Thursday, May 6, 2010

3Questions: Jeff Crocker - Visual Effects Coordinator

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Jeff Crocker, the Visual Effects Coordinator for CSI:NY.

As he describes it, "There are three of us in the VFX department and I basically run the administrative side, while running back-up artist on some of the more basic VFX shots. I breakdown the scripts and go to production meetings with our VFX Supervisor, Brad Powell, where we talk with the producers, director, and assistant director about how we’ll shoot certain shots. Then I sit with our editors, discuss each episode’s effects shots, order them from our post-house, organize all the raw footage and then distribute them to the rest of the VFX crew. If we need some additional help from secondary effects shops, I’ll generate bid requests and get quotes to pass by our producers, then make sure these hired guns stay on task and on schedule. Finally, if Brad or Chris Hagerthy, our senior effects artist, is busy, I’ll go to set and supervise visual effects shots for first unit or insert unit."

HBAD: So, tell us, how did you get your start?

JC: I started lighting toys on fire and filming it when I was thirteen. Inspired by movies like Star Wars, The Rocketeer, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I loved special effects of all kinds- puppets, miniatures, practical gags, opticals, matte paintings, pyrotechnics, and stunts. I grew up in Palos Verdes, a suburb of Los Angeles, so I was lucky to be near a lot of the action. When I was 16, I applied for internships at Paramount and TriStar, and a number of special effects houses and was rejected from all of them. When I was 17, I spent a summer working with Chris Hagerthy at Live Wire Productions, a local visual effects company that was doing some great work on film, TV, and commercials. Scott Simmons, the owner of the company, taught us a lot about 3-D modeling, compositing, and basic animation. Chris and I would take the stuff we learned and spend weekends with friends shooting our own Star Wars movies or Starship Troopers adaptations. We would load our high school video book reports with computer graphics and elaborate compositing as a means to distract our teachers to how little we knew about the material and it worked.

When I was 18, my friend hooked me up with Rob Schrab, a cult comic book writer/artist, who was finishing his first short film, a gonzo, Japanese influenced, sci-fi live-action cartoon, “Robot Bastard.” I immediately called Chris and we set to work on crafting a stylized look to match Rob’s colorful, exciting movie.

And while I worked my way through film and television production, I was always letting people know that I loved visual effects and was capable of adding a little more visual flair to their projects. I worked for free whenever I could, always believing that the experience was more important than any monetary compensation, which I figured would show up eventually. These days I am lucky enough to work almost exclusively in visual and special effects, whether it’s make-up effects, practical puppets, or blue/green screen compositing, I get to do a little of everything.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

JC: That’s a great question, and there isn’t an easy way to answer. To begin with I would say, “Focus.” When I was younger, I knew I wanted to work in visual effects and special effects. When I got out of college and started working in production, I found lots of jobs that I wanted to excel at, “Oh! I can be a production manager!” “Oh! I would make a great puppeteer!” “Ah! I’m going to build animatronics!” “I bet I would be a great editor!” I consider myself a pretty talented guy in most respects, especially when it comes to artistic endeavors and working with my hands, plus I like to be in charge because I work hard to set a good example for my team. It wasn’t until I got focused on that original goal, that I knew exactly what needed to be done and started feeling fired up.

Additionally, something that challenges me now and will continue to be a challenge is education. There is always something more to learn, something new coming out. As a visual effects artist, I have to keep up with new compositing techniques, the latest software, what others in my field are doing; I have to have a good basis in traditional art as well as an understanding of photography and lighting. And then you learn all of that and suddenly everything changes and now everyone wants to shoot stereoscopic 3-D. I was lucky enough to grow up learning on computers, and so I’ve got a nice foundation, but that doesn’t mean I will always be on the cutting edge. You’ve got to keep up, whether it’s by reading, staying involved within a community, or better yet, being the person that designs and leads the way into a new realm.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to get into the position you're in?

JC: Start talking to EVERYONE you possibly can about what you want to do. Make sure everyone knows what you want to do, because you never know how people can help. Also, there may be skills that you need that you never considered. Certain aspects of effects employ math and physics (miniatures), while others require a detailed knowledge of anatomy (like animation), and still others require that you know carpentry and welding (practical, mechanical effects).

Furthermore, with IMDB, Cinefex (the predominant VFX publication), Google, Twitter, so many working professionals are immediately accessible and most of those people are willing to answer your questions and give you some advice. Talk to as many people as you can and start making relationships with as many professionals as you can. Ask if you can send them some of your work and get some notes.

Finally, you’ll hear this a lot- you have to just start doing it. Do you want to be a puppeteer? Build puppets and start being a puppeteer. Find out about every type of puppet there is, the famous puppeteers, puppet schools and classes. Do you want to be a computer modeler? There are open-source modeling programs, like Blender, with international online support that you can start modeling with tomorrow morning.

Live it. Breathe it. And before you know it, you’ll be doing it.

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