CVD VFX founder, Chris van Dyck is a Vancouver-based VFX Artist and Supervisor with over 16 years in the industry. He brings experience from some of the top studios around the world: WETA Digital, Industrial Light & Magic, Method, Rising Sun Pictures, Animal Logic, MPC and Prime Focus. Some of his most notable credits include: The Hobbit Trilogy, Warcraft, Thor 2, Life of Pi, TRON: Legacy, Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince, Iron Man, Frank Miller’s 300, Game of Thrones and Stranger Things.
Chris has conducted lectures for the VES, SIGGRAPH, and the Art Institute, been published by Digital Fusion on the topic of Digital Compositing, published by SIGGRAPH on the film industry in Vancouver and has taught Digital Compositing for over 7 years at the following schools: VanArts, Think Tank and Lost Boys.
As Head of Studio at Crafty Apes: Vancouver, he is passionate to grow a team focused on Quality of Work & Quality of Life.
Tell us about the first person or studio who paid you to work in VFX. How did the opportunity come about?
Spin West VFX : December 2003.
I was one year into my 2 year program at CDIS and my friend, who was working at a company called Digital Slaves called me saying there’s a new shop opening up and they might hire a junior.
Shortly after, I got a call to be the first hire at Spin West VFX, to work on Kingdom Hospital and Stargate. The next step was asking my teachers if I could stop coming to school and just get a passing grade… 🙂
You have a wealth of experience working for some of the largest VFX studios in the world (ILM, Weta, Method, etc.). What are some processes or characteristics you picked up from past colleagues at these studios that have shaped how you approach your work & be an effective leader?
I’d say I’m more of a creative artist but have always aspired to be more technical. At each shop I went to, I was incredibly excited to absorb as much as I could about process and pipeline. Even though that was my mandate, I gravitated towards paying attention to the different styles of the Sups I worked with – hearing what’s important to them and ultimately the client. I really enjoyed tailoring my approach based on what people were looking for and I think that’s helped me know two things about myself: I work best when it’s collaborative and I love to meet people with where they are at. Meaning, I think the best results are when you’re working directly with the team and coming alongside and supporting them, as opposed to expecting the same results from each person.
On the work front, a formative project for me was 300, in 2006 at Animal Logic. This is the first time I really got to flex my creative muscles. It was great, I’d get notes like – ‘let’s throw another sun in there’. Long story short, I learned a lot of techniques to stylize a shot – making it more interesting or simply put, “cooler”.
Just for fun, here’s a quick list of analog inspired attributes we lean on in our cinematics to set a tone, style and lead the viewer’s eye to specific areas of interest.
- Lens Flares, Dirt & Bloom
- Various grain stocks
- Averaging exposure
- Particulate and Atmosphere
- Camera shake and float
- Tilt-shift DoF
- Follow focus DoF attributes & minor rack focusing
I’ve overheard a lot of folks mention some flavour of, “I wish I could just open my own studio and do my own thing”, in the past. How and why did this become a reality for you?
Well, to be honest, I was kind of tired of being at the big shops and having next to no control or even knowledge of what’s next or even when the next OT push will be. I wanted to sail but it felt like I was a deckhand on a big cruise ship.
I didn’t have any principal driven goals to do my own thing but a few opportunities aligned and it felt natural to try and work from home (we were about to have our 2nd child). The opportunities all grew (as they do) and day one, we were 5 people with some freelancers renting office space out of Lost Boys. Around the 1 year mark was when it felt pretty real and I was committed. Some of the key staff had asked me, what’s the plan / what’s the goal and I had to start looking ahead, which is hard for me, as I’m a good 90 day kinda guy.
It couldn’t have happened without all the years I had put in working and teaching at various studios and cities. Once I had ‘opened’ my doors, I was amazed to learn how many friends had leads and were now potential clients. I also noticed that Vancouver was struggling to take on smaller projects while still providing quality work. It felt like there was a disparity between being a giant studio or a small studio working on low budget projects. I feel there was a small niche available – essentially, it was a perfect combination of luck and great people coming alongside me.
Do you see remote work in VFX becoming a more viable alternative to showing up to an office every day?
I can share that the biggest pro is in the ability ‘spin up’ a few more artists offsite to help when shows / resources overlap however, it’s extremely tricky as most projects have security requirements that make doing this challenging. I think there is definitely a growing market for remote artists but I don’t think it’s going to change your typical office.
What tools or processes have you implemented to make your Compositing team faster and more efficient?
We’re always playing with how we divide up our render nodes in Deadline i.e. concurrent tasks, instancing but I think the most notable efficiency has been from implementing dwab compression wherever possible.
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.
I can share two that are both the product of trying not to grow but ultimately should have been embraced earlier.
Over the last 5 years, I tend to buy / replace things more often than I’d like. Let’s use some simple examples. The trend is that it’s not until the 3rd purchase that we invest in a professional / enterprise solution. This has been true for our NAS, our switch(s), our Monitors, our printers and even our foosball table. The benefits are clearly around being frugal and trying to be strategic but I think if I had ‘sprung’ for the cost a bit earlier, it would have only helped us.
In the same regard, I often have been too conservative on hiring production support. It often sounds like, this is just a spike or overlap, I don’t think we need any additional support, which leads to hiring later on in the process and it’s much harder to find the RIGHT person. I’ve learned a lot about projecting / forecasting now and was so excited to hire a Head of Production who ultimately could integrate and train all new production hires.
Again, both are examples of where I could have brought in people and resources earlier 🙂
What is a lesson you’ve learned from the business-side of running a VFX studio, that an artist might find insightful, or be able to translate into what they do day-to-day?
That’s a great question. With the risk of being cliche – I’d say, it takes a village. When you’re at a big shop, sometimes it can feel like you’re just the departmental team of artists doing some shots because of how segregated all the various teams are. ie. IT, HR, Pipeline, Production, etc, I often say that if you don’t know how you plug into the team or who you’re supporting, that it’s a red flag. We’re all supporting each other and I’d like to think that can be a big help in bridging communication gaps.
You touched on cross-department communication gaps — As VFX studios get larger, I’ve noticed clear & concise communication either becomes “automated”, gets diluted through a point-person (usually a production coordinator), or sometimes doesn’t happen at all between artists. What are your views on this, and what can teams in larger facilities start or stop doing to communicate more effectively?
This is a great question and I might not get to the root of it… Either way, here are a few things we’re learning and working on. Getting people in the same room! Right now, we’re too split up and we’re on chat / Shotgun a bit too much. I try to come to the artist’s desks whenever possible. Also, we make sure each artist is super clear about what they’ve done and what they have left to do. I can’t stand seeing a version without knowing where it’s at.
Alternatively, I’ve always wanted the daemon to automatically send a series of random motivational quotes to the artist when a shot is approved 😉
What problem or inefficiency still exists in most Studios in 2020, and how should we approach solving them?
I think having concrete reviews and feedback for staff. It’s kind of a no news is good news at a lot of shops and we’re trying to change that by giving people more direct, self reflective, peer reviews. We’ve been finding a lot of success in this style of feedback, paired with simply confirming if we feel that staff embodies the core values of the company. One of our core values is ‘you’re good when you come but better when you leave’. I hope we’re inspiring growth on both personal and professional aspects while people are at our shop.
Who inspires you, and what are the most valuable lessons you have learned from them?
This will read cheesy, I’m sure of it! But it’s honestly the talented people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. When I ‘started’ the studio, it was the first few hires and their dedication that really pushed me to create the best studio I knew how. I’ve been inspired and tasked with responsibility each time someone chooses to call our studio home and ultimately, where they will continue to grow their career.
Where can people find more about you and your work?
The domain will be somewhat temporary as we’re now part of the Crafty Apes team, but please check us out at www.cvdvfx.com