Jedediah Smith has been burning it at both ends in VFX for 10 years. He’s worked as a Compositor, a VFX Supervisor and many roles in between. Self-taught since his origins in the wilderness of Alaska, he has a massive fascination for the intersection of art and technology. Playing with code, fiddling with cameras, building nodes to create pretty pictures… That’s the best quality time.
What sparked your interest in VFX, and how did the opportunity to turn it into a career come about?
I grew up in rural Southeast Alaska. Down at the river catching a salmon for dinner. Riding 4-wheelers up logging roads. Busting my ass hauling chain through the woods, working in a sawmill. But I was more interested in using my brain. Happily, I left for college in the Lower 48, as we called the rest of the United States. Not really sure what I wanted to do.
In school, I tried on a lot of hats. Math, programming, science, creative writing. The one that stuck was experimental film and animation. There was something about the power of the audiovisual medium and its unique intersection of art and technology that really interested me.
The school that I went to didn’t have a program for visual effects. It was more about theory and history. I did a stop-motion animation for one of my projects and got really interested in digital effects. I taught myself After Effects and was really captivated with the possibilities.
In 2008 I graduated and decided I wanted to get a job in VFX. I moved to the Bay Area in California hoping to get a foot in the door. Next thing I know the financial crisis happened, the Orphanage closed, and there was nothing. I spent 2 years living on breadcrumbs and weird music videos teaching myself Nuke. At the time Shake was still used in the big companies but I saw the writing on the wall.
I got a job at a design studio in Berkeley. Did comp and rotopaint, editing, motion graphics, camera assistant, audio guy. I even learned python coding an AWS cloud render engine for Modo. It was good to survive but I wanted to work on feature film.
Through completely random chance, I had made a tutorial about how to Rotoscope in Silhouette and posted it on Youtube. I was contacted by a filmmaker in Oakland who was working on a puppet movie and he needed help with some rig removal. Puppet movie! Art! Cicada Princess! I was excited to work on a project with some substance. I spent a year and a half helping out with rotopaint, I comped a couple of shots, I helped build some sets, and worked as a grip on a couple of the shoots.
His name was Mauricio Baiocci and by day he was a CG Supervisor at a little studio called Atomic Fiction. Eventually, he recommended me. I had a decent little comp/rotopaint reel by that time. I went in for an interview and got the job: Junior Compositor on Star Trek: Into Darkness.
In the past, has there been a particular Supervisor or Mentor who has influenced the way you work? What were some of their best characteristics, and what are some lessons you learned from them?
My favourite part about VFX is the people you work with. Super interesting people from all kinds of different backgrounds. VFX is a hard job. Long hours. Impossible challenges. To survive in it you have to love what you do. You have to be super creative. Collaborating with such dedicated people is a great experience and I’ve learned a ton of things from them over the years.
I spent a lot of years at Atomic Fiction. In the early days in Oakland I learned so much. As a Junior Compositor just starting out in the industry I was super lucky to be working with so many talented artists and supervisors.
Woei Lee was my Compositing Supervisor back then. He taught me so much, artistically and technically. Techniques, tools, details. Getting my shots through tech check with him was hell. In that hell, I learned good comping. Not to compromise on the details. A dedication to the craft. He was always approachable, and he’d always take the time to explain something. You could tell he genuinely enjoyed sharing his knowledge.
When I started as a Lead Compositor this stuck with me. Even stressed and being pulled in all directions I would always try to stay approachable and take the time to support the younger artists. Shared knowledge pays dividends 10-fold.
Ryan Tudhope and Kevin Baillie are the two VFX Supervisors who founded Atomic. I worked with them on a lot of shows over the years, and I learned so much from them. They each had a different style.
Kevin races cars as a hobby. When he supervises it’s like he’s racing. Not because he wants to go fast. Because he knows exactly where he wants to go, and he knows how to get there. Every shift, every turn. Comping shots on his shows I learned so much about how to make a shot work and how to make it look photoreal. He was great at focusing on what mattered in a shot. Work on the things a viewer would notice watching the first time. Don’t spend time on details that don’t matter.
Ryan is more collaborative. Dailies with him were open. They were a conversation about a shot. Anyone who had a good idea could contribute. It stuck with me how on his shows it didn’t feel like there was a barrier between artist and supervisor.
Much later when I moved into supervising, these things stuck with me. Focus on what matters in the shot. Know where you’re going. Have a plan for how to get there. But listen to your team and give them a voice. Good ideas can come from any level. Artists who have ownership will be happier and do better work.
Colourspace is often thought of as a confusing topic, even for some experienced professionals. How did you approach learning about colour science & colourspaces as they relate to creating VFX, and are there any great resources you’d recommend people check out?
I’ve always been obsessed by things I don’t fully understand. One of the things I love about VFX is that it isn’t figured out. There is always something new to learn. There is always some way to improve the techniques and tools. The pipeline and the process. There is always a way to make the work better.
I feel like color is one of those dark-arts topics in Compositing. Over the years it’s always been the one thing I feel like I didn’t quite have a grasp on. Every now and then I’d encounter someone who knew more than me. Or I’d read something that would finally make one of the concepts click. I would absorb bits of knowledge wherever I could.
As Compositing Supervisor I started getting involved in setting up the color pipeline of shows. Learning OpenColorIO, ACES, gamuts, encoding, colorspace transformations and round-tripping. The more I learned about color science the more I realized how little I knew. It’s such a deep topic.
Color science is super important. A good understanding of the way color is encoded in an image, and how color transforms work is very valuable as a Compositor. It’s one of those things I wish more Compositors and VFX artists understood well.
I think the most fun that I had at my job was being a part of “Team Color” at Atomic. It was a group of supervisors and pipeline people dedicated to improving the color pipeline, helping shows with color-related issues, and supporting the color needs of the different departments. So much fun for a color nerd!
For learning resources, I think everyone working in VFX should read Cinematic Color: From Your Monitor to the Big Screen. I’ve read it several times over the years and it’s a great introduction to feature film color pipelines.
“Cinematic Color 2” is also an updated more in-depth version. It’s not yet officially published but it’s got a lot of great information. There’s a version available on Nick Shaw’s Github.
The Academy Color Encoding System is a great resource for learning more about color management. The fact that it’s open-source and making good color management available to everyone is fantastic. I’ve learned so much just hanging out on the ACESCentral forums and reading through their primers and guides.
I built an implementation of the ACES Output Transform for Nuke, available as part of my nuke-colortools git repository. I found that a Nuke implementation was really helpful in understanding how it worked. Being able to work your way through the transform node by node and pick apart what was happening was invaluable.
I’m also working on a color science for Compositors series which I’ll be uploading to my Compositing YouTube channel. I’m working really hard to make it both in-depth and also simple, which is surprisingly difficult for such a complex topic!
You’ve been spending some time working with the ACES Gamut Mapping virtual working group. Can you tell us what this group is working on, and what your involvement with them is?
ACES has adopted a virtual working group style of open development, where anyone can see what is being worked on, and participate if they are so inclined.
I was particularly interested to learn more about out of gamut issues. It’s been a problem I’ve encountered multiple times on different shows, and there’s never really been an elegant solution.
I started following along with the Gamut Mapping Virtual Working Group at the beginning of the year. I learned a ton just listening to the super smart people that are part of that group. In particular, Daniele Siragusano, an imaging engineer at FilmLight, is a wealth of knowledge.
If you haven’t seen his presentations definitely check them out. A couple of notable mentions:
- Effective Colour Management from Production to Distribution — A fantastic lecture on the challenges of color management. From a DI perspective, but super relevant to VFX color pipelines.
- sRGB… We Need To Talk — A good example of how complex a seemingly simple topic in color science can be: sRGB vs Rec709.
- Understanding visual adaptation for multi-delivery projects — A fascinating talk about the effects of human visual adaptation.
- Camerimage 2018: Natural Colours & Texture — A fascinating talk about the correlation between luminance, hue, color purity, and the effects of different capture mediums.
- Managing White Points — White is white right? Maybe not.
So I started thinking about the gamut mapping problem. How do you compress colors that are so saturated that they are outside of the working gamut? How do you take an image like that and turn it into something you can work with? Once I start thinking about a problem, I have a hard time getting it out of my head.
Thinking I might be able to contribute a useful perspective from my Compositing background, I started an epic thread on acescentral. I had a few ideas for approaches, and with a ton of help and guidance, we managed to figure out a technique that worked really well and was officially adopted. The tool we built is available in the gamut-compress git repository, for Nuke, Resolve, Fusion, and as a Matchbox shader. And it’s being further developed for eventual inclusion in the ACES system.
You’re also developing an out-of-the-box Nuke configuration at the moment. What does this involve, and who is this for?
Yeah! Another project I’ve been working on is nuke-config. Most VFX studios have pipelines for Compositing which include a lot of customization. Tools, shortcuts, and defaults which improve your efficiency and productivity. When I open up a vanilla Nuke I feel a bit lost. Like there’s something missing. nuke-config is an attempt to share a completely open-source default Nuke setup which includes a lot of that customization. Some of the things it includes:
- You can press ‘h’ and get an old-school shuffle node.
- You can make a FrameHold and it’s automatically set to the current frame.
- There’s DAG tools and shortcuts to make interacting with the node graph more efficient.
- A sensible set of default knob values. Your Blur will be set to rgba instead of all channels. Your Colorspace node will have a useful label.
- You can press Ctrl+E and edit the knob values of multiple selected nodes.
- You can press Ctrl+/ and do a search and replace across your whole Nuke script.
- There’s also a bunch of tools I’ve written over the years that I’ve found useful enough to share.
It’s definitely a work in progress and documentation is sorely lacking, but if it helps someone solve a problem it will have served the purpose!
When you get stuck on a problem, what does your thought process or inner-talk sound like? What’s your process for starting to solve said problem?
Problem-solving is such an important skill in VFX. As Compositors we spend half our time making art and the other half smashing our heads against a wall trying to figure out why it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. Effective troubleshooting is essential.
I like to break the problem down into simpler components. Try to distill the problem down into questions that you can answer.
I try to learn as much about the reason the problem is a problem in the first place. Sometimes the best solution to a problem is a different approach.
I like to stay open to any possibility. You never know — something that works often comes out of left-field.
I also find that asking co-workers for help to be super valuable. Ego has no place in good VFX. Be humble. You might be surprised at how much you’ll learn.
Technical problems are common, but there’s also the artistic aspect of problem-solving. As Compositors, it’s our job to take abstract and sometimes frustratingly sparse comments and translate those comments into a vision for a better shot. This translation happens through a massive technical web of nodes and connections. When doing this translation, we build on the things we’ve done before and the things we’ve seen other people do. We build on the technical knowledge of the image processing operators we have at our disposal. This translation is simultaneously artistic and technical, and massively creative. It’s one of the things I love most about Compositing.
The question of how to problem-solve effectively probably deserves a whole book to itself.
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’ve had tons of failures of all kinds over the years. In VFX we’re often making the best of a failure situation. We can’t always control the reasons things are the way that they are. I find the best approach is to focus on the things that you can control and try to do your best work within the constraints. Constraint is the playground of creativity!
I won’t give an account of a specific situation, but here are a few general failure anecdotes.
Early on in my career I had a problem with focusing on tiny details to the expense of the big picture. I would work on edges before getting the background balanced. I would do grain matching before matching my blacks. Of course when you work this way, you end up re-doing the work you did before. It took a lot of practice and failures before I learned how to comp smart. To work from the most general to the most specific. Get the big picture things in place first, and only then focus on the details. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but I’ve found this to be a useful mantra.
The other thing that is my secret achilles heel is getting distracted by a technical problem and focusing on it to the detriment of my other work. Sometimes I’ll have a great idea for a tool or a piece of code that will automate some task or involve solving some interesting problem I’ve been thinking about. Or maybe I’ll spend 4 hours coding something that will automate a task that would take 2 hours to do by hand. You have to be careful not to let it get out of hand of course, but I’ve always found this kind of thing to pay off in the end. The next time you have to do that manual 2 hour task, it will be done instantly, and the next time you need to code a similar tool you’ll know how to do it faster! Investing in your own knowledge is never a waste of time.
What tools or processes have you implemented that resulted in your team outputting higher-quality VFX, more efficiently?
When I was a Lead Compositor, I found that I was most useful to the team when I was close to the work. I would always try to comp a couple of the shots in the sequence I was leading. If I had a good working knowledge of the kind of challenges the shots presented and how best to go about solving them, I could guide my team in the right direction more quickly.
As a lead I was a bit obsessed with efficiency. I really enjoyed building tools and templates. I would try to automate the boring repetitive stuff like shot assembly as much as possible, so compers could focus on the fun stuff like balancing and making the shot look good.
Good communication is key. I found it super useful to get the whole team in a room to explain something about the approach for a type of challenge on a sequence, or to give a rundown of a specific tool or template. If I found myself explaining the same thing a few times at different artists’ desks, I knew it was about time for a team meeting!
If you were to impart Compositors with one piece of actionable advice about how they could rapidly progress the development of their skills & their careers, what would that be?
One thing I would encourage Compositors to do is to learn how your tools work. The more knowledge you have at your disposal about what your nodes are actually doing will be invaluable to your efficiency, the creative possibilities, and ultimately to the quality of your work.
Technical skill isn’t the only thing that’s important though. If I were to give two pieces of advice, the second would be to buy a digital SLR camera and an old Russian lens and go outside and take pictures. Looking at real images, real light, through a real lens has been invaluable to me as a Compositor. You could even shoot raw, debayer to scene linear, and start learning about color pipeline!
Where can people find more about you and your work?
I put a lot of my development work on my github, I run the Compositing channel on youtube, and I have a website I’ve been working on getting up running for a long time, but more interesting projects keep coming along.