Tag Archive | special effects

Reblog: The Reality of an Unreal Career — part two

On 6th October, I reblogged a fascinating article, “The Reality of an Unreal Career — part one.”  Yesterday part two posted.  Here is that post in full:



Today we continue with Part 2 of The Reality of an Unreal Career from Stage 32 member Beau Janzen.

Part 1 brought us stories of animated vegetables and an 8-ft tall phallus shaped green screen monster.

Today, we’ll learn how a gopher can become a dinosaur.  Ah, the movie business.

However, though Beau has made a career as a visual effects artist and animator, his advice certainly translates across all disciplines.  For example:  “You can’t drive yourself forward in the industry with the fuel of your own ego reveling in the cool projects you’re working on.”

Yep, this is highly recommended reading for all.



One lesson I learned very early on:

You can’t drive yourself forward in the industry with the fuel of your own ego reveling in the cool projects you’re working on. 

Many projects you take on may seem silly or downright horrible, but they still demand your disciplined work.  I come in to the studio and squeeze my brain over a shot not for the prestige of the project, but for the pride of making great imagery.

Over the years, my technical skills broadened and I learned the nuances of how to sail through the maelstroms of production.  One lesson I learned which saved me repeatedly was:

You can never over-prepare

For one film, I served on-set as visual effects supervisor for the finale sequence that required a host of complex effects.  The visual effects director for the show was an amazing treasure trove of experience, and between the two of us, we were able to glean every possible measurement and reference from the set that we could.  For the next five months, I built up the sequence into something I was pretty proud of.  I was able to add in all sorts of details that the audience doesn’t see but “feels” to help sell the shot.  Just before I added in some finishing touches, we sent a near-completed version of the sequence to editorial so they could cut together a test version of the film.  After the initial audience test screening, we had a phone call which went something like this:

The Studio: “We’re really happy with the look of the sequence, but we have some bad news.  We changed the edit of the film around a bit, so now the ending doesn’t make any sense.  The audience was very confused.”
Us: “Yeah, we understand.”
The Studio: “So, that means we’re cutting that ending.  And, we’re going to need a new one.”
Us: “Oh… So what’s the new ending?”
The Studio: “We don’t exactly know. But it has to look really cool.  And we go to final print of the film in two weeks.”

I’d like to say that I was able to come in like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction to clean up the crisis with confident, unwavering authority, but in the trenches of VFX work, we’re pretty much devoid of all glamour. However, due to the exhaustive over-planning I had done on set, years of MacGyver art experience, and a rugged coffee machine, I was able to design and crank out a new ending.  The original ending was at least able to live on as a DVD “bonus extra”.

In my career, I’ve stayed in small to medium-sized studios.   At the large studios, the skill sets of the artists are more focused. They hire an army of people who are specialists in one facet of production like digital modeling or animation who do just that one skill.  Smaller studios need staff that can adapt to changing needs and hire “generalists” such as me who are able to take on whatever comes their way.  While this has probably kept many A-list films off my resume, I enjoy the challenge of working across the spectrum of digital production and doing very different work from one month to the next.

The visual effects industry is definitely unique in entertainment not only from a creative and technical perspective, but in terms of the business model as well. Beyond that, I think it’s often misunderstood by people on the outside.  We seem to need green in order to insert magical things, and any behind the scenes footage shows fat computers and strange people jumping around in body stockings covered in ping pong balls.  I’ll shed some light on a few facets of our industry that might be surprising:

In a pinch, we recycle as much work as we can

This conversation has happened more times than I can remember:

The Studio: “Can you all help us out?! We have some shots that need to be created now, and we’re running out of time!”
Us: “I’m sorry, but we’re booked up with other shows.  We can’t devote any resources to this job.”
The Studio: “Here’s a big bag full of money!”
Us: “Why, certainly we can do it!”

The problem is that we’d still have no people or machines we could afford to put on the show.  We’d then resort to recycling.  They need a rampaging dinosaur? How about we take that gopher we made last month, stretch out the legs and take off the hair.  With the right lighting and fast motion, you have a dinosaur.  It doesn’t have to go on our demo reel, and the check from the studio will still clear.

I rarely criticize horrible VFX shots I see

I will absolutely call out shots in films and television that look terrible, but at the same time, I don’t know the circumstances of the production.  I’ve had too many crunched deadlines, last minute changes, and factors beyond my control that have resulted in my shots looking less than ideal, that I don’t presume the artists were incompetent. I just think to myself,  “that there but for the grace of god go I.”

We do hide stuff in our shots

No, we don’t hide lewd sex images, but if a shot needs to have a digital car added, why not make the license plate your child’s initials and birthday? Personal tags and inside jokes are everywhere.  One colleague once added himself in as a bloody murder victim in a film which was more than I’d really want to do.

You can’t wear Wolverine claws while operating a mouse

For the X-Men films, we received the metal claws Wolverine sports in the films as reference (you can never have too much reference). Sadly, you can’t wear them while effectively operating a mouse.

Since my initial departure from education when I went into the film industry, I have been able to take a few detours back.  When I can afford the time, I continue to work on my own educational short films and continue to enter them in festivals.  For the most part, they have been very successful, although the film which I am the most proud of did lose out at one festival to an amateur video on preventing gum disease.  I also took a year-long job at a university in Berlin, Germany as a guest researcher with the Sonderforschungsbereich.  I eagerly accepted the job, even before I had any idea what Sonderforschungsbereich was.  I was pleased to find out that it didn’t consist of cleaning toilets, but did involve creating a math video on research topics in discrete geometry.  Later, when my kids were young, I took a job teaching math and visual effects which allowed me to be away from my family for only three days a week.

Reason for Math : Gauss’s Addition from Beau Janzen on Vimeo.
All in all, I’d have to say that I feel successful with where I am in my career.  First and foremost, I’ve been able to pay the bills while pursuing a creative endeavor which I know in many ways is a privilege. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some great films with some great people, which has in turn given me more opportunities.  I do love the act of constructing imagery and still get a buzz of adrenalin when I’m able to make a technical challenge fall into place and create something beautiful.  While I haven’t yet been able to redirect my work entirely back into education, it’s still something I’m pursuing.

In hindsight, I think orchestrating a career is similar to orchestrating a shot.  There are a host of technical limitations and challenges that can prevent you from reaching your goal. But in the end, that’s what creativity is all about.  Creativity isn’t some loose mental activity that takes place in an unobstructed vacuum; it’s about defining your own unique goal and dexterously making it work in the face of the impossible.

If you missed Part 1 of The Reality of an Unreal Career, click here.

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Reblog: The Reality of an Unreal Career — part one

Over the weekend, I joined a new social networking site for creative professionals called STAGE 32 which has numerous industry useful resources and blog posts.


I really like today’s blog post called “The Reality of an Unreal Career, part one” and have to share it.  Read it on the Stage 32 website on the title link.



Today’s blog comes from Beau Janzen, a visual effects artist based in Los Angeles with over 23 years experience in digital animation production. Beau has served on a wide variety of projects ranging from feature films, television series, commercials, and stereoscopic ride films. Most of his career has been spent working at medium to smaller-sized studios of films such at Life of Pi, X-Men, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Yes Man, and television shows such as Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, Bones, Black Box and many, many more.

In this entertaining 2-part series, Beau will take you through his two decade plus journey in the entertainment industry and impart some great advice for all creatives along the way.

From animating a vegetable conga line to learning how to reverse engineer an 8 ft tall phallus-shaped green screen character, I think you’ll enjoy the ride!


Despite the fact that my job as a visual effects artist is anything but glamorous, I was asked to write about my experience of building a career that has lasted over two decades. I’ll work to avoid being self-indulgent and try and extrapolate out some bits of wisdom relevant to anyone working to sustain a career through a creative endeavor.

As is the case for essentially all visual effects artists of my generation, I spent my childhood constantly drawing, building models, obsessing over Star Wars, and being generally geeky. I often set up my bedroom as a makeshift stop motion studio where I would make goofy little Claymation movies with an 8mm movie camera. The main thing about me that was notably different was that I never had any dreams of making movies; I was always motivated to work in education in some capacity.

While pursuing a master’s degree in education, I was able to land my first job as an animator with a PBS affiliate for a series of six, nationwide daily live broadcast classes (a broadcast precursor to on-line classes).  I was plopped down right in the hot seat as the sole animator to coordinate, design and generate graphics for six hours of classes every day.  In taking on this new job, I quickly realized how shockingly unprepared I was.  I had never created animation with a computer and knew nothing about all the technical issues of broadcast graphics, and the technical director of the classes was not in the least bit shy about making my ignorance abundantly clear.  He was a Vietnam veteran who was initially skeptical of the new graphics I was introducing to the classes.  Part of my initial training involved running repeated wind sprints up from my workstation to his control booth so I could see on the scopes exactly how my graphics were in violation of FCC broadcast standards.  After this initial boot camp, I sponged up as much knowledge as I could and did ease into the job quite well. There was an experimental nature to the classes, and I was able to push the boundaries of how I could use my animation as a communication tool.  The fact that my boss hired me for this job which, at least on paper, I was so clearly unqualified for leads me to my fist chunk of wisdom:

For entry-level jobs, people are rarely hired due to their current skills, but because they are a good investment

With my own experience as a primary example, I have seen so many people hired for entry level jobs not from their resume lines, but from an affable personality and an obvious desire to work, listen and learn.

While I was working with the classes, I took it upon myself to learn every piece of animation software they had in the building which included the old Wavefront software, my first foray into 3D animation.

Never pass up an opportunity to learn

While the Wavefront software was cutting edge for its time, by today’s standards, I might as well have been using a diesel-powered abacus to create my graphics.  But, I feel grateful that I went through this initial learning curve on a more rugged tool since it forced me to find creative technical solutions.  With the amazing capacity of the tools available today, I’ve seen a tendency in some newbies to sit back and be more of a passive software driver. At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old-timer, I’m glad that in order to create what would now be considered rudimentary effects, I had to MacGyver together some clever trick to get the job done.  Going about my work with this more “MacGyvering” approach I feel has made me more fearless and creative with my software.

Drive the software – don’t let the software drive you.

At work, my responsibilities expanded beyond the classes to include show openings, interstitials, and the like.  I also took on my first outside freelance job for a commercial.  This proud moment in my career was a commercial for a local taco restaurant which featured 3D animated peppers, onions, and a tomato all wearing sombreros, dancing and shaking maracas. Although the taco restaurant did go out of business a month or so after the commercial aired, my animated conga line of vegetables was never proven to be the direct cause of their economic downturn.

For the pre-calculus class I worked with, I created an animation depicting how the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to measure the size of the earth in the 3rd century BC with only basic geometry.  I was quite proud of the video and felt it was a great example of how I could use my medium to communicate abstract concepts, but never thought that anyone outside of the classes would give it much attention.  A colleague encouraged me to submit this animation to the SIGGRAPH conference.  Every year, the SIGGRAPH conference is a mecca for computer artists from around the world, and their Electronic Theater is the holy grail of computer animation festivals featuring the most beautiful and cutting edge work in the CG world.  I honestly thought it was rather stupid to think I my work belonged anywhere near the conference, but after some coercion, I figured all I had to lose was some postage and a sliver of pride.  A few months later, I remember reading and rereading in disbelief the letter from the conference saying that my animation was accepted into the Electronic Theater.  Compared to the other entries in the festival, my animation was very low-tech, but the story was good and it had a compelling message.

A strong idea, even when presented a humble way, is still compelling.

Getting my work in such an international venue did draw a good deal of attention, and, long story short, I was eventually offered a job at a major visual effects studio. I did have a demo reel I had pieced together, and interestingly enough, the part of it that seemed to impress the studio the most was the clip that was the most “low-tech”.  In my work, I had felt that I was often fighting a certain inertia in terms of the look the software could deliver.  For this one piece, I decided to go in a completely opposite direction in terms of look, and hacked together a clever little low-tech cheat to create something that looked completely different.  The resulting novelty of the look impressed them, and they were even more impressed when I told them how simply I had accomplished it.

This studio where I was hired was a place I had worshiped from afar for many years, and getting a job there was an odd mix of exhilaration and “oh crap, what have I gotten myself into”.  Again, I see that I was hired on as an investment probably more than for the current quality of my work.  The job took me and my wife to Los Angeles, and to compound to the surreal nature of the move, the LA branch of the studio was in a small place up in the Hollywood Hills immediately under the Hollywood sign.  The studio was actually the closest structure to the sign, and if the second O in Hollywood were to become dislodged and fall over, it would have crushed my workstation.

The first feature film I worked on was probably one of the most fruitful learning experiences of my life.  This was due not only to the fact that I was still new to the visual effects industry, but also because nearly everything that could happen wrong in production did, and I had a plethora of lessons in “try to make sure this never happens again”.  For this feature, I was given a sequence to create in which a CG creature was to fight two actors and eventually be beaten into submission.  My first “try to make sure this never happens again” lesson was that the whole sequence had already been shot before anyone knew what the creature was supposed to look like.  In the footage I was given, the actors were essentially beating the hell out of what looked like an 8-foot phallus covered in greenscreen material, and I had to figure out what to put in there in place of the giant phallus.  I was able to reverse-engineer a design for the creature and figure out what actions I could make it perform in order to have the fight make sense.  I think what I came up with was pretty effective, although it resulted in my creature being an abysmal fighter.  The creature had to make many unwise moves which always seemed to place some part of his body in the path of a punch every 20 frames or so.

Tomorrow we continue with Part 2 of The Reality of an Unreal Career.

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Feel free to share your thoughts – Beau is available for remarks or questions in the Comments section below…