Interview: Mark Devlin
Mark Devlin is a freelance visual effects artist with recent experience on such films as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Cat in the Hat and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He also has a string of music video and design credits to his name, including compositing for Outkast's 'Hey Ya' clip. Devlin talks to vfxblog about some of these projects and about his thoughts on visual effects.
Interview by Ian Failes
What makes you excited about visual effects and compositing?
I started my career as a print graphic designer and later moved on to broadcast design. Print design was a more pure form of design, however, I enjoyed the ability to add movements to my designs. The problem I found with broadcast design is that it is very subjective. It seemed that regardless of what I design, there is always a client, supervisor or network executive who would not be satisfied unless he or she had made a change. Those changes rarely make the design better.
Visual effects is much less subjective. Compositing done well does not look like compositing. I find that in visual effects, the comments I receive from my superiors actually makes my work superior. The challenge as a visual effects artist is to provide the client with a product that is flawless. The harder the composite, the greater the challenge to create flawless work, and in turn the more rewarding when you complete the really tough shots. I like the REALLY hard shots.
What was the first ever major project you worked on?
Working in Hollywood, almost everything you work on is major. Earlier in my career I worked on a commercial for "World Combat Championship". OK, maybe not the most glorious project I worked on but several months later I was invited to go work in Brazil on a music video project. On the weekend I was invited to travel about 8 hours inland to the jungles of Brazil, to a small town called Bouzios. There we stopped to have a drink at a small bar, and up on the television I saw my commercial running. Now granted, the project was not the biggest I have worked on, but it was at that moment that I realized just how far even small projects can travel. I have since seen my work in India, South Africa and Asia, and this encourages me to do my best regardless of how big or small the project may be.
- Click on the image for Mark Devlin's visual effects demo reel.
You seem to have been at the forefront of the digital revolution in compositing and visual effects. Were you conscious of that at the time you started in the industry?
In my first year of compositing, during a session there were 5 or 6 clients in my room and one was a guy named Ron. But because it was dark I really could not see anybody very well. Not until Ron stood up and sat down next to me did I notice that Ron was Ron Howard. Since then I have done a lot of teaching. I always begin my class by emphasizing that this is a very competitive business and that if my students are not aiming to be one of the best in the world, get out of the class now. I feel very privileged to be in this business. People pay a lot to work with us, so I have always tried to take what I do very seriously.
What has been the most significant change in vfx and compositing technologies in your mind since you began?
By far the Mac and PC. Ten years ago there were a handful of giant vfx companies in LA and now there are hundreds of small 2 and 3 man shops working out of their garages. It has had a major effect on rates and created a lot of competition which in turn has raised the bar of excellence in our industry.
What do you see as the benefit of freelancing rather than working for one specific studio?
I do not think that it would have been possible for me to have advanced so fast in the beginning of my career if I had not freelanced, because in one year I was exposed to so many different artists and many different techniques.
Can you talk about the recent work you have done on films like 'Sky Captain', 'Cat in the Hat' and 'LXG"
I have worked on several films in the last couple of years, but Sky Captain was by far the most rewarding. For this film I worked with the team at Stan Winston Digital. Every day I came to work I knew that this may be the highlight of my career because the shop was involved in all aspects of the art of filmmaking. All the other films were just another compositing job. But with Sky Captain we were attempting to do something that had never been done before. Make a movie from nothing in an all digital environment where only the actors were real and composite them together seamlessly. The attention to detail was remarkable. And it was a real team effort. I spent 4 ½ months working on one 5 second scene of the film. And in the end it was very much a product of a compositor, a matte painter, a 3D artist, a compositing supervisor and vfx supervisor. Without all the members of the team there would not have been a shot.
What would be your favorite visual effects sequence or shot from a project you've been involved with, or from any show?
The jungle sequence of Sky Captain that I worked on at Stan Winston has to be my proudest work.
- Click on the image for a compositing breakdown of a shot from the jungle sequence in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
You seem to have done quite a bit of traveling in pursuit of your art (US, Canada, South America, Europe, China, Africa and India). What has that been like to experience those parts of the world? Is there much difference in the way vfx/digital studios operate between those countries?
I have asked many people, if you were to win millions in the lottery, what would you do first? Most answer 'to travel'. I feel very blessed to have seen so much of the world on someone else's bill. In the US we get very spoiled because we never get exposed to lesser lifestyles and it has made me appreciate the luxuries that I have. It has also made me appreciate that when millions of other people are doing things differently than I am accustomed to, then maybe the American way is not the only way. As far as how vfx houses operate - American, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadians all run very similar and seem to work well together.
Indian, Asian, African and Asian companies are definitely motivated by cultural differences. Asian vfx workers work the hardest. I have met employees in China and Indian that live at work, sleep in the closet, and go home maybe one day a week if at all. And yet the Asian facilities technically have been the weakest. The South Americans and particularly the Brazilians have been consistently the most creative, I think due to the influences of all of the arts in their culture.
Congratulations on your compositing for the "Hey Ya" music video. How was that work achieved? Did you ever contemplate just how many people were going to see it and how successful it would be?
'Hey Ya' was actually one of the easier compositing jobs I worked on and yet the most successful for me. I think this was because of excellent preproduction and the direction of Brian Barber. The project was a simple composite of motion controlled elements. Andre 3000 performed all the characters of the band with the use of the motion control camera to make compositing fairly easy. The problem was that flashing lights in the back ground were not synced with the motion control and had to be fixed using color correction in the compositing.
- Click on the image to watch Outkast's 'Hey Ya' music video.
In addition, Money Shots, the company who did the vfx, also took on the awesome task of completing another Outkast video for "The Way You Move" within the same week. That music video, like Sky Captain, was all green screen with fully digital environments created in Photoshop and composited in flame and combustion. During the time I was working on it I never would have imagined that we were creating not just one, but two award winning videos within the same 7 days. The only thing I was thinking about was when we would get some sleep.
What advice would you give to new players looking to get into the visual effects, compositing or design industries?
In the beginning your demo tape is probably horrible. But remember that people hire people. Be professional, confident and determined. A weak demo tape can be helped by a strong presentation. A lousy demo in a black paper sleeve with an 8 ½ x 11 inch resume folded and shoved inside it will get you nothing. If you do not have a lot of experience, then at least design a good demo package. Pay attention to the graphics of your opening slate. Make the design of you demo box, resume and business card match the slate graphics. In other words create "a look" for your demo.
Do not be afraid to start at the bottom. You can make a fine living creating mattes and dust busting. What ever you do be the best in the world. Better to be the world best dust buster than an average compositor.
Do you have time to work on any personal projects? How do your keep yourself interested away from the computer?
Yes, actually last July my wife and I started designing jewelry. Now we are in about 40 stores nationwide, and have sold our designs to Halle Berry, Linda Hamilton and Kelsey Grammer. Barbara Streisand is even wearing our choker in the final wedding scene of the movie Meet the Fockers. You can see our work on our website at http://www.patriciacandido.com/.
Thanks for the opportunity to babble a little. It has been a pleasure!
Special thanks to Mark Devlin for participating in this interview.
Posted on February 02, 2005