like Dneg. Our runners get to train on our software and learn from some of the best VFX artists in the world; you’ll need to decide which route you want to go into, ie 2D or 3D, as we have specific training for runners in these areas to help get you ready to move into an artist role. The best pointer I can give you is that it’s all about the reel – make sure it reflects the type of work we do here, ie photoreal film work. We’re not looking for epic blockbusters, for juniors we want to see 3 or 4 shots that highlight your skillset, we want quality rather than quantity. Runners have been hired on the potential we have seen in a few seconds of work. For running roles we don’t need you to have worked in the industry before, but we do want to see that you show an interest in film and VFX so any work experience, internships, volunteer work would help – even just working on your reel in your spare time looks good.

On a more general note… I think doing whatever you can to stand out is a good idea. I remember when I was applying to Central Saint Martin’s, I was told how competitive it was and the amount of people applying for limited places. It made me want to do something to stand out. We were told to bring an A1 portfolio as a maximum size to the interview… but I went ahead and hired a van and took my largest piece of Art up to London for the interview day. It was a 7ft tall portrait of my school Janitor. The kind of painting that looked so much better in the ‘flesh’ than in photos! So there I was causing a massive scene lugging my painting up the stairwell to the interview amongst all the other applicants with their A1 portfolios. It was a risky strategy as they could have been annoyed i’d ignored the ‘rules’….but it definitely worked in my favour and I ended up being pretty hard to ignore!

From Efflam Mercier: what would be your top 3 advice for student film animation? (I don’t know if my question is clear, english isn’t my native tongue)

Hi Efflam, I’d say work hard, be enthusiastic (and show it!) and above all else push yourself. Try to always keep learning and improving – the industry never sits still and there’s always new things to learn and skills to master. Be on the front foot not the back one at all times!

From Chris Hutchison: Hi there, quick question. How do you stay inspired with your shots? Has there been any instances where you felt like your shots weren’t working and how did you invigorate some energy back into them? Thanks!

Sometimes you’ll get a shot that just works and you feel comfortable with from the beginning. You can get into a great rhythm and a confidence builds with the different stages. These are the shots that get approved more quickly.

Then there are the inevitable shots that prove more tricky. It may be that the shot is more technical and you have lots of elements to contend with. Sometimes the live action plate that you are working on doesn’t do you any favours and you feel like it’s a bit more of an uphill struggle. When faced with a shot like this it’s best to get some distance from it and re-assess it often with the help of others. Just talking about the shot conceptually, where it’s a discussion about the ‘feel’ or the ‘energy’ within the shot, can help you step away from the technicalities that may be bogging you down. Sometimes you’ll even find that starting from scratch is a good way to go. Often you learn what not to do from one approach. It’s at times like these that you need to start afresh and hit it from another angle.

Always stay on top of your reference and make sure what you are working from has the right feel for the shot…just because you are making your animation convincing and realistic doesn’t mean it’s telling the story of the shot. If you feel like you aren’t getting the shot, then search/shoot different reference to help you gain a new perspective.

From Yula Kabas:  What is your take on working with reference as a professional animator? How do you achieve believability and craft the scenes which you can not find/shoot reference for?

Working with reference is absolutely essential in the VFX world. If you are not working from some kind of reference or haven’t taken solid inspiration from something quite tangible then you’ll make the process so much harder for yourself.

I find that I’m constantly surprised by the details I’ll see in my reference clips, crazy little details that, when you analyse them, you raise your eyebrows and go ‘I would never have guessed that would happen like that!’. My point is, it would be arrogant to think that you could hold all that observational detail in your mind alone. You can’t expect your animation to have the necessary fidelity if no reference is used.

You also need to be able to justify what you are doing with your animation as it will be (quite rightly) picked apart by your Leads and Supervisors. There is nowhere to hide! Discussing your reference with your Lead/Supervisor and figuring out if you are on the right path before you even set any keyframes is a smart way to go.

This does make it difficult when it’s hard to find reference for a particular shot but, in the VFX world, there is usually something that the mythical beast or crazy creature is based on so it’s a case of finding the nearest animal/suitable action and then creatively adapting it to whatever rig you are using.

From Scott Laboucan: What is your favorite software to work with and would you say that animation is becoming more integrated into visual effects as a whole in the industry?

I don’t really have a ‘favourite’ software package but we use Maya for animation at Dneg much like the majority of film VFX houses across the globe. To be honest most software will have annoying ‘quirks’ and Maya is no exception. But you learn to live with the software and, as you get totally familiar with it, the technical barrier between your brain and the final creative output you see on screen becomes smaller and smaller.

As for animation becoming more integrated into visual effects, as a whole I’d say that it’s always been the case! Animation is the backbone to most VFX heavy shots. From the camera in an all CG shot to the character/creatures within it….without animation to build upon you’d often not have much there to layer on all the amazing work that comes next from the other disciplines.

From Jonathan Hearn: How did previs take you into animation?

Specifically previs took me into animation whilst working on the film ‘Fly Boys’. The director, Dean Devlin, was trying to create a high-budget feeling film for a relatively low cost so the aerial dog fights were big in ambition but small on time to do it in! This meant that, in the end, the previs that we had worked hard on morphed into the animation on the show. It was a testament to how fleshed out and decent our previs was that it only needed to be polished up to become the final animation.

We had great fun creating the dog fights and trying different shots in that film, and then, for them to turn into the final shots quite seamlessly, was really satisfying. This is when I realised that the two disciplines had a strong link and you could potentially work in the two and get a lot of variety into your job.

From Ng’ash Ervo: What challenges as an Artist did you come across in studio while creating the scenes you did?

Hi Ng’ash, that’s quite a broad question! As I’ve previously mentioned there are many challenges in both animation and previs but one challenge that was satisfying to overcome was on John Turtletaub’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. In the film there is a scene that paid tribute to the well known section of the Disney animation Fantasia. The director was on set, ready to film this big scene, but he wasn’t at all happy with the way it played out in the story boards and the existing previs. The atmosphere on set was obviously tense and we were called upon to try a new take on the scene. The team worked hard back at the office and turned around a new version in doublequick time. The director was extremely pleased with the new version and the atmosphere became extremely positive for the shoot. It was great to have helped this turn around in energy.

From Steve Garry: Do you think it is a wiser move to try and get your start in the industry as a generalist rather than a straight animator?

That’s the way I did it. It is a good way to come in to the industry as you end up understanding the different disciplines. Knowing what people do either side of your animation stage allows you to communicate with others and solve problems more efficiently, working together with a level of understanding that may not be present if you have only ever specialised in animation.

One the other hand, there’s the argument that it’s better to focus on your specialist area and build up your skills as early as possible (as i mentioned earlier).

It’s a tough decision to make, but really it’ll end up being down to your individual personality and what works for you. If you are in any way unsure about which area you want to specialise in, keepa n open mind and be a generalist for a bit.

Keep in mind also that the state of the industry and what positions are available may need to influence your choice… whatever you need to do to get your foot in the door is often the bottom line!

From @robertoraio: What type of shots would you like to see from an animator’s reel who wants to work there? Creatures? Acting? Body mechanics? Thanks

My answer to this would probably be very similar to my response to Derek Ho – variety is always good. Showing a broad skillset is ideal so all the things you’ve mentioned (Creatures/Acting and Body mechanics) would be killer to have on your showreel.

Be careful though not to sacrifice quality for quantity: If you lack the experience to get everything on there focus on your best skills and try to impress with those. For example, if you feel you are strongest animating a large, heavy creature realistically then get an amazing shot out along those lines, blow us away with that, and get your foot wedged in the door that way!

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