Freefolk VFX Supervisor David Bowman on inspiring new tech, what it takes to do his job, and working with his heroes

Tell us about the company you work for.

Freefolk is an ever-expanding company with core values in working relationships, good artists and good client relations. The company is a focused team who all complement each other to produce high quality VFX. Everyone knows each other, and comes together to help each team out to make sure the clients are happy and the end result is of the best quality.

How would you describe the values and culture?

Friendship, good communication and a team that can adapt quickly. A solid pipeline and an ambition to move forward and grow at their own pace.

What’s the best thing about working there?

The people. The ability to be reactive to problems that may come up day-to-day and being able to switch directions easily if things are not going according to plan.

What have you been working on recently?

I am presently working on FF10 with leading VFX supervisor Peter Chang.

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

After leaving college in 1997 where I had done a Photography BA, I did some work experience in London at a VFX house and was wowed by what we could do now in digital effects. I decided to come to London to become a compositor as I felt my photography work could benefit me in that line of work. Working at the Mill as my first job was awe-inspiring to me at the time.

Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?

I started my first job at the Mill as a runner, from there I worked up to the Mac-room doing titles for adverts and assisted the flame operators at the firm. From there I ended up at MillFilm, where I met a lot of people that I know today. I stayed within Film and long form for years after, working at various companies such as Framestore and DNEG. Eventually I ended up back at the Mill and the beginnings of MillTV, where I became a VFX supervisor and ran Merlin Season 1, Dr Who and worked with Tom Hopper on his smaller budget Films for C4 and HBO. 

After four years, I wanted to get back into bigger film shows, so I moved to MPC as comp supervisor where I stayed for four years and moved to Canada in helping setup the MPC Montreal Studio. After that, I spent the remainder of my time in Vancouver mostly at ILM where I got to work on some great productions. Now, returning to London, I am hoping to use all my VFX experience to help Freefolk expand their long form team and nurture new relationships with clients.

What are the main responsibilities of your job role?

My main responsibility is VFX supervisor. The VFX supervisor is there to run the shows creatively and help find solutions to the many day-to-day problems that may arise. I work with a producer to help wrangle all the shots and lay out a schedule to deliver. It’s also the responsibility of the supervisor to work closely with the show-runners and directors on the creative vision of the project. Planning how to solve certain VFX combining shooting techniques is very helpful in creating the end result.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

I always like to get time on the box to develop ideas and looks, but most of the day is spent guiding the other artist to the vision that the director and production supervisors want. Having good communication skills is an absolute must in this role. There is also a lot of time spent breaking down scripts, guiding concept design and developing ideas with the clients.

What do you need to be good at in your job?

Having a good artistic eye, essential communication skills, being able to react fast and make decisions quickly especially while you are on set. Try to be honest and positive, even when situations seem dire. I have always found being as honest as you can with your teammates and peers always works, everyone always appreciates knowing where you are at in a project.

What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?

I have always kept my ambition for this job low key. I always believe you should take things in your stride, not be overly ambitious, and enjoy your life alongside your job – but that’s just me. Believe it or not my first ambition when I started this job was to get an opportunity to work with one of my all time favorite directors, Ridley Scott. Within two years I was lucky enough to get on Black Hawk Down, and then in 2016 I got the opportunity to work with him more directly on Alien Covenant. Also, I thought it would be cool to work on a Star Wars film one day, and low and behold that happened, too.

What are the benefits of learning lots of different disciplines? What would you say to someone who is set on specialising early on in their career?

The great thing about working at a bigger facility like the Mill in your early career is that you get lots of opportunities to study all the different disciplines that are within VFX. I always hold massive value to this opportunity I had, as when I joined the industry I actually wasn’t sure what I would be best at, at one point I thought I would become a colorist, but I end up in compositing as my specialty. Some people come out of college knowing exactly what area of VFX they want to be in, which is also a fine path to follow. It is always good to make sure you keep head space for all the other disciplines, because if you ever end up as a VFX supervisor having good knowledge in all areas of VFX helps massively. Someone always told me that they feel VFX is a combination of artists meets scientist, which certainly does make for an interesting set of work colleagues.

What’s the most challenging part of your role?

Deadlines. Ha. Every creative wants more time and you can work something up constantly to get the perfect picture, but there is always a limit, and evaluating how much you can get done in the time is always a challenge.

What’s the most rewarding part?

Of course it’s the work itself. There is nothing like going to the cinema and watching work you have been involved with on the big screen. I also quite like Christmas day, when you are around friends and family and suddenly you notice a film you worked on is on the telly, the kids love it. 🙂

What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?

I love spaceships, I’m not gonna lie. I also really enjoy doing digital environments. I have got to the stage in my life now where I don’t really have anything specific anymore as I have been lucky enough to have worked on loads of cool projects that I never ever thought I would get to work on. My favorite projects are not all about the content but more about the people I worked with at the time, or something particularly challenging. Examples of this would be working on Harry Potter:Prisoner of Azkaban as it was one of my favorite ever teams, and second would be Aladdin in 2019 purely for the fact I did the hardest shot of my career to date, the title sequence. It took ages to finish that shot, phew.

What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?

It’s hard to pinpoint one individual change, but some of the biggest changes within VFX is the advancement in technology all the time. It’s a funny thing that just as you just get to the point where the technology is faster and makes running a project easier is almost parallel to the amount of work increasing meaning you have to produce more. I would say that some of the facial technology over the last few years has been really promising. Digital doubles and recreating the subtleties of facial expression has always been a hard one to nail, but now I finally think we are starting to see much better results which are more convincing. 

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

When I think about who has influenced me it has to be my peers, supervisors I have worked with and seeing what other VFX houses produce. I am always keeping up on what’s new and occasionally there will be one project that blows everything else out of the water. Some of the  technologies Wētā have developed over the years are very inspiring, as are some of ILM’s innovations within the industry. I always love working for supervisors that drive the story above all else when it comes to direction, and I love working with people who think outside the box. I always get very excited when I see and work within a new workflow that tackles a problem in a different way.

What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?

A difficult question as day to day there is always a project that inspires me. I really feel the work Ben Morris’s team did at ILM on the ABBA virtual concert needs to be mentioned, as that was such a high level of work. The rendering of those massive assets alone must have been a task all in itself. The level of detail you need to work with on that project is immense. I would also say the work that Wētā does with its 3D assets and lighting is like no other in the industry right now, they have an amazing ability to be able to manage such a high level of detail and real life accuracy within their projects.

What project are you most proud of?

The projects I am most proud of are probably Prometheus and the work I did for Alien Covenant. Ridley Scott projects are always of a high standard and usually very artistic. It’s very satisfying bringing those images to life. I’m especially proud of the landing shots we did, as the brief was simply to make them look as cool as we could, and having some time to craft them paid off.

What do you miss about being in a less senior role?

Throughout my career I have actually bounced between supervising and being an artist. I do really enjoy going back to artist level as you get to really work on the detail of the individual shots and craft it. I do miss that a little when I’m supervising, but having good communication and being as clear as you can with the artist around you helps get you almost to what you and the clients are looking for.

What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?

VFX is advancing so fast at the moment, but so is the content that we are having to produce. We are turning around projects much more quickly these days, and finding more automated ways of doing things is a must. Having the ability to be able to use advanced techniques such as AI and shaping them to be useful in VFX can be a good skill to have going forward. But for now, I would still say communication is the most important. If you think about it, computers do a lot of our work for us these days, but we as humans still have to use them to get the best out of them, having good communications within the team helps that automated process even more. 

What sort of core skills are valuable in VFX?

Communication and self-care is a must in VFX. VFX takes a lot of skills in problem solving and a solution might not always present itself immediately, so being able to take time away and pace yourself through each project is important.

What strategies do you have for coping with the pressure of your work?

Dealing with pressures at work is always a learning experience. Keeping things cool at all times is a must, you should never show your worries to the rest of the team and always support them. Always remembering that a project is a team effort and all involved are just as important as your input. Lately I have found that regular breaks and time away helps your brain process all the information and having time away can actually help in strategising more efficient processes to get to the end result.

What’s your advice to artists for creating a killer showreel?

Keep it short, especially today with all the content out there. Only show your best and most recent work. Make sure there is a good variety that shows your best skills.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Today is so much easier to get access to training material on YouTube and you can train yourself in a lot of ways. Saying this, work experience is always the most valuable. I loved my opportunity as a runner because it gives you time to see how people work together and how the projects are run. Good communication is a must, and a good artistic eye.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.