Scott Dawkins has been working as a Visual Effects artist for the last six years. After finishing his degree in 3D Design, he started out in the business as a runner, working his way quickly up the ladder and is now Head of Paint and Roto at the Oscar winning visual effects company Framestore. Scott kindly answered a few questions about what inspired him to work in VFX, how he managed to get a foothold in a notoriously competitive industry and tips for budding VFX artists
What inspired you to work in Visual Effects?
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do something creative, I’d often be found gluing together cardboard to make new toys or drawing on new cushions to make them more colorful (to the dismay of my mother). Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988 gripped me as a child with the belief that these drawn characters could come to life and interact with REAL people. That film sparked the curiosity and my parents would always push me to discover more and more. So, I guess my inspiration for VFX stems from the outrageous interactions of a fugitive rabbit and my parents nurturing my creativity… while steering me away from furniture whenever I had crayons.
What qualifications do you need to become a Visual Effects artist?
The term “VFX artist” is a broad one, there are many different roles that fall into this category. I’ve met people with a wide variety of qualifications ranging from a Master’s Degree in Physics to Advanced Computer Science. Myself, I hold a degree of digital 3D design. In my experience, although the attainment of a qualification aids you in getting your foot through the door, it’s your passion and initial knowledge of VFX that will get you all the way through the door. Even then, the majority of graduates who join the VFX industry start as Runners, as I did. Runners are without a doubt the foundation of VFX. They run around making tea for clients, fetching lunches and delivering hard-drives. Once their shift is over they get to sit and learn from people in the industry, train on current material and use the same resources as the VFX artists, and once a position is open they have the chance to move up the ranks. Its tough work, but it’s a brilliant experience. Running is the first step anyone interested in VFX has to make.
How did you get your current job, what kind of experience did you need?
I’ve been working in VFX for about 6 years and I’m currently the Head of Paint & Roto in Film at Framestore (sounds very geeky doesn’t it). I got hired at Framestore about two years ago and got offered the role of Head of Department about a year ago. I had previous experience at companies like The Mill and Glassworks, working on commercials and music videos. This was my big shot a working on big Hollywood films and I was incredibly excited when I got the job. Since then I’ve just been plugging away and constantly working hard.
What do you do on a daily basis, do you have a specialty or do you work in all kinds of different areas? Can you give some examples from films you’ve worked on?
An example of what a Paint & Roto artist does is painting things out that shouldn’t be in the shot. For example; we regularly remove ‘wire-rigs’. These could be used on set to make it look like an actor is flying. Obviously you wouldn’t want to see these wires in the finished film, so we remove them. We perform many other daily-tasks as Paint & Roto artists but to list them all and describe them would make this very lengthy and boring, HA! I wouldn’t want to do that to your readers, plus it would spoil the magic!
You’ve worked on some very exciting films – Gravity and 47 Ronin to name just two, with many more coming out in the future. How long on average do you spend on a film?
This very much depends on the film and the nature of work that film entails. Gravity was a huge undertaking by Framestore and took over three years to produce. Obviously, there is a massive pipeline and many departments and artists that a film runs through to reach completion. I only worked on Gravity for a single month to aid in finishing off our departments tasks, but others have been working on it for the full duration of over three years. 47 Ronin was the longest project I have worked on so far, that was just over a year I think.
Many of the film makers who submit films to us work from home using rudimentary computers to create visual effects and there have been examples of directors (such as Gareth Edwards Monsters) using technology at home to create their pictures. Does the industry see this as a threat?
I don’t think is ‘threat’ is the word. It’s brilliant to see VFX practiced in a very “gorilla” style of film making as Monsters is. I think having the ability to produce such amazing imagery has never been more accessible than it is now to the general public and it will continue in this fashion, I have no doubt. There will always be the need for big studios with the vast resources that they have, and the brilliant artists they employ. Monsters is an example of a smart film maker and a very smart VFX team I’m sure they will go on to create bigger and better films.
Ang Lee ruffled feathers at last year’s Oscars for failing to acknowledge the substantial work of the Visual Effects artists who worked on the film. Do you feel your is an under-appreciated industry?
Life of Pi is definitely a hot topic in VFX and the appreciation of VFX artists is something that, in my opinion is not recognised enough. That said, I’m incredibly proud and pleased that Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock have been very vocal about thanking us, and particularly our VFX supervisor Tim Webber for the huge work that we undertook when making Gravity. It’s my hope that their attitude of showing respect and thanks to VFX artists will echo to others who owe ‘the geeks in their studios’ more than they convey.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to work in Visual Effects?
Stay curious. If you don’t know how to do something or how “they” did something in a film, go and find out. There are vast resources on the internet to explore and as I have said previously; the tools on offer to the average geek with a nifty computer is very vast. Just keep plugging away at your dream and you will get there. Failing all of that, try and get work experience as a runner at a VFX house. You’ll get the opportunity to meet lots of great people and make connections.
What’s the best thing about your job and what’s the worst?
The best part of my job is problem solving. To get a shot that has you scratching your head and thinking “… How am I going to pull this off?” I love the process of figuring that out and finding the solution. The sense of conquering a shot and getting it approved by your supervisors is a brilliant feeling. No shot is the same and so you’re constantly challenged and pushed which is something I love about this job. What do I hate?… The fact that you can’t watch another film, TV show, commercial or any kind of visual media without pulling it apart and analyzing how it was made. You don’t get as “sucked-into” the magic as you used to. I find myself looking and criticizing the VFX rather than enjoying the content. Sadly, when you work in VFX, you know how the movie magicians do their tricks.
Finally, how does it feel to see the final film you’ve worked on on the big screen, with your name attached to the credits?
When I saw my credit on Gravity – that was cool! My first film credit – childhood dream achieved! Hi-fives all round! And to top it all off, Gravity was cool as heck, and is up for 10 Oscars! I feel very privileged to be a part of that. When I saw 47 Ronin, I think it meant a lot more. I had spent A LOT of time on that film and everyone I worked with invested so much of their time making that film happen. Watching it back on the big screen was like seeing an old friend again. It had been about 9 months since I had seen any of it. Me, my girlfriend and family took up a whole row in a cinema to go see it all together and it tugged on my heart strings a little, I won’t lie. It’s an amazing feeling seeing posters of movies you’ve helped make zip past you on a bus or watch the trailer get over 10 million views on YouTube or hear people talk about it. It’s amazing and worth all the time and effort.
Thank you Scott, and all the best of luck at the Oscars and beyond!