Working at Framestore – Chris Johnston

I thought I’d spice up the interview list on Ceiga a bit by interviewing someone from a large VFX studio instead of the usual short film director/artist. Chris Johnston who worked for Framestore is someone I got in touch with through a mutual friend and who I actually went to University with (small world). So I took up the opportunity to interview him for the blog about his experiences at Framestore.

1) The VFX industry is a very competitive one – with people from all over the world competing for a place at top end studios. How did you manage to get a foot in the door and land a job at Framestore?

When I finished University the first thing I did was apply to every VFX house I could find big and small for a position as a runner. Although I had a reel of work I knew it was not good enough to get an artist job straight away, and I was also missing any experience on any sort of large production, which is a very different way to work than I was used to doing my final year university project on my own.

Knowing this I also applied for a number of freelance positions on smaller projects to try and build my cv, and was successful in getting a position at the NFTS for a few months, working as a modeller and texture artist on a 3D short called ‘Cooked’ (Jens Blank, 2010). The project was selected by the Cine Foundation to be shown at Cannes, and a staff member at the NFTS was impressed enough with my work to put in a good word for me with a contact at Framestore. Shortly after I was hired as a runner.

During my time as a runner I put in a lot of extra hours making full use of the in house training programs to build on my skills, and when a position opened in the tracking department I was successful in getting my first artist position. From there I worked up through the ranks to my current position as a technical director.

2) What were your day to day tasks at Framestore?

As a tracker my day to day tasks involved taking the shot, doing the camera track and lining it up to the 3D set geometry. On some projects I would also have to do body tracks, roto animating rigged characters to match the characters in the shot. On ‘Captain America, The First Avenger’ which was my first show as a lead tracker, Framestore did the majority of the work on the villain, the ‘Red Skull’, replacing most of the lower half of the face to give it the ‘skull’ look. So as well as the camera track, we had to do accurate facial tracks, matching not only the movement of the head but also the deformation of the face. As a lead I not only worked on shots, but also oversaw the rest of the tracking team, reviewed their work, and was the main point of contact with production and other departments.

Moving into the motion capture department for a short period my day to day job involved cleaning up motion capture data, submitting it for review and then re-targeting the approved takes from the motion capture rig onto the characters rigs.

On Gravity I worked in a department unique to the show which we called the ‘conform’ department. The conform department had a number of duties but the work mainly revolved around integrating the live action part of the shot (just the face in most cases) accurately into the cg shot. I personally also worked on all on the interior space station shots where not only did I have to integrate the whole live action character into the shot, but due to the length of the final shots, most of them were made up of multiple shorter shots which I had to blend together seamlessly into one continuous shot.

After Gravity I did a few shows as more of a generalist, where as well as doing technical work I also did some animation, and then on my most recent show I worked in the crowd department, doing large army crowd simulations.

3) What was the culture like at Framestore & did you enjoy working there?

The culture at Framestore is great, very friendly and relaxed, and there is a great social side to working there. I feel lucky to have worked with some extremely passionate and talented people over the years, and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without the great opportunities given to me while working there. Overall, working at Framestore was a very enjoyable experience.

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4) What is the software/computer setup at Framestore? Did everybody use Maya, Nuke and 3DEqualizer on windows PCs?

Framestore for the most part use Linux PC’s, and yes the main software used is Maya for 3D and Nuke for compositing. As far as tracking goes although there are some different programs available, 3DEqualizer is generally what everyone uses as it offers the best overall functionality.

5) What regular problems/issues did you face whilst doing your job and how did you overcome them?

I’m not sure I had any regular problems, however each show always comes with its own challenges depending on the work you are doing, and part of the job is always to identify potential problems and then work together with your team and the other departments to find solutions to those problems and implement them in a way that they are no longer a problem for you or anyone else.

6) Working in Oxford Street you are surrounded by other VFX companies. Have you ever collaborated with them for certain projects? If so – what was that like?

The only time I have collaborated with other VFX studios personally was in outsourcing of tracking work on a few projects, which looks to be becoming more and more common. I am not a big fan of outsourcing work, as it brings with it a number of problems. If for example you have specialist in house tools or rigs it is very rare that these can be shared with other studios, meaning every time you send or receive work it must go through some conversion process to integrate into your pipeline, and things can easily get changed or lost in translation. With outsourcing you also add in a lot of back and forth if changes need to be made, and this can take a lot of time, especially if dealing with studios in different time zones. I am aware that the reason for it is mostly financial, but in practicality it can add in a lot of unnecessary problems.

7) What were some of the perks of working at Framestore, I’ve heard you get unlimited cereal & free tickets to movie premiers?

Ha ha, yes each floor at Framestore has its own kitchen, with a permanent stock of tea, coffee, cereal, bread and spreads (jam, marmalade, nutella and marmite), and there is also fresh fruit in the mornings. There is also dinner service if you need to work late in the week. Framestore also has its own cinema and there is a film club which regularly gets in the latest films for employees to watch.

For some films, you will quite often get invited to ‘cast and crew’ screenings in Leicester Square at the end of the project, which normally happen before the actual premiere and are for the people that worked both on set and on the visual effects.

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8) You have probably heard of VFX companies regularly working overtime to meet deadlines. Did that happen often at Framestore?

Working overtime is pretty much standard in all VFX companies. It is definitely not always the case, but if deadlines are approaching and the work is not done you will get asked to stay late or come in at the weekend. I’ve never really had an issue with it, I do the job because I love it and if I have not finished my work then I normally want to put in the extra hours to get it done. Due to the creative nature of the work and uniqueness of each individual shot within a show, it can be extremely hard to exactly schedule how long the work will take. Sometimes it will take longer than expected and sometimes it won’t, so you can’t really treat it like a regular 9 – 5 job.

9) You must have heard of the incident with the VFX studio for ‘Life of Pi’. Do you think the industry has changed because of it? If so how?

Apart from bringing attention to the problem, I really don’t think it has changed anything or will change anything in the near future. Unfortunately due to the way the industry works with companies bidding for work, and the studios looking for the best and cheapest option it is the way it will continue to be unless every vfx company joined together and made a stand. Something I feel is unlikely to happen.

10) Could you list a few titles you have worked on and which ones were your favourites?

To date the main titles I have worked on are: Clash of the Titans (2010), The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 & 2 (2010-2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Gravity (2013), Iron Man 3 (2013), Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013), Robocop (2014) and Dracula Untold (2014).

My favourite two were definitely the Marvel films, Captain America and Iron Man 3. Being a big comic book fan and therefore passionate about the content it was a dream working on those movies and to make it even better we had great teams and supervisors on both projects.

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11) Am I right in saying that Gravity is probably one of the biggest film Framestore has worked on to date? What was it like working on such a huge project?

In my time at Framestore, Gravity is by far the biggest project we worked on. From start to finish I think it was about 4 years in total and I was on the movie for 2 years (I’ve never worked on any other project for more than about 6 months). It was completely different to any other show I have worked on and probably ever will, not only due to the scope and timespan but also due to the fact we were attempting to do a lot of things never done before. Although I was aware that technically we were breaking boundaries, I never dreamed the film would do as well as it did, especially as from the time we finished working on it, to the time of release, it was about a year, leaving a lot of time for something else to come out and outshine it. As stressful as it got at times, looking back now I feel so lucky to have been involved with the project, and the fact that Framestore won the VFX oscar for the film really makes it an experience I will never forget.

12) What advice would you give to someone who is trying to get into the VFX industry now?

As anyone trying to get into VFX knows it is a tough and highly competitive business. If you are just starting out, it will be quite difficult to get straight into film, they very rarely hire juniors. However Framestore and some other companies do summer internships, which with a strong enough junior reel is a great route into film. Otherwise, apply to be a runner. As long as you are dedicated and put in the extra hours, its by far the best route.

Alternatively there are tonnes of smaller studios in london which work on tv/commercials/music videos which might be easier to get into. Commercials tend to prefer more all rounders, whereas in film they really like you to specialise. Most of the work in london is realistic VFX, so make sure when you’re putting a reel together you keep this in mind. There isn’t too much cartoony stuff done in the UK, except for Tv.

As well as this try to network. Make sure you have a linkedIn account, and add all the recruiters in town. Its also a good idea to open a twitter account if you don’t already have one and follow the recruiters and companies on there, they usually send out messages when they are hiring. VFX companies get huge amounts of applications and timing can be everything, don’t rely on the fact you sent a CV in 2 months before.

13) Finally you informed me that you will be moving to ILM, why did you choose to work there and will your role be?

It was an extremely tough decision for me to leave Framestore as I really have loved working there the past 5 years. However the opportunity to work for ILM on a project I am extremely excited about came up, and being that they are a company whose work I have always looked up to and admired since before I was even involved in VFX, I did not want to pass up the opportunity. I will be working there as a Layout Technical Director from October and I cannot wait to start.

Christopher Johnston