Martin Bohm reveals the inner workings of the lighting department, what his role as lighting lead entails, and how he sees lighting changing in the next five years.
Tell us how you became interested in visual effects.
Since I was a kid I liked to draw and ‘create’ things, so I started working as a freelance illustrator when I finished school. I studied traditional (hand drawn) animation in my first year at University in Berlin, where I was born, but quickly realized that getting a job in this field would be very difficult. So I gave computer animation a try and I realized that it is a much better tool for me to work with. You don’t have to recreate everything again and again, as in traditional animation, but you can always build on what you have already archived once. After a few student projects and some freelance work I eventually got the chance to start an internship at ‘Uncharted Territory’ (the visual effects house of German Academy Award winner Volker Engel) where they were working on Roland Emmerich’s ‘Anonymous’ in the Babelsberg Studios at the time, right next to my University.
That was a life changing experience for me and I knew at this point I wanted to work professionally in the international visual effects industry. I finished my studies after 5 long exhausting years hoping to find a job somewhere abroad. That didn’t happen unfortunately, but to my own surprise, I landed my first full-time job as a supervisor for a small German visual effects house working for TV (I guess studying for so long was worth something after all).
After several months there, I got a totally unexpected call from Double Negative (I applied unsuccessfully 9 month prior and never expected to hear from them again), moved straight away to London and worked in the UK for almost 3 years. During that time I changed companies quite often (working also for Framestore and Cinesite for example) and eventually gained a lot of experience from that. I can only encourage everyone to work for different companies at the beginning of their career because it’s the best way to learn and to get some reputation in the industry.
To have a background in illustration was a big advantage I think, because it gave me a mental library to work with in order to compose an image visually. You will always learn new software at the company you work at, but you can only improve your ‘artistic eye’ with experience.
What brought you to Vancouver?
I’d heard a lot of good things about Vancouver when I was in London and also eventually wanted to work at another company. I’m lucky that my future wife works as an artist in the visual effects industry as well, so we decided to move to Vancouver together.
Image Engine has a great reputation among artists even across the ‘big pond’, so I applied for an open lighting position, but never expected to get a response on the same day – that’s when I knew Image Engine was what I was looking for.
My first project here was ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ in 2015 and I will be honest, it was probably the most challenging professional project I worked on so far.
Image Engine ramped up significantly for it at the time, so most of us were totally inexperienced with the in-house tools and had to learn as we went along. The amazing team, flexible pipeline and supportive environment, however, made it an enjoyable experience nonetheless and I really felt recognized for my efforts.
Since then Image Engine has made huge improvements on the technical side of things (like changing our renderer to Arnold for example) to a point where I would say we have the best pipeline in the industry in my opinion (but feel free to call me subjective here…).
What are the differences between the visual effects scenes in Vancouver, London and Berlin?
Germany doesn’t have significant subsidies for international film productions, so the small visual effects studios in Berlin or Munich need to be as efficient as possible (you know Germans, right?). To compete with the rest of the world requires a more generalist approach from every artist and increases the pressure on the whole team. There is definitely more competition among artists in Germany I would say.
London is a way more industrialized industry and the studios are much larger. That makes it easier to get your foot in the door because the demand for artists is high and the work is more distributed around departments, but it is much harder to get recognized individually and it can be frustrating to have so little influence within this huge machine.
I think Vancouver provides a good middle ground – there are plenty of opportunities to work on big budget projects, but the studios are small enough to make you feel recognized and have some influence within the company – there are exceptions, but the city generally has some great companies to offer.
What have been some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?
I worked on a lot of projects throughout the years from student projects with virtually no money, to multi-million ‘Hollywood’ productions and every single one was a unique experience I wouldn’t want to miss.
I’m still pretty proud of my graduation project which took me almost two years to finish. I basically created a full CG humanoid robot for that (no, that was before ‘Chappie’). From concept, to modeling and look dev, to rigging, mo-cap, lighting, rendering and comp, I did it all by myself. It was crazy. I will never live such an unhealthy lifestyle again.
There is also the ‘first big project’ in your visual effects career that will always have a special place in your heart, which was ‘Hunger Games – Catching Fire’ in my case. There is barely anything I could show from that project however, because I was mostly just modeling and positioning low poly geometry for collision simulations – you have to start somewhere.
The most rewarding one for sure was ‘Ex Machina’, which won the Academy Award for Visual Effects in 2016. It’s amazing to have worked on an ‘Oscar’ awarded movie in general, but that one was a huge surprise for everyone. Nobody expected that, especially not our small team of around 40 people at Double Negative at the time. With a small team like that, you really feel ownership over the work you did and I couldn’t be more proud of my contribution there.
My favorite project at Image Engine so far is ‘Logan’. Lighting a full scale high detailed digital double was a lot of fun. Trying to match the stand-in actor perfectly was a very enjoyable challenge. I really hope we have the chance to do something similar again in the future.
What is lighting? What does it entail?
Being a lighting artist usually means moving lights around and, generally speaking, generating pretty pictures. And that’s an important part of our job for sure.
From my experience though, that’s just a fraction of the work we do every day. Lighting artists are ‘shot managers’, as I call it. We need to make sure all the work from the upstream departments end up in the shots as they are intended and get passed on as rendered images to compositing in the best way possible – artistically and technically. If something on the asset level is not working, we report it back to the upstream departments or have to fix it on our own. We have to optimize our renders to make sure it gets rendered on the farm in the best quality possible while keeping an eye on artistic continuity and the time schedule.
Lighting artists simply need to know a bit about all the individual aspects of that process, from modeling, through look development to compositing because we need to make sure that all those pieces fit together at the end.
What skills are necessary to be a good lighter?
To be a really good lighting artist, you need to combine two very different qualities – a solid understanding of the technology, but also a strong artistic instinct and expertise.
You need to be an artist and a technician at the same time.
You need to develop a feeling for what a good image needs in order to work. To know how color and composition works is as important as to know what light does in reality.
Aside from the artistic aspects, an essential part of our job is to break the images apart into their individual components (‘render passes’ and ‘AOVs’) before it actually gets rendered, so the compositing artist has as much artistic freedom as possible to fine-tune the final image. Although this can be technically complex sometimes, it’s something nobody really sees. At the same time, good lighting can be ‘invisible’ to the eye as well, since it is supposed to fit in perfectly to the plate.
If you do a really good job in lighting, nobody will really notice what you did – the rendered image feels just ‘natural’ and nobody will hear of any technical issues from your side.
I think that’s why lighting can be a bit overlooked sometimes…
Because lighting is the connecting link between the 3D and 2D departments, communication is very important. You don’t always know how a certain setup (like complex instancing in big environment scenes) or shader (for example for fur or water) is intended to be used efficiently when you get it, or how the compositing department needs individual passes to be set up for their own convenience – so you have to ask and pass information along.
In big visual effects houses this essential communication is often difficult to achieve from my experience and results in a lot of unnecessary extra work for everyone. Ultimately, it’s a waste of time, energy and artistic potential. As a lighting lead at Image Engine I spend a lot of time talking with people and trying to encourage everyone in the team to do the same. And yes, talking and listening can be challenging as well sometimes.
What makes lighting at Image Engine different?
The majority of work of Image Engine’s relatively large R&D and Pipeline department goes into the optimization and streamlining of the artists’ workflow. With Image Engine’s exclusive version of its open source framework ‘Gaffer’ embedded in Maya (which is called ‘Caribou’), the lighting department has the ability to create setups to work on multiple shots at the same time while being totally flexible in our approach.
The connection between pipeline/R&D and the artists at Image Engine is very unique – tools are adjusted and created based on the artists requests and not imposed on them. ‘Gaffer’/’Caribou’ in combination with our content management system ‘Jabuka’ even enables artists to create and share their own little tools themselves. That’s something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. There is barely any technical restriction for the individual artists – everyone has access to (almost) every element in the pipeline.
That gives the lighting artists a lot of power, but also a lot of responsibility (yes, Uncle Ben in ‘Spiderman’ was right…). In general, there is a lot of respect and trust between the artists, leads and supervisors at Image Engine, which makes it a wonderful place to learn and grow.
What does your role as lighting lead entail?
My role as a lighting lead actually changes from project to project, but my main responsibility is to provide the other lighting artists with the essential setups they work with every day.
Without going into too much technical detail here, I basically make sure they can focus on the shot specific aspects of their work to create the best possible images. In a perfect scenario they wouldn’t need to care about technical aspects of the work and only focus on the artistic side of things – but there are no perfect scenarios in visual effects, so I give technical support on a daily basis. I’m kind of a mini-CG-Supervisor so to speak.
Aside from that I manage the individual shot assignments, do initial lighting tests, stay in constant communication with the other departments and go to a lot of meetings.
With the current projects I actually give artistic feedback as well, which is a nice change from all the technical issues you have day by day. I think I am a generalist at heart and I would really get bored doing the same thing every day, so I really like how different every task and project in lighting is. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do this job at Image Engine (I wasn’t forced to put this in here…).
What is your prediction on how lighting will change in the next 5 years?
GPU based rendering is a pretty big topic these days and visual effects studios are already exploring its potential. I don’t expect an entire shift from CPU to GPU render in the visual effects industry anytime soon though, because of the enormous challenges associated with complex pipelines within a big studio environment. Smaller studios might be more flexible in this regard. In the long-run I also see a trend towards a merge of comp and lighting. Just a year ago ChaosGroup released a V-Ray integration for Nuke and I think there will be more development in this direction in the future.
Those new paradigms are certainly fascinating, but I’m worried it will increase the pressure on visual effects houses to produce content faster with even tighter budgets. The technology is constantly changing and time will tell in what direction our industry moves.