Stay Employable: A Primer for Established VFX Artists

Staying employed in the same place is really tough these days. I'm not sure how much the California tax incentives are going to help. They won't make a dent at Sony Imageworks, because Sony doesn't pay state taxes anyway. Others, it will help—but not like the massive incentives elsewhere.

Staying employable in the same city involves several factors. First, if you can stay where you are, that is likely your best bet, but only key people can do that. So become a key person. Second, the game industry in L.A. and other cities is, for the most part, reasonably stable. You might get hired for a single game development, but it can take years and if you're a good, desirable employee, you're going to be kept on for the next project. If your game catches on, you could be employed on it for years. It's expensive for companies to develop new people. So make yourself desirable. I talk about how to do these things, so read on.

Motion graphics is a booming field and can offer reasonable stable work. It may lack the glamor of working on a big picture, but hey…maybe you'll see your work on the next Super Bowl.

Because of the high number of transferable skills among visual media industries, you can, with a little tweaking, make yourself employable across genres.

There are a few things that you don't have much control over, and these are the natural talent areas. Do you have an eye for design? An artist's sense of proportion? A feel for technology? And lots more. So, first off, and most difficult/least fun: you have to do an honest inventory of your personal skills. Where do your talents lie?

Know yourself
Few of us are really good at accurate self assessment. Our egos get involved with our passions, and that can distort our perceptions. It is also almost impossible to get a good assessment from external sources. Friends are often the worst source of honest critique. So it's up to you. If you find honest criticism too painful and it puts you in defensive mode, you have a serious problem.

Learning what you're good at is key to survival. Nobody is to work in areas of weakness.

I am often asked to give my honest critique of animation and VFX work. If it's not positive, I get one of two responses: anger or thanks. The ones who are appreciative, and understand that I'm not trying to hurt them, usually do exceedingly well. The ones who get angry or hurt, and feel attacked, rarely go very far at all. Learning what you're good at is key to survival. When I ran a multinational company several years ago, I had a rule: nobody is to work in areas of weakness. As employees discovered what they were not good at, often due to supervisor feedback, they were given learning opportunities to improve, but it was not made a condition of employment. This approach was very successful. Perhaps you find ways to refine your skills through honest self-assessment. 

A major mistake many of us make is trying to work in the more glamorous parts of the industry, where our talents do not lie. Armed with a reasonably accurate self-assessment, you will be in a better position to judge where you would be most wise to invest learning time to expand your repertory of skills. Put aside your need to work on the cool stuff unless you truly have talent in those areas. Perhaps you can develop skills you need to capture the glamor. 

Know how to sell yourself across genres
I often teach a seminar on "how to get a job in animation or VFX." Some of those essential points will help you, even if you have a lot of experience under your belt. Some of the most poorly prepared demo reels I've seen were from talented, veteran VFX people out on the market again. I saw one today in fact. 

Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Only show your best work…ever.
  2. Keep it simple and short.
  3. Clearly identify your specific contribution to shots, if not originally yours.
  4. Do not assume that whoever is seeing your reel can figure out what you did. They won't make the effort. (Trust me. I know.)
  5. Never imply you did work that you did not. You will get found out. 
  6. Target your demo reels to the job you're looking for.

Target your Reels
Yes, in this market you may need two or three demo reels targeted to specific areas within our industry. You have to decide where your crossover skills lie and where you are developing. For example, three areas that can strongly overlap are VFX animator, motion graphics designer and game animator. These are just examples. There are many more overlaps that you can look for, and some of the employment groups like Zerply can help you work these things out. 

If these three areas interest you, it would be wise of you to lay out a spreadsheet, identifying crossover skills that fit you. Next, lay out skills that interest you and that you know you can handle. For this latter area, you should start building professional skills. For example, if you mostly work in 3D and know those tools well, but work is scarce, you might want to consider learning After Effects for motion graphics work. After Effects is now a full-bore 3D application with plugins like Video Copilot's excellent Element, and C4D Lite is actually included with AE. Conversely, if you know AE, you might want to learn Nuke or Avid. More crossover.


Immerse yourself in online learning from places like Video Copilot, Digital Tutors and Bring all your creative wisdom into the new application. With your professional experience, you should be able to create a killer targeted demo reel specific to the motion graphics industry. Read that again. Pay attention to the “killer” part.

There are thousands of mundane motion graphics demo reels online. Don't let yours be one of them. In my experience, you could go to YouTube and learn all about what you don't want out there. There is so much boring motion-graphic crap online that it could rot your mind. So much of it all looks the same. Watch some of it and don't do it.

But every once in a while you come across a motion graphic gem that is in a class by itself. "Ascension" by Chris Lavelle is an abstract music video I came across. A beautiful, lyrical, personal project in AE, it shows that Chris has talent. Just watching it, you may even be inspired. 

Learn what the different genres are looking for, and what skills you'll need. Here's a great web reference from Rendaa Studios that will help you prepare to switch to motion graphics.

Tip: Avoid copying Video Copilot Andrew Kramer's brilliant work. Thousands of people have already done that. Also, never put the results of a Kramer tutorial into your demo reel. They're all well-known. Put your own Ideas to work. Take the time and effort to be creative. Be different, make it difficult, and do it well. Difficult will be noticed. Make them wonder how it was done.

Want to be creative? Get inspired! If you've been in the industry for a while, you may well be stale and not realize it. As implied earlier, Google gives us many opportunities to be inspired by brilliant work amid the dregs. They may open up new channels of creative thought in you.

Be a great employee
Let's say you have, or just landed, an interesting job. Be a good employee. In talking recently with HR people in games, animation and VFX, I discovered that there are a fair number of toxic employees out there who have a lot of talent and manage to keep getting employed, but they don't stay long. You may be one of them and not know it.

Toxic employees depend on their often-exceptional skills to keep them employed. But that only goes so far.

I honestly believe that most of these people have no idea what a rotten apple they really are. They cause problems, especially when they get into a position of supervising others. What are their characteristics? They are usually charming to your face and smack-talk you behind your back. If you do that to people, you'll get discovered and dumped. Toxics tend to use social media to bad-talk people at work as well as the studio or house or game company itself. They tend to gossip a lot on the job, especially talking trash about other employees and the supervisors. They often do it anonymously … but you can sort of tell who's doing it. They depend on their often-exceptional skills to keep them employed, but that only goes so far. They are often self-righteous and moan about being underappreciated. Last but not least, some Toxics tend to find ways to avoid actually doing their job and take credit for others' work. They are great at putting on a show of how valuable they think they are.

It can take a year for a company to discover a clever Toxic employee but, when they do, they will take steps to eliminate you. So if you are this kind of person, either make some serious changes to your personality or get used to frequent job changes and eventual blackballing. It won't be official, but word passes between studios and houses on this kind of person. I mentioned that I knew two toxic VFX supes and, seriously, I had dozens of people text me with their names. 

What's a desirable employee? It's someone who is a team player, who identifies with the local corporate culture. This person gets along with colleagues and avoids bad mouthing anyone. They do their work skillfully and in a timely manner. If they really like their job, they might send an email…okay, maybe a little kiss-ass…to their supervisors. Iif you're really ballsy, send one to the owners—even if they're overseas.

It's your job to make sure you're paid appropriately. This is regular business and is not bad behavior.

It's relatively easy to be a desirable employee. Show enthusiasm, participate in company teams and events, volunteer to help with company parties. Make an effort to really get to know your co-employees without being annoying about it. Be proud, wear the studio “brag-rags” at parties, avoid talking with others about problems at work. (There are always problems; keep them in-house.) In fact, avoid all gossip about the company it is purely poor form.

It's your job to make sure you're paid appropriately. Good employers should be okay with you discussing your need for an increase. Be reasonable. When you're given a job offer out of house, go to your supervisor and mention the offer. If you'd like to stay, say that and ask them to match it. This is regular business and is not bad behavior. 

Use common sense about being a good employee and you will get noticed. Perhaps it won't be in a big way, but when reduction-in-force time comes, you may just find yourself elevated to core staff. We all strive for that coveted designation. All studios strive to find those best, most valuable employees. It means we are valued and finally have regular employment—at least for a significant time.

If you find yourself walking the streets looking for work, remember this stuff. Make yourself valuable. Bring your skills to a new venue. If you've done major effects on blockbusters, you may think that motion graphics won't be very interesting. Not true. It can be just as exciting and engrossing as crashing alien space vehicles in a Marvel movie.

This is a great soapbox for me and for you. If you have ideas about how your colleagues can stay employed in the same city, please share them here. We really all do need to work together to save the film industry in L.A. and to keep ourselves in a stable living situation. Hell, you might even find yourself in a workable relationship!

I wish you all the best of the Holiday Season. I'm taking a break until mid-January to visit with family and friends. However, I'll be looking at situations, software and new creative platforms that we can use to build a better career. Remember, please share your ideas below. You will be appreciated.


P.S. This just in: for any readers who are just getting started in their careers, here is some wisdom from artists at The Mill.

Categories: VFX  |  Tags: , ,  |  Comments

Peter Plantec’s Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards, Part Four: Season Finale

It's been an exciting year in VFX and animation—lots of new developments, cool advances and interesting people. This is the fourth and final installment of this year's Golden Pixie Awards. This is the first time in nearly 20 years that I have included humans, and there is one more human to go. So, without further ado, Here are the last of the Pixies for this year.

Contributed most to the field of VFX technology

One man has contributed more to our understanding of real light and it's digital correlates than any other over the past two decades. Without his work, we would not have such things as image-based modeling and lighting and HDR photography. It was his technology that was used to produce the very first virtual humans that built a bridge over the uncanny valley. Without his work, we would not have been able to produces movies like Benjamin Button and Avatar or even the cool slow-motion bullet shots in The Matrix. Digital Emily and Digital Ira would not exist. There is so much more but, moving on …

He has gotten so famous that he spends more than half his time traveling the world talking about the latest developments in the field. He is a researcher, a teacher, and one of the best public speakers I have ever experienced. He and his team won the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 2010 for the design of his invaluable Light Stages. This year, Margaret Talbot featured him in The New Yorker as the man behind the digital cloning of actors.

This is a guy who never takes full credit because he has a brilliant team behind him. If you don't know who it is by now, you probably are not really in the VFX business. He is chief visual officer and head of the Graphics Laboratory at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). Some years ago at the View Conference in Turin, Italy, I dubbed him “The Prince of Light,” for his contributions to the field.

Paul Debevec I am pleased to award a Golden Pixie to Professor Paul Debevec, for his remarkable body of work contributing to the fields of VFX, digital photography, and animation. I got to know Paul nearly 20 years ago through mutual friends. At that time I was impressed, but did not know that we would develop common interests in virtual human design. However, over the years, he became famous for developing technologies that crossed the uncanny valley by enabling photorealistic virtual human animations. At the same time, I was writing the book Virtual Humans, talking about the psychological aspects of virtual human design. In my book, I addressed the problem of the uncanny valley. So you can see that I might have a prejudice towards Dr. Debevec. Well, I do. But that's not why he got the award. I set out to find the single most fruitful human in the VFX world. I looked at all aspects, from development of the DI (a major opus) to 3D particle and texturing systems to fluid dynamics. I looked at people with all sorts of science and engineering awards. But, honestly, there is one stand-out: Debevec. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, make the effort. You will find yourself more inspired than you might expect. Oh, and Paul? If you must, you can share this award with your team at ICT.

Best digital sculpting software

Well, I've tried them all, from Mudbox to Sculptris. It is amazing what you can do with these programs, but one program stands out above all others. It has an annoying interface that is anything but intuitive. It doesn't use any of the usual Windows conventions. Scaling, rotating and moving can be a royal pain in the ass. And though it was originally a 2D and 2.5D paint program, I wouldn't use it for painting. All that said, this application is, by far, the most powerful digital sculpting tool you can get, and it is definitely an industry standard. Of course, it has to be ZBrush.

The Desire Machine by Gutalin (Alex Kozhanov)

The Desire Machine by Gutalin (Alex Kozhanov), created with ZBrush (via ZBrushCentral)

Designed and programmed originally by Ofer Alon, ZBrush is now a 3D paint/sculpting program based on proprietary pixel technology where each 3D pixel contains color/material, lighting, and depth information for each of millions of points in a 3D sculpture. Originally, ZBrush was outstanding for organic modeling but not so much for technical, mechanical, and architectural modeling. That has long since changed. Over time, Ofer has incorporated many new and amazing original sculpting tools. They have become so sophisticated that there are brushes that contain many individual, pre-sculpted components. One internet site,, has a large collection of such brushes. Some contain various monster body parts; others contain spaceship/mech parts or even a library of different book models. ZBrush is often the go-to tool for sculpting alien spaceships, mech characters and complex equipment.

BadKing's Mega Monster Brush Pack - Teeth and Tongue Release

This "teeth and tongue" brush is part of BadKing's Mega Monster Brush Pack for ZBrush.

Most of all, ZBrush is about combining organic and hard surface design in one place to create stunningly complex models of amazing detail.

Most inspiring 3D environment design game for children of all ages

In a recent visit with my 7-year-old grandson, he was so excited to teach me how to create immersive game environments. I'm serious. I thought he was joking, but then he whipped out his iPad, brought up the Minecraft app, and proceeded to show me how one builds a world in 3D space. I was sore amazed. His favorite building was his “Bomb Building.” It was created entirely from boxes of dynamite! He said, “We have to be very careful in here Grandpa. The whole place could blow.” He created buildings and whole villages so fast I had trouble keeping up. At first the rudimentary feel and blocky construction of Minecraft worlds left me a bit cold. But as soon as I could see how intuitive the play is and how intensely my grandson engages in world-building, I started to realize this is pretty amazing. Minecraft is starting many young people in the art of immersive environment design, which is an interest of mine, being a founder of the 5D movement.


Minecraft is not new, nor is it completely original. Markus Persson, a Dane living in Sweden (and known as 'Notch' by his friends), is a programming prodigy. He started programming at the same age my grandson started playing Minecraft. He started working as a game developer a decade ago and worked his way up until he was able to leave Jalbum and strike out on his own with a company he calls Mojang. Influenced by games like Dwarf Fortress, Infiniminer, and Dungeon Keeper, Persson felt a drive to create his own intuitive approach to gameplay. When he left Jalbum, several others followed him to work on Minecraft.

The story takes a sharp turn because Microsoft got so excited looking at sales numbers, they up and bought Mojang for an amazing $2.5 billion! It gets even weirder—they just get the company and the property, a single game that must by now be approaching global saturation. They did not get Perrson or any of the very creative founders. Those guys get to walk off with an 18-wheeler full of cash each! Rumor has it that Microsoft bought the company to lure younger people to the Windows Mobile operating system, and that the deal could only be done without the top guy staying. Can't blame them. But look what happened to Caligari once Microsoft got their hands on it. Bye bye company, and bye bye trueSpace. IMHO, Microsoft hasn't the mentality to carry on the wonderfully creative design of Minecraft without the originators. But I digress yet again.

Available on many platforms, Minecraft is the hottest-selling game of all time. At this writing, 17,261,994 people have bought the game with 6,161 in the past 24 hours! Crazy popular.


Markus is somewhat famous for his highly efficient programming and actually has a version of Minecraft that loads up in only 4 KB! He's always up for a challenge. A frequent participant and winner in Ludum Dare, he creates entire games in accordance with the challenge theme parameters in 48 hours.

This Pixie is given not to Microsoft, but to Markus Persson for his game, Minecraft. Congratulations, kiddo. You earned it. May your next adventure be a grand one.

Best free game design software anywhere

Okay, this is a filmmakers' blog but, honestly, the line between film and games is blurring daily. Games are getting ever more cinematic and, let's face it, there is far more money (ergo more jobs) in games than in just film or TV at the moment. The world is changing. VFX and animation artists are still out of work! It is time to be flexible. Think about getting started in game design as a backup. Learn the skills. They are highly transferable. (Look for more on this in my upcoming blog on skills you need to have to stay employed in VFX.)

After working with my grandson on Minecraft, and reviewing game-oriented texturing systems like Quixel NDO and Allegorithmic Substance Designer, I actually got interested in game design. The full, commercially licensed tools can be outrageously expensive, but that's only for big companies. I was amazed to discover that I could download a number of full-bore game development systems (SDKs or system development kits—I know you know that, but one of you might not). I looked at 21 game SDKs, some free and some pay, all with different licensing structures and strengths. I narrowed my Pixie choices down to the two best free ones. Though both are excellent, and come with lots of bells and whistles, they are not equivalent.

They are Unity3D (example video) and Cryengine Sandbox (example video). I've spent literally weeks trying to pick just one. I finally have. It came down to the graphics and play quality and the fact that Cryengine has made some major upgrades recently and now is much easier to use with game boxes and mobile games. Though I think Unity3D may the best choice for beginning game designers and it is an amazing tool, the best 3D Game Design SDK anywhere, in my biased opinion, is Cryengine Sandbox. With new improvements in the workflow and application interface, I also think Sandbox is now far easier to learn.


In brief, The Cryengine3 Sandbox edition is very sophisticated and more up to date. The graphics, lighting and atmosphere tools and game play are much better. Crytek has also put a lot of effort into its virtual human tools, including procedural animation for humans, monsters and animals.

Sandbox now has an excellent work interface. It takes a little time to understand but, once you learn it, the workflow is efficient. When you build games, you need assets, and Sandbox comes with a ton of them. It has good built-in creation tools, and it plays well with third-party tools like ZBrush, Autodesk and Adobe tools, Substance Designer and Quixel NDO and DDO.

How do you go about learning this stuff? It's easy. Download your free copy of Sandbox and unzip it to a drive where you have lots of room. It's almost two gigs, plus you'll be saving lots of assets and safety copies. This is not a beginner deal, remember. We're talking the full package here. So many hours of dedicated learning and practice are in order, but I think you'll find it's all intense fun. To top it off, Sandbox comes with a magnificent environment game called Forest. A walk through this interesting world will amaze you, and you can start creating places like this out of the box. Okay, I got carried away. I feel really bad. Just for the hell of it, I shot a chicken with my virtual rifle and blew it out of the water, literally. Nothing was left but a huge splash. Also, the water effects are so realistic the waterfalls even have mist around them—real moving mist. But I digress. 

I was talking about learning, and there are a lot of online training opportunities. You will find good information from Crytek and at YouTube, but the best training is not free. It's at DigitalTutors and, since I have to keep up on software, I keep an annual contract with them. I'm deeply into their Cryengine tutorials, and I'm starting to believe I can create a really cool game.


Thanks for sticking with my four episodes of Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards. There are so many more that I will have to do another installment down the line. For example, I think the folks who have developed Blender and GIMP deserve recognition. Lots of small companies are doing great work. I haven't even given a Pixie to the big guys like Autodesk, with all their industry-standard applications, and The Foundry with all of theirs. But we have to move on to more important issues—like how to keep a job in one city, so that we can stop being modern-day nomads and have families and kids in school, etc. Be sure to catch my next blog—as mentioned above, it will be all about the skills that will help you stay employed.


Categories: Peter Plantec, Useful Tools, VFX  |  Tags: ,  |  Comments

Flying a Camera on a Quadcopter? Let’s See Your Pilot’s License

Filmmakers looking to use lightweight drone-mounted camera systems for affordable aerial cinematography got some good news and some bad news from the Federal Aviation Administration last week. The good news is the FAA is reportedly finally ready to propose rules for legal commercial use of unmanned aircraft such as the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+. Flights are likely to be limited to daylight hours and restricted to 400 feet in altitude within sight of the person controlling the drone. The bad news? The FAA wants to require that all operators of commercial drones be certified to fly manned aircraft in addition to tiny drones.

That's right — according to a report first published in The Wall Street Journal, the FAA is likely to propose new certifications that would require anyone who wants to fly a DJI Phantom quadcopter commercially to log "dozens of hours flying manned aircraft" as part of their pilot training. That's because the FAA plans to create one regulation covering all drones up to 55 pounds in weight. That includes the Phantom 2 Vision+, which weighs just 2.8 pounds with battery and propellers. That's a little like making a 16-year-old become licensed to operate an 18-wheeler before being allowed to tool around town in a Honda Civic.

The reason drone technology is exciting to filmmakers is that it's inexpensive and widely accessible. Certain aerial shots that would have been out of reach by a production that couldn't afford a helicopter pilot can be easily and safely accomplished with a quadcopter. A handful of aerial production companies have already received exemptions from the FAA allowing them to use the drones in the U.S., under limited conditions, with dozens more requests still being evaluated.

And as decisions are being made about which production companies are and aren't allowed to fly drones, those regulations are raising First Amendment concerns. In an article for Slate, assistant professor of law Margot E. Kaminski laid out the free-speech complications that may face the FAA as it seeks to regulate an important new tool for newsgathering and, thus, constitutionally protected speech.

Finally, it may be illegal to fly drones commercially in the U.S., but that doesn't mean people aren't doing it. A broad swath of independent filmmakers has already discovered the advantages of drone videography, and The New York Times ran a story about their ubiquity among wedding videographers — even the one documenting this summer's wedding of New York's Democratic Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who sits on the subcommittee that oversees the FAA and thus probably should have known better. 

Categories: Shooting, Technology  |  Tags: , ,  |  Comments

Peter Plantec’s Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards, Part Three

I have always been a rule-breaker — as I believe many of you are. I follow civil rules, but tend to dislike doing things the way they've always been done. Thus you may have noticed I make up award categories as I go along. I've always done it that way, but it's my way. Anyway. 

Selecting Pixie winners is not as easy a task as it may seem. I wrestle with them and have sleepless nights. I don't want to be unfair, and some of the decisions are very difficult. For example, when it comes to material development tools? That's a big category this year with many outstanding tools. So let's move forward.

Most Fun Texture Tool

I'm kind of cheating. I was torn between xNormal and CrazyBump as the best texture tools. CrazyBump was falling behind because it isn't free. In fact, I feel it is way overpriced. But, all factors considered, it gets a Pixie. Why? Because I have so much fun creating great textures with it. Seriously, it is the most intuitive and easy to use and texture tool in my arsenal. It is not the most accurate, but it is the most used.

This is a screen shot of a 3D texture I created from an image of sci-fi pipes.

With it, I can instantly make a full set of maps. The original photo becomes the diffuse map, and the program somehow figures out an excellent displacement map, ambient occlusion map, specularity map and normal map. It is the quality of these maps that gives it a leg up. I can also load in a normal map and it calculates the displacement, occlusion and specularity. It also generates a diffuse map from the normal, which is really more of a surface detail map.

One thing I love about it is the instant real-time 3D display of your texture on a cube or roll or sphere, etc. You can even load an object. You can tweak the texture while looking at a real-time display of it with movable lighting, etc. It really is killer good.

My problem with it (that almost disqualified it) is the price. It costs $99.00 for what is basically a one-trick pony. It makes texture maps — really good ones from photos. At least, that is my main use of it.

Note that this award may be short-lived. There is a newer, competing product called MindTex, which is almost a clone of CrazyBump and costs a mere $15.00 It did not get the Pixie because the maps are not quite as good, but in some ways it is a more useful app. It creates a clever self-illumination map along with the others. It also provides more real-time surfaces to test your texture on; however, it has difficulty handling very large textures. For a little bit more money, ShaderMap is excellent as well. So officially I award a PPEBGPA to CrazyBump as the Most Fun Texture Tool in my box because I use it a lot, with an honorable mention of MindTex and Shadermap Pro.

Most Useful Film-Manipulation Plug-In Set

Over a number of years, I have found this regularly updated set of plug-ins to be most helpful in creating the kinds of video I like to create. It is useful for motion graphics of all sorts and has been used to create some of the most spectacular abstracts we've seen on TV in recent years.

Talk about sex appeal: Trapcode Suite 12.1 has so many After Effects plug-ins that let you create so many astounding FX it went on my list more than a year ago. I'm giving the Golden Pixie to the entire Suite because It's all very cool. At $899, the price might seem a little steep at $899, but the 10 included plug-ins are worth it if you do motion graphics with VFX. You will save that much in time on your first job, making you more competitive. You could spend the next 10 years learning all the cool things you can do with these plugins, such as:

  • Lux – Simulates the look of lights in dark or foggy environments.
  • Mir – OpenGL enabled and generates smoothly organic, flowing elements from oceans to mountains to galaxies. Packed with manipulation tools.
  • Particular 2 – So much more than just a particle app. Creates 3D particle-scapes that you can fly through and much, much more.
  • Shine – is just that. It adds shimmering god rays to your renders. They are automatically animated as your camera moves.
  • Sound Keys – lets you analyze and key off of the sound track. Many uses, including abstract music video clips.
  • Starglow – If you have ever needed some dazzling sparkle coming off your mirrorball or an ocean, etc., this is your plug-in. It keys off a scene's highlights.
  • 3D Stroke – A 3D plug-in that lets you create lines in space, some glowing, in your shot. It is heavily used in TV motion graphics.
  • EchoSpace – create and manage multiple-layer 3D effects. Great for text animation as well.
  • Form 2 – An amazing 3D plug-in that can work with Particular. Works with Obj models. Let an automobile crumble into gravel, or have a person evaporate into particles.
  • Horizon – Horizon is a camera-aware image-mapping tool that ties your After Effects camera to a 3D world. Create infinite gradient or realistic backgrounds.

You can buy individual units for prices ranging from $499.00 for Particular 2 to $69.00 for Echospace.

I can not tell you how many hours I have spend just fooling around to see what I could come up with. Combining Sound Keys with Particular and MIR and Lux all together to get ethereal, sound-driven footage can be so much fun (and profitable as well) for both large and small-time houses. Even freelancers will expand their portfolio greatly with this collection.

I am proud to award the Golden Pixie for Most Exciting and Useful After Effects Plug-in Suite to Trapcode.

Red Giant is a great company, too. They support users with excellent podcasts and online tutorials (Red Giant TV) and their active online community, with a library of free tools for VFX and motion graphics artists as well as film editors and filmmakers in general.

Most Innovative Software Delivery System

And now for my very first Golden Pixie awarded to a Cloud. Things sure have changed since I first started making these awards. Things have even changed since cloud apps first appeared not long ago. As many of you know, I was not crazy about the idea of Autodesk taking their applications to cloud subscription. I like to own a copy of my software so I can use it down the line if I need it. The thought of paying monthly for an application just goes against my grain.

But then I did some simple math and in general paying a monthly fee per year comes out to … wait for it … a really good deal! If you work in this business, you really have to keep your apps reasonably up-to-date in order to remain competitive. It's especially critical for graphics and VFX houses. So the idea of a system that keeps your on-box applications strictly up-to-date, at all times, does have some appeal.

Then one company decided to put all their applications online for one substantial-yet-fair monthly subscription price. And an even more fair annual subscription. Many of these tools are industry standards that we all use almost daily. I think there is only one company that fits this category.

And the Golden Pixie goes to—forgive me, all of you who are still pissed about the idea of subscription software—Adobe Systems. I kid you not! It was a hard decision, but I have to give them their due. They are working with users more closely than ever, so their updates often include useful new tools. Their cloud system, so far, is working well. You get 20 GB of cloud storage with your subscription, too.

Adobe is also working with us (you and me) to find a pricing system that really works. The pricing structure is a bit complicated, but if you already own CS3 or higher the deal is pretty good at $29.99/month. New folks can get the whole package for about $80/month on a month-to-month basis — you can sign up for just a month or two to complete a project, and then sign off. The best deal is for educational institutions, which can get licenses tied to a single system for $30/month. Considering what you would have had to pay in years past to buy all this creative power (and keep it completely up to date), it's a good deal. The fact that you can get a single app for a project for one month for $19.99 is also very handy. And the 10-buck-a-month Photography deal, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom, is outstanding.

One last advantage is portability. Say you have to go on a job on Guam and you suddenly need SpeedGrade to finish the project. You just sign into your account and install it on any computer you're working on. You uninstall it when you no longer need it. This is particularly handy if you work on a laptop. Add to that the new line of tablet touch apps that link to Cloud apps, and you're looking at the future.

Okay, in a sense I feel like a guilty turncoat for giving this award because I have been unconvinced about cloud-based subscription programs. Nevertheless, I assure you, Adobe has earned this award, and I think we all have to admit their software is, in general, of a very high caliber. So congratulations from the heart, Adobe. I was wrong. Subscription software does make sense the way you're doing it. However, I wish you would introduce a system where when you stop your subscription after, say, at least two years, you get to keep certain key apps you've installed, without further updates. That seems fair.

For those interested, I've based this award on using and reviewing these apps:

  • Bridge CC
  • Acrobat XI Pro
  • Illustrator (2014) CC
  • Photoshop (2014)CC
  • Premiere Pro (2014) CC
  • After Effects (2014) CC
  • Audition (2014) CC
  • Light Room (2014) CC
  • Media Encoder (2014) CC
  • SpeedGrade (2014) CC

I thought I'd just use Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro, but I was wrong. With free access to the entire suite, I find myself using more and more tools.

Best Environment Creation Tool

I like doing environment concept designs, so naturally I've looked at most of the environment creation software like Mojo World, Bryce, Terregen, and Vue. Each one has it's strengths, but one stands out for it remarkably well designed interface and tools. Vue 14.5 is the clear winner of the Golden Pixie this year.

This castle was rendered in Vue and then incorporated into a digital matte painting of nearly 100 layers by Peter Plantec.

Why? Because with it you have the tools you need to create amazing photorealistic images and animations that defy detection as pure digital. It is my entirely biased opinion that nothing really comes close to Vue for environment design and creation. Instead of writing a lot about it, here is are three images created by renowned environment artist Drea Horvath in Holland using Vue. Notice the atmosphere, water, vegetation, lighting and render quality.

By artist Drea Horvath

Vue is available in five different price levels, from the free Pioneer version to a full-bells-and-whistles Vue Extreme version. The latter contains plug-ins for most major 3D creation suites, including Max, Maya, Softimage, LightWave and C4D. It is amazing to work right within 3ds Max using the powerful Vue tools to create and animate environments of amazing quality after only a few days of learning. Congratulations to the development teams at E-on Software in the U.S. and France.


Vue can be used to create highly realistic establishing shots in very little time. This one is highly compressed for the web.  

I've uploaded a very short video clip in which I have included bits and pieces from Golden Pixie winners. I composed this clip after watching a Peder Norrby tutorial on Vimeo. Of course, I went off on my own about halfway through.


I used After Effects CC and Vector Blur CC, as well as Layer Styles, all from Adobe's Creative Cloud. Then I incorporated Red Giant Trapcode tools Mir and Shine. I stylized the flame look using a free plug-in from Video Copilot called VC Color Vibrance. To add drama, I used some sound FX and atmosphere from Andrew Kramer's Designer Sound FX and Pro Scores packs. Fun stuff. It's only a few seconds. Enjoy.


It really is a pleasure to give credit to elements of our industry that do a particularly good job. I certainly will miss some deserving elements. But maybe I'll catch them next year.

Stay tuned, because there are more Golden Pixies to come. I've been working on this all year and I have found a lot of worthy recipients.


Categories: Peter Plantec, VFX  |  Tags: ,  |  Comments

Interstellar: First Reactions and Tech Specs for Exhibition

Christopher Nolan's nearly-three-hour-long spacefaring epic Interstellar, which opens November 5 in theaters showing film and November 7 on digital screens, is one of the year's most ambitious and highly anticipated movies. Until very recently, it was also the big studio release that we knew the least about—even if you had seen it, you weren't allowed to say anything about it until this week. That didn't stop some high-profile colleagues of Nolan's from having their say.

And now movie critics have started weighing in. Interstellar has earned a Metacritic Metascore of 77 ("generally favorable reviews") from 11 writers and a Tomatometer rating of 69% from 26 reviewers (18 favorable, 8 negative) at Rotten Tomatoes. Here are some quotes from both sides of the aisle.

Interstellar reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside The Wizard of Oz2001Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Gravity in the canon of Hollywood's visionary sci-fi head trips. — Scott Foundas, Variety

The movie's strengths and weaknesses are profoundly bound up together, producing a riveting push-pull dynamic throughout. You watch the film lamenting its most recent slip-up, only to be knocked sideways by its next extraordinary flourish. — Tim Grierson, Screen Daily

It's a bold, beautiful cosmic adventure story with a touch of the surreal and the dreamlike, and yet it always feels grounded in its own deadly serious reality. — Dave Calhoun, Time Out London

It’s a glorious spectacle, but a slight drama, with few characters and too-rare flashes of humour. It wants to awe us into submission, to concede our insignificance in the face of such grand-scale art. It achieves that with ease. Yet on his way to making an epic, Nolan forgot to let us have fun. — Henry Barnes, The Guardian

It's impossible to not admire the technical achievements of Interstellar, but as Michael Bay and so much more modern moviegoing has proved, rapturous visuals can't make up for a ruptured script. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar spends hundreds of millions to take the audience on a journey to the farthest parts of the cosmos … so they can be told sentiments as close, and as cheap, as any of the offerings at your local Hallmark card retailer. — James Rocchi, The Playlist

OK. So some people will love it and some will hate it. But the most controversial thing about Interstellar on the exhibition side of the industry is the director's stubborn refusal to give up on film. What does it mean for moviegoers? Well, beyond the different look of film prints, Nolan's use of multiple formats means the movie will be screened in many theaters with a changing aspect ratio, and audiences will see a different frame depending on where they see the film.

According to the official "technical specifications," Interstellar was photographed in 35mm anamorphic and 65mm 15-perf IMAX formats. When the film is projected in an old-school 70mm IMAX theater, the aspect ratio will switch between 2.40:1 (35mm anamorphic) and 1.43:1 (IMAX) at "key dramatic moments".

Before and After
Mouseover film still above to compare aspect ratios. Note: this is a publicity still, not an actual frame from the film. We're just using it to show the difference between the aspect ratios; we have no idea whether the scene in the film was shot on 35mm or in IMAX. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

For "digital IMAX" exhibition, the original film elements have been scanned at 6K and 8K before being scaled down for the DCP. The aspect ratio will switch between 2.40:1 and "up to 1.9:1," presumably depending on the height of the screen at any given digital IMAX installation. All IMAX screenings, film and digital, will feature an uncompressed IMAX sound mix.

At 70mm screenings, the IMAX footage has been cropped top and bottom (and the widescreen footage cropped slightly on the sides?) to create a 2.2:1 aspect ratio. The six-track audio will be delivered on a Datasat disc. 35mm anamorphic prints are made from the original 35mm camera negative intercut with 4K negative sourced from 8K scans of the original IMAX negative. Sound will be encoded on the prints in six-track Dolby SRD.

Look for more news on Interstellar when the film is in release … and the people who helped make it are finally allowed to talk about it.

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