Interview with Compositor Tony Lyons

Posted by: Keyer on 16th February 2016

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Tony Lyons is a compositor from Massachusetts, USA. He has worked on Avenger: Age of Ultron, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and many commercials. After working in Los Angeles for a few years, he is now working for Double Negative in London, UK. In this interview, we talk about how he got into the visual effects industry and his experience working in some of the best VFX companies in the world.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Tony Lyons, I’m a 26 year old compositor working on films and commercials.  I grew up in a small town called Lakeville in Massachusetts (in the) USA, which is about an hour away from Boston.  I graduated from Full Sail University in December 2009 with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Animation, majoring in compositing.  I’ve been working in the VFX industry for the last 5 years in Los Angeles, Shanghai, Vancouver, and most recently, London.

 

You majored in compositing at Full Sail University. When did you know that you wanted to be compositor? What inspired you?

I was actually a rare case at Full Sail, where I knew that I wanted to be a compositor going in.  A lot of people know they want to do VFX, and use the university as a way to flesh out what exactly they want to major in.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with either approach, but I was definitely able to focus and relate everything I learned towards compositing from the start.

There was kind of a natural progression towards compositing in my childhood.  I loved to draw comic books as a kid.  I discovered I could use Microsoft Paint and Windows Movie Maker as sort of a poor boy’s Flash animation, and started making stick figure fights. Using digital camcorders, I realised I could manipulate each frame using Photoshop and then stack them in Windows Movie Maker, which I suppose was a super crude version of compositing.  I then found Adobe After Effects and said “Wow this is a way easier way to edit video”.  During my junior year at high school, a friend and I made a 20 minute Star Wars Lightsaber movie, which was very much inspired by an online video called “Ryan vs Dorkman”.  It was basically  just an excuse for us to do stunts, lightsaber fight, and cut our friends in half.  I did all the VFX in After Effects and somehow got the principal of my high school to let us premiere the final movie in our auditorium.  When I heard the reactions of the audience, the laughter, the “wow’s” and everyone asking the question “How the hell did you do that?”, that’s when  I knew I wanted to do VFX as a career.  What’s funny is, it wasn’t until much later that I even found out what I was doing was called “compositing”.

 

Tony Lyons Demo Reel 2015

 

How was compositing taught in that university? Was it taught in a structural way? Or it was project base? Learning by doing?

Full Sail’s Computer Animation program very much revolved around CGI and compositing was more of an 'end-note' when I went through.  You would spend about 18 months learning about modelling, shading and lighting; animation, rigging, and rendering.  Then you would have one month of compositing before the final project classes.  I believe they have now put more emphasis on compositing, and have two classes, one of which is placed early on, so that students are introduced to it and have a chance to decide if it’s what they’d like to pursue.

The compositing class itself had different sections. You’d get a brief history of compositing in films and how it’s used today.  There was an emphasis on learning 3d tracking, rotoscoping, keying, color corrections, integration, etc.  You would receive 4 hours of lecture, and 4 hours of lab time per day, so it was very much hands on.  There was a final project where you would have to 3D track a plate and composite a CG element into the scene.  I’m sure they’ve changed the course quite a bit since I’ve been through.  I think they now focus a lot on matte painting, 2.5D projection systems, and object tracking.

 

Did you find this way of teaching easy to follow and put into practice?

I was lucky to have some great teachers, who were notorious for not letting lazy students slide by.  They created challenging, but realistic expectations for us and really stressed the importance of compositing for all majors.  We had pretty harsh tests where they’d hand you a final image and the various elements making up that image, like a background plate and a few foreground elements, and you would have an hour to reassemble the image from scratch, having to transform and colour correct each element to perfectly match.

There could be months spent on learning compositing, but the reality was that the class was only a month long, and the majority of students wanted to be 3d artists.  Out of a class of 40, there would be maybe 2-3 students wanting to actually major in compositing.  That said, often times those students would let the instructors know they wanted to do compositing ahead of time, and they would receive more help and have additional challenges.

Personally, I think more emphasis could be placed on keying and CG multipass compositing.  Those are critical subjects for any good compositor.  Roto and paint are also important for beginning compositors, as that’s usually the “foot in the door” position right out of school, and the building blocks for the rest of compositing.  Nobody likes a senior compositor who doesn’t know how to roto/paint very well.

 

After you graduated, was it difficult to find work as a compositor with your demo reel from university? Describe your job hunting process.

Your demo reel is important. It shows what you can do, and if it’s good then you have a strong chance of getting hired once it’s seen.  However, friends and connections are more important because no matter how good your reel is, it won’t matter if nobody is looking at it.  Connections will help put your reel in front of the right people.  The greatest thing I got from attending school was the friends I made, who to this day would still help each other out.  I think for self-taught people, that can be more difficult because they’d have to already know people, or join an online group, or maybe make connections at their first job.  In that regard, school can be better.

At Full Sail, I had 2 great compositor friends in my class.  After we graduated, all 3 of us decided to take a leap of faith and move to Los Angeles together.  We stayed in an apartment and sent applications everywhere, and all 3 of us managed to get unpaid internships at Zoic studios for a few months.  During that time, one of our Full Sail compositing instructors actually called us up and asked if he could crash on our couch for bit as he did a freelance gig for a couple of months.  About half way through our Zoic internship, our old instructor comes home and says “Hey guys, we need more people to help with the project I am on, would you guys like to come in for a job interview?”.  So in a weird turn of events, all 3 of us had a simultaneous interview (which was more of a project briefing) for night shift compositing positions at Gradient FX for the film Priest.  Since the contract was short and only night shift, we didn’t want to give up our spot in the Zoic internship. So we worked at Zoic studios during the day and Gradient FX at night for an overlapping 2 weeks.  We’d each get about 4 hours of sleep every night, and napped in our cars whenever we could, giving each other moral support and making sure we didn’t miss our alarms. On the last week of work at Gradient, I got a phone call from a former Full Sail classmate asking if I’d want a roto/paint position over at Luma Pictures, where he was working.

The beginning of my career had a lot to do with dumb luck, and the people I knew.  The best advice I could give those who are starting out is, seize every opportunity and never underestimate the people you meet.  You could meet someone tomorrow who ends up getting you a job a year from now.  Treat everyone with respect, make friends,  and don’t burn any bridges.  The industry is a small world and word gets around quickly.

 

What were your daily responsibilities as a Junior Compositor/ Roto and Paint Artist at Luma Pictures?

Luma Pictures has an incredible roto/paint team that supports the compositors.  Some examples are:  Rotoscoping characters or objects that aren’t filmed over a greenscreen.  Painting out wires, set pieces, camera rigs, stunt rigs, etc. Clean plating, where you might replace part of the frame if the crew were still in sight, or painting out a stand-in actor, to make room for a CGI character.  There was a lot of tracking marker removal and greenscreen preparation, to help the compositor with keying.  Sometimes there were nasty lens artifacts, reflections, or dust/scratches that needed to be removed.

There was a blurry line between compositing and roto/paint at Luma.  Most of the complex tasks in roto/paint at Luma would easily be considered compositing at other studios.  For example, dealing with face replacements or massive set extensions would sometimes be given to a roto/paint artist.  I think they drew the line for compositing with handling green screen keying and CGI work, those were exclusively handled by compers.

I dealt with a lot of paint tasks at Luma that were 'nightmare shots'.  One example was a wire removal that needed to be painted out of a stereo shot (shot with 2 cameras) with intense lighting changes on nearly every frame, massive camera parallax, and the wire going over everything from walls, to actor’s faces, to wrinkled clothing.  Sometimes the tasks would seem so daunting, you wouldn’t even know where to begin.  My Roto/Paint supervisor taught us that no matter how big and complex the task, you can always break it down into smaller and smaller pieces.  Maybe you could use one method for a couple of frames, then you could switch to a new method to handle the next few frames;  You could use a certain technique to cover up part of the problem, then work on top of that with an entirely new workflow to get it even further.  That method of breaking things down really translates over to compositing and probably any area of VFX.  

 

After Luma Pictures, you moved to Ingenuity Engine as a Compositor; What did you have to do as a Compositor?

Starting out at Ingenuity Engine, a lot of what I did was similar to what I was doing at Luma Pictures.  At bigger studios, roto/paint is given to a separate team, but at smaller places the compositor handles all of that work.  The biggest difference was handling greenscreen keys and compositing CG.  Ingenuity was a great environment for sharing ideas and learning.  With commercials and music videos, you get to see a project all the way through, from start to finish, in just a couple of weeks.  More responsibility is given to you if you are self sufficient and can tell when something looks good.  I was able to handle bigger shots as time went on and they trusted me more.  On some projects I would help other artists by creating faster workflows or setting a look of a sequence and helping everyone match that same style.  There were very small teams at Ingenuity, so there weren’t more than 3 or 4 compositors on a commercial.

 

Why did you move to Shanghai? What was your experience about working in China? What was the role of Pixomondo Shanghai in the feature film, Star Trek: Into Darkness?

I was inspired by the artists I met that travelled the world working on films at different companies.  In 2012, I looked for any opportunity to work outside the United States; I figured if I could prove that I was able to work internationally, it would open up more doors to work in other countries.  I sent my Demo Reel out to dozens of companies all over the world.  Pixomondo responded to me a few weeks later asking “How would you like to come work in Shanghai?”.  China wasn’t my first choice, or even on the list of places I wanted to work, but I figured Pixomondo was a big company and they told me they had Star Trek 2.  So I decided to take a gamble and 3 weeks later I was in Shanghai.

China was one of the first countries I had been to outside the US, and it was completely alien to me.  I felt like a baby. I couldn’t read anything, understand anyone, had no idea where I was half the time, and didn’t know anyone starting out.  Luckily there were some amazing people from all over the world working at Pixomondo, and I can honestly say it was the most welcoming and inclusive group of friends I have ever made.  About half the team was Chinese, and the rest were mostly European or South American.  Everyone spoke great English and there usually wasn’t any language barrier.

Pixomondo Shanghai had a section of Star Trek 2 where the enterprise was plummeting to earth, causing gravity to fail and Kirk and Scotty are hanging from a corridor bridge in a hollow section of the ship.  The shots required set extensions and CG debris to be flying around.  The main challenge was random lights frantically flashing on and off in different areas.  The lighting team just rendered the debris with a static lighting scenario, meaning all the lighting interaction and random light changes needed to be done in comp.  You’d need to custom animate the color corrections on each piece of debris, depending on where it was, so it would match the set lighting.  This took ages and had to be done from scratch if there were changes to the debris’ position.  I came up with a system of color analyzing different areas of the plate, and creating masks in 3D space, using World Position passes, that would blend the debris from 1 lighting colour correction into another, depending on where it was in the 3D space.  It required a lot of setup at the start, but worked like a charm if any changes needed to be made to the debris’ position (which was always the case).  After seeing my progress with the first few shots, the VFX supervisor promoted me to a sequence lead and had me lead 2-3 other artists.

In a sequence of a film, TV show, or commercial, there are usually shots that look similar.  Either they are filmed from a similar angle or are in the same environment and need to look a certain way.  One person usually cannot handle all of those shots on their own, and if you have many artists doing their own thing, you can lose consistency with the look and quality.  A sequence lead will usually establish how the sequence should look, creating a “hero” shot to match to, and then help others achieve that goal both aesthetically and technically.  The sequence lead will answer to the compositing supervisor, but is usually the first set of approval.

 

Nuke Lighting Match Tutorial

 

Can you tell us about your duties as a Sequence Lead at Framstore L.A.? What was the workflow for commercials?

I was lucky to find Framestore at the right time.  They hired me on as 'staff'.  With a staff position you are trusted with more responsibilities and can really have an impact on workflows and certain decisions.  I answered to my compositing supervisor for final say, approval, and guidance.  Many times, we were on entirely separate commercials and I was the Compositing Lead for the whole commercial.  This involved setting the look, developing tools or workflows that helped everyone stay consistent or made things easier, and reviewing artists’ shots using Hiero player.

The largest team I led at Framestore was around 4 artists, but it was usually 2 or 3 people.  The biggest thing I learned was the importance of organization and communication.  I spent a lot of time talking with the producer, the VFX supervisor, the IT department, the lighting TD’s, just to make sure everything ran smoothly and everyone had what they needed.  When a problem is spotted at the compositing stage, lots of quick decisions need to be made on whether you can solve the problem in 2D, or if you need to go back and re-render the image.  Those decisions get easier with clear communication and with building a good rapport with the rest of the team.

Framestore’s pipeline was a legacy pipeline similar to what they were using in London and New York, but not all of it worked.  We made a lot of changes to it while I was there, gradually improving it and developing new ways to work with Hiero and Nuke.  Commercials were handled in a few ways:  Either entirely in Autodesk Flame, mainly in Flame with Nuke as support, or using Nuke and Hiero (and occasionally exporting it to Flame for finishing with clients).  There was a lot of Nuke/Hiero workflow, but there were always commercials that were going through Framestore that were Flame only.

 

You are back to film again now, working as a compositor in Double Negative in London; What made you decide to move to London?

I’ve actually always wanted to live and work in London.  There was something attractive about being a stones throw away from the rest of Europe, and I was really drawn to the culture.  Part of the reason I went to Shanghai was the hope I could eventually make my way to London; even with Framestore, I was hoping for an inter-company transfer later on, as their main office is in London.

 

Does it have anything to do with the tax subsidies everyone has been talking about?

London was a completely conscious choice for me, and difficult one to make happen (the UK is very strict with visas).  Tax subsidies have certainly drawn almost all of the film work out of Los Angeles and the United States.  Vancouver, Montreal, New Zealand, and London are all playing the tax game to their advantage.  I personally consider it an amazing opportunity to travel and live in other countries around the globe. but I certainly realise it’s a problem for people with families or those who are less-able to uproot their lives and move around.  I think it all depends on your point of view and what stage of life you are in.  Vancouver is probably the most stable city for a VFX artist at the moment. If you were to end a contract at one studio you would have a good chance of finding new work pretty quickly in Vancouver.


 

What is the workflow of a feature film at Double Negative?

Compositors at Double Negative use Nuke and Shotgun for Task Management.  There is more hierarchy in the bigger studios.  A roto/paint artist or junior compositor might help a compositor with smaller tasks. The compositor usually has a compositing lead, or sequence lead, that will direct them in how those shots need to look and help with techniques.  Above the Comp Lead, there is the Compositing Supervisor, who has an overall view of the compositing work on that show, including all sequences and shots of the show.  Above the compositing supervisor is usually the VFX supervisor, which is the person who talks with the Director, and makes sure all departments are producing work that matches the director’s vision, and is usually the last person that signs-off on a shot before it is sent to the clients to review.  So as a Compositor, your shot would probably be looked at and approved by a compositing lead, compositing supervisor, and VFX supervisor before it is sent to the director or client for ultimate approval.

Production plays a big role in your day to day routine as a compositor at big studios as well.  Production co-ordinators manage artist’s shots and make sure target deadlines are met, and that the artist has everything they need from other departments in order to meet their goals.  Producers are above coordinators (like their supervisors) and handle an overall view of the whole project.  Producers usually speak with the clients alongside the VFX producers, handling notes, scheduling, and negotiations with the clients.  Coordinators and producers are your best friends as a compositor, and I’d highly recommend building a good relationship with them.  My advice is to be honest with them, and not try to lie or impress them when they ask as to when a task will be done.  If you are working on something that you know will take a long time, or you are having a problem, then let them know.  They are not there to judge your skills or talents, so don’t get too technical or artistic with them in some huge explanation, unless you absolutely have to.  They will be more aggravated if you promise to have something done by the end of the day, but it takes you 2 or 3 days instead.  The coordinator's job is to manage goals and schedules.  If you let them know a problem earlier on, they can often switch shots around in the schedule so that your shot has a bit more time, and no one gets angry;  It’s usually a good idea to ask when a shot is expected to be done.  There is a difference in a way you work when someone tells you a shot is due next week or tomorrow.

 

You have a pretty impressive demo reel. Which job are you most proud of and why?

I’d have to say Star Trek: Into Darkness.  I feel like I had a big role in those shots, and I have some great memories working with the team in Shanghai.  I definitely 'nerded' out when I found out I would be working on a Star Trek film.

 

At Framestore, you helped conform, re-edit and deliver some final spots in Hiero. Can you tell us the workflow in Hiero?

Hiero was really good with conforming and bringing shots back into the timeline.  You could export a custom folder structure that worked with your pipeline, along with dpx sequences of each shot renamed to your convenience.  It could even export Nuke scripts with plate read nodes, and write nodes with the exact file path that you want to export the final shot to.  Using that predetermined file-path, you could also tell Hiero to set up an empty track that mirrored the plates track cut points, and look for those final sequences once they arrive.  So your timeline could populate with new versions of final renders as they showed up in the pipeline.  All of this was pretty automated and only took minutes to set up.  In contrast, a lot of Autodesk Flame work had to be done manually, and there was no real automation with naming conventions.  This could end up being a big waste of time and was susceptible to human errors.

In exporting from Hiero, we delivered a DPX sequence of the whole spot, along with audio files.  We would create a QuickTime from the DPX sequence once it was finished so it could be uploaded to shotgun or to a client FTP so they could stream it easily.

The grading process was pretty difficult to work with.  We tried a variety of options depending on the project.  Some projects that had minimal work were pre-graded.  In other commercials, we would work on original plates and just sent the final spot over to be post graded either at our London office or another vendor.  We sometimes would receive LUTs from the grading department that we could using in Nuke at the end of our comp to match what the graders had done with the plates.  Each method had its problem, whether it meant depending on another office to grade in time, or LUT’s clamping or causing problems in Nuke.  In an ideal world you would just have a grading department in your studio to pass the finished shots to throughout the project.

 

Do you see Hiero (Nuke Studio) as a finishing tool?

Not yet.  It’s getting there, but it’s a bit too buggy and can’t do the same impressive things that Flame could do for a client.  Things like rasterized paint, and almost instant playback are ideal; clients hate to wait and want instant feedback.  I do think that for much smaller projects and with less hectic clients, you could certainly use Nuke Studio.  The price difference is tremendous.  If you placed Hiero on a $40,000 computer, you’d still be saving close to $100,000 over flame and flame support costs.  The Foundry is getting close, and within 5 years I could see Hiero starting to rule the finishing field.

 

You have worked in commercials, TV shows and feature films. What are the differences between them in terms of the workflow. Which field / area do you enjoy working in the most?

There’s a popular quote in the industry: “You do commercials for the money, and movies for the glory”.  Commercials are faster in the sense that, a whole commercial can run entirely through a pipeline start-to-finish in only a couple of months.  It’s easier to cheat things, and shots need to be handled much quicker.  Luckily, there is usually only 30 seconds or a minute worth of shots to deal with.  TV shows can have even more of a time crunch than commercials, since episodes air on certain dates and need to be finished in time.  Your company needs to have a lot of coordination and solid pipeline to tackle a show with a lot of VFX heavy shots; though the lack of time and volume of shots on 'Episodics' can lead to a lack of quality control.  In films, a projects can last for years from when it is first started to it’s delivery.  Quality has a huge emphasis in films, and clients can be very picky if too much of the original plate is changed.  In commercials, music videos, or TV shows, cutting corners to get good results and thinking outside the box to save time and money is often encouraged but films have a tendency to want everything to look photo-real and to “do things the right way”.  Of course there is much more time in the research and development stages of films to figure out how to approach the VFX challenges.

As a compositor, I haven’t found much difference in how quickly you need to work on each shot.  They say you work faster in commercials, but I find myself having to work equally as fast if not more so in the film side.  The difference is a higher level of quality is expected, so even if you have more time on a shot in films, you are spending more time making sure looks pixel perfect.

They say you make more money in commercials than in films, but I don’t think there’s much truth to that.  It all depends on the company, the artist, and the negotiations involved.  I certainly like working on films, and I think there is a certain truth to the “glory” as the quote goes.  It feels bigger and that more people might watch or appreciate a film over a commercial.  If you are lucky, you could work on a film that is remembered for decades, and is referred to as a classic.  You can get brief recognition for commercials, but the hype generally doesn’t last very long after it’s released.  Maybe the biggest appeal of films, to me, is that in film/TV you are usually progressing a story, and in a advertisements you are progressing a product or brand.

 

Advanced Keying Breakdown: 4.1 - Template

 

You have some awesome tutorials on your website; Some people considered them to be trade secrets. Why did you decide to share your visual effects knowledge with the 'outside' world?

Part of the reason I felt the need to make the tutorials is because there is a lack of good, free content available online.  I didn’t understand why everything was always “101: Intro to…” or “Beginners guide to…”.  Those only teach you the basics, but what about those of us that want to know the advanced stuff?  You can argue that knowledge comes with time, but that will only happen if you are lucky enough to work with a lot of senior artists who are willing to share their knowledge.

The greenscreen key tutorials stemmed from my position as a lead at Framestore.  I developed a keying template that was loose enough that people could use their own techniques and still pull a key the way they already knew how to.  But in order to use the template, you needed to know all of the different keying sections: alpha creation, despilling, core keys, and background edge blending.  I was having to explain many of these things to people, and I thought it would be easier if I just made a set of tutorials and post them online.  The hope was that future freelancers that came through Framestore, LA would have seen them and recognized the template, or they could watch some of the tutorials and very quickly get familiar with the pipeline.

I’ll never forget a motto that my compositing professor at Full Sail taught to us:  “What we do for ourselves dies with us, it’s what we do for others that’s immortal”.  The idea being, if you got into an accident tomorrow, all the knowledge and skills you’ve developed will just die with you.  The best way to contribute is to pass on that knowledge so future artists can use what you’ve learned.  People have told me “You can’t give away industry secrets, that’s why we are valuable and get jobs”.  I disagree. I think your value is measured by how much you improve the others around you.  The idea that, if you teach people your secrets then you’ll be left with nothing is foolish.

 

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