Josh Parks is a Senior Compositor at Important Looking Pirates. He’s worked in Film, TV and Advertising. Since starting in the industry, alongside compositing, Josh has been privately coaching students to VFX supervisors, as well as lecturing at universities.
What sparked your interest in VFX, and how did the opportunity to turn it into a career come about?
When I was 10/11 I remember my cousin showing me Photoshop and he did a face mashup of me and my sister. I found this amazing and went home and started playing with it myself. From there I started creating different bits in Photoshop and started studying photography. Originally I thought I wanted to be a designer but I had some work experience in Disney’s toy design department which was amazing but I found myself frustrated by how you were constrained by real world restrictions. So I started researching VFX as it also married technical and artistic skills. I then studied VFX at Hertfordshire university and managed to get a place on MPC London’s Comp Academy when I graduated which kick-started my career as it meant I was a compositor there within a year of graduating.
You have experience working in the three major mediums: Film, TV and Ads. Can you tell us about the differing scope of each medium, and skills you picked up in one medium that are transferable to another? Which is your favourite?
If I’m honest with you I don’t have a favourite, I like jumping between to keep it fresh. For me, I think this is a good way to get around burning out which is easily done, as well as keeping your passion for VFX up. Each medium has its pluses and negatives, for instance when in ads you start missing polishing a shot. When in film you wish that you didn’t have to bring back each hair when getting into tech checks.
In ads, you learn to be scrappy and to make do with what you have, in film you learn to plan with your lighter and have the time to discuss what you’d like from them in order to give you the best outcome as well as thinking about what you can transfer to a sequence of shots.
Would you say there is an advantage to jumping around from studio to studio, or switching mediums, when developing your career?
When starting out I’d personally say it’s better to start in film, as you then prove you can work to the highest level, and you’ll get a nice reel with recognisable projects.
I think jumping around can be useful as it means you’re shown the solution that each company has come up with to solve certain problems. In my opinion the more possible solutions you can bring to a problem the stronger you are as a compositor.
You do a lot of lecturing at universities — how did these opportunities present themselves to you, and what skills have you learned from teaching that apply to your daily work as a Compositor?
When I was 19 at art college I used to teach stop motion animation, so it’s always been something I loved to do. If I’m honest with you, for me it’s no different than compositing. In comping you have a plate and you have to problem-solve to get the output, with teaching you have a student and you problem-solve to get the information into their head. Like compositing, you can use knowledge you learnt before but each student learns in a slightly different way.
You have the problem of getting the information into the student’s head and have to come up with the best way to do it. I’ve read biographies and books from some of the best teachers and sports coaches as well as studying Richard Feynman a fair bit, so I’ve stolen a lot of their techniques. The first thing is to work out how the other person learns, some like really going into detail talking it through, others prefer visual cues where you tie what they’re learning back to something they are already familiar with, like cooking for example.
It’s been incredibly useful to learn how I personally learn, also teaching is very close to leading/supervising, as you learn how to communicate an idea to someone and give someone feedback. So when I’ve ended up having to lead on a project I’ve found I often rely on my teaching skills.
Learning how to learn is an important skill in itself. What techniques from other industries have you picked up on, and been able to apply to learning in VFX?
Breaking techniques down into smaller chunks is the best way to learn. For instance, if you were learning football, you wouldn’t practise by just playing lots of football games over and over a game. You break the techniques down, passing, shooting, defending etc. and then have smaller different games in order to practise these techniques. Compositing is no different.
There’s also knowing when to interject if a student is doing things wrong, as you want them to remember the issue and how to tackle it. I can’t remember the book but I read a basketball coach’s book on this particular topic that was incredibly useful on when to interject if a student makes mistakes — his was in reference to basketball drills but it was still useful. There was a book on dolphin training that was also really useful haha. I love stealing the best ideas from other industries and applying them to ours.
Speaking of soft skills, are there any you feel that most VFX artists lack? How would you advise they learn them?
I think this differs from artist to artist personally. A tip to help you learn what those skills might be though is to ask your 2d supervisor if at the end of your current show whether you can sit down with them to ask where you could improve. Do this at the end of the show so that it’s fresh in their mind. Generally it’s hard to get completely honest feedback so a good method is to ask them who they thought was the best performing compositor on the show, then you can see how that person worked and see if there are any skills they may have that you don’t. This is something I like to do at the end of every show I’m on if 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.
MPC Film is quite a comp reliant company, which means they rely on comp to really push the CG to get it close to what the clients want. So having started out there, something I suffered with, and still do a little bit is having a natural tendency to go in and break open the CG and overwork it. Over the years I’ve recognised this and have a few techniques to try and stop this.
One is quite frequently turning off what I’ve done, to check am I changing this too much.
If you could go back in time to your early years of working in VFX, what advice would you give yourself to get ahead in your career?
Hmm I’ve been pretty happy with how things turned out to be honest, maybe I would tell myself to travel and work abroad a bit more, but I’m not sure if that would have got me any further.
I’m really competitive but I’ve never thought much about strategies to get ahead. I’ve just done what I enjoy and tried to get as good as I can. I think you’ll get way more out of your career focussing on systems rather than goals.
What characteristics did your favourite supervisor possess? What have you learned from them that has shaped the way you approach your work?
I’ve had multiple mentors, all of them have shared the same thing: a willingness to share and a kindness to those who have shown that they’re willing to put in the work. If I’m honest I feel you learn more from the people who you feel aren’t doing things correctly. Making a list of both what you liked in a supervisor or another compositor and what you don’t like can be incredibly useful, as it gives you a to-do list of what to do or not do.
Where can people find more about you and your work?
You can find me on Linkedin & I also run a nuke training website, I’ve made courses with really high-quality assets for people to play with and put in their showreels. I also create custom nuke training courses for anyone ranging from students to VFX supervisors, designed to get them to a particular goal they have. You can find my training here: https://www.compositingpro.com/