Interview-Mark Benard

 

Mark Benard
Owner/VFX Mentor" for Lost Boys Learning

Contact: Courtenay, Canada
Email: info@lostboys-studios.com
www.lostboys-studios.com and
www.lostboys-learning.com

Tell us a bit about yourself... What training have you received and where did you begin? What programs do you use? 
I began my journey with 3D graphics back in 1993 when Lightwave was first released as a standalone package for the Amiga. I had originally planned to take robotics for the purpose of working with animatronics within the special effects industry. That year Jurassic Park came out and it changed everything. I realized that 3D animation could be far more than a hobby for me so I focused my attention on a new career goal. After saturating my free time with Lightwave I saw an advertisement for a new course being offered at the Vancouver Film School, and I enrolled in a three month part-time program that gave me exposure to Alias Power Animator (which has since merged with Wavefront to become Maya). After I graduated I volunteered for a music video production creating virtual sets, where I was given access to three Silicon Graphics workstations at what was then a young and small computer graphics company called Image Engine (now they have credits on X-Men Origins, Incredible Hulk, District 9...) That volunteer position eventually grew into a full time job where I worked happily alongside the two owners for about a year. 
The VFX industry in Vancouver was just in its infancy but it was ripe with opportunity. In 1996 I took the leap and acquired a small business loan for $60,000 to buy one Silicon Graphics workstation and license of Alias Power Animator. I managed to scoop a gig working on an MGM film and then found my way into the sci-fi television series The Outer Limits. After a successful test I was awarded all the 3D work I could handle. That led to some unexpected attention from Virgin Digital Studios, who were interested in expanding their operation into the Vancouver market. The next thing I knew I was in partnership with them and that marked the beginning of Lost Boys Studios.


How do you keep up with rapid changes in technology?


Who doesn't enjoy new things?! I love that our industry changes so quickly. Change means new opportunities so it's always exciting to be in the action.


What were the challenges in building a VFX company in Vancouver? 


Vancouver's film industry was built on American dollars. LA Producers came there to push their budgets further. That led to expectations to deliver faster, cheaper and higher quality than was sometimes possible. As a result we have a very competitive environment with very high stakes. 


How involved is the partnership with Virgin Digital Studios? 


That was a great partnership. We didn't always see eye to eye but they did grant me a lot of freedom to operate autonomously. Our sister companies in LA and London were among the best in the world so it was an amazing opportunity for me to learn from their strengths and weaknesses. As an adventure for my early twenties I can't imagine anything better. In 2000, Virgin's business priorities changed and they sold their Digital Studios line to 4MC. Since I owned 50% of Lost Boys this gave me another great opportunity and I was able to buy out their share.



Your experience covers production and supervision for commercials, for movies and now teaching. Which one is more rewarding? 

For my current stage in life, I am really enjoying teaching. Working in production through my twenties was an absolutely amazing experience but for me it was only workable when I could completely throw myself into the mix. Now that I have a family I have different priorities. I really like the creative freedom that comes with working with my students on their projects. I've been able to recreate the vibe that we had in our production studio but the politics of working with clients have been greatly simplified. With the firm deadlines that came with commercial production we didn't always have the chance to experiment as much as I would have liked. Now I can get my hands dirty in many disciplines. For one, I have really found that I enjoy the filmmaking process, planning shoots for the student projects, working out the creative, finding costumes, locations, lighting and camera work... I'm getting more of a balance in my life that just wasn't there before. 

 

Have you discovered any outstanding talent among your pupils?
Constantly. What I love about students is that they don't have any preconceived notions about what's possible and what isn't. It's difficult to have them understand that once in production they will be working in teams with other highly skilled artists. They expect to be able to produce work on par with what they see in film and television. To my continued surprise more often than not they are successful in their ambitions! They really have no idea how amazing their accomplishments have been. 
Do you recognize differences between VFX artists, in terms of style? How does your style compare to the best you’ve seen? 
In terms of style of work, I believe that a professional VFX Artist should be able to handle any style that the production requires. Every project has it's own style guidelines. It's important to realize that it is our role to support the production in whatever way the Director and Producers request. 

Now if we're talking about working style, then yes there are definitely differences between artists. I'd say the biggest polarity would be on the level of focus. Some artists are like laser beams and focus solely on one particular discipline. They work very well in large companies that have very refined pipelines. I'm at the other end of the spectrum in which that I enjoy learning every part of the pipeline. From VFX Supervision to Systems Administration, I love it all. Teaching has really given me a great opportunity to explore every little nook and cranny of Visual Effects. I think this is an important factor in expressing the interconnectedness of the different disciplines. For example, a decision that is made in the modeling process will effect every other stage of the pipeline that comes after that. Even if you choose to focus like a laser beam you have to understand the big picture so that you can be be a better team player and produce content that fits efficiently into the pipeline.
What can I expect if I sign up for The Lost Boys Learning Program?

We teach only Visual Effects at Lost Boys Learning - it is a one-year Diploma program for $22,500.00 CDN. We do a lot of VFX pre-production and live-action shooting, and everybody learns 3D for VFX using Maya and compositing using Nuke. The whole program is based on project-based learning, so students jump right in to their first VFX project almost right away. We don't learn 3D first, then compositing. We do it all at once, in reasonable increments. 
We treat the school more like a studio where the students come in from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm to work directly with me. We have guest instructors and speakers as well. There is a real team atmosphere, and the school is open 24/7 for the students to work, watch movies, play games and so on. 

Which effect do you believe was the most difficult to achieve?
Contrary to popular belief, the most “difficult” shots are not necessarily the most “complex” shots. The most difficult effects are the ones that the client can't effectively quantify. The shapeless inky smoky oily glowy indescribable entity/environment is always the one that killed us the most. Give me a shot that can be clearly defined, and no matter how complex it is, an experienced VFX Supervisor/Producer will have a chance at successful execution. 
We once were awarded some effects shots from a movie titled "What the Bleep do we Know?" Most of our shots were the usual challenge but one set that we were responsible for was known as the “blue grid.” This was a hypothetical environment composed of vibrating superstrings and contained a multiverse of potential realities. Ouch!

Another notable challenge was on Disney's A Wrinkle in Time. One of our jobs was to create the “Nothing” which needed to exist in both small room size scale as well as cosmic size scale. It was a classic inky smoky nightmare that can wreak havoc on a VFX Artist's ego as well as destroy any studios bottom line.
What is the typical starting point in a VFX project? How long does it usually take?
The starting point is always at the concept stage. We have to work closely with Producers and Directors to nail down the creative, of course always keeping the target budget and timeline in mind. Most of the time there are at least three other vendors competing for the same project. Once an award has been made we move to the live action filming. One or two of us would VFX Supervise on set while the others back at our studio would work out any remaining creative and begin creation of any assets. Typically after filming there would be a delay while our clients locked down their edit. Sometime we'd be delivering “VFX Temps” for them to cut into the show to get a better idea of flow. 
In regards to timeline, every project is different. The typical commercial lasted four weeks from filming to final delivery. TV Series projects like Stargate SG-1 would have two to three weeks. Videogame cinematics could last a few months. We once had one turbulent miniseries project span a couple years.
What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?
Our first high profile commercial campaign was for Bacardi out of Mexico City. That project completely caught everyone by surprise. The four commercials had amazing art direction and since they were 15 second spots our shots were a lot shorter than what we were used to. This gave us the confidence to break some rules and really tune every frame. In the end those commercials were works of art.
How has computer graphics changed visual advertisement? Do you think it has changed consumer behavior?
A key factor of advertising has always been to capture the audiences attention. Visual Effects and Computer Animation offer potential spectacles that have never been available before. If it's adding larger than life abilities to children's toys and automobiles computer graphics most likely has a hand in it. Viral videos for the internet are also taking advantage of our medium of deception. Todays visually-numbed audience requires further stimulation.

I wouldn't go as far as saying that Visual Effects or Computer Animation has directly changed consumer behavior. Technically it's the ever-encompassing media, financed by marketing dollars, that is re-programming us. Absolutely everything we see in the media has been influenced in some way to be a better vehicle for advertising. 

What’s your favorite movie?
I watch a lot of movies... My answer will always be changing on this question. I have a sweet spot in my heart for Producers that are able to make really good movies on a modest budget. Pan's Labyrinth, District 9 and Moon to name a few... 
When I look at VFX I like to see how they used them to support the storytelling. VFX simply for the sake of making an interesting spectacle/trailer has always disappointed me. I know first hand that VFX Artists are a passionate bunch and will always give their best. It's tragic when they are used to prop up a shoddy production. In the biz we call it “polishing turds.” 
If you had unlimited resources (from artists to money) what path would you take?
“Unlimited?..” In that case I could take an entirely non-commercial route! The need for profit always strangles creativity. We want to take risks which you can't always do when you are responsible for other peoples money. I want to take our medium outside of films and television. There are so many other venues that we could expand into. From education to installation art, visual effects can add seasoning and inspiration into so many other places. I dream of a day in which the same energy that goes into a blockbuster films go into our children's school curriculum.

If your child wants to be a 3D artist what would you tell him/her?
I make sure my kids have access to decent workstations, software (plenty of good open source solutions) and of course the internet. I try to point them to interesting resource/forum sites and take time to sit with them and see what they are working on. It's really just about providing support. 
A lot of videogames have excellent content modification tools included so that kids can quickly get that very important feeling of accomplishment while their attention spans are still quite small. 
That said, I was quite surprised when my seven year old daughter worked for days (mornings and after school) doing something called “paint over” frame by frame on obscure Anime clips that she found on Youtube. 
I think it's important to keep an open mind and let kids flow to areas in which they find personal interest. There is a new culture brewing. Some of it will come from the machinima scene where creators are using real time game engines to produce content. The other will originate from the audio/video mashup scene that is producing unique content comprised of snippets of popular media. Currently it's a touchy subject with all the copyright paranoia involved in the media giants losing control of their fragile kingdoms. Something new is coming and it's not going to be designed by the current powers that be. Personally, I look forward to it!