Meet Emmy Award Winning Digital Compositor, Ryan Wieber

June 17, 2008 12:28 am

Tags: 3D, Adobe After Effects, Artist Interview, Emmy, professional, special effects, special fx, television, visual effects

I believe we have to cover the obvious stuff first. How did you get involved in computer graphics? Did you receive any kind of formal education?

I never took any formal training in visual effects, I learned most of the basics on my own. It's something that I was always interested in, so when I was young and finally got a computer that could do that sort of thing, I became immersed in it. I think my parents were concerned that I spent too much time on the computer. I filmed a lot of tests with my camera in the back yard and followed tutorials online, or just experimented on my own, and soon had a home-made reel of goofy effects tests I showed around at school. They look very simple and silly now, but I was teaching myself the basics, and I attribute my fundamental skills to those kinds of tests. Nowadays, I learn and grow on the job, which I think is similar in that it's real world experience.

Browsing your IMDB page, I see you have an impressive portfolio. One thing I noticed is that you are often (if not always) credited as digital compositor. Of all the different fields in computer animation (meaning everything from modeling to finishing), why did you choose to become a compositor?

Well, as an artist who does not (as of yet) possess skills with a 3D program, everything else kind of falls into the category of "compositing". It's the final stage of visual effects, where all the pieces come together and receive the final treatment to become a finished shot. I think that's where the most fun is, for me. And it encompasses all sorts of things. For example, working on Heroes, one day I might be doing a virtual backdrop which the audience is not even meant to notice is an effect, and the next day I might be doing big bold electricity power effects. It's a great variety and I get to flex (or try to build up) many different muscles (so to speak) as a compositor.

What software did you use when you were teaching yourself visual effects? What is your "weapon of choice" when it comes to your work at Stargate, as well as your personal work, and why?

I pretty much exclusively composite with Adobe After Effects. It's what I learned on, and is also what we use at Stargate, though at work we have a whole pipeline with a lot of proprietary add-ons built around it. I don't think a lot of big huge feature studios use After Effects. They tend to have more expensive node-based apps like Inferno and stuff. I'll have to get into that someday. But the same principles of compositing apply, regardless of what particular program you use.

After Effects is one of the most affordable (comparatively) and easy to learn compositing tools around, and I think it is often underestimated in terms of its versatility and power. Especially when you get really familiar with it and learn things like expressions and scripting, which open a whole other dimension of how to use it.

You have worked on both TV and games, and even if they're both very different industries, did you find one of them to be more to your liking? Why?

Games is sort of how I broke into the real working world doing visual effects, but it has always been my goal to work on effects for TV and film. I got a great opportunity to work for LucasArts, the video games company based on a lot of those early tests I had online, working as a portfolio for me. It was a great experience, but I'm having an even better time working in TV. It's much more in line with the kind of stuff I started out doing, and eventually want to be doing, which is effects for feature films.

Your work at LucasArts was also oriented to compositing for cinematics and things like that? Can you talk about any specific project you worked on while you were there?

In games, "visual effects" is a broader thing than in the compositing world... or, as you might say from the gaming side, the pre-rendered world. My work on Effects at LucasArts were actually for the most part building real-time particle systems and effect events that would run in the context of live gameplay. Basically, anything that blows up, or is not a 3D element, for example, environmental effects like rain or fire. On Republic Commando, for example, we were using the Unreal engine, and so my first couple months on the job were getting familiar with that workflow, asset management, and how to achieve certain types of visual results, given limited assets. The battle in the gaming world is keeping things small on the disc, and fast on the screen. That can become challenging when you need a lot of particles, for example, to make a huge explosion when you throw a grenade, but you can't let the game lag every time it happens.

In working on the Episode III game, I worked on some of the Mustafar levels, and part of the effects work was making falling lava bits that rained from the sky as you battled Obi-Wan/Anakin. The fun part is stuff like how we ambitiously developed an effect of some of those lava blobs that would fall and hit the platform you fight on, which is something that was not really asked for, but added something to the gameplay that made it feel much more interesting and intense. One of our level builds had a glitch where instead of these lava blobs hitting the metal and splattering a little bit, like jello, they exploded like bombs, throwing lava bits everywhere. It turned out everybody liked that, and so we added a shadow that would appear on the ground preceding the impact, and had the "lava bombs" inflict damage to your character, which became a huge aspect of the gameplay in that level.

However, on Knights of the Old Republic II, I was the lead compositor and VFX artist on the cinematic cutscenes, which are basically the pre-rendered bits between the gameplay to change your setting or set up different story points, etc. That was a lot of fun because for the most part everything was 3D to begin with, so it was just laying the plates from 3D together and making them look as cool as possible. Adding lots of sweeteners and touches to try to bring the look of everything up to the highest possible level. I also coordinated with the animators on how to achieve certain things like ships blowing up, which were a blend of 3D and 2D explosion elements, etc.

Image from "Battleground"

While we were talking, you mentioned you'd won an Emmy last year for visual effects. What show was the one you owe the award to?

The Stargate team, including myself, won an Emmy for our effects work on TNT's "Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King". We worked on an episode titled "Battleground" which starred William Hurt, a hit man who receives a package from a toymaker (one of his recent jobs) and ends up being hunted in his apartment by a malicious army of tiny toy soldiers. It was a fun and unusual project.

Image from "Battleground"

Some time ago I read an article on Cinefex where they stated that VFX work for TV is more demanding than that for film, due to the tight deadlines and volume of work. Can you share your experience regarding that subject? How stressful can your job be and how do you deal with that?

There are definitely different expectations for television, versus film. Movies have time and money, and for that, they expect excellent work that stands up to intense scrutiny. The real stress there is that you know the client will be looking at every detail on every frame, and especially with big blockbusters, they often expect the kind of effects that push the envelope and do things nobody has ever seen before... and sometimes for hundreds and hundreds of shots.

Image from "Battleground"

Television is generally different because the schedules are tighter, and while you might have 2 months to tweak a shot for a feature, you'll have 2 weeks to complete a shot for TV. It can be very fast-paced, especially at a company like Stargate Digital, where I am, which might be working on 20 different shows at certain times of the year. Every one of those shows has different numbers of shots (sometimes ranging into the hundreds per episode) and different kinds of effects needs. It's really about knocking out the best possible work you can in a tight time frame, on a modest budget. There is a fair amount of negotiation with the clients about how much artist time they can afford, and how much they are willing to pay for, and the compromises that must be made to produce work that is strong, and comes in under budget and on time. We will sometimes be working on big shots up until just hours before it airs on TV. That's a whole different kind of stress.

Commercials, which I'm glad not to be in, are the worst of both worlds, by the way. They have deadlines as tight or even tighter than television, and all the expectations of feature film effects work. They can do that because they throw huge amounts of cash at their effects houses to get it done. It's that whole thing: fast, cheap, good... pick any two.

I really enjoy working on television, though. I learn all the time, and I get to work on all sorts of different effects. It doesn't get boring. When you have a good crew that you work with, and you know that as a whole you all can handle it, it doesn't get too stressful, even if you have to be putting in a lot of overtime sometimes.

Image from "Heroes"

I see you've worked on "Heroes", which happens to be one of my favorite shows. Can you talk a little about the work you did on that show? Is there any shot that you could call your favorite?

"Heroes" is one of my favorite shows as well. I feel really privileged to be working on it. Another great thing about Stargate, is that there is an appreciation for an artist’s commitment and experience with different kinds of effects. Most of the signature effects are done consistently by the same artist who initially developed the look of the effect when it was first seen on the show. It works well because the artist knows their effect inside and out, and can knock out their shots the fastest, with the best results. I, for example, do the invisibility effects, and the electricity consistently for the show. Both of which are fun to do. I think some of my favorite other sequences that I've done are: in season one, a scene where Sylar telekinetically controls a cloud of broken glass shards and sprays them around a room to reveal the invisible Peter... and the first time Hiro freezes time to save a young girl from a truck that is barreling out of control, about to run her over, in the third episode.

Image from "Heroes"

Most, if not all of us, know about Ryan Vs Dorkman. Are you currently working on another personal project, be it something completely different, or even RvD 3?

Well, we definitely plan to do an RvD3 in another couple/few years. Saber fights are fun, and we like to "check in" every so often and try to make the coolest nerd saber battle we can, and see how far we've come since the last. For right now, Michael ("Dorkman") Scott is working on co-writing the script for "The Descendants" which is in collaboration with Dark Horse Entertainment, and based on a comic book of that name, by that publisher. So hopefully that will be the next big thing from us. Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in Episode I, (and Snake Eyes in G.I. Joe) is attached and excited, and we even filmed a spec teaser trailer some months ago, starring him, which you can find on YouTube under the username "DorkmanScott". We're pretty proud of it and hopefully will be doing it on a feature-film scale in the relatively near future.

The Descendants looks like an interesting concept. I even looked for it on the IMDB, but all I found was a project scheduled to be released in 2009 (and I may add that the page has no information whatsoever). I wonder about what you said of the "feature film scale", though. Is the project currently planned as a miniseries, or a short film? For those of us who are not familiar with comics, can you tell us what The Descendants is about?

Yeah, the IMDB for "The Descendants" in 2009 is a completely different film. Right now we do not know what a release date would be. As I mentioned before, there isn't even an approved script at the moment. Our aim is to be treating it as a feature film, for theatrical release. At least, that's how it's being written. If it turns out that we find the best deal as a mini-series or a direct to DVD feature, we may be open to that as well. But it's really too early to tell. We're just trying to take the project as seriously as possible and are hoping for the best.

The Descendants takes place in the modern world, with some fantasy elements. In the comics, Charlie Stone (who will be Ray Park), is a mercenary mixed in magic, and is recruited by the religious secret society, the Knights Templar. The Knights are the protectors of all holy objects. He is teamed up with a female partner named Jessie. Together they must infiltrate an evil group known as the Cross. The Cross believes it is their duty to speed the world along toward Armageddon. The film (as it's being written currently) will adhere to the basic structure and feel of the comics, but will explore the idea in ways that will work best for the screen. Ray's character (Charlie) is a sharp-witted badass who will be fun to see on screen, and really give Ray an opportunity to show off his acting ability, in addition to his physical ability.

Image from "The Descendants"

And the million dollar question: how did you get Ray Park to work on the project?

Ray was actually attached to the project before Mike and I were. We were contacted and interviewed based on our work on RvD2, showing that we knew how to direct action on a budget. We hit it off very well, and later on made our Spec trailer to really show that we could all pull together and actually make something cool on a modest budget and time frame. Ray is extremely cool, and as it turned out, was a fan of our work on RvD/RvD2 before I met him.

Besides your life inside the computers, what other kinds of activities do you like? What do you do in your free time (if any), or what do you do when you need to get away from work and let your brain rest a bit?

Well, aside from occasionally making lightsaber duels with friends... I like going to movies. I feel privileged to be near enough to The Arclight theaters in Los Angeles to be able to go there often. They're the best theatrical experience in the world, for my money. I used to take regular Kung Fu classes, which I really enjoyed, and helped me keep in shape, but my schedule has not permitted me to be able to go back yet, but hopefully soon. I think when you spend a lot of time in a chair with your nose against a monitor all day, the best thing you can do recreationally is to get out and do something physical.

I've met a lot of people in the past that are interested in getting into computer graphics (either animation, modeling or compositing), but find it hard to decide what to do and how to approach what they want to do (especially when they can't attend school for various reasons). Do you have any kind of advice for them?

I get a lot of emails every day from (usually younger) folks who are interested in learning visual effects and want to know how to get into it. One particular question I get a lot is whether or not I think you need to go to college for visual effects to get into it. Some are surprised when I answer no. And really that's not just because I didn't go to more than a year of college before I was picked up by LucasArts... but I hear a lot of stories too. I've talked to a number of folks who went to film school and stuff like that, and really didn't learn what they needed to. Instead, they paid a lot of money, which they could have put into actually making a film, and I think would have learned a lot more.

The best way to learn something is through experience. If you do something enough, you will get proficient, and once you get proficient, you can get good, and great. I think it's true for visual effects. If you have the means of doing your own visual effects at home (even if you don't think your work is very good) you can keep at it, and keep testing, and get better each time you do it. Put all those clips together, showing off your techniques, and you have a demo reel. You take that demo reel to enough places, and somebody will hire you. May not be a great gig to start, but you get more experience, and have that place on your resume, and you repeat the process. Shop around and move up. Visual Effects is a very fluid industry where a lot of folks go to one place for a couple years, go to another for a few months, go to another for a year, freelance for a while, etc etc. It's good to go in understanding that it may be that way for you in the beginning, and that it can be very educational.

I don't think you "need" formal training or education to get into it, but it may be a good idea. For some people, if you go to the right places, you really can learn a lot, and perhaps of equal
importance, you make the connections with fellow classmates and professors. But don't trap yourself into thinking that there is only one way to get good at something or to get a job in a particular field. It's more about what you can do... however you end up learning to do it.

I'll share a quick anecdote on this subject: A couple years ago I kicked my resume and reel around to a few places and got a call back from Entity Effects, who do, amongst a lot of other things, Smallville, which is a show I'm a fan of, particularly some of their effects work. I went into the interview, and we watched my reel. They asked me to talk about the work as it was shown, to explain it. They were impressed and said that they were interested in bringing me into a short-term freelance position and wanted to show me around. It was then that I realized they hadn't even touched my resume, and almost as a formality, flipped through the pages and glanced through it casually before standing to give me a tour of the place. I think this industry in particular is very much about your work and what you can do, and less about where you've been and how you learned.

Do you have any last thoughts/words for our readers?

Well, I think I've probably given you way more than you needed already, heh.


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Animation Alley is a regular featured column with Renderosity Staff Columnist Sergio Rosa [nemirc]. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields.

May 5, 2008

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Article Comments

AscendedSpirit ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 07 May 2008

This is really awesome work.

rockets ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 07 May 2008

Thank you for this most interesting article. It's amazing how much goes into making films and games.

StaceyG ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 07 May 2008

Great interview. Amazing work.

danamo ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 10 May 2008

I really enjoyed the interview. It's heartening to know that it's possible for someone, largely self-taught, to succeed in the industry.

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