Emmy-nominated VFX Supervisor Justin Mitchell tells us about his role at Scanline VFX and his recent work on HBO’s The Nevers
Describe the company you work for; what are their values, and what is the culture like?
Scanline VFX began as a German VFX house many years ago but has since grown into a large international company with over 900 employees in offices around the globe. We have facilities in Munich, Stuttgart, Los Angeles, London, Vancouver, Montreal and Seoul. We work on a mix of feature films and streaming projects. That work varies from large scale destruction shots, fantastical creatures, environments and invisible FX. We recognize the importance of innovation and are always exploring and refining our tools and procedures to stay at the cutting edge of VFX production. Scanline has demonstrated loyalty to its many long-time employees and offers an environment that fosters independence and rewards exceptionalism. Our ranks are full of talented and wonderful men and women and I really enjoy working with them. The facility has done a remarkable job transitioning to remote work during the pandemic and we are busier than ever.
What’s the best thing about working there?
I love getting to collaborate with talented artists on innovative visual effects.
What inspired you to work in visual effects?
I had always enjoyed computer graphics as a hobbyist when I was a kid. Back then that meant plotting bitmaps pixel by pixel on my Commodore 64. I have marvelled at the evolution in the technology and am still enthralled by it. I have also always been a film and theatre aficionado. I did some acting as a younger man and have spent a lot of time on theatre and film sets in one capacity or another. Visual effects was an opportunity to combine computer graphics and storytelling. I am both creative and technical in nature and visual effects is a great fit for those qualities.
Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?
I started my career in television. I was self-taught. I worked diligently through thick volumes of tutorials in the evenings, after many hours on set, and eventually scraped together a reel on VHS.
It was just a few simple animations of my own invention, but it was enough to demonstrate a basic ability. I worked a night shift at first but eventually got a full time job. I learned a tonne working on shows like Charmed because I was responsible for shots from beginning to end, tracking through final composite. That overview of the whole VFX pipeline has really served me through the years, especially as I became a supervisor.
Eventually I transitioned to working on features. I continued to work in many capacities though I was primarily a 3D artist and later specialized in FX. I always continued to stay on top of the latest tools and techniques. I worked for a few companies and spent some time on set supervising and collecting data. I was always eager to learn more. Eventually I got hired at Scanline when they first opened the Los Angeles Studio. It was an exciting time. There were just a handful of us back then and I have grown with them over the years, eventually becoming a CG Supervisor, then later a VFX Supervisor which is my current role.
What are the main responsibilities of your job role?
As VFX Supervisor, I work with the filmmakers to design and execute effects that serve the story and creative vision of the project. I oversee each step of the process. In pre-production that might include concept art, previsualization and tech-vis. During the production phase I am often on set making sure that we have all the plates and data we need to put the shots together in post.
Then in post-production, I work with key team members to shepherd the shots through the various departs, helping everyone stay focused on the original vision. Throughout this process, I am constantly working with the overall VFX Supervisor, director and producers to address the changing needs of the production whether creative or budgetary.
What do you spend most of your time doing?
Planning. Juggling hundreds of VFX shots that are touched by dozens of artists takes a lot of coordination. It is critical to keep everyone on the same page in terms of creative vision and timing. Each department has to deliver their piece of the VFX puzzle at the right time or there is little chance to meet the often-demanding deadlines of today’s production schedules.
What do you need to be good at in your job?
It’s important to have a broad understanding of the visual effects and filmmaking at large. Technology and techniques change rapidly and you have to stay current. Being a supervisor means managing people and working with clients which they didn’t cover in VFX101. Mostly that means you have to be adaptable and cooperative. I just try to remember that we are all just people working together towards the insurmountable task of making a movie.
What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?
I actually thought I might direct. I still might.
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 reality of working on a large production requires many specialists that can execute their stage of the pipeline with speed and excellence. Smaller shops offer more multitasking. If you really enjoy what you do, don’t aspire to supervise. I think it’s fine to be a specialist but still try to have an understanding of how your work relates to the whole VFX process. As a supervisor, I have found my early experience of multitasking to be invaluable. You can’t truly be a master of all aspects of the pipeline and it’s important to trust and inspire your team, but being able to speak the language of the trade is the currency of credibility.
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
There is never enough time.
What’s the most rewarding part?
I really enjoy putting a shot together for the first time. That moment when you can see it starting to come together. Those first iterations often take a shot to 80 percent very quickly. The last 20 percent is very important for a truly great shot, but involves iterating over many small details which is less rewarding to me.
What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?
I love to create something that hasn’t been seen before or that truly serves the story. The scale or medium is less important to me and the advent of streaming and mobile has smudged the boundaries of delivery.
What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?
What show, exhibition or film has most inspired you recently?
It’s been a strange drought in the last year with the pandemic. I think Nomadland is painfully relevant.
What do you miss about being in a less senior role?
I dunno. I am feeling more senior the older I get 🙂
What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?
I’d say programming is hard to top. Virtual production is gaining traction so it’s good to understand the practices of real time and in-camera VFX. Further out, AI is going to be a revolutionary change to VFX and filmmaking at large. All the toolsets and workflows will likely change. Deepfake is probably the most current example. Being on top of those developments will be a great advantage.
What sort of soft skills are valuable in VFX?
Just be yourself. You don’t need to be Joe-cool to be a leader or get ahead. Just be reliable and a team player. Everyone is different and you can find your own style. Be humble and kind.
At the end of the day, the work we do is important but we are not saving lives. Communication is very important. If you are a supervisor you need to lay out clear and reasonable expectations for your team. People just want to give you what you want and when you want it. Try to keep an open mind to other peoples’ ideas. Sometimes they might be better than your own and it’s more important that the work is great. When it is, everyone wins. The truth is that you will likely get credit for it anyway (though you should always give credit where it is due).
Producers and their teams perform an invaluable role in the world of VFX. They need to know what is happening and how long it’s going to take. VFX production is not cheap and, whilst it is not the role of a VFX artist or supervisor to worry about the budget, it’s important to be mindful of the costs and work with production to help stay within budget and schedule.
What strategies do you have for coping with the pressure of your work?
I think it is very important to exercise regularly in our work. Sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day is not healthy so make a habit of stepping away and building regular exercise into your day. Nothing really beats a good cuddle from your plus-one or spending time with people who get you. Make that a priority.
What’s your advice to artists for creating a killer showreel?
Put your best work first. You are only as good as the weakest shot on your reel. Keep it short. Don’t be cute.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
If you want to have the most opportunity then move to a city with multiple VFX houses. It’s a small industry so be nice. Word gets around!