Russ Dodgson is Head of Nuke at Framestore, and a VFX guru responsible for some of the most memorable CGI achievements of recent years
As part of their Velocity series designed for freelance video professionals, Scan Pro Video interviewed Russ Dodgson, Head of Nuke Worldwide at the award winning, multi discipline agency Framestore. They've given us permission to reproduce it here. Special thanks to Matt Aindow for writing this and pulling it all together.
We’ve noticed a rare but increasing trend in the creative industries known as Pay it Forward. Displayed by some of those eating the hard-won fruit at the top of the tree, the idea is that the help you received as a non-entity or runner from your guru was handed on with a caveat; that some day, should you be in a similar position, you had to inspire the next generation and reinvest your skills and knowledge, charging them in their turn to do the same.
Russ Dodgson is one of those wonderful industry aberrations paying it forward, sharing good practice and career development tips with the rest of us. He’s the Head of NUKE at the Academy Award winning VFX palace Framestore and a professor for the online training course FXPHD. We jumped at the chance to talk to someone at the fore-front of the industry and we asked the Velocity community to send us any career questions relating to working in Post. The response was tremendous and the overlap of wants and needs allowed us to synthesise a general list of questions. You’ll hopefully find the answers you need in the following interview. You can learn more about Russ here - Check out the clickables throughout this piece to see linked examples of Russ’s work at Framestore.
His notable recent work includes lead compositing on Galaxy Chauffeur, the Skyfall title sequence, Pepsi Crowd Surfing, Coca-Cola Siege and The Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Russ and his wife are expecting a visit from the stork any moment now so let’s get on with it!
SPV. Hello Russ and thanks for giving us your time to share your industry insights when you are on the brink of fatherhood. Well above and beyond the call!
RD. Hey no worries, it’s a pleasure...but I am indeed expecting a little one any day now so if this interview ends abruptly you know where I’ve gone.
You entered the industry about ten years ago after graduating with an MA in special effects. Can you describe a traditional and non-traditional route into the VFX industry and which would you recommend to someone today?
Wow, starting with a tough one! I think the traditional route is similar to a lot of other industries, and it involves a steady promotion-style flow through a company’s
ranks. In the slightly older traditional route, you’d start as a runner. Back in the day, access to equipment and training was hard to come by. You would take a job as a runner and from there it was all about the ‘hustle’; trying to get as much time sitting with an op as possible whilst being indispensable in an admin capacity, etc. Today, the more traditional route probably entails first going through a college programme or maybe starting as a runner having already done online tuition. Online teaching and downloadable PLE software has definitely democratised the learning process which has changed the entry-level landscape a fair amount.
The non-traditional route is far harder to define. I would probably say my route has been far less ‘traditional’. I started in college really; we weren’t allowed to use NLE systems until our 3rd year, which really annoyed me. So I took out a student loan to buy my own NLE system. This allowed me to accelerate my learning and help other people on the course with their edits etc. This taught me the importance of being self- reliant, which has stuck with me ever since. I did an MA in VFX and was then offered a paint and roto job at Framestore straight out of college. This would have been the beginning of a more traditional route for me. Instead I took a job at Pinewood working on a Jerry Anderson CG TV show. This was a definite baptism of fire and was a really exciting time. Following this experience, I started my own small company with a DOP friend of mine doing lifestyle shoots and post work for small clients. At this time I was also working in architectural visualisation and learning new skills and software including Nuke.
Learning Nuke at the right time allowed me to make a sideways move to Framestore, and eventually to build up the Commercials Nuke team as it exists now. So that is a fairly unorthodox route.
By far the number one question we had was “Did you work on Gravity?”
Sadly, no. Tim Webber and the team did an outstanding job. Objectively, I think it’s the best use and execution of VFX in a film that I’ve seen yet.
We agree. It’s a wonderful movie and I think it’s a tour de force of cinema synergy. Congratulations on winning the Oscar. How important are gongs for the facility, team and individuals involved?
I think when you have been working on a ‘labour of love’ for that long any form of positive reinforcement goes a long way. At the
end of the day the team worked on a milestone in VFX history and the pride and love the team had for the film was unique. They
truly deserved the Oscar and I think it means a lot to them but the sense of pride they feel as a group must be even more precious.
Which project has been the most rewarding for you to work on and why?
There have been quite a few and for very different reasons. I would say the Harry Potter ‘Three Brothers Sequence’ is up there for a number of reasons. The
director was great, the team did an incredible job, the animation was beautiful. From a 2D perspective, I was working with an incredibly artistic comp artist and the challenge was to make the renders look and feel like animated concept art. Other standout jobs were Coke ‘Siege’ which was great fun and a crazy challenge, the ‘Skyfall’ titles because they are so iconic and Galaxy ‘Chauffeur’ [the advert that brought Audrey Hepburn "back to life"] because it taught me a lot.
Why was Chauffeur such a learning curve?
Creating a CGI human face is still one of the most challenging and elusive goals within our industry. In this case we had an incredibly difficult brief. The human
face is difficult enough but the real killer was recreating someone that famous that so many people have a deep affection for. Audrey Hepburn is so iconic; she ‘means’ something different to different people. Some people see her as defining an era, some see her as playful, some as classy.
One person will consider definitive Audrey as her in her teens, some in her 20’s and others from her later career. Also in recreating someone so beloved that has passed away there is feeling of responsibility and in the end it had to be signed off by her family.
The process was really interesting and it was a real team effort. We found that once we had an accurate model from photographs we were still nowhere near. It took a lot of gentle adjustments and this was all before animating her. She had such an expressive face and a particular way of movement. The team did a great job.
You work closely with Nuke developers and teach international masterclasses for the foundry about Nuke. You're also a professor for the online training course FXPHD. With the constant development of hardware/software, how do you keep up to date with new innovations? Do you ever stop learning?
I am a big believer in constant education. I’m always doing online classes and keeping up with what is being taught in case I have missed anything (which inevitably I do). I also think that you should try and get hands on experience whenever possible. I spend a lot of my spare time doing photography, carrying out tests, learning new tools, etc. Also a lot of reading and developing your own artistic tastes and opinions is important. It is also important to surround yourself with talented, proactive people and learn from them.
I often hear the excuse in creative circles that they don't have either the time or the inclination to get to grips with what's happening under the bonnet of a workstation. When it comes to understanding which components do what in your workflow and wider ecosystem I believe most creatives have been infantilised. As a Head of Department I know you are tech savvy, but is it on a need to know basis or do you think it's important for up-coming artists to have a deeper understanding of IT?
Personally I think it is really important to know how and why the systems you use work. The more disconnected you are from the technology the easier you can get left behind. I have always been into hardware. I love staying on top of camera equipment, shoot gear, PC components, developments in hardware, etc. It does evolve quickly so I can understand why it is easy to get behind. With all that being said I wouldn’t consider it critical for an artist to know the tech/systems side deeply but a general knowledge goes a long way.
Artists are notorious for bodging the costing of a project and undervaluing their work. A common question from our Velocity freelancers clearly stems from a concern about pricing a job correctly. What advice do you have for us? How do Framestore accurately estimate how much time a project will take to complete?
Let’s see...how long is a piece of string! This really comes down to what info we have been given up front. Sometimes we are just given a broad idea and we have to
guess what the reality will be. In these instances we have to rely on our experiences and the ‘type’ of job it is. From storyboards we can be more accurate as it gives
us a sense of timing. Often a written description of a scene can fill you with dread but actually it’s really simple. The next best is if we are given, or do our own, previs. This means we can get really granular with the quote. The best case scenario is if we can collaborate with the client to get them the best commercial for their money. Often resources are wasted due to a lack of transparency early on; if you collaborate, you can do the most effective work for the best price. All we ever want to do is give the client the best version of a project possible for the budget.
So your advice is to start with the budget and reverse engineer the amount of work that can be accomplished within that framework?
I think that is the best environment for creating good work, the more collaborative the process the better the outcome. Look at ‘Gravity’; we were heavily involved in the film making process and the end result was impeccable.
Another common thread from the list was a variation on the theme of ‘How do I gain experience if I need experience to get a job?’
The classic chicken/ egg question, eh? If you are happy to start as a runner, a very keen willingness to learn and ability to apply that learning practically goes a long
way. But you have to remember that you may be competing with college graduates who have had at least some basic structured training. Online course are a great way to get your hands on materials to make a showreel with. I am a big believer in going out and shooting your own material and making something that shows your artistic side; it’s always useful to see what the candidate considers to be a good-looking shot, without the filtering that happens with found footage or another director’s vision.
We’ve been watching some excellent showreels submitted as entries for the competition. How important is a solid showreel when applying for a position at a facility like Framestore?
Showreels are important but I often go off a resume and references first. Everyone looks for something different. In commercials, I’m less interested in whether someone has worked on a big film shoot than in what they have specifically contributed to a particular shot. Often different candidates have the same shot or sequence on their reel because so many people worked on it. I’m actually a really big fan of personal work as it shows the individual’s artistic intent and gives me an idea of what they themselves think is good. But at the end of the day I like good references. Obviously the interview is critical. When hiring a junior artist, for example, if the person’s skills aren’t quite there but I can see that they are driven to improve, and that their character is a good fit for the team, I’ll give them serious consideration.
You are a Head of Department at a multi-award winning agency. How difficult is it to get to your level in the industry?
That is a bit of an abstract question. For me, getting to this level is the result of my putting in a consistently high volume of effort purely out of a love for my job. But, generally speaking, so many things can affect the process of getting where you want to be. I was very fortunate that I learned Nuke at the right time when very few people in town were using it. This along with the fact that I get on really well with the developers at the Foundry means I was in a great position when the opportunity arose. When you get opportunities, though, it is all about what you do with them. I spent my whole childhood learning martial arts and learned that the best opponent is yourself. I think this has helped me to never be so satisfied with where I am at the moment that I can’t see where I’d like to be in the future.
Can you briefly describe a typical day at the office?
I used to have a more typical day but these days it is pretty wild, which suits me well. I cover quite a few bases at different times. If I am VFX supervising a job I’m either doing meetings upfront, on a shoot or comping/supervising in the office. A day in the office then normally starts with (offensive) banter with my team, a sit down with the producer to catch up on the day’s goals, checking the team is on track with their shots, comping, and then maybe a review session.
When I’m not VFX supervising I’m normally doing HOD (Head of Department) tasks. At the moment, for example, we are developing our pipeline so I’m spending lots of time designing workflows with the pipeline team. The most common joke is that I’m never at my desk for more than five minutes before I’m pulled into a problem solving session or involved in a meeting. I love it though, keeps things interesting!
We’ve noticed an imbalance in the ratio of male/female entrants for the competition. Is this still a male dominated industry and if so how are Framestore encouraging young women in to the workplace?
Hmmm, I guess you could say there is a bit of stronger weighting towards men in the industry but there really isn’t a reason why that should be. I don’t think we do anything different to encourage women or men, we just look at the strongest showreels, resumes along with their references. At present my team has a really good mix and some of the more senior artists and figures within the company are female. My advice to everyone is focus on the work.
Before you dash off, what advice do you have for someone who wants to work in post?
Firstly, decide if ‘the juice is worth the squeeze’! This means that to get far in the industry, you have to accept that it can be a cruel mistress sometimes. You need to decide if you are hungry for it and prepared to put in the time, or if you want to it to be more of a steady job and want to ‘leave it behind’ when you go home. I’m not saying either approach is bad or that you can’t make it work another way, but from experience what doesn’t work and can lead to disappointment is if you can’t or don’t want to put in the time but then expect to move up the ranks. VFX is the type of industry where there is always someone else willing to go the extra mile. A lot of artists are in it because they love what they do and consider it to be more than just ‘work’.
My biggest piece of advice, probably for any career, is to make sure you don’t become self-entitled it can be a really ugly and destructive trait. I try to remember that I’m not owed anything and have to work hard for what I want or think I deserve. I find this keeps me grounded and balanced and stops me getting in my own way.
We made it to the end and you’re still with us. Looks like baby Dodgson is dug in and quite happy where s/he is. We should give you leave to be with your family, so finally on behalf of Scan Pro Video and our Velocity 2014 creative community we would like to congratulate you on your impending new arrival and wish you good luck with that . If you aren’t too busy, will you come and say ‘hello’ to the Film & MoGraph category winners when they come along to collect their Framestore ‘Goodie Bag’? Maybe even a mass selfie alongside the Gravity ‘Oscar’?
Of course, it has been great to be involved and to help out with these questions. Good luck to all the entrants and if I can free up I will definitely come and say hello.
Thank you to Russ and the team at Framestore for sharing their valuable experiences and giving us the benefit of their industry knowledge. There’s still time to join the Velocity 2014 community. Visit Scan Pro Video and SIGN UP today. The deadline for submission is the 31st of May. Whoever the winner is, future SPV and industry guru Maxim Jago are looking forward to visiting Russ at the shop and sampling some of Soho’s finest Café Bars.
Pay it Forward.
© Scan Pro Video 2014