Originally from Clatskanie, Oregon, Miles Lauridsen is a VFX artist now living in Vancouver, BC. Currently a Compositing Supervisor at Scanline VFX, he’s worked in various roles including dustbuster, matchmover, 3d generalist, title animator, and compositor within feature film over the last 13 years. He enjoys the problem solving process that VFX entails in the service of helping filmmakers tell their stories.
Note: The following answers have not been edited, to preserve the integrity of Miles’ responses.
Who was the first person or studio who paid you to do VFX?
My first real film job was as a dustbuster at Pacific Title & Arts Studio in 2006, when I was hired by the Digital Optical department manager Kevin Braun. There were 6-8 of us in a dark room that used to house optical printers and their operators. They had a proprietary program for painting out dust on the scanned frames of film that would be headed to the VFX and DI departments. It could only handle 60-100 frames of 2k DPX’s loaded into RAM. We’d load them up, hit play, and loop it over and over. You’d sort of change your focus to take in the whole screen and “feel” the dust “pop”, then stop, paint the dust, and repeat until the dust was gone. We’d be really happy if we finished over 1000 frames in a day. It probably sounds mind numbing to most people, but it was great because you’d just be in kind of a meditative state and have time to think about things that made up the image – how they framed the shot, the change in focal length between shots, the way they lit the scene, the contrast in color or lack thereof, how these things changed as the scene progressed, and all kinds of subtle details that I’d never fully appreciated about the film language before. It was a chance to stare at high resolution film scans all day and study all those things that make up a film image. Although I’d been to film school for a year before this, I feel like spending a year and a half as a dustbuster was my real film education. I was paid less working there than at the job I’d had in high school, but with everything I learned and the friendships I gained, I wouldn’t choose another path.
Do you have a favourite tool or technique that makes your work faster / easier / more-efficient?
There’s a lot of tools I use, but the one that I use most often – and feel like I would really be in trouble without – is a square ruled notebook and a pen. I’m constantly taking notes and breaking those into tasks as I write things down. It’s important as an artist to know what people’s expectations are for you and your shots. When you get notes on a shot and write them down, you’re really creating a list of expectations for yourself. When I have my own ideas or technical fixes needed for a shot I write those down too. It feels really good to cross things off and know that you’ve met what particular expectation.
What piece of knowledge or advice do you wish you had in your early years of working in VFX?
Get more exercise. The pixels will always be waiting.
Tell us about your most productive failure — something that didn’t quite go to plan, perhaps in a negative way, that you ultimately learned from.
This is a tough question as VFX is often nothing but things not going to plan. Today’s winning strategy can be tomorrow’s failure when situations, people, or projects change. The opposite can also be true. Ever since my first job in VFX, I’ve been asked to do things that I have no idea how to do when I agree to do them. Every movie that I’ve worked on has some aspect of “Well I (or we) have never done that before.” To get to the end of those projects, you will have failed many times before you can consider it a success. These failures can be due to your leadership, creative input, technical knowledge, or focus on the project. I’ve found that even the biggest failures can be turned into a lesson learned. When you can be humble enough to accept that what you think is best may not be so, you can learn from that and be better the next time.
What is the most memorable book, article, podcast episode or TED talk you’ve consumed in the past 12 months (or recent memory), that has made an impact on your life?
Two of the better books that I felt I learned a fair amount from this year were “The Dichotomy of Leadership” by Jocko Willink and Leaf Babin, and “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. I was also inspired by “First Man” by James R Hansen, which I read while working on that movie.
Who inspires you?
Well, for VFX I’m inspired by your newsletter. It’s been really cool reading about all the tools and techniques that other compositors are using. Thank you for putting this out there.
While working on the VFX for First Man, we did a lot of research on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. The amount of planning, design, and engineering that went into every part of those vehicle platforms was tremendous. Along with all the engineering required, they also had incredibly detailed plans that attempted to mitigate as much risk as they possibly could, while venturing step-by-step into the further unknown. It’s incredibly inspiring reading about the astronauts who were literally the tip of the spear in pushing that technology to its limits in that endeavour, but also realizing the knowledge shared and developed by the thousands of people who collectively worked to make all of it possible.
Getting to help tell stories for a living is also pretty awesome. I’m inspired by all those who came before us in VFX, who did so much with so much less, but left tools and techniques to guide us forward. Also, the people I work with, who keep pushing to make everything we do even better, smarter, faster, and more beautiful.
Do you enjoy a hobby outside of office hours?
I’ve been snowboarding for nearly 25 years and love to get out to ride some Northwest powder as often as I can. Before working in VFX, I was an amateur snowboarder and after blowing out my ACL one summer at Mt. Hood, I became an assistant sales representative and regional team manager for a sales organization representing Burton Snowboards in the Northwest of the US. After a few years of sales and filming snowboard videos on the side, I decided I’d rather be on the content creation side, which led me to film school and then to VFX. Besides snowboarding I’m also really into fermentation and do a fair amount of home pickling, canning, and baking. Experimenting with fermentation and preservation is really fun and usually tasty!
We often endure long and hard crunch times in our industry — How do you remain upbeat, positive & productive, and generally maintain a decent quality of life during these times?
I’ll be honest, it can be really rough sometimes. When you’ve been working 12 hour days, six days a week, for several months straight, the last thing you’re likely to feel is positive and upbeat when you’re told that you need to work even longer days and every day of the week, until an unknown date in the future. Meanwhile, life goes on without you outside of work. Family and friends start to expect that you won’t make it to the events you say you will. Hopefully you work for a company that gives you enough flexibility to take the time needed to reset from the stress and mental fatigue that is unavoidable under those conditions. Unfortunately, there are times when some company’s production or management teams literally or figuratively don’t care about your physical and mental health. When you’re young and starting in VFX, you may be able to push through this without needing any coping mechanisms. After a decade and a half of both success and failure at remaining upbeat, positive, and productive in this industry, I find that I’m at my best mental sharpness and able to handle anything thrown my way when I’m getting 7-8 hours of good sleep a night. I also need to maintain a healthy diet. No burgers and pizzas for overtime meals anymore. I’ve recently started running and that’s been a great way to burn off stress and keep healthy. There are many things in this industry that are out of our control, but the one thing we can’t forget is that we control our own well being. Whatever you find that helps you take care of yourself, stick with it.
Where would you like to see the VFX industry headed in the next 3 to 5 years? How do you envision getting to that point?
I’d like to see more efficiency in the process of reaching creative and editorial buyoff. There are a number of things I’ve seen that I think people are probably implementing that seem really smart. Realtime rendering in game engines that is either of a high enough quality for final film or broadcast work, or has transferable assets and shaders that can be run in a more robust, physically based renderer with minimal artist translation. Many VFX companies are just getting into machine learning. I think that is going to play a huge role in increasing our turnaround time and efficiency. From the standpoint of a compositor, things like roto, keying, matchmove, and paint are needed as early in the process as possible in order to start presenting creative ideas to the client. It’s hard to show a shot with half of an actor’s arm or torso layered incorrectly over the giant creature or environment you’re trying to get the client to sign off on. The faster we can get even mediocre level temps of the things mentioned, the faster we can work on what the client is really paying us for, the creative. There are open source machine learning libraries that I’ve run on my laptop that take mere seconds to run object detection on an image to generate rough roto shapes which would be good enough to enable basic layering in a temp comp. I believe someone has even written a plugin for Nuke that builds on top of these technologies for even deeper integration into our standard compositing workflows. This is just the tip of the iceberg in how we can train computer models to assist us in the process of making great VFX. Every large company has a ton of data available for training supervised machine learning models at every step in the VFX pipeline. When the VFX industry starts utilizing the data for those purposes, I think we’ll see some pretty cool possibilities open up from that.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
I’m on Github at github.com/mileslauridsen and love to collaborate on new tools and techniques. I’m also part of “Nuke Comp” on Slack, where a growing group of compositors I know share techniques, tips, and tools. If you’re looking to chat about compositing or VFX, that’s probably the best place to reach me. Join us here.
Thanks for inviting me to answer these questions and looking forward to reading more great stuff in your newsletter!