VFX Supervisor Grant Hewlett of Axis Studios on his career in visual effects

What is it like to work at Axis Studios? What are their values, and what is the culture like?

At Axis Studios empowerment is key to getting the best from people. This sounds like fancy management jargon but breaks down simply to identify what level of autonomy people want that is challenging and allows that growth to happen. Working closely with all kinds of creatives and technicians presents a broad range of challenges in this area as everyone has different experiences and goals. We are also all very chilled and nice people!

What’s the best thing about working there?

The best thing for me working at axis-studios is working on great projects from bid stage to final completion which is often a long consistent effort. This process builds up an aspect of camaraderie that is constantly exciting, challenging and visceral. As a supervisor, seeing people grow and helping them expand their capabilities over the course of a show is the most rewarding aspect.

What have you been working on recently?

I have just finished a film called ‘Evolution’ directed by Nick Hamm which has a number of CG shots of a capuchin monkey. We built a digital-double of the real capuchin in the film “Allie” who is super cute. Our work has evolved our creature team to new levels of quality and complexity for photorealistic animal look and performance. It’s been a super tough project filming in Covid and spanning the globe with remote teams. Our client is delighted with what we were able to achieve, coming to a screen near you soon!

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

Well it’s very cliched really and I think most supervisors have the same story. I was 10 years old watching Star Wars in Leicester Square and dreamed of doing “that cool stuff” for the next 10 years. I built Tamiya and airfix models of X wings and Tie fighters and embraced all the new tech and hoovered up any and all sci-fi and fantasy in books, TV or film.

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

I graduated with a Product Design degree and was convinced that I was cut out for designing physical products, the process of which I loved. At that time in the end of the nineties the design industry in the UK was terrible – they closed the design council the year I graduated. At that time my brother was a pop video producer and I used to work as a runner on all kinds of pop promos like George Michael, Guns and Roses and was a bit more tempted by Soho than kettle designs. My honours year of my degree was funded so I spent the entire year learning 3D Studio v1 from the manuals and during that period I picked up the first ever issue of the Edge magazine. At the same time I was trying to get time on Silicon Graphics kit in Soho but that was tough. In the back of Edge I found a tiny ad from a company called Aardvark Swift and called them up. I think they are still going! They got me my first job in a MOD contractor working on Tank Simulators. Then I went to various games companies producing cinematic, then commercials and finally film. I have worked in pretty much all of the departments with a long time in Lighting/FX. The years being on set as a runner, matchmove supervisor and later as freelance VFX Supervisor have given me a pretty rounded education in filmmaking techniques and digital post.

What are the main responsibilities of your job role?

My role as a VFX Supervisor covers a lot of ground especially on more compact shows. The recent Monkey show had me delving into detailed supervision of the asset build including rigging, deformation, lookdev and performance nuances for animals. We even managed to do the first ever FACS of a Capuchin with the help of Melinda Ozel. The overarching theme of my work is strategy and team cohesiveness making sure we are making the best of the resources we have in the face of challenging circumstances. Challenging circumstances in this case are things like insufficient on-set data, late or partial delivery of plates, crew resourcing issues, scope creep away from what was bid on the show and a whole host of other challenges that are part of making any show. My job is to try and head off as many of those as possible, have contingency plans ready to roll and use my experience and intuition in when to action those plans to keep the project’s direction. My other key responsibility is to my team and making sure that everyone in that team is clear and engaged in their work, whatever their job or experience level. I encourage the team to take ownership of their work and be vocal about what’s not working in the pipeline, suggest tweaks to process and the like.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

The majority of my time is spent reviewing the output of each department and giving feedback on the work I see. Reacting to client requests and pivoting our plan is also a big part of my day. I have a number of meetings and responsibilities as a Director and head of the 3D department on an ongoing basis.

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

That’s a tough one! Well assuming that I am good at my job, I think the skills that have served me well are being a person who likes to get stuff done. I think you need passion for the work and you need to stay curious. For me staying curious is about people, what are they going to do? What are their ideas? How do I get more ideas? How can we build something together? These pursuits are art, I think, and this pursuit to be on the edge of what you can do, to learn, to be a bit scared is what drives me. So passion for the art of VFX and all that includes, the ups, the downs, the crazy and the calm you have to love it all and keep going till its done.

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

My goal was initially to create stuff and get paid for that. About 20 years ago I decided I wanted to be a VFX Supervisor and be the main person pushing the creative and delivering on the brief. It took me 10 years to get my first VFX Sup role and I have been a supervisor for nearly 10 years now.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, talks about “shadow careers” in his excellent and motivational book – my shadow career is that I probably should have been a Cinematographer, I love the medium, the kit, the life, all of it. So rewind me 25 years and I’ll be toiling away as a camera assistant!

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?

For me, knowing lots of different disciplines was part of the plan of being a knowledgeable and competent person. The cross-fertilisation of ideas from those different mental models is an education in itself. It also serves me well when talking with a diverse range of people from DOP’s, costume people, Directors, character rigging people, animators, compositors etc.

Personally I wear that knowledge as a badge of honour and it’s part of my life long learning principle to stay curious and build on that Polymath approach.

What’s the most challenging part of your role?

I think having just finished a nearly two- year job, motivation and consistency. You have to build habits around staying productive and committed for long projects which means taking care of yourself and your energy levels. For me that means Yoga, Running, Cycling, Meditation and scheduling downtime with my family and being good at saying No to requests that break down that time of rejuvenation; I know from experience that I need that time to be on my A game.

What’s the most rewarding part?

The journey, the feeling of manifesting something into being with a bunch of other people, the smiles when people have done a great job and watching people grow beyond what they thought capable. Often the unexpected human moment that happens on that voyage, a heartfelt thank you. That sort of thing moves me.

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

Challenging ones – creatures, FX. I am a bit of a sci-fi nerd so that always floats my boat as well.

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

The pace of everything has increased which is good and bad but it does feel faster for sure than when I started. Kit, software is all the same but faster. Globalisation has opened us up to artists from all over the world. The increase in education of artists has been great and produced many more talented people.

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

Lightwave. Many people won’t know what this is now but it’s 3D Software from the nineties. I was a die hard Lightwave artist and it had such a great renderer at the time. I kind of fell in love with making pretty renders.

The “who” is harder as I have met so many inspirational people. Dottie Starling was my supervisor at Cinesite and I found her attitude invigorating – she was and is all about getting it done, quality and is a nice human as well.

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

Dune. My favourite film of all time is the David Lynch version but the new film was just a visual delight, it was awesome. Foundation on Apple TV was really good, so slick and well put together.

What project are you most proud of?

I am proud of all the projects I have done for all different reasons. Currently I am proud of our recent work on Evolution and also our work on A Discovery of Witches, Happy! for Netflix and our 3 Aardman films – Shaun the Sheep 1&2 and Earlyman – I was CG Supervisor on the Aardman films. Howard Jones, my co-founder, was the VFX Supervisor.

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

I guess there is less responsibility in less senior roles and perhaps you can be more focused on one part of the art. I think I miss both of those sometimes.

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

I think hard skills can be learned but soft skills are harder to come by. We are essentially dealing with humans all day every day and that requires understanding their psychology. So being resilient, caring, able to work well in a team, being mentally fit I think are undervalued and under-developed skills.

What sort of soft skills are valuable in VFX?

There are many and you often meet people who seem to be impervious to stress which is a great place to start! This is an area I am very interested in and I am covering in more detail in a book I am writing called The VFX Artist’s Survival Guide.

I am pretty active on Reddit and I see a lot of new artists struggling with focus, motivation, imposter syndrome and the spotlight effect. The book, which is free, is my first attempt to make a practical guide for artists trying to get their first job. I am going to expand on that with “Get In, thrive and Survive” series, time permitting.

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

I mentioned most of these above, apart from journaling, which I find very useful in keeping oneself grounded in the now. I use a digital journal with some questions like :

Are you being present?
Are you taking care of your happiness?
I am grateful for …
What would make today great?
A situation that might stress me today is …
The way that my best self will deal with that is …

This keeps me grateful, curious and grounded.

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

Pick your best work.
Music is half the experience.
Keep it snappy; nobody has time to throw away on low-impact visuals.
If you do not have much 3D or 2D work, add other stuff like paintings, photos and explain what stuff is in easy to read text.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Don’t think it’s easy, nothing worthwhile is, that’s the point.
Don’t give up.
Break it down, take baby steps, and use the power of compounding.
Measure and celebrate your wins however small.
Focus your energy like a laser.

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.