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The VFX Factor: Michael Lowes on the Importance of Staying Playful

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The Embassy’s senior FX developer on lessons learned from remote working, how imagination aids creative problem solving, and what the end goal of VFX should be

The VFX Factor: Michael Lowes on the Importance of Staying Playful

Michael Lowes is a senior FX developer at The Embassy. During his time at the independent creative studio, he’s created work for feature films such as Ender’s Game and Elysium, and led FX teams on advertising projects for brands including Nissan, Bell, and Flonase. 

Here, Michael explains what makes a successful collaboration with a director, how to deal with self-doubt, and why staying playful is the most important part of his process.


LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them? 


Michael> My most successful collaborations with directors have happened when they share their storytelling goals directly with the VFX artists at The Embassy. Taking the time to introduce themselves and share this with the artists at the start of a project can pay back with interest. It can enable artists to make creative decisions that align with the story goals rather than unintentionally distract. I find visual effects that don't serve the storytelling end up as visual noise, reducing the emotional impact of a sequence. In today's VFX heavy films that adds up to a lot of noise.

The end goal of visual effects should be to blend with what was shot, ideally feeling like it was made by a single team with unified goals. Over time, technology has enabled the many stages of production to work farther and farther apart, but we’ve also created less and less human interaction between departments. We’re unlikely to ever go back to how things used to be done. Our challenge at The Embassy in this modern landscape is to somehow forge more human connections, and reduce the buffers and isolation between departments. I feel many of us can relate personally to this grappling with technology in our lives and its connection to feelings of separation.   

However we do it, bringing the VFX artists into the emotional storytelling team will get you their most inspired work. Instead of playing it safe they are given permission to bring something of themselves into the shot. When everyone is inspired and on the same page, communication becomes more fluid. A large percentage of VFX revisions are at their core a kind of misunderstanding. With clearer communication we'll end up with a better result, faster, cheaper, and our team will grow stronger as connections are made. I bet we’ll all have more fun doing it too.


Above: For Neil Blomkamp's 'Elysium', Michael developed custom weapon FX for an intense shoot-out between the lead characters played by Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley.


LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?


Michael> All projects have their unique challenges, but in all seriousness I've found that staying playful is the most important part of my process, and where it all begins. Imagination is where creative problem solving comes from, and play is the only way I've found to reliably get there. Unfettered access to our imagination is second nature when we're children, but it's been hard work my entire life to keep that door open wide.
 
I've been doing this professionally for over 20 years but I still get anxiety from internal voices of self doubt. When a strange new effect lands on my plate I can’t help but think:
 
"Am I a good enough artist to make this effect I've never seen before?"
“Am I smart enough to solve all of the technical problems I’ve never solved before?”
“Am I quick enough to get it done in the time that I have?”
“What will happen if I fail?”
 
When this happens I take a deep breath, and literally concentrate on playing instead of listening to those voices. I grab my sketchbook and just have fun taking a deep dive learning everything I can in the context of the shot or sequence. Observing and finding inspiration in nature... we're so spoiled with the internet if you use it carefully. I'm trying not to think about how I will make the effect at this stage, I'm just playing, learning and trying to observe. 

As I gather reference, explore, and take notes, bizarre idea after bizarre idea of things to try will pop out of my imagination if I'm relaxed enough. My sketchbook is at hand ready to catch them all with little drawings and notes. When I start prototyping I work through a roughed in camera and try to think, what is the simplest way for the effect to help tell the story of this shot?

I try not to let anything slow me down, I keep playing, experimenting, having fun trying different things. Working rough and fast I create broad strokes trying not to get weighed down in the details just yet. I try to not be scared to restart, but I don't throw anything away, I save all versions. Odds are I might combine several of my ideas together in the end which is easy with node based workflows. I heavily document my work, make my own renders with lots of notes that I can always roll back to. I become a mad scientist, open to happy accidents!


Above: In a recent campaign for Flonase, directed by Rattling Stick's Misko Iho, Michael developed the grass monster's fur dynamics and the ground destruction FX.


LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during Covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?


Michael> There’s an interesting riddle I’ve pondered while working remotely. At The Embassy we were able to keep delivering projects as we went into lockdown in 2020. I wondered if this is because we were effective at working remotely? Or were we effective at working remotely because we were leaning on the relationships that were slowly built over many years of working together in person?

For instance when in-person we are able to communicate fast and loose, with little worry of miscommunication or need for explanation. Trust is available on tap from all the projects delivered together. Being together makes it easier to support each other when things get tough.

Either way, there’s no going back. For the remote and hybrid workplaces, how do companies motivate their teams and foster environments where connections are made? How do we effectively motivate, train, and integrate new hires? How do we continue to build community?

I don’t have the answers, but I believe the companies that keep asking these questions and continue to reach for solutions will be the ones that survive.


Above: For Bell's cross-platform campaign, with re-imagined footage from stunt-show ‘Elba vs. Block’, Michael created dynamic liquid effects for the giant dumplings which took the place of smashed up cars.


LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time? 


Michael> I had a wonderful start in visual effects that I will always be thankful for. After highschool I worked for years in many strange jobs, sometimes connected to computer graphics but often not. I didn't like all the jobs, but each one taught me something useful for later. Eventually I went to film school for character animation to try and make a real go of it.

I'm not a great character animator, but learned that a background in animation is surprisingly useful in visual effects. A lot of effects when it comes down to it, are using animation/movement to make an emotional impact, with an eye to composition in camera. Proceduralism and simulations are great, but when backed into an effects corner, I've keyframed my way out more times than I'd like to admit.

After a PS2 game I was working on went belly up, an old friend helped get me an interview working on the sci-fi series "Andromeda". With no experience or training in visual effects I started at the bottom, literally fixing broken render frames on the farm, and making star passes for the space shots. It took a while to prove myself, but I got hired back for the next season and was working on my own shots.

Over time I learned how valuable getting experience in all of the steps of the 3d pipeline can be. Sci-fi shows back then were breeding grounds for generalist vfx artists. We all had our strengths, but for the most part we were generalists handling all of the vfx steps ourselves... modelling, animation, surfacing, lighting, rendering etc. Even as things have become more specialised, and even if your job title says otherwise, there will always be value in a generalist's skills.

The in-house teams I worked with on Andromeda, and later on Stargate SG1, Atlantis, and Universe were a strange but fantastic group of people, almost like some kind of skunk-works! While we didn't have a lot of time per shot, the incredible number of shots we created was a great way to learn by trial and error. I'd learn to keep things as simple as I could, and try new things, to take risks, not get too attached. This experience has really helped me grow at The Embassy as we tackle a variety of projects in advertising, tv and film with varying timelines.

I’m so thankful for all the people I've worked with over the years, and the generosity they've shown sharing their knowledge and experience with me.

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The Embassy, Wed, 24 Aug 2022 08:22:38 GMT