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Interview With Chris Healer in the Visual Effects Industry

Chris Healer Chris Healer

According to Chris Healer, the world of visual effects offers the perfect opportunity to blend creative talent with technical expertise. "I wanted to do something creative first and foremost, but found that I had this technical side that I could much more easily express myself with," said Healer.

VFX is a growing field with no shortage of interesting jobs for think-outside-the-box artists. Over the course of his career, Healer has been a visual effects supervisor, creative designer, programmer, producer, webmaster, and rotoscoper. In 2005, he founded The Molecule (www.themolecule.net), a New York supplier of visual effects, motion graphics, animation, and production services.

Pros and Cons of a VFX Career

Like most people in creative careers, Chris Healer doesn't know the meaning of "boring routine." One day, he might be creating visual effects for a television program or a feature film. Another day, he's brainstorming effects for commercials or music videos.

"Today, I'm working on TV stuff: Royal Pains, Lights Out, Rescue Me," Healer said. "And commercial stuff: a piece for Sephora featuring 'Tokidoki' characters, a stereoscopic piece for ESPN, and a stereoscopic bit for A&E. And I'm in preliminary meetings for a feature with Paramount."

Unlike other roles in the production of visual content, VFX spans projects from pre-production all the way through post-production. "We see material pass through the lens of the camera and shepherd it into the final edit," said Healer. "The transformation of idea into ultimate realization is exciting to me."

VFX does have its challenges. Top of the list are the long hours and grueling deadlines. "Anyone who's spent time doing this knows how awful it is when machines aren't working, or when you just can't muster up what it takes to cover the last ten miles of ditch it takes to hit a deadline," said Healer. "I remember once putting in two 40-hour stretches on a music video for Paris Hilton."

Even the stress and fatigue come with compensations, though. "There's a wonderful sense of camaraderie, almost a war-time brotherhood, that comes from experiences like that," Healer said.

Behind the Scenes of the VFX Workflow

Healer lives by a simple axiom: "All mistakes are made in pre-production."

"If a project is properly conceived, budgeted, and scheduled, and one has a gut feeling that everyone's on the same page, then the rest of the workflow will naturally follow," he said.

After the planning and budgeting is complete, the next phase might involve editing shots and creating a shot list. The details of this phase vary depending on the type of media. "Graphics, animation, and live action VFX are all totally different creatures," explained Healer.

Next comes working on shots. At The Molecule, this phase usually involves some collaboration, but how much varies greatly depending on the project. "Sometimes one person owns a shot, and is the keeper of that shot, and all pieces flow to that person to contribute to the final piece," said Healer. "Other times it's more like assembly line work, and each person applies their specialty to each shot and the end result is a whole bunch of shots which cut together and voila! we have something like an edit."

The end result of a VFX project is unpredictable. "Many people think we know what stuff is going to look like as we're doing it," Healer said. "But it's really not until we do at least a first pass, commit to the rendering and the assembly and the file management, that we get to see what we're doing. After that first pass, it's wash, rinse, and repeat, until we have an edit that plays and we can see if the whole thing is working."

Professional VFX studios usually rely on a render farm, a computer cluster that renders computer-generated imagery. Without a render farm, it takes hours or days of processing in order to render 3D projects and animations on a single computer. In years past, this meant setting aside one computer for the time it took to render an animation. If something stopped the process before completion, the entire thing had to be restarted.

The Molecule's render farm was built from the ground up. "Can't really function without it," Healer said. "It kind of spoils you after a while, really...I look at a job, and I'm like, 'yeah, we can do it.' And then if the farm is down for a day or two I realize how much output--how much computation--is required to do what we do, and to do it on one or two machines is absurd."

Creativity Beyond Software

For people wanting to pursue a career in VFX, Healer recommends balancing a technical skillset with a well-rounded education. "I always appreciate people who understand politics or classical music, fashion or sculpture. Understanding how to do something doesn't speak toward what to do. When creating images, what's in your head is what ends up on the page, and having something up there can only help what we see in the final rendering."

As far as the specific tools go, Healer says most software programs are basically reiterations of the same concepts. "There's really not that much of a difference between After Effects, Shake, Nuke, Fusion, Flame, and Houdini," he said. "The interfaces are different, and some are cheaper than others, and some are faster than others, and some have nice plugins or APIs, but ultimately they all just manipulate pixels."

In a nutshell: learn the current software, master it, and continually update your technical skills. But don't get too hung up on the tools. Instead, focus on the underlying concepts. "Really understanding the function of a pixel, and a track, and a key and a frame; really understanding pre-multiplication and motion blur; how color correction works in different color spaces; grain types; transfer modes; the zen art of rotoscoping; bézier curves and keyframes," Healer said, "these are the guts of graphics and compositing, of imaging in general."

According to Healer, the way to understanding these foundational concepts is through software, but it's important to remember that they exist beyond software. "There is a bridge to cross which is technical," he said, "but creativity lies beyond."

The Future of Visual Effects and Animation

The VFX and animation industries are evolving rapidly. "A kid on a computer in his bedroom can now do what 20 people in a multimillion-dollar facility could do 20 years ago," said Healer. As technology becomes physically smaller and more affordable, the playing field for VFX artists is leveled. "What once took shelves and shelves of rack space has now been condensed into about one single vertical inch," said Healer. "I picture warehouses in Jersey full of hot expensive machines having been outmoded instantly."

This kind of development means that smaller VFX companies are able to be more competitive in the industry. "To some extent, the moat that has always separated the big guys like ILM and Dreamworks from smaller shops like us has drained slightly," Healer said. "We can work in 4k. We can complete fairly massive 3D renderings without too much trouble. We work stereoscopically."

Stereoscopy--a 3D imaging technique that creates the illusion of depth--is still an emerging technology. "The jury's out as to whether it has enough stickiness to be here for good," Healer said. "I personally think that video games will give it the traction that it needs, and that the idea of 'video game,' 'TV show,' and 'feature film,' will blur together in ways we can't predict."

Healer imagines new genres of media emerging in the coming years. He looks forward to the creative potential that will be unleashed by those new forms. Who knows what kind of technology VFX artists will be working with, ten years from now? But, Healer pointed out, "Ultimately it's the artists that create what we see, and that will never change, despite the technology."

Visit The Molecule at www.themolecule.net.