Steve Wright is a senior visual effects compositing artist with over 20 years of production experience.
He has over 70 feature film credits. Night at the Museum 2, Shutter Island, Solaris, Traffic, U-571, Air Force One, and Hart’s War, and has created the visual effects for 70 broadcast television commercials. Steve is now a master trainer traveling around the world conducting VFX compositing training for major studios using Nuke or Shake. He has published two popular books on composting and produces training programs and conducts both online and live location-based classes and workshops
interview with Steve Wright
1- I have to say it’s an honor to interview you. As being the ” FATHER OF COMPOSITING” you don’t need any introduction but it would be great if you could share something about yourself for those who are new to visual effects and 3D.
I actually started working in visual effects in 1985 at Robert Abel and Associates, one of the founding companies of CGI. From there I opened my own studio in Hollywood (Sidley Wright & Associates) doing CGI for commercials. I noticed that the client was taking my CGI to a post house to composite so I decided to composite it myself so the client got a finished shot. This was years before After Effects and the only available system for compositing was the Pixar P2 computer, which is where I learned to composite. When Kodak opened Cinesite in Hollywood and offered film scanning I was suddenly in the feature film business compositing VFX shots with the Pixar. From there I later took a senior position at Cinesite. After 20 years of production experience, since 2005 I have been teaching and training visual effects compositing. My latest training offerings are on my new website www.fxecademy.com.
2- How was it like to work in the gaming industry. Your experiences in game development and with Atari, how did you get into game development?
This was before Robert Abel. I lived in Sunnyvale, California where Atari was located and got a job in the LSI inspection department where we tested the chips that went into the Atari 2600. This was the year that Atari switched to year around production so they were expanding like crazy. I ended up in the home video game programming department writing video games. After a year I was Director of Home Video Game Development.
Writing video games back then was very slow and painful. We had to write 6502 assembler code which was then compiled and downloaded into a 2600 game cartridge simulator so we could see and play our game. Graphics were created by hand by coloring in squares on graph paper then manually converting them to hex. It typically took 6 to 12 months to write a game.
Being very early in the history of video games gave me the opportunity to make several innovations such as:
- the first scrolling playfield for the 2600
- adding artists and musicians to create game graphics and music
- expanding the game manual to include a backstory
- coined the term “easter egg” for hidden features in a game
- wrote the programming manual for the 2600 graphic chip Stella
- the addition of a “payoff” screen when the gammer scored a goal
- developed a game design rapid prototyping system used for the Superman III movie
3- how visual effects were like back then?
When I started there were no books, no schools, no teachers, and no software. Where I worked at Robert Abel the engineering staff wrote the CGI software as needed for each project. Our software team went on to form Wavefront which became Alias/Wavefront which was purchased by Autodesk and eventually became Maya.
The only way we could output a shot was to NTSC video one frame at a time with an animation controller and a 1-inch video deck. Slow and painful. The only way we could shoot film was the color vector to a 35mm film recorder pointed at an Evans and Sutherland PS300 vector monitor with a color wheel. A red filter was moved in front of the lens and all the red vectors were filmed one frame at a time. Then the film was backed up and the green pass was filmed, then the blue pass. Slow and painful.
4- how was it like to step into visual effects and 3D from gaming?
It was an explosive increase in power and complexity. When I was in gaming we were flying 8 bit sprites around a 2D screen using a single microprocessor. At Robert Abel, we were rendering 3D Phong shaded raster graphics with polygonal models using a Gould 9080 superminicomputer. In gaming, we had tools to create the games. In VFX and 3D we were creating the tools needed to create the animation.
5- how was it like when you were learning 3D and visual effects?
My luck was that the technology was being invented where I worked at Robert Abel and I got to learn it from the engineers that wrote it. I spent a lot of time in engineering and with the customers because I was in sales there. Due to my technical background, I worked with the Industrial and Scientific clients creating things like molecular simulations and the Star Wars missile defense systems during the Regan administration. Hyper-technical stuff using CGI.
6- You are the go-to person when someone is stepping into compositing or visual effects. What were the source of information related to visual effects, 3D and film making you had when you were exploring?
As I said above, when I got into it there were no books or training so knowledge was very difficult to gain. The tech was being developed when I first started in it, so I got to learn it from the source. I learned to game from the engineers at Atari, 3D at Robert Abel and Associates, compositing at my Hollywood studio then at Cinesite, rotoscoping from Imagineer Systems (Mocha) and Nuke from the Foundry.
7- As you were present in the evolution of compositing and compositing programs. What were your early impressions of NUKE and other compositing programs? How was it like to work with NUKE back then? How NUKE evolved during the years
I started compositing at my VFX studio on Hollywood using the Pixar P2 computer which was driven by an SGI 4D70 computer. The Pixar commands were actually extensions to Unix, the 4D70’s operating system, so to composite feature film shots I
had to write 2000 line Unix shell scripts. When I joined Cinesite Hollywood the Cineon software actually had a user interface instead of command line coding. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was the most sophisticated compositing software at the time.
I had published my first book on compositing “Digital Compositing for Film and Video” in 2001 (available on Amazon) then in 2005 moved full time into teaching and training. I taught Shake for a number of years as it was the industry standard at that time. A few years later I was at the NAB show and stopped by the Foundry’s booth to tell them I wanted to teach Nuke. They were very excited because they were unable to sell Nuke5 to the VFX industry due to the lack of trained artists. They gave me all the free software, engineering, and tech support I needed to teach Nuke so I was the first Foundry certified Nuke trainer.
From Nuke5 onward it has steadily evolved by constantly adding more features and capability. The Foundry does a great job of listening to the users then adding major structural improvements like support for stereo compositing. Over the years they have added new tools that both speed up production and enhance creative freedom. This was all possible because Nuke’s engine – 32 bit floating point linear image processing – was so powerful and mathematically correct.
8– who were visual effects and 3D artists in the early days ? Were they all artists or were they scientists, engineers, programmers? Can you share some of your experiences working with them?
In the early days the software was primitive and difficult to work with so it was all operated by engineers instead of artists. What we did was have Art Directors work with us so the work would look professional. Robert Abel was himself an art director and we had several excellent art directors on staff to keep the engineers out of trouble. I joined Robert Abel shortly after the release of “Brilliance” the ground-breaking sexy robot commercial produced in 1985 and screened just once on the Super Bowl. The crowed went wild.
9- Your experiences in Cinesite
Cinesite was my first experience at a large Hollywood VFX studio. It was breathtaking the amount of computing power, disk space, and talent we had available. While I worked on several feature films in my studio before coming to Cinesite, it was at Cinesite that I got to work on “A” films for the first time. Because of the large size of the studio I got to work on 2-3 features per year over an 8 year period which really boosted my IMDb credits.
10- Would you like to share your memorable experiences working in Hollywood?
I think my most memorable Hollywood experience was working on Fern Gully with the awesome Bill Kroyer at my Hollywood studio. I was able to use my big bad Pixar to composite sophisticated multi-plane animation shots and it was also the first feature where we used my in-house digital ink and paint system. I was able to comp the background paintings, but we needed to also ink and paint the cel animation so it could also be composited. I hired an engineer to write a line fill program for me that we used for 5 feature films and around over 2 dozen commercials, Fern Gully being my first cel-animated feature. One of my engineers was Bill Spitzak which later went to the Foundry as a Nuke programmer.
11- Visual effects, 3D and game development are a mixture of art and technology, and it’s both scientific and artistic at the same time which makes anyone can get into this industry. What’s your take on this?
This is one of the things I love about the VFX business – it is both left brain and right brain – art and science. Usually, a person is good at one or the other. To be truly good at VFX you must be both technical and artistic. It is difficult to find both of those talents in the same person. My strength was always technical and I regretted not getting more artistic training sooner.
12- As you focus more on the fundamentals in most of your training videos and courses, How can one master those fundamentals and where can they learn them?
There are three fundaments for working in VFX – tools, technique, and art. The tools are software like Nuke or Photoshop. The technique is having sufficient knowledge and experience to know the right approach to a given problem. There are always several possible ways to execute a shot, but knowing the best way is key. Art is the ability to make a shot look photorealistic, and better yet, make it “cool”.
For the tools, check out my Nuke courses on Lynda.com, LinkedIn Learning, and my own training website www.fxecademy.com. For technique, read my book “Digital Compositing for Film and Video” where the inner workings and math of compositing are revealed. For art, take photographs and cinematography courses.
13- Science and mathematics in Visual effects and 3D?
There is lots of science and math in VFX and 3D. Fortunately, it is embedded in the tools by the programmers so the artist does not need to master too much of the internal details. However, the more you understand the math and science behind the tools the more effective you can be with them. Also, a deep understanding of the software allows you to devise more creative solutions to production problems.
14- How important is computer programming such as python in visual effects and 3D ?
They are essential if you want to break into the more senior artist positions. Junior and Intermediate artists are expected to know the tools, but Seniors are expected to build on those tools to solve production problems.
15- In your experience what are things and area which are often overlooked by artists?
Too many try to break into the industry by just learning the software like Nuke or Maya. Employers refer to them as “button pushers” because they don’t really understand the basics of filmmaking or the art and science of VFX to be a good artist. Also, surprisingly few “artists” have actually had artistic training like photography, sculpture, or a life drawing. Employers look for these additional skills.
16- your experiences being a teacher and a trainer.
Even when I worked at Atari and Cinesite I was a teacher and trainer. It just came naturally. My teaching fate was sealed when I published my book “Digital Compositing for Film and Video” (on Amazon). I was then hired to teach compositing to the entire staff of dozens of visual effects studios around the world. I thoroughly enjoy teaching which is an important requirement if you are to be good at it. I do VFX staff training, lecture at educational institutions, publish books, publish video
17- your advice to those who are breaking into the industry
Don’t think that you can just learn an app like Nuke then get a job. You need a deeper background than just button-pushing the software. You need to learn the art and science of composting, have a background in art, and have a great demo reel. The problem with demo reels is that studios today will not let you have the plates you worked so you can show professional shot breakdowns with “before and afters”. This is why I offer ShotKits™ on my FXEcademy website where artists can purchase feature film quality plates to comp and put on their demo reels.
18- your advice to compositors and artists in general who wish to step up and skill sets compositors to have to master.
To step up to a higher position you need several things. First and foremost is speed and quality. You must be able to work fast and still maintain professional standards of work. This takes a combination of knowledge of your tools and experience. Next, you need artistic skill. Senior people are expected to add to the artistic expression of a shot. And finally, be a team player and easy to work with.
19- your advice to Nuke trainers and trainers in general
Know your craft. Too many try to be trainers that have little or no production experience. Many have just graduated themselves from the training institute where they appear as an instructor. Also, don’t forget the artistic aspect of our work.
20- any final tips , quotes and advice ?
Yes. Read the darn manual! At Cinesite I became the go-to guy for any technical questions about Cineon for one simple reason – I read the manual from cover to cover while almost nobody else did. The more you know, the more you work.
VFxexpress – prabu – Thank you for your interview
Steve Wright – Thank you prabu