Andrew Lowell is the Effects Technical Director (FX TD) and lead instructor at school of visual effects “Lost Boy Studios”. In his career he has worked in several countries, and major studios such as Rhythm and Hues, CIS Vancouver, Animal Logic, and Digital Domain. He is the author of book Simultaneous Music, Animation and Sound with Houdini and professor at fxphd. The reason for the interview is his upcoming visit to Belgrade in November, where he will lecture intensive course for Houdini.
Tell us about your beginnings? What did you study and how did you get your first assignment? What was instrumental in getting your current skillset and role? (education, interests, jobs…)
I’ve had a variety of roles and careers as well as multiple beginnings. If there was a defining start in my graphics career it would have been the process of, and becoming of an Autodesk Certified Trainer. The process was very rigorous and my evaluator Pia Maffei made it clear to me that I both had the talent to, as well as was expected to produce both top-notch work as well as deliver high quality instruction. From then I gained my first jobs at movie studios like Rhythm and Hues, and other factors propelled me as well such as writing a book on Houdini, and international movie studio work and seminars.
Was there something you were specifically interested to know about the the job / industry before you started working?
I was primarily interested in the possibilities of highly generative design. What this means is designing systems upfront, such as FX rigs, systems to generate natural phenomenon, or highly abstract visuals. Afterwards those systems could give possibilities through simulation that the designer never anticipated or would be too complex for a more traditional artist to accomplish. This interest and mentality naturally drew me to FX related work.
What skills are needed for what you are currently engaged in?
An eye for motion. The understanding and skill of deconstructing natural phenomenon. A comfort on the bleeding edge of technology. Creativity and problem solving. For a more detailed explanation here’s an article I put together for my FX program.
In your opinion what knowledge a Houdini (FX) artist must have and what is necessary for advancement? In what direction you would advise young artists to improve their skills?
There’s a lot of low quality tutorials and software focused online learning available. I’d say most of it won’t give the necessary skills. A young artist should first start with photographing and drawing a lot of reference or natural phenomenon that they hope to produce someday. Study it in the photographic and academic sense. From there engage in rigorous self learning on personal projects which are related. Keep the focus on the end result, not on the software.
What is more important for a FX artist: knowledge of computer graphics, artistic skills or understanding of physical(natural) phenomena?
Knowledge of software as well as artistic skills must be constantly practiced. They can be learned, with dedication and practice. An understanding of physical phenomena needs to be understood only once, the rules and properties will not change. This learning will benefit the artist constantly thereafter, making it the most valuable.
You worked as a lecturer at courses and universities. From your point of view, what makes a good lecturer? Is it more important that a lecturer has a working experience in production or that he knows how to transfer knowledge? How you balance industry practice and teaching?
I’d equate this question to a nutritional supplement. It was common when vitamins were first invented that even though the nutrients were beneficial, the capsule would never absorb and be completely wasted. Graphics instruction can be similar, and I’ve seen many examples of highly skilled professionals demonstrate their awesome ability, and yet have almost none of these skills be taken away by the audience. To transfer a high percentage of skills to the audience the lecturer needs to break down the subject into simple terms, use easily digested anecdotes and examples, even humor to explain very complicated things. They need to be open to admitting they don’t know everything and try to engage and learn from the audience at the same time as delivering the topic.
The answer to this question is a demonstration, to explain a complex problem in simple terms.
As Los Angeles artists you had an opportunity to work on blockbusters such as Thor and Transformers and many leading studios such as Rhythm and Hues, Digital Domain, CIS Vancouver. You eventually moved to Canada. How would you describe the experience of working on blockbusters? Is there any difference between Vancouver and Los Angeles at the moment?
When I first moved to Vancouver there was a much smaller post industry. There was one feature studio and most of the high-end work was focused in Los Angeles. Currently Vancouver is the largest market in the world for VFX work and every major studio is represented here; often sharing offices in LA or London. As far as the Canadian VFX industry is concerned, Montreal is growing pretty rapidly as well. I’d attribute this growth to relatively open acceptance of the best international talent and graphics freelancers from around the world into Canadian technology workplaces. I was once at lunch with the FX team and realized that none of the people at the table were from the same country. From memory .. (USA, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Cambodia, Japan, India, Romania, England, China).
You have worked in almost every stage of production process. Do you have a favourite? Which one you find the most interesting and why?
My favorite stage is getting a fairly ambiguous shot in a movie, establishing it’s motives and needs, it’s inherent composition and then watching it come together with further and further detailed high end work (preferably FX work).
You started your career in audio production and later you combined the sound and Houdini into your book Simultaneous Music, Animation and Sound with Houdini. Tell us more about your book and what is the idea to connect sound and simulations? What was the reception by professional community like?
The book started off as personal experiments and eventually grew to the scope that the only reasonable way to showcase the knowledge was by refining and sharing it. The reception in the professional community was staggering. I still have sales almost 10 years later, and I’m messaged often by individuals interested in pursuing similar areas. Being a lifelong musician as well as a synesthete I’m trying to take this crossroads of visual and musical imagery as far as it can go. I’m currently engaged in many difficult studies concerning simulation and music; as well as giving selective talks on the topic.
Researches in the field of simulation are increasingly growing and more becoming more interesting. Thanks to them today it is possible to simulate almost all natural phenomena. In your opinion, in what direction will the development of simulations continue?
While simulations have become far more elaborate and in some ways more realistic it’s important to note that most feature film quality simulations are 50-80% animation, and a smaller percentage simulation. Often these simulations are broken down into many different unrelated elements, and highly stylized. Shots are finalled based on good graphic and motion design on the screen, as opposed to what is realistic. Technologies such as particles, more than 15 years old are still highly efficient and commonplace. Faster simulation technologies like Bullet or Flip replace more accurate ones such as industrial solutions purely because they can handle a bigger scope and the artist can get through more revisions and tailor the look better.
So, I’d say it’s currently not possible to simulate most natural phenomenon. And even if we could; it wouldn’t look good enough to use on a film. The development of simulations will continue to improve in speed and flexibility .. and that will allow the artists to really make great solutions out of them.
As a hunch, I’d look to optimized and fast solutions to finite elements.
In November you will be lecturing a 5 day intensive course for Houdini artists in Belgrade. Have you worked with artists or studios from Serbia or the Balkans? What should the participants expect from the course and how would you best recommend it? Is there anything particular that you are looking for during your week in Belgrade?
I have worked with Serbians employed internationally in this field; usually very good artists. Participants should expect high quality and intense training not just in the latest technologies but also in battle-tested approaches and new ways to view techniques used in larger facilities by Senior FX TD’s. I’ve found the most experienced people in the world are very good on combining the basics in creative ways, so all cutting edge lessons are balanced with firm foundations. I’ve found this approach will benefit participants years after the class.
Thanks for your answers.