23 July 2014

Oliver Atherton, Roto / Paint Supervisor

Oliver is one of our Roto / Paint Supervisors at Double Negative Singapore and looks after our roto teams for the likes of Captain Philips and Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, Godzilla and Hercules.

How did you get into the business?

By making a good cup of tea!

I started as a runner. I came out of university wanting to be an editor. After I graduated I travelled up to London and walked around Soho, literally banging on doors and handing out CV’s. Eventually I got lucky as one company had just lost a runner and needed a replacement asap. I got a job on the spot.

Through contacts I made as a runner – i heard of a job opening at Dneg doing nightshift film outs and running print down to the night baths. Once at Dneg I asked loads of questions and taught myself roto, eventually managing to get myself onto a production. The truth is I really didn’t know what i wanted to do when i started out. I just wanted to work in film. I always dreamt of working on a Bond movie in some way – and the initial job opening at Dneg was to do film outs on a Bond film – so i like to think it was fate.

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?

Photography! I wish I had done a course in photography and learnt more about lenses and cameras before I started out. It’s something i have picked up on my own over time – but when starting out it would have been a really good background to have.

I also wish I had paid more attention in maths class back at school!

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

Be a sponge – absorb as much as you can from everyone around you. Just be open and willing to learn and accept that – no matter what you think you know – you are going to be surrounded by some astounding talent who have been doing this for a very long time. Also know that they want you to succeed. They want to help you learn and become an important part of the team – but to do that you need to be approachable and listen to what they have to teach you.

Also read. Read books on VFX, watch courses, learn stuff – and practice it. Its definitely a career you have to be passionate about and no matter where you are in your career – you are always going to be learning. Technologies are constantly changing and we are always pushing the boundaries of what is possible. If you aren’t passionate about what you do then you aren’t going to be motivated to keep pushing yourself.

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

These days there are plenty of tutorials and other free resources online. You can also get advice and help on relevant forums. Nuke is free to download as a PLE from The Foundry, and free tutorials are also found on their website. This is probably the best place to start. Other than that – there are some great official training courses online such as FXPHD and CMIVFX.

The main thing is to just practice. Go out, film stuff and start putting together your own personal projects. You could watch all the tutorials out there and never really learn much if you don’t practice. Almost all of the tutorials out there are set up as perfect examples that have a solution. In the real world though – you aren’t following step by step instructions. You will get some shots that work as rehearsed – but other times things won’t. You need to be able to adapt and problem solve.

Communicate with others around you to find solutions. The more you practice – the more problems you will encounter so that the next time you experience them you will know what to do.

The worst and best thing about your job?

About my current role… I’d say the worst and best things are almost the same. I love introducing people to VFX and sharing my knowledge with them. I really enjoy seeing people come in knowing very little and really grow into fantastic artists over their time here. I’ve seen some incredible talent come up through the ranks and blow me away with what they can do… but also, at a point when those artists have become invaluable to the prep team we also want to let them go off into comp. So the worst thing is losing great resources from my team… but its also the best thing – to see them fulfilling their dreams and continuing their journey in VFX and knowing that i maybe helped them somehow along the way.


Thanks, as always, to everyone who posted up questions. Here’s Oli’s cracking answers :)

From Shailendra Pandey: I would like to know 1. How you got into visual effects?

I loved watching those little teaser documentaries they put on TV before a big movie was released. I remember watching them explaining some of the effects they did on Raiders of the Lost Ark – with Indy climbing a broken rope bridge and then the green screen below being replaced with water and crocodiles. It blew my mind. I knew this was something I wanted to try out. I loved to recreate scenes from films I had watched with my friends but never had access to greenscreen plates or optical printers.

When I was about 13, I watched a documentary about how they used miniatures to blow up a building. Afterwards I borrowed (took) my dad’s video camera and attempted to blow up my train set with gunpowder taken out of far too many fireworks. I set fire to the garden shed and left a massive scratch on his lens. Instead of telling me off, he sat down with me and showed me how to put my footage onto a computer and how to paint, frame by frame, onto individual cells in photoshop. He said it was safer to do things this way and leave the live pyrotechnics to the professionals. I remember back then thinking that one day… just one day… we might be able to do something crazy like put big robots onto film cells in a similar way.. haha. It seemed so far fetched – yet years later here I am having done just that on blockbuster VFX movies.

I loved playing with photoshop and after effects and staging scenes with my friends and suddenly we had access to tools that allowed us to do more and more stuff. I never thought this would be something i could do as a real job – just a fun pastime.

Whilst working in my first job as a runner for a small editors in Soho I had to deliver a tape to Dneg, One of the producers there was really nice and showed me a bit of the work they were doing. From that moment on I knew what I wanted to do and I made it my goal to do whatever i needed to learn this stuff.

2. If there was a single visual effects shot to pick as a favourite, what would it be?

This is a really hard question for me to answer. There are so many effects shots that have blown me away. Every year the work is pushed to a new level, so i keep seeing new work that is even more impressive and then that becomes my new favourite. But you can’t negate the older stuff just because the technology has advanced. It’s about what was impressive at that particular moment in time. I remember back at a university screening of Citizen Kane being in awe of some of the shots where the camera moved through several obstructions and desperately trying to figure out how they did that stuff. I’ve always loved long shots like this. But then later when i first saw the first bullet time shot in The Matrix – that was the most amazing thing i had ever seen – i couldn’t watch it enough times. Before that it was almost every shot in Terminator 2! For me its more about the whole experience… like the first time I watched Avatar in 3D – or saw the Titanic come back to life on the big screen…. Ha ha It looks like I have a huge thing for James Cameron here so I’d better mention a few more films!

Other of my favourite shots are more about the visual spectacle or the overall cinematography. I recently watched Life of Pi and there is an epic shot in that where there is fast paced chaos all around him that then ends with him swimming down and watching this huge ship sink beneath him. He has just lost everything and he swims down and just hangs in space with this beautifully lit sink off in the distance. Watching that in 3D on a huge imax screen is utterly breathtaking and moving. There are so many moments like that in the film! When everything in a film comes together at once to create a powerful moment – for me that is the real magic. When the effects work sits perfectly with everything else and allows you to see something on the screen that you couldn’t possibly have seen otherwise – I actually find that quite moving. When you then realise how many people have worked so hard to make all this stuff come together I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed when watching this stuff.

From our body of work at Dneg – I absolutely love some of the huge continuous shots we did for Children of Men. All our work on the Potter movies is incredible and each one just got better. The dragon from the last film had so much detail and felt really believable even though it was a fantastical creature… you really believed it could exist. I also love showing people before and after plates for the work we did on Green Zone. Some of the work done on that film is insane and you’d never even know there was a single effects shot in the movie.

3. What inspires you?

The first film I remember seeing in the cinema was ET and the feeling of awe when Elliot first takes off into the air on his bike is still with me. It was magical. I’m actually also a huge fan of magic – For as long as I can remember I have loved watching magicians perform sleight of hand and stage illusions.

VFX seemed to blend these two passions into one. Both magic and cinema allow us to see new things outside of our normal existence and experience a momentary state of astonishment… an almost childlike state of wonder and awe. Getting lost in the moment and believing something is real is a great form of escape. My favourite visual effects are those that complement the story. They don’t scream out and beg to be noticed. For people to walk away and not know they have just watched an effect…. or a magic trick.. is always the greatest compliment in my opinion. Its when you know you have done your job well. I love working on a project and knowing that i’m part of a huge collaborative effort to bring an experience like this to audiences all around the world.

From Arihant Gupta: Talking about Roto and Matchmove positions, is it always compulsory for a fresher to start with them no matter how good their showreel is?

Occasionally we may hire someone into other positions if their work is exceptional – but its also not very common.

I’d actually ask why someone starting out in the industry would want to skip such a vital part of developing their core skillsets as a VFX artist? Beyond the obvious function of the role itself you are learning so much more.

You learn how to interact with other artists as part of a collaborative experience. You learn how to receive and deliver feedback, how to manage your time and hit deadlines. You will learn how to lead teams of people and how to be lead by others and, most importantly, how to produce work that maintains our high standards and keeps us there as one of the leading visual effects facilities in the world. You gain trust from those around you – you earn a reputation as someone that is reliable and hard working. Without all those things its really hard to be entrusted with bigger and better shots.

Whilst they are entry level positions, what many people don’t realise about these roles before they do them, is how complex and involved they can become – they’re about far more than just the overall task. You are constantly using our tools, working within our pipeline. Learning about different formats – seeing a whole variety of different effects from start to finish across a wide range of projects. You are surrounded by some of the best people in the industry who are giving you help and feedback and pushing your work to be the absolute best that it can be while training you to develop an eye for detail and the little subtleties that make your work better.

Our roto crew here are doing some incredibly complex work – using 3D match move data and projections from Maya to facilitate their work. The same goes for matchmove and prep. These artists are developing a whole heap of skills and problem solving abilities that are going to be invaluable to them when they advance…. so while you might be able to get somewhere faster – if you take the scenic route you are going to have a much more fulfilling journey and most likely end up going much further in the long run.

From my own experience, I learned so much during roto and prep that I found utterly invaluable later on in my career when compositing. I would also have never had some of the amazing opportunities that I’ve had if i hadn’t gone through roto and prep. My very role over here in Singapore is directly related to my experience coming up through these departments! In fact – i felt that the experience of prep and roto were so vital to both the artists and the company that I agreed to take a break from my role as a compositor so I could help train and develop other jr artists and help them to receive the same fantastic learning experience that I had when I first joined the company.

I have seen first hand, time and time again, how learning these core disciplines helps develop a whole range of incredibly important skills. Skills that no course could ever teach you and that will, ultimately, make you a far more valuable, rounded and experienced artist. Many of the schools out there are teaching some really great stuff – but the truth is – experience is the best teacher you will ever have.

From Jules Goes: I am a Fresher, how do I get a job for Roto?

Put together a reel that showcases your current experience and submit it! If you haven’t done any roto work on your course then I’d advise you to go out and do some on your own. Its important for us to see that you at least understand the basics of the role you are applying for. I’m always more impressed by people who have done additional work outside of their school project or course work to further develop their reel. It shows that they are self motivated and able to push themselves beyond what they have done as a school project. Getting a job here is just the first step. Once you are on board there is a huge learning journey ahead so to see that someone is capable of teaching themselves new skills off their own back is really important.

There’s a nice book that recently came out on roto – Rotoscoping by Benjamin Bratt. Read through it and apply some of the things he talks about to your own work.
Put together a few roto shots and focus on quality over anything else. If you aren’t happy with an edge or the consistency of a shape – if something pops, or slips then go back and fix it until it looks right. Once you have that down, then practice more shots. Think about how you can do what you are doing faster. Being able to deliver shots on target is a very important part of the role. As a roto artist you are sitting at the start of the production pipeline. You never want to be a bottleneck in the production process and have people waiting around for you to finish your work before they can start theirs!

Doing all this will not only give you a nice roto reel but will also give you the ability to talk about your learning experiences, the problems you faced, how you overcame them and how you could do things better next time – all great stuff to talk about in your interview!

From Lisa Anderson: How do you get companies to notice you right out of college with no experience?

Its a very good question. Send them a big chocolate cake along side your showreel. That might help :D

Much of it is about timing as well as having a relevant reel (as mentioned above). Follow our facebook and twitter feeds and get yourself over to some industry events where you will have opportunity to meet artists from companies doing talks or recruitment drives. We are just as interested in finding talent as you are in finding a job. Make sure your reel has your best and most relevant work at the start. Don’t include anything on it that you aren’t totally happy with – and most importantly – be yourself when you come for an interview. Being able to communicate clearly and talk about your work is a really important part of the job so be sure to develop these skills also!

Remember, we all started out at some point with zero experience! Know that every reel we are sent is viewed. This means that this is your main way of getting noticed. If you are applying for a role as a roto artist – then make sure there is some good roto on your reel right at the front. Same for matchmove. Try to have a variety of work on there that showcases your skill sets as something we would want to hire but most importantly make sure it is relevant. There is no point sending a reel that has lots of motion graphics on it and absolutely no roto if you are applying for a roto position! Research the role – think about what work you would be doing day to day and then show that you can do that work on your reel.

From Peter Lilith Balogh: I would be interested to know just how much Roto experience you needed to get into the job? Is a showreel showing compositing enough and training on Roto would be provided, or is it better to have some solid experience with Roto already? Thank you.

You’ll always have a better chance of getting hired over others if you have roto on your reel as well. Think about it this way – if we are looking for roto artists, and get sent two reels – one just has some compositing work, and the other has just roto work – which one do you think is more relevant to the role at hand?

Its always good to show that you are able to do the type of work for the role you are applying for. That’s not to say that training isn’t provided – training is a huge part of what we do here – but if you can show that you already have a pretty decent grasp of the work you’d be doing – then you give a prospective employer greater confidence in you being the best candidate.

From Mathias Schulenberg: Where do you get your knowledge from?’

Steve Wright and Ron Brinkman!

At first their books were invaluable to me. I have read through them so many times and they are always by my side and covered in scribbles and highlights. Just to suddenly be forced to think about the images on the screen as more than just images. As numbers. As mathematical operations that can actually be understood and predicted – controlled or at least wrestled with. The biggest leap in understanding for me was this moment when i realised that there was so much more than just what i am looking at on a screen….. and also that I had so much more to learn.

Aside from that though I get my knowledge from everyone around me. And I do literally mean everyone. From my first day in studio learning how to load and unload a camera. Learning how film was digitised and put onto our servers. From every supervisor I have ever worked with pushing me to make stuff better. I have always been surrounded by exceptional mentors and talent at Dneg. I’m constantly learning stuff from the guys I’m supposed to be teaching! Everyone here is always learning and sharing what they have learned….. and when that fails… there’s always google.

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