BlueBolt’s Head of 3D Nicholas Birmingham talks about working on The Irregulars and The Last Kingdom, and the democratisation of VFX
What is the culture like at BlueBolt?
There’s a lot of baking. This has been one of the major issues with working from home: lack of cakes. One of our new 3D team recently created a giant wagon wheel at home. Which honestly, I’m not sure about. Isn’t part of the attraction of the wagon wheel its humble size? London is a great place for social activities, right! Run Club is something I am looking forward to getting back into. We have a new office near St James Park and Green Park so that’s going to be great, running around Buckingham Palace, and the Mall.
What’s the best thing about working there?
It’s the size; we’re big enough to tackle some really nice VFX but small enough that it’s personal.
What have you been working on recently?
During the pandemic we cracked through eight episodes of The Irregulars for Netflix which was actually a great experience and the pandemic was a lot less disruptive than I was expecting it to be.
What inspired you to work in visual effects?
Back in the 90s when I’d finished art college Fight Club came out and David Fincher did something really cool for VFX; not just the typical big epic destruction, he used it in a very slick graphic way that was really inspiring. So I decided to study computer animation for my masters degree.
Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?
My first job out of uni was at Pinewood Studios working on an animated TV show called Captain Scarlett. The production was a bit of a disaster; the pilot wasn’t delivered on time, the studio dissolved. I’d worked for months and none of the work that I had done was going to make it onto the TV. It had all seemed like a waste of time but actually it wasn’t, because having that experience enabled me to get a job at MPC in the lighting department working on Harry Potter. After that I worked in Soho at several different studios doing lighting before finding myself at BlueBolt in a 3D team of just three people which meant I had to broaden my 3D skills pretty quick.
The Irregulars, Netflix
What are your main responsibilities?
The role entails hiring and managing the team and trying to ensure that they have the support they need. And also to make sure that the studio has the 3D it needs.
What do you spend most of your day doing?
At the moment I’m overseeing a couple of shows, looking at CVs and doing some interviews for new hires, talking to pipeline about 3D tools and looking at scheduling with production.
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
Typing my 18 digit password blindfolded into my computer 800 times a day.
What’s the most rewarding part?
It’s great when you’re already excited about particular shots or sequences from the bid, and you get to see them develop from storyboard, tech-vis, turnover, through the various stages of 3D, dmp, comp to delivery. It’s very satisfying.
What do you need to be good at in your job?
Experience and judgement. And the confidence to know that you don’t have to know everything.
What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?
I really like working on TV. It’s fast enough that you don’t have enough time to start chasing your own tail, but slow enough that you can work to a high standard.
What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?
The democratisation of VFX. It’s so easy to learn software, with non-commercial versions and tutorials. When I started VFX it was so esoteric, large studios would invest in proprietary software. But these days with a small team we can create high quality work with off the shelf tools. It pushes creativity.
The Last Kingdom, BBC
Who or what has most influenced your career?
What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?
There is a great documentary on Netflix ‘Black Holes: The Edge of All we Know’ which is all about the insane lengths they go to to accurately image their data. Check it out!
What project are you most proud of?
I am really proud of our work on The Last Kingdom. We have been working on it since the start and it just gets better and better every season. DESTINY IS ALL.
What do you miss about being in a less senior role?
There is something fantastic about being a mid. You do the nice shots, but the really tricky ones go to a senior.
What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?
Artistic skills all the way. As the technology gets better and better it becomes more about how you use it.
What sort of soft skills are valuable in VFX?
All the soft skills. VFX is about people. It’s people working together to create something that none of them would be able to achieve individually.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
When you’re starting out, walk before you can run. You’re better off with a small portfolio/reel of amazing work, than a large portfolio/reel of average work.