James Miller has garnered impressive experience with state-of-the-art companies including ILM and Dreamworks. As a sought-after visual-effects-artist, Miller has worked on a plethora of blockbuster-titles including Hunger Games, Star Wars, Westworld, How to Train Your Dragon and Abominable. Miller shares his wealth of experience online and as an instructor for Gnomon. To learn more, visit James Miller on LinkedIn or follow him on YouTube.
GW: What were the highlights and challenges back during your time creating content for media companies in London such as the BBC?
JM: When I look back, I suppose I’m most proud of the things that are perhaps the most different to what I do now—with the assistance of rose tinted glasses, of course. Because the projects changed so frequently, it allowed me to work on some truly wonderful things, which perhaps I didn’t have the chance to recognise at the time. I was involved in a documentary about music and its role in rehabilitation in prison for young offenders. That documentary is something I will never forget, because I’d never been to a prison before, and to be honest, I didn’t think music would do anything but be a nice distraction. It turned out to be quite a deep experience with some real humanity behind it. It was humbling to learn that driving all of us is that same desire to be recognized by those we value as creating something worthwhile; and to that degree, these inmates really saw it as just that—a catalyst to pursue different goals in life.
I’ve also had many less profound, but amazingly fun experiences. Sneaking in to watch Prince rehearse during the Brit Awards, for example. And recording a whole host of different artists from Amy Winehouse to Fink to John Legend for a variety of different shows. Then getting my first taste of working with actors and recording lines for PlayStation games. I think being so varied in my early work has helped me greatly when it comes to being a “generalist,” as the job involves doing whatever is required to get the shot done. You can’t just be good at one particular part of the pipeline, because the expectation is that you can be used anywhere in the process. You can’t be good at everything, so you get used to figuring it out when you need it.
Previously, the scope of what you were doing was limited to what you already knew, and knew how to do fast and well. While there is a great excitement to that, I was amazed at the contrast that exists between companies. When I first started working at the companies I do now, I found there was dedicated time for you to learn new skills and evolve techniques. I think deep down I have this constant hunger to learn, and I found that on projects with rapid turnarounds, and tight budgets, you don’t find the space for that, especially for smaller production companies.
GW: Can you describe how you decided to make the move into Visual Effects?
JM: My move to Visual Effects came somewhat as a by-product of disappointment with music, which had always been my first love. After a certain point I realised that most people in the music world really struggle, and it dawned on me that it wasn’t leading me anywhere sustainable. So I started looking for something that gave me that same creative excitement, but has a career path I could evolve and grow with. I started doing some video editing, after some self-study, and then started showing what I could do at work. That got some traction, and I was interested to see how far that could go and how you could push an image. This led me to learning some After Effects from Video Copilot, for which I will forever be grateful. When I saw what you could do to an image there, I was hooked. I started making motion graphics packages, as well as doing the editing and the recording, and eventually became Head of Post Production.
I wanted more though. I wanted to sink myself into a shot, I wanted to have days to work on something and make it look great, not just a few hours. The problem was, without an educational background in VFX, no one would give me a chance. So I bit the bullet and decided to start over, and started looking at schools that taught Visual Effects. I was in the UK, so Gnomon wasn’t an option, but the top contenders in the UK were Bournemouth (BA), and the National Film and Television School (Masters) which, luckily, some of the actors I worked with recommended. The NFTS, I believe, only took six or eight students in each discipline a year. I knew that was the one I was going to go for. I waited a year and got in, but they enrolled me in the 2d course, so I declined and applied again the next year, where I finally got accepted into the 3D side of the Masters program.
Towards the end of the two years, in a random twist of fate, my father met someone at a breakfast who he said he thought I would get along with, “because he has loads of tattoos, does MMA and works in Visual Effects.” He passed me this person's number who turned out to be none other than Nathan McGuiness, the Creative Director at Dneg Singapore at the time. I summoned my courage, and gave him a call, and the conversation ended with him saying something along the lines of, “if you ever come over here, you can come in and we’ll give you a go. We can see if we like you, and if you like us, and then go from there.” I sold all my stuff, bought a plane ticket and was in Singapore the next week. To be honest, I don’t think he actually expected me to just turn up, but he was true to his word when I did. After that I just worked my ass off. Anything that needed doing, I was there. If I didn’t know it, I learned it. Most of all I was incredibly lucky to have things thrown my way by Zoe Cranley, Dan Pastore, and Tim Clarke, who really pushed me, but also made some space for me to learn..
GW: Can you describe the day-to-day differences when working on live action feature films for ILM compared to working on animated films for Dreamworks?
JM: I think the main difference is in regards to what you, as an artist, are aiming for. In live action, you’re obviously aiming for it to look real, but often they don’t know what it is exactly that they want. So you find yourself in dailies with the same shot potentially twice a day. You’re coming up with different options and ideas—trying to find something that makes the Supervisor smile and say, “that’s the one!” Other times, you’re part of a big machine, and you’re “moving furniture” as the saying goes. Moving things to the left, then the right, then turning them, etc. I’ve done almost two-hundred versions of a shot before, only to go back to version sixty-something in the end.
Contrarily, In animation they have a very clear vision about what they want most of the time. Time has been spent creating a key, which you need to follow. This took me a little getting used to, because I think at first I saw it as a rough guide, but it’s more like the bible. It can be a little crazy to wrap your head around after coming from live action because it might be painted, but that brush stroke—that’s what you’re aiming for!
GW: Out of the many blockbuster-movie-projects you have worked on, is there a most-challenging or a favorite that stands out to you, and why?
JM: Oh there’s a lot of shots that I feel really lucky to have been part of, but I do have some favourites that made me smile. First on the list have to be some of the shots on Star Wars, because like most people in VFX, that’s the franchise that started it all for me. It was my first film as part of the Generalist Team (formally the Rebel Unit) in San Francisco, and I was thankful just to be on the film. But as things started heating up it was unlike any other place I had worked before. The level of what was expected of you was so high, but so was the trust level. Sometimes you were moving cameras to try different angles with a new plate, repainting whole sections and just being trusted to make the shot look the best it could, so no nudging of objects endlessly.
I remember getting this shot of Kylo walking into the hanger and the briefing on the shot was something along the lines of, “They like Kylo, and the shadows, but not the rest. Make something.” And I remember thinking, “is this scary or awesome? Probably both!” There was the chase with Falcon through the planet's surface, and the goal was always to seek out whatever “looked the coolest.” No ego, just excitement for what everyone was making. That was a special time.
I think I would have to also mention my first ever massive shot. I was working on Godzilla and Zoe came in and said to myself and Dan Pastore, “Alright, here’s your shot. You have three weeks. Don’t mess it up.” It was a huge wide shot of a helicopter going over the fictional city of Janjira after it had been destroyed and abandoned for years. It was based on plate footage, and I remember just thinking, “how the hell are we going to do this? Where do we even start?” I’ve come to learn, if you’re saying that to yourself at the start, it’s going to be a good one!
GW: In addition to working with state-of-the-art companies, you also became an instructor and you have taught at Gnomon. How did that evolve and how is that experience?
JM: Ah, well, I think this might be two fold for me. I can’t express how thankful I was when I first found websites like Video Copilot. I literally wouldn’t be where I am without them, and I remember promising myself that if I ever got good at visual effect, I would try and pass on the knowledge that I had gained in the same way. So I started recording “how to” videos on YouTube and teaching at some schools, and I was fortunate that I came to the attention of Gnomon, and they have been kind enough to gift me a much larger platform to share from. I’m all for sharing what I know, because I love learning what everyone else knows. It’s kind of my curse. I want to learn everything. So now I suppose I find myself in a position where I have things that I can share with people. Secondly, I come from a family of teachers, so I suppose the idea of sharing knowledge feels very natural. When I say family of teachers, I mean ALL of them. Mum, Dad, Sisters, Brother, Uncle, Aunties...
GW: Can you describe your latest Gnomon workshop and what students could garner from this tutorial?
JM: In my latest tutorial, I took a look at Houdini height fields and how to build environments using them, but ending in a different package—Clarisse. The goal here was not only to offer a solid understanding of height fields, and Clarisse, but to approach some of the questions I had when I first started playing with the process. How do you take the result and start cutting out sections for caves and overhangs, while keeping the maps intact? What makes up the final elements of a height field, and how do you get those parts out of Houdini and into your favourite render program? Taking a picture of a natural formation, how easy is it to achieve a particular look? After building the assets, I wanted to show how I would approach this from a real production point of view, as Clarisse can be quite freeform. All in all, I try to take you through the shot as I would actually approach it, to give you a well-rounded overview, while covering as many areas as I can without making it confusing.
I actually recently did a little bonus video if people are interested. In the workshop, I used a model skull that I had in my house, and scanned it with my phone and made a 3d model out of it. It fell outside the scope of the workshop at the time, but I thought it was a fun and useful trick, so I’ve put that on YouTube.
GW: How do you find motivation when inspiration seems to be sparse? Or how do you break through those “creative-brick-walls?”
JM: Inspiration is something that I’ve never struggled with to be honest, because if anything, I feel oversaturated with ideas. By far the best place to search for concepts and themes for me, are my friends and colleagues. We all have so many projects and such strong opinions, some gold is always bound to fall out of our chats and we push each other, a lot.
I also take pictures of everything that I think is cool. Either something I want to draw, or a style I really like, or just something that I have a nugget of an idea for. I think social media can be a fantastic place to learn about what appeals to you. Spend some time finding artists that you like and follow them. That should hopefully begin to start you on your journey of being exposed to other artists and styles that are inspirational, as artists all generally follow each other and share all the time. Just remember to snap a picture or write the thought down. At the time it always seems so obvious and you would never forget. Trusts me, in thirty minutes, you’ll have no idea what you were looking at. Keep that in your back pocket.
GW: Is there anything you wish you would have known starting out that you could offer to new, aspiring artists? Or any vital steps you took early on in your career that you’d recommend to students?
JM: 90% of what you are going to learn is going to be self-study. Don't get comfortable, and expect to change companies. When you see these big leaps in front of you, take them, but always know where you are going, or aiming for. Don’t get stuck in something that is similar to what you wanted to do, but not actually what you wanted to do. And most importantly, be kind. You might know something someone else doesn’t, and you have a chance to share it with them. I promise you, for every one thing you know, the people around you can teach you back a hundred others. Finally, the most important piece of advice I ever got was from Virginie Bourdin, who told me to always find a way to love the vision of the person you are working for. Director, Supervisor, or whomever, because it’s their opinion that matters the most, not yours, and you can’t serve them well if you think you know better.
GW: Super thanks for sharing your experiences, James! We really appreciate your kindness and generosity!
JM: Thank you Gnomon!
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