Lou Romano likes to get involved! During his time at Pixar, he worked as a production designer, concept artist and voice-over artist on features such...
Neil Blevins is a digital effects artist who works as a technical director at world-renowned film studio Pixar. We spoke to him about his work on The Incredibles and his metal magazine Soul Killer.
Welcome to the world of Thunder Chunky. How’s life for you today?
Doing fine, thanks.
For the unenlightened amongst our readers could you explain briefly what you do with regard to digital graphics and also Soul Killer magazine.
Sure, first I work at Pixar as a Technical Director, which despite its name has a rather strong artistic component as well. I model, shade and light environments, and also do effects animation (like fire, smoke, water, etc). In my own time, I also do fine arts 3d images which I show on my website, mostly scifi/fantasy stuff. I also run a metal webzine called soulkiller which does news, album reviews, new release schedules and what not.
You were involved in Pixar’s new release The Incredibles. What were you responsible for in the film?
I spent a year as part of the second unit, a group of folk who did various environments for the film. The main difference between us and the first unit environments is the way we treated the work, the first unit would hand over final frames of the main characters, and it would be up to us to fill in the background using whatever method we wanted to use. This was closer to the way many shots are done in a live action film, you have your actors acting in front of a blue screen and then the visual effects company makes the virtual background. For example, in one sequence in the film, Mr Incredible is pulling a train inside of a trainyard. We were handed an element of bob running against a black background, and we made the trainyard that surrounded him.
My second year I was part of the effects department where I did dust, electrical effects, waterfalls and a number of other smaller effects.
What’s the most memorable thing about working on The Incredibles?
Probably what a great group of people I had a chance to work with. The film was a tremendous team effort, and it was a real honor working with people who are both talented, creative and good people.
An example of Neil’s work on The Incredibles
Pixar is probably the leading and most-well known digital graphics company in the world. What did you learn from working with them?
Well, from a technical side, my programming skills have certainly improved, I’ve also learned a lot of software I didn’t know before. From an artistic perspective, I learned a lot about how to research your subject before getting into the thick of things. Previous to pixar, my work would always have to be done by yesterday, and so I never had time to really research something before doing it, like getting good reference on what an object really looks like, how it’s material reacts to light, how it actually moves. Now before I start an effect or model I have some time to get reference books or even go out and photograph the real thing, which helps make a more convincing 3d object.
The Incredibles is an example of a film which is fully CGI but which doesn’t try to be photo-realistic. What challenges does this throw up rather than when you’re trying to recreate real environments?
Actually, it’s really the same challenge in a lot of ways. Once the film has a certain visual style, you need to match your work to that style. So whether you’re matching your cg to a photoreal plate or a stylized one, it’s basically the same thing, you’re just matching to a different look.
Do you think CGI is on it’s way towards taking over the world of real-life film?
No, I think it’s another style. Certainly there have been plenty of advances in digital stuntmen, and digital characters etc, but personally I’m much more interested in seeing what other directions stylistically cg can go into than just being about trying to perfectly recreate reality. CG should be about doing something you can’t do with reality.
The first film you worked on was Soul Keeper, as an effects animator. Wha’s the difference between an effects animator and a digital effects artist?
Not much, it’s all just a title, at Blur everyone was referred to as an animator, even if you didn’t animate much. My job at Blur and my job at Pixar really isn’t all that different.
How did you go from being a University student to working on Hollywood films? Did you approach them or did them hunt you down?
Well, I’ve been an artist since I was very, very young, and my parents enrolled me into private afterschool art classes at age 6, which I attended for 17 years. I got into 3d as a hobby, and made a lot of images, which I posted on my website and on various forums online. People started recognizing my work, and my first year of university, Blur studio in Venice California approached me for a position. I decided to finish school first, and after it was done, I moved to Los Angeles, worked at Blur for 3 years and then applied at Pixar, they hired me, and have been there since.
For any of our readers who are interested into getting into the digital effects and animation industry, what would be your advice to them?
First of all, love what you do. Second, get a traditional arts background, drawing, painting, sculpture, you’ll learn skills about color, composition and movement which will be vital to your success. Software is something that can be learned at home with manuals. Third, be a part of the community, join mailing lists and web forums, etc, read about what’s going on in the industry and make contacts, these people will be vital to getting a job in the future. And lastly, work, work work, make images or animation or whatever, as much of it as you can, the more you do it the better you’ll get.
You also run e-zine Soul Killer which looks at ‘The very Best In Death, Grind, Classic, Techno and New Metal’¬ù. How important to you is the magazine?
Very important actually. I have very little free time, and I think to myself now and again “Hey, I’d have more free time if I stopped the webzine” but I just can’t, not only because I don’t want to let down the readers but because the webzine is my own personal way of organizing in my mind what the bands are doing, who’s got a new album coming out soon, etc. Music is a big part of my life, not only do I listen to tons of music all day, but I’m a drummer and guitar player, when there’s no music around my foot will be tapping, I just have a personal soundtrack going 24 hours a day in my brain.
Most artists and designers get a lot of their inspiration from music. Is this the case with you? Which music gets your creative juices flowing?
A lot of different music gets me excited, obviously I listen to come very heavy stuff like Meshuggah, Fear Factory, Nasum, Slipknot, but I also enjoy lighter stuff like guitar instrumental music, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson. There’s more of a direct creative link between my music and my personal artwork, but I also listen to music while I work my job. There are a few common threads in the music I listen to, it needs to be complex and yet still musical, it needs to have interesting chord progressions, show a high level of musicianship and I’m a big fan of layers, tons and tons of different sounds on top of one another to form something different.
Here’s your chance to educate some of our readers. Which bands can you recommend, which our readers are unlikely to have heard already?
Well, see my question above for bands I recommend, as for bands people haven’t heard of that are really good, I’d recommend Nasum (grindcore), Psycroptic (crazy fast death metal), The Amenta (sort of death / black / techno), Bloodbath (the new Entombed), and Cryptopsy (death metal from my hometown of Montreal).
What are your plans for 2005?
I’m currently working on the next Pixar film, “Cars”. I have a lot of ideas for new creatures and robots I’d like to build for my personal artwork. Probably a move and spending some time with my lovely girlfriend.
Finally, what’s the one thing all our readers should do today?
Go on a hike, get out of that office and go see some nature!
Check out some of Neil’s 3D work by visiting www.neilblevins.com and you can find Soul Killer magazine at www.soulkillerwebzine.com. You may even want to check out his awesome employer at www.pixar.com.
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