When you ask Nice Shoes Creative Studio VFX Supervisor Adrian Winter a question, be prepared for a lengthy - but extremely informative - answer. Adrian has been in the post and visual effects world for over 16 years, having worked with studios such as Superfad, Spontaneous, Imaginary Forces, and Brickyard VFX. He’s amassed quite a bit of knowledge, but is always striving to learn more, and to impart his knowledge to the next generation of artists. In this edition of Nice Humans, we spoke with Adrian about what inspires and excites him, as well as his advice for up and coming artists.
What films, TV shows, or anything else that’s inspired you lately? Have any of these pushed you to learn a new skill, or just made you curious as to how the team pulled something off?
As cliche as it may sound, I really like titles. They are an interesting beast. You’re telling a story about another story, and doing it in a very short period of time. Every single title has the same job: you need to capture the spirit of the story being told, and draw someone into that story without giving anything away. There are infinite ways of accomplishing this, and I’m always very impressed when teams are successful in meeting challenges in new and unique ways.
It’s funny, because I feel like we are almost entering a new Golden Age of title design. I remember back when Seven came out in 1995, Kyle Cooper challenged everyone to have these crazy titles at the front of their films. Then for the next few years title design became this huge thing before it died down a bit. Now it seems like we’re seeing that again. Imaginary Forces (founded by Kyle Cooper), did these wonderful titles for Stranger Things -- everyone is going crazy about them, in some cases even more than the show! That’s really cool to me. Effective titles will set the scene for the story and in the best cases they will even add to it. They prime the viewer to want to see more and that’s a really hard thing to do. Some of my other recent favorites are those for Daredevil, 11.22.63, and Deadpool.
I recall you were also really excited when Deadpool came out back in February. What was it about that film that impressed you?
We’re in a business of problem solving. I appreciate how much Deadpool’s filmmakers accomplished considering how little resources they had to go on - the budget was very low for a comic book action movie. They recognized those limitations and were able to concentrate what they needed to do with their VFX in very tight areas. It’s a smaller story, and they have a lot of fun with it, even making fun of the fact that there’s not a lot of characters in the film. There are a lot of big effects sequences in the film but you can see where they helped themselves out, especially during the highway sequence where they used depth of field to keep the focus in the foreground and not on the matte paintings they were using for the environment. I also really liked what they achieved with the animation on the eyes of the mask.
When Mad Max: Fury Road came out, I was really enthused because of the way they graded that film. They pushed the color so much that they ended up breaking a lot of the comps. They ultimately had the colorist do a lot of the sky replacements in the Baselight which at that time was a very untraditional workflow. When they filmed day for nights, and they utilized a photography trick where they overexposed the shot to preserve the shadows, which left them a lot of detail to work with. The DOP made the VFX Supervisor show him it would work before they committed to overexposing the skies. I love hearing those stories. On any given day production or post-production artists will be hit with a challenge that we don’t immediately know how to solve and it’s our job to figure out how to get around it. It’s a very exciting process.
What are some other sources of inspiration? Beyond movies, or Netflix, where do you look to for discovering new art or content?
I follow a lot of blogs online. I really love Art of the Title. They showcase title sequences from films or TV shows you may have heard of, and also can introduce you to stuff that may have flown under your radar. The site is full of amazing breakdown and analysis of modern content as well as some of the classics.
There’s also a Twitter feed called One Perfect Shot that posts a single frame of a film that’s composed well and sums up what the movie’s about. I always enjoy scrolling through those. In visual storytelling, there’s so much that goes into the composition of shots during production. Even after you’ve shot something, you still have control over where things appear. As a compositor, you’re often trying to compose a scene from disparate elements. Framing is just as important in a compositing sense.
I also like when people find new and interesting ways to tell a story. One blog I follow turned me onto a short film called The Mill at Calder’s End. It’s horror short made with puppets. I get really excited when I see things like that, when someone will look at different way to tell a story - it’s not necessarily new, but no one else is doing it so it becomes new again. I find that immensely inspiring. It’s great when you encounter outside the box thinking - especially when it’s so far outside the box that it’s not even in the same room as the box.
Everyone will tell you, whether they’re a UI designer, a creative director, or a compositor: reference, reference, reference. It comes from looking at other people’s work. Otherwise it’s like you’re reading the same book over and over again. You may discover nuances you may have missed before, but you aren't being met with any new ideas. You need to go out and explore new things. You need outside stimulus. If for no other reason than to just experience it and to try and put yourself in the shoes of the people producing that work.
When I encounter something that stirs up a mix of inspiration and jealousy in me, I like to use Slack to share things with our team. We have a dedicated channel just for inspiration, and it’s great when we can get a good back and forth going.
You always have to be looking.
In addition to One Perfect Shot and Art of the Title, any other blogs or feeds you’d recommend?
At least half of my twitter feed is industry related. I follow a lot of artists whose work I admire. Ash Thorp has a great podcast called the Collective that I like to listen to. As far as blogs go, I read fxguide, as well as Ian Failes’ VFXBlog. Harry Dorrington turned me on to Tony Zhou’s site Every Frame a Painting which has a ton of great breakdowns and case studies. I’ve also gone back and started reading Cinefex from issue #1, rewatching the movies they covered and then reading the articles on them. If you want to hear about problem solving, man, there is a ton of old school knowledge there.
How did you get started in visual effects?
I didn’t go to school for this. I was an English major. At first I wanted to be a writer, and then an editor because of my interest in creating a narrative. Along the way, I discovered motion design, animation and compositing and came to appreciate how these elements contributed to crafting a visual narrative.
I learned a lot from the people I started with in this business, and I’m really appreciative of the people who took a chance on me. When I started out, there wasn’t a lynda.com, no fxphd, no YouTube tutorials. It used to be you had to get into a shop and learn in an apprentice manner. There was a lot of value in that because you got a hands on sense of what the work entailed.
As I’ve become a more senior artist, I’ve felt that it’s my responsibility to look around and try to pass that along - be it taking younger artists or assistants aside and showing them something I know how to do or pointing them in the right direction of resources so they can learn on their own time.
You mentioned tutorial sites such as Lynda.com and fxphd. Do you have a go-to for when you’re looking to pick up a new skill, or one that you recommend to others?
I find Lynda to be really great in a straightforward, “here is what this software does - here’s how these tools work” way. If you need to just figure out to do one thing, you can go on Lynda and nearly every software out there is covered. They tend to have an 8-10 hour course that goes through all of the tools, and you can usually find the specific answer there.
I really love fxphd because their courses are a lot more task-driven. They’ll spend hours working through how to achieve a certain look or effect. They provide you with elements and a real-world task, which is usually something a client might ask you to do and that you need to know how to do. I often recommend artists start out with Lynda to get their footing, then once they’re through a little of that, take on fxphd and get your hands dirty.
The landscape has definitely shifted. I had a boss who would say “It’s not the car it’s the driver,” in reference to the importance of an artist’s eyes and know-how, but the “cars” are really f*cking powerful right now. It’s very very important to keep abreast of the new developments that the software publishers release, and it’s equally important for junior artists to learn as much as they can from those above them. They have more opportunities to get a head start thanks to the wider availability of software and learning tools, and I encourage them to take advantage of that.
I’m known by many of my peers for perhaps an overuse of woodworking analogies. My father was a bit of a woodworker and was really into This Old House. He frequently quoted the show’s motto, “Measure Twice. Cut Once.” For me, there is a correlation in VFX and post. We have some really awesome tools to work with, but at the end of the day what we do is a craft, and you can’t put the tools ahead of that craft. That said, there are a lot of times there’s no shortage of inspiration, but not knowing how to use the tools to tell your story can inhibit an artist from achieving what they’ve set out to do. The modern VFX artist have tools at his or her disposal that they didn’t have 5-10 years ago, but creative problem solving has always been at the core of it. That’s why it’s important to combine inspiration, self-learning, and good mentors.