EXCLUSIVE: Interview With ILM's Timothy Gibbons

We chat with one of the technical wizards over at Industrial Light & Magic, Timothy Gibbons. He's written a guide to breaking into the industry that he hopes all you aspiring vfx artists purchase. Plus, we touch on some other cool topics like Cloud Atlas, Transformers and more.

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By Mark Julian - 2/2/2013



Timothy Gibbons has a long career in the vfx industry, working on such movies as Cloud Atlas, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Rango, Iron Man and many more sfx laden blockbusters. His new book, The Insider's Guide to Starting a Career in Visual Effects is out now and he recently spoke to CBM about it in addition to his experience in the field working on some impressive films.

Timothy has worked on all of the above films and many more.


Mark Julian: Without giving away too much of what's in the book, can you talk about your own career path through the vfx industry?
Timothy Gibbons: Back in 1997, fresh from graduating from Notre Dame, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My parents had just moved to Los Angeles, and a family friend who worked in visual effects told me that the movie Titanic was a little behind schedule, and that every effects company in L.A. was hiring for it.

Based on his advice, I attended the now-defunct Silicon Studios with a bunch of people from Cinesite Visual Effects. After completing a compositing class there, I talked to the HR person at Cinesite, and he hired me on a short-term contract to help out on Titanic in the digital paint department. My first job was digitally removing wires from actors who were being thrown off the side of the Titanic.

Once I got my foot in the door at Cinesite, I learned other skills, such as rotoscoping and compositing, and I was able to jump from Titanic to full time employment. After the projects started to dry up at Cinesite, I packed up my bags for the Bay Area to work at Industrial Light & Magic, and I've been working there ever since.


MJ: Is that the route you would recommend for others to take?
TG: I don't think people can do what I did anymore, and that's why I wrote the book. The book doesn't focus on what the industry was like in 1997. Back then, there was a dearth of trained people. There were very few college programs that offered the specialized training the industry needed. My co-workers were indiscriminately hired from car washes, rock venues, accounting firms, etc. etc. People came in with no knowledge of anything -- there were tape operators who didn't know Unix, painters who didn't know Photoshop, etc. etc. Hollywood needed bodies.

Over the ensuing 16 years, there has been an explosion in online training and school offerings. You won't be able to get your foot in the door after one class, and expect a company to train you. These days you need to self-educate yourself, create a kick ass demo reel, and network with the right people if you want to have a chance to get your foot in the door at an effects firm.


MJ: Does the job require natural artistic talent or can you acquire all the necessary skills through school?
TG: There's a large gamut of jobs within visual effects -- some require a bit of refined natural talent, and some don't. For example, if you want to be a concept artist, it is best to have some traditional art skills. But, many other skills can be more easily learned.

In the book, I breakdown all the various roles that go into a typical visual effects workflow, and I try to match people's skills or interests to roles that may suit them.


MJ: Can you describe the process a bit about how things progress from script, to concept art and then to a vfx studio?
TG: In very general terms, once a studio has greenlit a script, the effects houses read that script and bid on the work. Sometimes the studio comes up with original concept work for the movie to focus the bidding, but many times studios look to the effects houses to come up with something creative. It's not uncommon for one effects house to come up with the concepts while another house executes the ensuing work.

Once a visual effects house secures the movie, the next step is planning. I describe the process a lot more fully in the book, but for a simple example, let's say there's a movie that requires an alien ship to fly through the sky. Creating the alien ship and flying it through a scene is a complicated series of tasks. It requires a team of specialized technicians who model, rig, texture, matchmove, animate, light, simulate, composite, etc. etc the ship before it is ready. And, all through these processes, the vfx firm is in constant contact with the studio/director to make sure that nearly every step is approved.


MJ: Looking at your career, you've worked on a lot of comic book movies and sci-fi blockbusters at ILM. Naturally you're privy to a few secrets before it becomes common knowledge. Is it hard to keep everything to yourself?
TG: Over the years, I've really gone out of my way to NOT know secrets. I want to go into movies and get surprised as much as anyone else. Typically, I work on 2 or 3 different sequences for any given film. So, I really am only exposed to a small slice of the film - maybe a couple minutes worth of the film.

Growing up, I was a huge Transformers fan. Somewhere in a storage box, I have all 80 comics from the US Marvel series. So, working on those movies, I was always a little bit more interested in which characters would appear in the movie -- that was enough for me! But, that's always been a private, personal interest of mine, and there's no chance of me leaking that knowledge.


MJ: One of your most recent projects, Cloud Atlas recently ended its run. What was it like working on that film?
TG: Cloud Atlas was a great experience. I got a chance to work with Russell Earl, who kindly wrote the foreword for the book, and I loved every second of it. Russell is one of the top Visual Effects Supervisors in the business, and if he's involved in a project, you know it's going look amazing.

I was on the film doing some very rough work for some of the futuristic scenes in the movie. Recently, I got a chance to see the final, completed work, and it blew me away.


MJ: Is there a discernible difference between working on a film like Rango and something like Cloud Atlas, technical wise?
TG: For sure! Rango was an all digital feature - so, like a Pixar film, everything you see was created in the computer. Cloud Atlas is more of a traditional, live action film with effects that enhance the reality of the film.

A film like Rango takes a lot longer to make than Cloud Atlas. And, there's a different bar to hit for each film. For example, in Cloud Atlas, if a human is standing next to a computer generated vehicle, that vehicle better look like it was there on set! The bar is believability. But, for a movie like Rango, you are looking to make something a little bit more surreal, and sometimes there is more latitude to have fun with that.


MJ: Are you currently working on any big projects?
TG: Yes. I am finishing up on Star Trek Into Darkness and then I am jumping onto Pacific Rim.

I've been inspired by all the vfx short films that have recently surfaced on the web - like Portal: No Escape (by Danny Trachtenberg) and Federico Alvarez's Ataque de Pánico. So, I'm very keen to work on smaller projects as well.


MJ: Why should hopeful vfx artist purchase your book?
TG: Of course I'm biased, but I think it's the best $5 anyone who is interested in working in visual effects can spend. It's filled with all the information I wish someone told me before I got into visual effects!

You can purchase Tim's book, The Insider's Guide to Starting a Career in Visual Effects on Amazon.

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DioFoRio - 2/2/2013, 8:05 AM
Hey MJ..just wanna say good job again at getting some of these interviews man! Keep up the good work.
BboiBlack - 2/2/2013, 9:38 AM
Great interview.
More evidence that young students pay more and have to work ten times harder to get even a jr job compared to the way it was 10 years ago. On the plus side the industry is bigger.

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