Interview: Conrad Olson (Image Engine)

 

Hey Conrad, You are a compositor/senior compositor in Image Engine – Vancouver. We’ve known each other since 2008 from Escape Studios when we were both in the same Compositing course class. Then you got your first comp job in Framestore.

 

11178593_10206737908713099_465077757_n

Conrad Olson

Now, after 7 years in the film industry, do you think ESC opened the door for you into the VFX industry, or would you now make a different decision and instead of going through tutorials at school be a self-learner, which is indeed a cheaper variant?
I learned a lot on my Escape course. There are things that I learned there that I still use every day at work. The course covered all the general areas that we needed to learn and I’m glad we spent so long working on paint and roto skills. I have worked with lots of compositors who have been working with big CG shots for years but can’t do serious paint work. They taught a lot of low level maths and theory in the first week of the course. It was the kind of stuff that I don’t see covered in online tutorials, but I found it really useful. Knowing some of the basic maths behind how the software works has made it much easier to solve problems and understand what is happening to my pixels.

 

It was great to use real shots from real movies. When you see tutorials or read ‘behind the scenes’ articles they usually show how perfectly everything worked. It was great to see the kind of shots you would be working with in real life. Personally I’m not very good at committing myself to self learning. I have signed up to FXPHD before and although I watch all the videos I gave up actually following along with the work after a few weeks. The structured classroom environment, and having a teacher there I could work with, really helped me.

 

ChappieI also needed to make a drastic change in my career when I quit my job and went to Escape. If I had tried to learn Shake in my bedroom after work I would have spent another year at a job I hated. Escape Studios is expensive. I was lucky that I had some inheritance that I could use to pay for the course and my girlfriend was earning enough money so I could live in London without a job for three months. I know lots of people aren’t fortunate enough to be in that situation but I can’t imagine getting myself to the top level of VFX without going to Escape Studios.

 

That doesn’t mean other people need to do Escape to get to the same level. I’m jealous of people who have the self motivation and dedication to stay up late learning and figuring out things on their own. I’ve written a much more detailed account of why I decided to do the Escape Course, and what I learned there, on my website: http://conradolson.com/escape-studios-complete-compositing-course

 

 

You’ve worked at Framestore, MPC, Sony Imageworks and others on many big feature films, stereo and mono. If you were to compare all of the enterprises you worked for, do you have any favourite one and if so why? 

Also, if you compare London and Vancouver work style – do you spot any major differences between these two?

 

elysiumI spent a long time at Framestore. I really enjoyed my time there and got to know a lot of people in the London office. It was also my first time working on feature film VFX, so I will always have fondness for my time there. MPC was the first company I worked at in Vancouver. Everyone I worked with directly was really cool, and the atmosphere in the office felt a lot like Framestore, but the company management felt a bit more corporate as they were owned by Technicolor. I would probably have been happy to stay at MPC for a while, but some of their projects fell through so they cut my contract in half after I’d only been in Vancouver for six months.

 

Since then, I have spent the most time working at Image Engine. I really like it there. It is a good size for a company, and although they might not be doing the level of work that places like ILM might be doing, they are doing some really decent stuff like Elysium, or smaller sections of bigger movies like Jurassic World. Because they are a smaller company I have got to know lots of people there and feel more like part of the whole company than I have done at bigger companies. I was only at Sony for a few months. It was definitely the most corporate company I have worked at. I felt like a small cog in a very big machine, but it wasn’t too bad. When I was there they still had lots of people working in LA. The compositing team I was working with was split between the two offices and my supervisor and coordinator were down there, so there was lots of instant messaging, video conferencing and remote review sessions. It worked a lot better than I expected and it didn’t really bother me once I got used to it.

 

Sony definitely had the best pipeline I have worked with. You could tell parts of it were really old but everything worked really well.

 

Elysium, záběr od Image Engine, autor Conrad OlsonThe biggest difference between London and Vancouver is that you legally have to get paid for working overtime in Vancouver. It doesn’t mean that you work fewer hours but it does mean that you keep track of those extra hours and you can earn a lot of extra money. I definitely feel that it has made me value my time more. I’m much more aware of the extra hours that I work. In London I would sometimes just find myself in the office at 9pm without really noticing.

 

Because the companies pay you for your overtime, I do find there are times when they feel they can tell you that you will be working late, rather than asking you if you could work late. I’ve written more detailed posts about each company that I have worked at on my blog: http://conradolson.com/category/career

 

 

Many people say VFX is really hard work. Some studios have a reputation of hiring / firing only. One of the VFX myths is that mostly people do overtime, twelve or more hours a day, usually unpaid, is that true? Is it a slavery job or is it just a myth?

Would you go for VFX again if you could choose your career again? Or have you been happy with your choice so far?

 

harrypotterThere are definitely bits of truth to all of those concerns.

 

There is no overtime paid in London, but in Vancouver everywhere I have worked has paid it. Some Vancouver companies would only pay overtime after 50 hours, instead of 40, but that changed at MPC and Image Engine last year so I think most companies now pay OT after 40 hours. We can still work crazy hours in Vancouver. It’s not unusual to work 60-80 hour in a week towards the end of a project, but then you get a really nice paycheque the month after.

 

I have never worked on a project where I have had to work through the whole weekend. All of the companies that I have worked at have been pretty serious at making sure people don’t work seven days a week. There are times, when I’m at my desk at midnight on a Thursday for the fifth week in a row, when I do feel like just quitting the whole industry, but that feeling usually fades after some sleep and seeing the finished work.

 

I’m generally happy with my career. It pays pretty well and it has given me the opportunity to move to Canada and have an adventure here. I always wanted to be an editor, so if I had to start my career again, I think I would try harder to get into editing before I switched to VFX next time.

 

 

People always have some expectations, so, what was the biggest shock if any, when you got your first comp job in a real pipeline on a big show?

You’ve worked on films such as Avatar, the Harry Potter series, Edge of Tomorrow and many others. Can you remember any serious disappointment or, to take a look at the bright side of things, what did you enjoy during some of the shows?

 

cinefex_chappieWhen you see behind the scenes videos, or read articles about how movies were made, they always talk about the amazing technology that was used, and it always looks like things just work. When you watch the marketing or demo videos for software or plug-ins they always work with just a few clicks. This is not the case.

 

Technology is important, and there are lots of amazing pieces of software that we use, but they almost never just work with a couple of clicks.

 

The most obvious example of this I can remember was using Twixtor to retime shots. Before I got to Framestore, I used After Effects and Final Cut Pro a lot. I would always watch the demo videos for Twixtor and then never get the same quality of results when I tried to use it on my footage. I would get all of those crazy artefacts in my image. I remember seeing Framestore and MPC on the list of companies that used the plug-in and thinking, ‘Well they must know how to use it better than I do’.

 

When I was in the paint and roto department at Framestore I found out that they never got the plug-in to work perfectly either. Compositors would spend an hour or two trying to get the best results they could, and then would send the shot to the paint and roto department who had to spend days cleaning up all of the artefacts created by the plug-in. There was one shot on Clash Of The Titans that had smoke, fire, straight lines, all the things that would break a re-time plug-in. We spent a month cleaning up the re-time for that shot, and it still wasn’t perfect when they had to take it from us to deliver the final composite.

 

We once had a demonstration of the Furnace plug-ins by a senior guy from The Foundry. He openly told us that we should never expect the plug-ins to fix 100% of your problems. He said they will all get you 80% of the way there, you have to do the rest. They never say that in the marketing. A lot of the work done in VFX is still done with lots of time and brute force.

 

 

Thanks for your time, buddy, and one more question. Do you have any recommendations or tips for young people who want to become VFX artists, perhaps compositors, who are making up their minds whether to go to a VFX school and wondering where and how to get their first job?

 

Lots of people looking to get into the VFX industry think they can, and should, learn the whole process, from shooting footage, modeling, rigging, animating and lighting CG, through to compositing the finished shot. While this is possible at school, or on a small project, this is definitely not that way it is done for feature films. There are many different departments and people involved in one single shot in a movie. Each of the departments are full of people specialized in that part of the process. The bigger the company is, the less likely it is they will want to hire a ‘generalist’ who can do a bit of everything.

 

This means if you want to work at the bigger VFX companies, you need to know which department you want to work in. Once you know which skill you want to concentrate on, work out the steps you need to take to get there. For example, to get into compositing, I took the Escape compositing course to learn Shake and Nuke, and concentrated on paint and roto skills so I could get into the paint and roto department at Framestore, which is the entry point for people who want to eventually be in compositing. If I had wanted to get into one of the 3D disciplines instead, I would have concentrated on getting into the match move department instead of paint and roto.

 

Once you know which skills you need to learn to get into the department you are aiming for, you can learn them however you want, at a school, through an online course, or by teaching yourself.

 

It isn’t easy deciding what you want to do with your life, but once you do know, it is easier to make a plan.


See Conrad’s website: http://conradolson.com/

Conrad Olson’s IMDB page