Steve Wright is a 20-year veteran of the feature film and visual effects industry and has worked as a senior composer on over 70 feature films. He has been teaching since 2005 and has trained employees in dozens of VFX studios around the world, including Disney and Pixar. He has published hundreds of tutorials on LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com, dozens of online students around the world, and two popular books on visual effects composition on Amazon.com. You can visit his Nuke VFX Compositing training website at www.fxecademy.com.
Virtual Assist welcomes Steve Wright, the Maestro of Compositing. Please share your educational background.
While I went to San Jose as a major in physics, my compositional background was the fiery production furnace. I started with visual effects long before there was any training. I learned digital electronics and programming as a game programmer at Atari in the 80s, then 3D animation at Robert Abel and Associates in the early 90s, and compositing on a Pixar machine vision computer in my own Hollywood studio in the late 90s.
At that time there were no courses, no teachers and no books.
Why did you focus on our visual effects and animation industry as your professional career?
I came across visual effects while working on video games at Atari.
I was assigned to oversee game development for Sega / Paramount, which is located on the Paramount property in Hollywood. The mission was to convert Paramount movie properties into video games for Sega arcade games. Shortly after I moved to Hollywood the video game industry fell into a crisis, the shop was closed and I found myself in Hollywood looking for a job. That's how I came to Robert Abel and Associates, one of the founding fathers of CGI.
When you started your career, there wasn't much formal education in CG and VFX software. Please share your fight in detail.
My big break was getting the job at Robert Abel and Associates. There I was able to learn 3D from the artists and engineers who actually invented it.
Robert Abel's programmers founded Wavefront, the first commercial 3D software. Compositing was much more difficult because there was simply no one to teach it. I bought several Pixar machine vision computers to do compositing in my Hollywood studio, Sidley Wright & Associates. The Pixar was a special image processing computer from Pixar, but did not even come with a manual because it was developed for scientific and medical imaging. I was the first to use it for visual effects.
I only had a long list of image processing operations that I could combine by programming in Unix to compose a shot. It took me 6 months to think I was smarter than the Pixar. This experience forced me to learn compositing at the atomic level long before there were classes, books, or teachers. My math background was very helpful for reading white papers and SIGGRAPH studies (Special Interest Group on Computer GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques).
What was your general experience in the gaming industry? Please share your milestone achievements.
My gaming experience was at Atari in 1978 when the video game industry was born. As a game programmer, I developed the first scrolling field for my Peles soccer game and created the first "payout graphics" when you scored a goal with a show of fireworks. Of course, the fact that I used the first 4K game cassette supported me because 2K was the previous limit.
After that, I was manager of game development in the home video game department (Atari 2600), where I implemented the first “story” for a video game, in which the manual told the background story of the game, which is now standard. At that time, all game graphics and sound were designed by the engineers who programmed the games. That is why I brought in a real graphic artist and musician to work with the engineers.
There was a quick switch from gaming to CG and VFX. Did it get in your way or was it a calculated risk?
I actually fell in.
From Atari in Sunnyvale, California, I went to Sega / Paramount in Hollywood as mentioned above. That brought me to Hollywood when the gaming industry collapsed in 1983. Suddenly I was with Robert Abel in the CG industry. I worked there in CG for 6 years. When Abel collapsed, I opened my own CG company (Sidley Wright Associates) with Steve Sidley, my good friend of Abel. The first couple of years were just CG, but then I noticed that the customer was using our CG for compositing to post. There were many CG stores in Hollywood. To get a competitive advantage, I decided to deliver a finished shot to the customer, which meant we had to put it together ourselves. The Pixar computer was the only game in town that could compose two professional quality images. That brought me to VFX.
Your growth in the VFX industry and your technological development ran in parallel. From whom and how do you continue to learn and research?
I always loved technology as a major in physics and a minor in mathematics, and I was lucky enough to have contacts with the movers and shakers in the industry, such as the software developers at Robert Abel and Associates. When I started compositing, I learned from the white papers published by Pixar. While at Cinesite Hollywood I learned about log images from Glen Kennel, the Kodak color scientist who developed them for the Cineon file format. During my time at Cinesite, Kodak invented the Digital Intermediate Process (DI), in which I again worked with Kodak mathematicians and engineers like Dr. Bogdanowicz could learn.
Later, when I got Nuke training, I made a direct line to the Nuke design department in the foundry. When Imagineer asked me to produce training videos for Mocha, I found out about it planar tracking I learned from their engineers and for stereo conversion from the engineers at YUVSoft when they asked me to create training videos for their stereo conversion software. I was lucky enough to learn from the sources myself.
Let us know more about “Composing visual effects: Basics for the aspiring artist”.
"Composing visual effects: basics for the aspiring artist”Is actually an introductory book on compositing for non-compositors.
My other book "Digital Compositing for Film and Video" was conceived as a manual for working compositors and is intended as a machine reference for them. "Compositing Visual Effects" is aimed at students, directors, producers and others who want to understand what compositing is all about and how it is used in films and on television. It shows what compositing is and how it is used for visual effects, not how it is done.
Please also inform us about "Digital Compositing for Film and Video: Production Processes and Techniques".
I'm in the 4th edition of “Digital compositing for film and video“Because our industry is developing so quickly.
The first issue was all about keying and compositing – the usual stuff. In the fourth edition I dealt with deep compositing, alembic geometry, VR, stereo conversion, ACES (The Academy Color Encoding System), light field cinema and all kinds of digital exoticism. In the fourth edition, I also added a very important addition to the book – workflows – which are step-by-step procedures for general tasks with visual effects such as grain management, lens distortion management, multi-pass CG compositing, and many others. I was very proud to learn that my book is known as the "Composer's Bible".
How do you think before creating a curriculum?
My first thought is, of course, what topic should be covered – camera tracker, spline warp etc. My second thought is how deep I want to go – too deep and the course is too long, too flat and there is not enough useful information . My third thought is what is the "story" I want to tell. I want to develop a clear learner narrative that shows the features and functions of the topic in question. And my last question is how I want to tell this story – what examples do I need, what demos should I do.
How do you define “digital compositing” in your words?
My definition of digital compositing is to combine images from multiple sources so that they are all taken at the same time with the same camera and under the same lighting conditions.
In addition, digital compositing is now expected to handle any desired change in a scene – remove a car, night after day, or add a CG character or object. We now also need to do speed changes, color space conversions, warping, tracking, stereo conversions, and VR preparation. We have become the "finisher" for CG recordings. The CG department blasts the lighting runs without over-optimizing, and the compositors dial them in for the final look during the comp. The development of compositing is to take more and more pictures in 2D because we are much faster than the 3D department. Huge example – deep compositing.
What inspired you to become a full-time trainer from an artist?
Be fired as an artist.
I worked at Cinesite Hollywood for over 6 years when Kodak shut it down in 2003. During development, I became very useful for the Digital Intermediate department. When Cinesite was closed, they fired every artist – except me. The DI department asked me to keep where I stayed for two more years. The management finally decided that it would be cheaper to fire an expensive senior artist (me) and hire cheaper junior artists. So I was unemployed.
But my book “Digital Compositing for Film and Video” had been on the market for a few years and I received invitations to teach at VFX companies around the world. Without looking back, I started my first training website in 2005 and turned entirely to teaching and training.
How did the transition from Shake to NUKE come about?
It is an interesting story. I was teaching Shake for several years when Apple dropped it abruptly in 2009. I looked around at what to do next and wondered what the next big trend in compositing was. The answer was 3D compositing. So I looked around to see who he was leader in 3D compositing at the NAB in Las Vegas and found Nuke at the foundry's booth. This was at the time of Nuke5. I went to the VP of Marketing at the NAB booth and announced that I wanted to be a Nuke trainer.
The VP of Marketing was grateful. Her biggest problem when trying to sell Nuke seemed to be at the time when potential customers asked where to hire Nuke artists. The only answer was "from Digital Domain". Suffice it to say that this hugely dampened Nuke's sales. The foundry was incredibly great and provided me with free software, documentation, technical contacts and everything else I wanted to start teaching Nuke. I was literally the first Nuke trainer certified by Foundy.
What are your suggestions for beginners and experienced artists to raise their profile in the visual effects industry?
The biggest problems are networking, knowledge, speed and teamwork. You need to network to stay in touch with as many as possible in the industry and to find out about job opportunities. Of course, you need knowledge of our craft to be able to deal with any task without annoying the elderly. Speed is important to maintain productivity so the studio stays busy. I always say "speed is life" in visual effects. And teamwork is an essential part because our work is strongly integrated into neighboring departments and other VFX employees.
Remember that 90% of all vacancies come from someone who recommends you to open a studio and nobody wants to work with an idiot.
What do you advise all artists to do during this Corona outbreak?
In addition to all the well-documented recommendations for health care such as social distancing and hand washing, my biggest advice is to prepare for remote work. This medical emergency has forced the studios to quickly set up telecommuting protocols, but when it is over, I assume that telecommuting will be the new norm and will fundamentally change our industry. Be ready for it.
What are your next goals?
My training website teaches Nuke VFX Compositing, the industry tool for our work. However, compositing consists of two other components: art and technology. Art is the ability to make it look right. Technology is the experience of knowing the right approach to a particular problem.
After filling my training website with Nuke tools, I want to focus on more professional training, such as a roto and prep course, to learn the entry-level skills required to work in the exciting worlds of VFX.
We thank Steve Wright for spending his valuable time on the interview. It will certainly help CGI and visual effects artists gain insight into the industry and useful tips for their careers.