Interview - Big Machine Design


Big Machine Design
Visual Production Company

Contact: 201 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, CA 91505



 Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tell us a bit about your company… 
BiG MACHiNE is an award-winning visual production company founded in 2003 by Steve Petersen and Ken Carlson.  BiG MACHiNE has produced visuals for everything from film titles, advertising, TV shows, games, multi-screen experiences and mobile devices. We have our own in-house directors, producers, designers and editors.  
You worked with clients like ABC, BBDO, Disney, FOX. How is the production process? Do you find it difficult to work on “somebody else’s vision”?
We excel at developing concepts, but we're equally at home executing an agency's ideas. Each approach has its benefits, and we are adept at adjusting to every client's needs. We've developed everything from a simple logo to entire TV shows.  What programs/plugins/scripts do you use?   A majority of our work is created with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and Cinema 4D.  We have created our own proprietary plugins and scripts in the past; for example, our virtual stereoscopic rig, which we demonstrated at PromaxBDA and Siggraph in 2009.  We try not to rely on trend-driven plugins because the look they provide is easily copied and could dilute the uniqueness of our look.

 How do you keep up with all the changes in technology? Do you think the game tools are catching up with the art tools?  

We try not to let technology constrain our creativity. We're constantly pushing the boundaries of our comfort levels. It's not good to become complacent and it's so much more rewarding to succeed at something that seems impossible.  We're vigilant about keeping up with technology, especially that which makes us more efficient and removes barriers to our creativity. We're always investing in the latest workstations and software, and we've recently added a RED camera to our production arsenal.  
How involved is the interview process at Big Machine? 

There are lots of great artists out there, but it's incredibly difficult to find someone that makes a great full-time employee. They have to be very talented and a great person to work with, and those two attributes don't always go together. We've hired a lot of interns and freelancers as employees, because there is nothing better than actual working experience to show how a designer will fit in with the culture and style of the company.
  With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an artist has in his portfolio or skills?  

Artists that we hire need to show they can do more than trendy design. Trends in design evolve so quickly; we're more interested in creativity, adaptability and attention to detail. A potential candidate should be well versed in traditional design and art, as well as 3D and advanced animation techniques. In addition to skill, a good personality is extremely important.
 Breaking In promo for Fox had a great feedback. What were the challenges on this project? Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the project and the difficult parts? 

It was great working with the producers of the FOX sitcom "Breaking In." They really understood the process of creating a main title sequence. Our sequence shows the cast of "Breaking In" in a frozen moment in time in their office. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to create that look on a limited budget. 
What were some of the challenges on Drawsome Tablet? 

There were several challenges with the Drawsome Tablet spot. First, the shoot day was limited by the amount of time we had available with the child actors. We had to schedule the entire day to compress the amount of time we would normally take executing VFX shots.    The next biggest challenge was lighting for a 180-degree camera move around the family seated on their living room couch. We ultimately settled on keeping several lights in the frame and removing them in post.  
How about Windy City Live?

We had two days scheduled for shooting in Chicago with overcast skies dominating most of the production. We had to do a lot of sky replacement and color correction to make the spot feel like a cheerful morning show. 
What is the typical starting point in a 3D/VFX project? How long does it usually take?
Every project has unique creative and different schedule and budget constraints. We usually start our creative conversations with written concepts and mood boards. Based on client feedback, we'll develop full storyboards before we begin production on animation and compositing. After completing any desired revisions, we'll prep everything for final delivery and complete a comprehensive quality control pass before delivering the final spot to the client. 
What other supporting departments do you typically involve on an average project?

Live-action projects involve a full production crew from a DP and 1st AD to Wardrobe, Hair and Makeup. Full CG projects involve a team of specialists ranging from modelers to animators.
How do you start working on a 3D project? Do you use references or just imagination? 
We often use a lot of references for creating photo-real 3D projects, but we also do a lot of motion design-style 3D, which relies more on imagination than existing references.
Do you use the same techniques from one project to another? What is your company’s strongest point (film titles, advertising, interactive, games, multi-screen experiences, mobile devices)?

We've built a huge repertoire of techniques, but we're constantly trying to evolve our look and not rely on any one particular technical method. Of course, clients sometimes ask us to match the look of something we've done previously.
Was there ever something you wanted to do in a project and couldn’t? (production wise) Which design do you believe was the most difficult to achieve?
Budget constraints are always a reality of the production world. We can specifically remember a time when we wanted to have live tigers appear in a spot we were shooting, but the cost made it impossible.  We seem to always push the wall with render times, so there have definitely been times we've had to scale back the complexity of a design to accommodate a delivery schedule.  Fortunately, with increased processor speeds and memory that is becoming less of an issue.  Which render engine would you recommend?  For most of our motion design work, we use the Standard and Physical render engines in C4D R13. For most of our photo-real work, we use Vray through the Vray Bridge for C4D. 

How important is it to have a proper education in this field?  
It's more about talent and determination than education. The functionality of software can be learned relatively quickly. Creativity and passion are much harder to teach. That being said, education is very important. A strong design school is a great place to be exposed to many different ideas and techniques, but it isn't the only route to success.
What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
We'll take a page from Apple, and say we don't discuss future projects. Stay tuned, though, as we have been working on some really cool projects!
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
There are so many great artists working in this industry, it's hard to narrow the list down to just one. Through presenting at Siggraph and other trade shows, we've had the opportunity to meet a lot of great designers, and we always enjoy discussing ideas and techniques with them.  If we had to pick one person, it would be VFX legend Douglas Trumbull. There's a lot to be learned from the early pioneers of VFX that applies to today's CGI world.