Interview with VFX Artist Anselm von Seherr-Thoss
Insane: the word that comes to mind when I first saw the work of Anselm von Seherr-Thoss. I happened to be casually checking out videos on Vimeo, and somehow I stumbled upon his visual effects show reel. I was so impressed, inspired; ecstatic at the thought of possibly interviewing him. After getting in contact, I knew he’d be perfect for an interview. What a great guy, he’s very knowledgeable in his field; simply put, he knows what he’s talking about. Without further ado, I present to you an Abduzeedo exclusive interview with Anselm von Seherr-Thoss!
Anselm! How’s that work coming along? From what you’ve told me, visual effects can take months on end to perfect.
Very true! That highly depends on the task though. You usually work in a team and an effect goes through many hands. I can get, at times, a mind-numbing “haha”. That's why I personally like a good mix of film and commercial work. Sure it's great to JUST work on blockbusters, but commercial work is very refreshing at times! Tasks are shorter, deadlines quicker, less iterations until a director is pleased. The same goes for music videos and game cinematics. Faster pace, quicker turn over. In commercials it doesn't have to look 101% real...you can get away with a lot more due to the shorter deadlines and tighter budget as well. It is the last 10% of realism that takes 40% of the time! Tweaking it, noodling settings. People always want fast, cheap, cutting edge. That is a quality triangle.
“Fast, cheap, good: choose two!”Is the credo when doing visual effects and what it is something I try to live by. Another good one is
"Animation is about creating the illusion of life. And you can't create it if you don't have one." -Brad Bird
Great to hear, your work inspires me! Let’s get down to business. You graduated with a degree in fine arts, what brought you into the field of visual effects and 3D particle manipulation?
In 2001, I graduated from high school and went to college to study media design. One day a classmate brought Cinema 4D and Maya to class on his notebook. From that moment on, I didn't participate much in what was going on up front. After university in fall 2004, I looked for CG companies in Hannover, Germany, and found SoulPix, a small studio that uses 3D Studio Max. I asked for an internship, but couldn't provide ANY knowledge of 3DS Max though...so I bombed the owner, Frank Sennholz, with funny emails and stuff like that for half a year straight, until I got invited if I would promise to stop any email traffic. I knew Photoshop and AfterEffects from campus, so I could at least help a bit with texturing and composition; I learned 3DS Max on the go. After two weeks, I participated in my first real production. So, I interned at a CG studio without ANY 3DS Max knowledge... One of the artists brought the “Advanced Visual Effects” DVD by Allan McKay to work one day, and I knew what I wanted to specialize in.
Now you originally lived in Germany, correct? Similar to the last question, what brought you to the United States, was it the promise of cinematography?
I always wanted to work at Blur. Every CG artist admires their work. I never ended up there, unfortunately. Thanks to my website and my involvement in internet forums, other companies started to call and check if I was available for freelance gigs, and so I became one. Over the years, I worked at most German CG companies, and I was always active in forums helping people out, that caught international attention and I eventually had a job interview at Frantic Films which is Prime Focus VFX today.
For our readers that don’t know, Anselm has had the privilege of working on prestigious films like James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood”. What sort of time goes into that work?
Many moons! In the case of “Robin Hood”, it took just 2 weeks actually. That one was a 911-call to help out the UK department of Prime Focus with some shading work for 2 shots only. Avatar and other blockbusters lasted over 6 months, but they were some of the best best and most organized projects I have worked on yet! Barely any pain, to a large extent this is due to the awesome team we had! I dare to say we gathered some of the best Max artists that are around today.
You worked out in Los Angeles and Hollywood, what was it like there?
Los Angeles is where the film industry is, so lots of production houses there. Lots of film people, even every waiter seems to be an actor, writer, director waiting for the breakthrough. It has a certain vibe in the air. Plus, sun shines every damn day! LA is huge; you barely ever leave your part of town if it's not for spare time at the beach or going out to clubs. It is nice to say that I lived in LA and worked in Hollywood, but Nola is very nice too. “The Big Hectic vs. The Big Easy”. Hollywood itself is surprisingly dirty and blighted in some corners. I didn't see a lot of LA actually while I lived there. I worked a lot and on weekends. I did some touristy stuff when my lady was in town or with friends but that was about it. Very un-glamorous...but I met a local visual effects talent who was supposed to be one of the best artists around: Charley Carlat. He taught me a lot in such a short amount of time. He was one of the best technical directors I know and a great person to know!
While out west you were with Prime Focus (originally Frantic Films)? I know you’ve always said it’s a “boom-bust” market out there, but I’m sure working for Prime Focus definitely helped you to get some exposure. Enough so that you could eventually start your own company, which I’m sure our readers are eager to hear about. Describe what it’s like working in a large visual effects company.
Prime Focus is a medium size facility in LA. I'd say it can be a lot more organized working in a bigger, more corporate environment. Paid overtime, large render power, state of the art equipment, stuff like that. Bigger places attract bigger names in the industry as supervisors, which then attracts bigger production companies to have work done there. So I had the great opportunity to work on movies like Avatar and others. I am grateful for that, I am lucky.
Shortly after moving out to New Orleans, you started your own company, Incendii. The name sparks intrigue and inspiration, similar to the name, which is reminiscent of a flame. How did things change after splitting off from a larger visual effects house to form your own company? Seems like Incendii is doing quite well; lots of commercial work, eh?
It is doing great, yes. Plans for expansion dawn... The name comes from the latin word for fire and passion and is the genitive of the noun. “Ars Incendii” is the “Art of Fire”, and those two little words describe pretty well what is done here! I personally specialized in particle effects and dynamics so most of the work coming in involved particles and rigid body systems as well as fluid simulations like fire and smoke. (@ars_incendii is my twitter account as well if you are keen to follow up!)
I bet you’re a busy man! After you told me what your workspace was like, I was in awe; tell our readers what your setup is like and how you get the job done. Specifically, what programs have you used over the years? I also know you’ve helped to develop plugins and different functions for some programs, which is pretty impressive in and of itself!
Setup hardware wise or software wise? I have 2 computers at my desk. One is always, caching, simulating, rendering, on the other I work in the meantime, and then switch back. I have a monitor switch so I can use the same mouse, keyboard and monitors for all machines. One rig itself is 2xi7based quads with HT, so 16 threads and 24 GB of RAM, along with two 24” monitors. Software wise, I use 3D Studio Max, VRay, the Particle Flow toolboxes 1, 2, and 3 pro, RayFire, Krakatoa, Fume FX, just to name a few. What is used highly depends on the task that is asked for. Whatever gets the job done. How it's done is individually different from project to project. Some of my techniques are on my training DVDs, who doesn’t love a little shameless self-promotion! Development wise I am a producer on the very successful RayFire plug-in for dynamic destruction effects. It is greatly accepted by the Max community so we get a lot of input of what people want to have featured and if it makes sense it gets implemented. Mir Vadim is a great developer and reacts very quickly on bug reports. It has evolved in a very fast pace. Other then RayFire, I am a beta tester on a lot of plug-ins for Max. Orbaz, the company behind Particle Flow and its extensions is a good example.
From an artist’s perspective, it’s tough to teach yourself a medium and continue to learn over the years. What has inspired you and kept you determined over the years, is it that satisfaction you get when your work is finally rendered?
True! You have to stay on top of the game. The internet, especially forums, helps a lot with that. Lots of people figure out funky stuff! Often times they share their setups or explain what they did and you can learn from it. CGTalk is a great place to hang. It’s always good to see an effect someone else has done, something inspirational and try to recreate it, collect reference images and videos! My reference folder counts 80 GB and still growing...that's what I do a lot between tasks or in the evening. Like Steve Jobs says, “Stay hungry!” I personally get the most satisfaction if I find a solution for a problem I’ve had for a while. It's like solving a puzzle. Being in the rolling credits of a good movie satisfies equally though!
I’d like to jump back to Los Angeles. I’m sure our readers are wondering what kind of work goes into those holograms and heat from “Avatar”, enlighten them!
The hologram of the jungle, the mine pit, and the “hometree” are particles that were generated and rendered with Krakatoa PRT Volumes and/or generated with Particle Flow Box #3. All the countless icons were designed by us after rough layouts from Cameron's design team, but redesigned by our art department (Neil Huxley was the art director). The trajectories of satellites and airplanes are animated spines and all tables and columns on the “holotable” are cards designed and animated in After Effects. They don't really mean anything. James Cameron said himself, “If anybody wants to read the tables and icons, we are making the wrong movie here.” So we had pretty much no directions and they gave us some room for interpretation; the names on the tables are all co-workers! Everything that is interacting with real persons had to be match moved and modeled. The “holotable” hardware was a prop on set but was digitally replaced by us to a large extent. Every laser unit on it and the projection hardware is full CG. Every screen (called “Immersive”) consists of a many layers with depth information to look 3D so every layer had to be designed and animated separately. All those elements where then rendered with Vray and comped in Digital Fusion. Beside the many 3D screens, we had to build and matte paint every environment seen through the windows in the command center. In the shots where Giovanni, the businessman, plays with the Unobtanium rock, it was replaced in CG for more zero gravity aesthetics. There was a prop Unobtanium on a string on-set, but it didn't deliver satisfying motion results.
Stunning, simply stunning. Now with Incendii, you’ve been getting lots of commercial and feature film work, correct? How’s that coming along and what’s in store for the company’s future?
Only the future can tell. Right now work is done on two films, commercials, and the new Black Eyed Peas music video for the song titled: “The Time (Dirty Bit)”. A lot going parallel... Film wise it's usually smaller effects or just a few shots that get out-housed by bigger studios to specialists or simply because schedule is tight. Louisiana's film industry is boosting right now due to the great tax credit companies get when they shoot and post produce here, so it's good to be around the area (http://louisianaentertainment.gov).
I know Incendii has a promising future, as do you. Anything new coming out soon from Anselm von Seherr-Thoss?
I think the next thing that airs is the B.E.P. music video and two commercials I worked on the last two months. The movies have midyear release dates (Priest, Sucker Punch, and two others I can't talk about).
It has truly been my pleasure chatting with you. Is there anything you’d like to leave our readers with?
I think it is very important to enjoy what you do. Staying “hungry” is the key. And don't sell for cheap! If you need some advice in attitude, read VFX Solider's blog. Years ago, before I moved to the US I wrote an article for CGArena entitled “Freelancer's Manifesto – A Collection of advices” which became quite popular. It has horrible English, but I think it still holds up. Other than that it's all worth it if you are a tough bastard!
Best of luck in the future!
Same to you on your endeavor, and thanks for the opportunity and interview!