Michael Billette, FX TD extraordinaire, discusses the challenges and responsibilities of his role, the inner workings of the FX department, and what he thinks it takes to be successful in the industry.
Take us to the beginning. How did you become interested in visual effects?
When I was deciding which career to pursue, I was only sure of two things: I liked to make art, and I liked to use computers and technology. I was drawn at first to architecture. I took a drafting course and enjoyed using AutoCAD to design buildings and homes. Later I had the opportunity to take a week-long “bootcamp” course with one of Vancouver’s specialized colleges, focused on 3d modelling for animation and games. By the end of that week, I knew this was what I wanted to do, and enrolled in a similar program at the Art Institute of Vancouver. During the course of my studies, I gravitated away from games and animation, towards visual effects.
How did you get your start in the industry?
After graduating, I was looking for work for a long six months. It became clear that entering the industry with the modelling job I wanted would be a long shot; I needed to get my foot in the door first. At that point, the school noticed a demand for rotoscope artists. They offered a weekend workshop to introduce us to rotoscoping in Nuke and set up interviews for us with Image Engine. In 2 days I made a short roto reel to accompany my 3d reel and had an interview. I got the job!
What attracted you to Image Engine?
Two films were released towards the beginning of my education that were foundational to my pursuit of visual effects and which inspired me to shift my focus away from games and animation: Avatar, and District 9. What drew me to Image Engine was the incredible skill and artistry demonstrated by a comparatively small team. When I had the chance to work with Image Engine through the rotoscope department, I put everything I had into making sure that happened.
There are so many studios in Vancouver. What are the factors that have made you stay at this one?
For me, the main factors come from the size of the team versus the quality of work we produce. Keeping the team at this medium size can force the quality of each artist to be higher and can encourage, or at times necessitate, working more closely with other departments. It can also allow an artist to have a larger reach and impact on a production. In this environment, my hard work and ambitions have been, and continue to be, utilized and encouraged. I think this balance of team size vs. quality of work is unique to Image Engine (comparing Vancouver studios), and they have made enormous effort to preserve it. This attitude is also reflected in the pipeline development. The focus is placed on giving more power to a single TD and more ease of use to every artist. The result is impressive, and Image Engine makes it a priority to stay on the cutting edge of these technologies.
Can you tell us a little about your career path?
When I was hired as a roto artist, I was told that given the right circumstances, I’d have a chance to move into a 3d department. Fortunately for me, that happened just a couple months later when I moved to layout. From there I went a little crazy. When I burned through all the work production could give me I started getting tasked with some more general, tedious, technical problems. Solving those problems sort of bought me a ticket to where I wanted to go: modelling. I spent a year modelling; as a highlight, I was one of the three modellers who created Chappie. At that point, I felt I probably wouldn’t top that experience, so I moved back into layout, with a focus on environments. I led the layout team and created environments for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, San Andreas, Jurassic World, and Independence Day: Resurgence. During that time I used SpeedTree and Python for procedural modelling and set dressing, and our then new proprietary shading/rendering software Caribou for procedural shading and instancing. When I began hitting limits with what I wanted to do, I turned to Houdini. I helped create dynamics rigs for the jungle plants in Jurassic World and started doing FX work for Point Break and X-Files. I used Houdini to model and dress a large scale environment for Independence Day: Resurgence when characters crash-land in the alien mothership. I’ve since been full time in the FX department, doing FX work for Fantastic Beasts, Logan, and our latest projects.
Can you give us a breakdown of your current role? What are your responsibilities and the challenges that come with your position?
Right now I’m working in the FX department, simulating and designing effects like blood, dirt, plants, fire, water, magic and (a lot of) smoke. Image Engine uses Houdini for its effects, which means just about anything is possible and each tool is customized. Tools are built specifically for each scenario or type of effect, basically through visual scripting. Similar effects might have different solutions based on the input data (is a car speeding down the highway on fire or is a building on fire?), but FX is truly a balance of technical and artistic ability. Everyone has a different idea of what even the most fundamental effects (fire, water) should look like. Often our task is to create something no one has seen before, which can leave a lot of creative input in our hands. Once a look is established, it still needs to work compositionally in each shot, which can sometimes mean different solutions for the same effects in different shots. Beyond that, we are often responsible for ensuring we have enough data to work with from other departments, and at times provide final renders to be composited in the shots. Aside from the FX work I help other artists interface with the pipeline by building workflows or just answering questions. I also pick up some of the more general tasks that fall outside of the FX scope of work.
What are the dynamics of the FX department?
Is that a pun?? 🙂
Well, the FX department can be pretty independent, both internally and externally. Each of us needs to be a one man army at times, as effects can require many areas of knowledge. That said, knowledge is constantly shared between artists, and often multiple heads will go into solving one problem. If a specific effect appears in many shots, one or two artists will focus on building the tools, and other artists will focus on fine tuning each shot. As a department, we have a close relationship with animation, lighting, and comp, but we need to have the ability to fill in for them when necessary for temps, or in outlying situations.
You were nominated for a VES Award in 2016 for your work on the jungle chase on Jurassic World. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Jurassic World was a special project for us. Everyone in the studio was excited to help bring this world back to life which resulted in a highly creative and productive atmosphere. The award nomination was for the environment work in one of our sequences, where four raptors lead Chris Pratt on a hunt through the island’s jungle. The challenge here was creating a couple full CG establishing shots, then integrating the environment with plates for the rest of the sequence. My role involved modelling the plants and trees using SpeedTree, overseeing the layout and creation of the jungle, working with LookDev to set up some procedural shading of the environment, and working with FX to create rigs for dynamic simulations. I was lucky enough to make the trip down to LA to help represent everyone’s hard work during the awards ceremony, which is an experience I’ll never forget (although I’m having a bit of trouble remembering the after party!).
What have been some of your other favorite projects?
It’s hard to narrow down! Elysium was my first, and one of my favorites. The team was filled with top talent from around the world, all excited to help create Neill Blomkamp’s next movie. As a result, the quality of work was high, and the morale of the team was something that would be hard to recreate. Chappie was another favorite for being part of creating such an interesting and detailed character. As a modelling experience, I couldn’t ask for more. San Andreas stands out for me as it was my first experience being involved from the concept stages, and talking directly with the client. It was a small tight knit team from start to finish, and I’m proud of the results. Most recently Logan is worth mentioning. Everyone working on it knew it would be a special movie, aside from its visual effects. It was also unique in that we were working on a lot of blood and gore, the extent of which I hadn’t seen before. This brought a new level of complexity to the work that I wasn’t expecting.
You’ve been here for just over five years. How has Image Engine changed during that time?
Image Engine has had its busy and slow times like any VFX house, and along with it, the environment has changed with each new group of people. The thing that has changed most drastically though is our pipeline. Each slow time has been utilized to advance the technology tremendously, based on months of feedback from production. The pipeline today looks very different to when I came in 5 years ago, and in every way for the better.
How do you see your career progressing?
I’ve always been drawn to the larger scale dynamics of departments working together to achieve a goal, and pushing the boundaries of what we thought we could do. I also love helping and dealing with people, especially in an environment like this where so many people are on the same page. I think it would be natural for me to progress into a supervisory role, and I hope to be as strong of a leader as those I work with every day.
What advice do you have for people who are looking to get into this industry?
It’s all about working hard. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing and dedicate yourself to your work, you’ll make it in this industry. That also means doing what it takes to get to where you want to be, whether working for a very small company and handling a lot of different departments or getting an entry level job and doing extracurricular work to get to the position you want to be in. Show yourself and the people around you that you have what it takes. Aside from that, it’s a social world. Network, make friends, and in an interview show you’ll get along with the team.