Dan moved into the world of VFX in 2007 after having started his career working in 3D in 2001. Working as a modeller at various studios across London, he first joined The Mill in 2010 where he rose to the position of Modelling & Texturing Supervisor. He left commercials to spend seven years working in feature film before returning to The Mill in 2021 as head of CG for the London studio.
There are two ends to the VFX spectrum – the invisible post and the big, glossy ‘VFX heavy’ shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?
At their core, ‘invisible post’ and the ‘big, glossy ‘VFX heavy’ shots’ have the same goal. That is for the audience to watch without questioning what they are seeing. If we can maintain the illusion of believability then we have done our job, regardless of complexity. In reality, there are huge differences in the technical and artistic requirements. VFX heavy shots see the successful collaboration of all aspects of the VFX pipeline though often the ‘invisible’ work, whose success relies on it going unnoticed, can be incredibly tricky and much less talked about.
As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?
The truth is, we are all trying to make, whatever piece we are working on, the best it could possibly be. The more information we can gather from the shoot, the better the results are likely to be. We love to work collaboratively to achieve the director’s vision as accurately as possible.
VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Art, design and image making in general have been a consistent part of my life as long as I can remember. I worked in many companies learning different techniques depending on the deliverable. However, I think I truly learned about VFX during my time here at The Mill. I was, and continue to be, surrounded by so many amazing artists who know how to create beautiful images. Working in the vibrant studios that I have had the fortune to work in means being able to see the development of these images in real time which can only make you a better artist.
Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?
We always begin by making sure that, as a team, we are clear about what we are being asked to achieve. If the look of an element isn’t fully locked down, this can be an intensely creative time. Collaborating with all the creative stakeholders to define the final look. This can be from searching for reference or creating pieces of concept art that help to focus the team on a destination. The finer the focus, the longer we will have to refine the work. Iteration is key but only if it is in the right direction.
We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?
They are never ‘finished’, there are always tweaks we’d love to make. Things that it’s possible that no one else would notice. However, we must be at peace with the fact that we have done our best and we are proud of the result. Nothing is ever left in the tank, that is the nature of the quality artists we love to work with.
Is there a piece of technology or software that’s particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?
There are so many. It’s phenomenal to see how AI is affecting the digital art landscape now. Artists working in collaboration with an AI to produce truly incredible imagery. Beyond that, in today’s world of scattered teams, anything that can improve the communication and interaction of a team will certainly get my attention.
Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.
There was a huge shift towards remote working during the pandemic. Something that was considered almost impossible previously. It is hard to deny that there are huge positives for people’s lives because of this flexibility. Things that become harder are the more intangible elements. The unarranged chats and problems that get solved purely by glancing at a screen. Culture and belonging are much harder to cultivate with a remote team and so it is infinitely more important to maintain communication, both formally and informally. In the office, I had visual cues to rely on. Seeing someone I hadn’t caught up with recently. Now I have had to devise new methods to remind myself. This is still a work in progress!
Are there any lessons you’ve learned / experiences that you’ve had from working during Covid that you’ll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?
Taking time for self-care is one of the most important things that anyone can do. It is very easy to become embroiled in all of life’s ‘duties’. It is so easy to put aspects of life that recharge you as a person, both at home and at work.
How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?
My first job was as a freelance modeller at Passion Pictures. Somewhere I was lucky enough to work on several occasions. I hadn’t considered working on commercials until this point. These short contracts opened my eyes to other possibilities then might be available. The biggest lesson I learned was how important it is to be a team player. VFX is a group endeavour, and the quality of the work is only as good as the team creating and a manifestation of how well they can work together.
What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
The project that still holds a special place for me is the SSE: Maya commercial. We created a photorealistic orangutan, which went on to collect several awards but even before that, the team were incredibly proud of the images we were creating. We knew that we were making something special.
From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you’ve been particularly fond of and why?
The thing I love about VFX is the characters and creatures that are brought to life. Since returning to commercials, I have been blown away by the quality I have seen both here at The Mill and by the industry as a whole. For me, it is the believability of these characters that charm audiences. I’m obviously biased but two of my favourites have been ‘The Spider & The Window’ for Samsung and Amazon’s ‘An Unlikely Friendship’. Both these pieces have characters that build a real emotional connection with the viewers. That is incredible regardless of the format. One non creature related commercial that I thought was truly beautiful was Burberry ‘Open Spaces’, it was an incredible piece of work, seamlessly executed.