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  • Behind the Scenes

    Computer Special Effects

    Glenn Campbell

    Well if you are fan of Space: Above and Beyond, then the name Glenn Campbell of Area51, Inc. should be easy to recognize. He was in charge of the visual effects that we all loved in the show, including all of the space battles.

    I recently happen to run into Glenn online and managed to get an interview about his work with Space:AaB and computer animation in general.


    What did you think of your experience working with the Space:AaB show?
    One of the best jobs in my entire career. Cool show, great people, lots of freedom in designing shots, free trip to Australia for the pilot, what more could you ask for?
    How many people did you have working on the project?
    A total of 12
    Click for large image
    What kind of hardware and software did you use?
    Dec Alphas and Pentiums. We ran Lightwave, Photoshop, Elastic Reality, and a defunct program called Win-Images, a sort of precursor to After Effects.
    How long did it take to create the scenes?
    It varied, but we only had 3 to 4 weeks to complete any given episode. We usually worked on 3 shows simultaneously.
    Which members of the Space:AaB crew did you get the chance to work with?
    Everybody.
    Click for large image How much of the design concept were let up to you?
    A lot came from Bernard Hides and David Duncan, but we often tossed in a few things on our own. The Moon base was one of ours, for example.
    What other shows/movies has Area51 worked on?
    Too many to list, but here's a few: Buffy the Vampire slayer, X-files, Millennuim, Dark Skies, From the earth to the moon, Star kid, Fantasy Island, Lord of illusions.
    How did you get started in this field? What sort of education is needed? How much of what you do is creative verse technical? Is there any other advice you can offer?

    Let's begin with a simple fact: getting a job in Visual Effects is best accomplished by gaining an understanding of the particular company you are applying to. Know that if they produce games, the ability to produce a completely realistic full CGI environment is highly sought. If they composite CGI and live-action, the ability to build and texture a photo-real model and match lighting, color, and contrast are more important skills. Requirements for Artists vary, and it's YOUR job to possess the skills they seek.

    Here are the primary tasks of CGI artists:

    MODELING, TEXTURING, LIGHTING, ANIMATING, and COMPOSITING.

    Companies want to hire someone who does ONE of the above tasks extremely well or ALL of the above tasks extremely well. YOUR opinion regarding your skills in these areas does not count. Everything is relative, and you might be in for a rude awakening. Being top dog in your class or neighborhood user group still doesn't mean your skills are good enough to start working on the next STAR WARS.

    There are no easy answers to your questions, but before you can ask them, you have to answer some for yourself. What aspect of visual effects are you interested in? Don't say "all of it," because as a newbie, you won't get to DO "all of it." The best way to get in is to figure out what you're good at and develop your talent in those areas. A lot of people waste their time trying to master every skill, and wind up excelling at none.

    Visual effects are much more than giant robots, spaceships and dragons. Applicants who think that's all they're going to do for a living don't last long in this business. If all they know how to do is build badly textured spaceships that lurch around starfields, they'll quickly discover there aren't always a lot of calls for that particular skill. Not all effects are cool flashy bits of business. You must be able to simulate reality. That's the skill that gets you hired. That's the skill that helps you to make realistic dinosaurs when requested. It's that simple, but most CGI students never pay attention to non Sci-fi material, which why their reels always suck. They don't know how to approach shots like cameramen because it's more fun to make a spaceship or giant robot rather than practice realistic lighting in a non Sci-fi setting. Too bad. The whole point of Visual Effects is making an event look REAL, which means matching real world live action. Anything less is just not good enough, although you do get points for how high you aim and how close you come.

    OK. You're not a nerd who worships Star Wars. You just really like effects. How do you get started? You have to ask yourself "Do I like to design? Draw? Build plastic or CGI models? Light models artistically? Photograph models artistically? Animate cars driving down a street, or a sign blowing in the wind? Composite models and actors? Create weather phenomenon, twinkling stars? Paint nonexistent landscapes, add a second story onto a house, or add the Eiffel tower to a shot done in Vancouver?" These are all different jobs. You can be hired to do just one of them, or all of them if your skills are good.

    Remember: It's YOUR job to develop the talent to justify getting hired.

    Learning how to push buttons in a 6 week course won't get you a job at most companies. Classes are a good start, but try to get your hands on a 2D or 3D program you can run at home; one you can practice and experiment with as often as you can. Make all your mistakes and learn how to correct them on YOUR time. We're not going to hire you until you do, no matter how badly you really really really want to work right now! It's EXACTLY like learning a musical instrument. The more you practice, the better you get. Just because you like Matchbox 20 and bought a guitar last week doesn't mean you're ready to open for them at the Palladium. We want to hire someone who knows how to think, improvise, and self correct. That comes from experience, and no, we won't train you on the job. There's too many good guys out there already. How does a new guy get in? He takes the time on his own to learn a program beyond the tutorials. He takes the time to develop his artistic abilities, which is what makes him valuable. He doesn't waste time watching bad sci-fi shows, thinking they're the height of effects excellence. He studies well lit and photographed shows like "Law and Order", to understand how to realistically light a scene. He studies books on photography, because he understands that's what visual effects are simulating: Photographed Reality.

    He understands that watching Spawn 20 times does not entitle him to a job just because he really likes effects and is pretty sure he'd be good at it. He makes a demo reel that shows off his hard earned skills, and THAT is what gets him a job in this business. Your demo reel is the most important key to getting a job. Your resume says you attended classes. It's doesn't prove you learned how to apply what you were taught. Your demo reel does.

    Very few people really want to hear the truth about getting into this business, but I've laid it out as honestly as possible.

    Thank you very much Glenn.

    Take care!

    Glenn
    AREA 51


    The AREA51 Crew

    Glenn Campbell Visual Effects Supervisor
    Ken Stranahan Digital Animation Supervisor
    Claire Ragge Visual Effects Co-ordinator
    Karl Deham Computer Animators
    David Jones Computer Animators
    Matte Merkovich Computer Animators
    Lee Stranahan Computer Animators
    Scott Wheeler Computer Animators

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