VFXTalk is pleased to share with you this awesome interview with Josh Saeta, the Lead Compositing TD at Rhythm & Hues! In this interview the VFXTalk communtiy asked Josh questions about Rhythm & Hues, his recent work on Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum, the next-generation technology he was exposed to on Superman Returns and life in general as a Lead Compositor!
Josh has worked for a number of companies in his eight years in visual effects, including Banned From The Ranch, Tippett Studio, Square USA and Digital Domain has been involved in some of the hottest visual effects films from Final Fantasy and Matrix Revolutions to Elektra and Chronicles of Narnia. He was also nominated for a Emmy for his work on Steven Spielberg’s Sci-Fi mini-series, Taken. Josh is now working on The Kingdom, which stars Jamie Foxx and is due to release in April.
Lead Compositing TD
Rhythm & Hues
Marina Del Rey, CA.
Josh’s VFX career started at a small house in Santa Monica called Banned From The Ranch Entertainment where he had the lucrative position of being an Office Production Assistant. Beyond learning the fine art of coffee making BFTR gave him the foundation he needed to break into FX. It was a small After Effects house where most of the work consisted of greenscreens, crowd duplication, and wire removals done in Commotion.
His first project was Soldier. From BFTR he went on the Digital Domain where he worked as a 3D tracker and set surveyor. He had the opportunity to set up tracking geometry on set, shoot stereoscopic photographs, bring it all back to DD and build tracking models; ultimately providing the animators with a solid track. Missing compositing, he went back to 2D where he went through a stream of different companies. He worked at Pixel Magic on Charlie’s Angels, went on to Square in Honolulu for Final Fantasy, bounced back to LA to work on a mini-series called Taken for DreamWorks where he received an Emmy nomination for outstanding VFX. After that he headed to Rainmaker in Vancouver, BC for Good Boy and then back down to Berkeley for Matrix Revolutions at Tippett Studio.
He finally settled down at Rhythm and Hues, and for the last three years has worked on such projects as Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, Garfield, and Elektra. For more about Josh you can check out his IMDB listing here!
About Rhythm & Hues
At Rhythm & Hues we believe that the highest quality work is created in an environment where people enjoy working and where people are treated fairly, honestly and with respect. Recognizing the collaborative nature of our medium, our designers actively seek input and advice from others, but ultimately a single individual is responsible for the final design decisions.
Night at the Museum
Night at the Museum was an incredibly fun project to work on. The sequences we did consisted mostly of the t-rex shots, Massive crowd duplications, and greenscreens with Owen and Ben. We also did a number of exterior matte painting shots where animals were to be strolling down the street in a snowy New York City, all shot on greenscreen. Technology wise we used much the same tools from Superman for Night. Being able to import camera motion virtually eliminated the need to track in 2D, and being able to pin elements to cards and add parallax all within one node made the compositing much easier yet more accurate using zdepth information.
Superman Returns really stood out as a awesome project for Josh, particularly since some of the technology used was absolutely incredible. It really sheds some light on how advanced compositing has become and where the industry is going. For example, they were able to import geometry into a comp, work with vertices on a model to attach a card or element to, import 3D cameras, texture and projection map, etc all within the composite!
Tools and Technology
As far as software goes, Rhythm and Hues uses proprietary software all the way around so his main compositing tool is ICY. He has also used Digital Domains proprietary tracking software TRACK3 and in his personal life uses Shake, After FX and Fusion.
Could you please start off by introducing yourselves and giving us a little background information pertaining to your current job/role, and your background in the industry?
Josh: Hi Everyone, My name is Josh Saeta and I am a Lead Compositing TD at Rhythm and Hues. Thanks for having me! The role I play actually depends on the stage a show is in, and also depends on what work is being done on that show. I am currently on The Golden Compass and up until now most of the work I’ve done has either been with assisting the 2D side of look development, doing my own shots for the trailer and Cannes film reel, or interviewing artists. My background in VFX starts a number of years ago on Mouse Hunt where I worked as the VFX storyboard PA. That experience fueled my interest in FX and led me to a small company called Banned From The Ranch Ent where I was a VFX PA and that led me into roto, paint, comp. etc.
What would you say is coolest thing about your job and what do you feel are the most important attributes in a Lead Compositor?
Josh: I like the complexity of the job. I feel that compositing is so balanced with artistic efforts as well as technical challenges that you really never get bored. Of course, the same could be said about most other departments. I would say the most important attribute in being a lead is knowing how to work with many different skill types and personalities all on the same playing field working towards the same goal.
How much would you weight education compared to skills and effort, if you should hire artists? Obviously there should be skills and effort involved, but would you hire someone without education?
Josh: Talent is talent regardless of where it comes from. You don’t need a degree to do fx, but you better be very well self taught. There are a ton of incredible artists out there that never finished school… and there are a ton that did and are less than stellar. Totally depends. I for one don’t pick one over the other. More like.. how does your reel look, and how is your attitude and willingness to learn.
As a lead, how often do you get a chance to composite your own shots, as opposed to overseeing the work of others on the team?
Josh: I try and take at least 1 or 2 shots from each sequence I am leading. It’s very important for me to know exactly what is going on the shots and sequences so when problems start to arise I can trouble shoot quickly.
What were the biggest obstacles to overcome in obtaining your goals as a visual effects artist? Was it having to deal with tight deadlines, harsh critiques, lack of job security in the industry? Which of these were the most difficult for you and how did you overcome them?
Josh: Deadlines are always a large obstacle. There is really never enough time to get a show or shot exactly how you would want it. RnH doesn’t really have harsh critiques, everyone is pretty nice about things, even at 1 am. Job security will always be an issue but it’s the nature of movies in general. If you want something consistent and steady I probably wouldn’t recommend any division of film.
What do you see as the most important thing when creating the amazing VFX that R&H do?
Josh: Communication if by far the key to great FX. When you want to create incredible work nothing is more critical than having constant communication. Whether it’s from Animation, Technical animation, Paint, roto, or lighting to comp, everyone has to be on the same page all the time. This is very hard to do.. but it really is the most important when it comes to making it all look good. If I was to pick one attribute that goes into making fx, regardless of department I would say it’s the very generic having a good eye. Regardless of it being modeling, animation, texturing, light, comp, roto… whatever. You really have to understand and be able to picture in your head exactly what you or the supervisor want and know the technical route to achieving it.
Current Projects: Night at the Museum
Approximately how many shots did you complete for Night at the Museum, and which sequences were you responsible for?
Josh: The team I was on did almost all of the Trex shots, as well as a number of greenscreen shots with Ben and Owen and in addition some matte painting shots of the mammoth and other animals running through the snow. I think total for the show we did around 300 shots all together on Night.
How many artists were involved in an average shot and what was the average time spent on a composite?
Josh: The average shot can change hands with many artists. From plate preparation to final comp you can have 10 people or more working on it.. often at the same time. As far as a time frame per shot it totally depends. I’ve had shots that look A/B that wound up taking 5 months, and I have had heavy shots with lots of CG, 3D compositing, enormous matte paintings, that flew through. There really is no average. I once had a shot with more version numbers than frame numbers, to date I still can’t understand why.
R&H is pretty good at creating and compositing digital animals but how was it to composite miniature 3d characters with real characters, is there any particular challenge you have faced in Night at Museum?
Josh: Luckily for us, all of the 3D characters were Massive. So we didn’t have any full scale life like elements that we had to create. Not to take anything away from what the Massive people did, but it did make completing the shots much easier. As far as a particular challenge it really wasn’t any different than any other show. Just trying to make it all sit seamlessly together.
What was by the far the biggest challenge in term of visual effects in the film, and how did you overcome them? Was there a different treatment? A new technique? Which sequence was the hardest to work on, and why?
Josh: On Night there weren’t really any overwhelming problems or challenges to tackle. Well, at least nothing out of the normal issues that arise time after time. On the comp side I would say that the way most of the greenscreens were lit in comparison with how the set was lit created the biggest issue on the 2D side of things. There was a lot of relighting in the comp to make things sit in the scene better than they would have. Another somewhat constant problem in making it work were reflections on the ground from the Trex. Getting the reflections to sit right and displace correctly onto reflective floor on occasion created a bit of a challenge.
Were there any unexpected hurdles that you encountered, and did you find any interesting 2D solutions to get around them?
Josh: Around the middle of the show the client decided that the floor of the museum was to scratched and dirty from the shoot. There was certainly no time to make a CG floor to replace in every shot, so was picked frames from each shot, painted them, then brought them into the 3D environment in our comp package and placed the still over the BG. This is where bringing in camera motion made it all very easy. Import the camera, place the still on a card, and done. Well… basically that’s how it worked.
How much creative input do you usually get on a project like this? Does the director usually have a very clear idea of what they want, or are you able to make suggestions for the shots?
Josh: This is a great question. And actually very hard to answer. Depends on the show. On Night there wasn’t much creative work to be tackled in 2D. Obviously in the Look Development stage a ton of creativity goes on with modeling and texturing and the sort. But comp wise we don’t have much input at that stage on that type of project. The VFX sup will certainly offer up suggestions but in the end the director and studio has the final say in what they want. In more FX heavy films you tend to get more freedom in creativity.
Pipeline & Workflow Related
How was the workflow between roto-artists, compositors, 3d artists and lighters managed by the lead? How was the pipeline for compositors assigned to manage these shots?
Josh: At RnH we work on an asset system. Far too involved to get into here, but basically elements are published out to other artists and in turn the artist receiving them subscribes to them. This moves in all directions through the pipeline, but on the comp side we will subscribe to lighting elements from light, camera motion from Animation or Tracking, as well as geometry either from Anim or Modeling. So as the lead I would make sure everyone is using the latest file sets, or motion paths, or geometry, or what not. I also stress major communication with the compers to lighters and matte painting and the sort. I really can’t stress the communication thing.
how does the interaction between other departments with you occur? As in, if you need the animation layer, or even the lighting or fur etc.
Josh: Basically I would call the lighter or Tracker or whomever and request something be published out to me. Once I am subscribed, whenever there is a new version of that element I get an e-mail or a phone call and in turn know to re subscribe to the latest version of an element.
When you encounter problems with a particular shot, and create a recipe for it, how do you file it? So it may be used by everyone in the pipeline? Also, is this information shared between studios who work a very large projects?
Josh: When a solution is made for an issue, or if someone comes up with a time saving idea or whatnot, it will typically be put into the template script each artist starts with. It can also be imported from an import menu, and if it’s really cool we’ll hold a tech op, where whatever has been created will be displayed for the entire department in our screening room. Aside from specific circumstance, there is no way we would share anything technical with any other studio. They’re on their own. And I am sure they feel the same exact way.
Do you use a primarily openEXR pipeline or DPX? How does this change form job to job?
Josh: RnH uses it’s own floating point file format called an RLL. Rll’s are deep so we can have an enormous amount of channels built into that one single file in. We do use open EXR’s as well though but from what I recall it’s usually for z depth information. But by far our most used file type is an RLL.
Do you ever use 2D Relighting tools for those times when you need small tweaks that 3D don't have time for? If so, how do you find them?
Josh: We don’t have lights on our comp package yet, but we do have endless access to layers and matte spit out by lighting. So depends on what needs to be done either the compositor will make a small change using what is available for the lighter will do it in their comp.
Tools, Tools and Tools!
What software do you think is the best for film compositing, especially when working at high resolutions and bit depths?
Josh: That’s a good question. Best software is shake and shake is dead. Nonetheless I would choose shake over anything else. I personally look forward to what Apple is developing for comp software. Till then, I will use shake. Nuke is becoming very popular as well though, and I do foresee it taking over the roll of Shake even more as time goes on.
What high end compositing tools did you use in the creation of your work for Night at the museum?
Josh: We use our own proprietary software. Software changes so often, and from memory I can’t think of how many packages I have gone through. After FX, Commotion, Illusion, Shake, Fusion, Chalice, etc. With a studio the size of ours it’s best to have an ever evolving proprietary package that changes with the times with the developers on hand. It’s also very helpful for when we get a show with a specific look we can have nodes built right into the software for that specific show. You can’t really do that in an off the shelf package unless you have programmers dedicated to it.
Were after effects or digital fusion used anywhere in the pipeline on any of the films? If so, can you let us know how they were used?
Josh: We only use AE for lens flares, that’s about it. We have a few licenses, but that’s it.
Do you feel that having a grasp on programming or scripting has improved the way you work?
Josh: To some extent yes, but I am most certainly not a programmer whatsoever. I find having a great relationship with the programmers surpasses anything I can try and do.
Do you often create tools for other artists to use while in production?
Josh: Yes. If something is working well we will distribute a type of macro for the artists to use. But I personally try and show my artists how to build the effect out of the tool box on there own. Why rely on a lightwrap or edgeblend when you can show people how to make it themselves.
Do you get enough flexibility with the programmers when you need something adjusted in your software or your plugins?
Josh: For sure. Since our software is ever changing we have plenty of opportunity to work with the programmers when we need changes or updates, or bugs fixed, or whatever. You don’t always get whatcha want… but you can at least go and throw it out there.
Can you explain bit more about the awesome technology which enables you to export camera motion? Does it work with your commercial tools as well or is it limited to your in house software?
Josh: Since all of the software in the studio is proprietary it mainly all works with itself. I am sure if you needed camera motion out of Maya or Houdini you could write a script that could convert it but there really is no reason to since any camera motion we export into the comp package is already streamlined. I believe you can do something very similar with Maya and Shake though. It’s great for 3D compositing.
What keeps you motivated and inspired as a digital artist? What can students and junior artists do in your opinion to better train their eyes to “see” ?
Josh: Learn to see. Really see. Learn to understand colors, shadow density, motion, light. Everything. The world around you is easily the greatest educator. The way the sun strikes an object, or how a table lamp illuminates the fur of an animal, or how water caustics work… whatever it is.. take note. Someday you will have to recreate it. Constant learning is what really keeps me motivated. There is so much to know, on so many levels that it never gets boring. That is most certainly my favorite part.
What skills would you say are the most important for a compositor who is looking to make his work stand out as realistic and seamless? What's the single most important basic skill?
Josh: Good question. And no simple answer. There really is no basic skill that makes it all look real. From tracking, roto, paint, animation, technical anim, lighting, to comp.. it really takes a huge team to make it all look real and believable. If textures are off.. and they don’t light well, then the comp can suck no matter what. And at the same time if everything is spot on with animation, and wind blowing through hair matches the wind on the plate, and the lights are perfect.. if the comp is off then it’s all taken away. It really is a massive team effort. But in the end, in my obviously biased opinion, if the lighting is right, and the comp is right, you can sell it well. If the image looks like it truly sits in the scene a lot can be forgiven.
Do you have any reference material or books that you would say are very important to have?
Josh: Compwise, The Art and Science of Digital Compositing by Ron Brinkmann. Read it and memorize it. Available on amazon.
I heard that ILM frequently uses their 3D lighters to do compositing work, correct me if I'm wrong, whats your thoughts on that?
Josh: I’m not sure of that. I really have no idea. It wouldn’t surprise me at all though. Lighting and Comp are getting closer and closer these days. I love it personally. But there is a lot to know, so if they do, it’s probably their most senior people.
What’s it like to be a lead compositor? Can you give us any advice on how to become a great compositor like you?
Josh: Very kind comment. Time, patience, and lots of learning and understanding. Taking criticism well (not always easy!) , constant asking of questions, and experience. It takes a lot of time to grasp everything that’s going on… not just with comp, but with everything around it.
What’s in store next at R&H? Is there anything really cool in the pipeline and can you share some information on this with us?
Josh: We currently have The Golden Compass, Alvin and The Chipmunks, as well as the Hulk. So certainly some fun and cool movies coming down the pipe.
Do you see compositing continuing to grow as a crucial part of the digital content creation pipeline or do you think animation will replace compositing in the future?
Josh: No matter what is animated it will always have to comped into some type of image. Everyone wants to animate, but it really doesn’t work that way in the end. It’s like.. ok, now that things are animated, who’s going to put them into the scene?
Do you think that it is really beneficial to have a good background knowledge in lighting for 3D if you are pursuing a career as a 2D compositor.
Josh: Depends on the kind of compositing your doing. If your limited to greenscreens, crowd duplication, roto, wire removals, then I would say not so much. If you’re integrating cg characters into live action places then certainly yes.
what would be your best advice for someone who is interviewing with a professional company for the first time? (how can you give yourself a better chance of landing that job?)
Josh: Depends on who is interviewing you. Depends on education or self taught abilities. But for me personally, and I only speak personally since I among many that interview artists at so many companies and in many mediums.. but to me it’s based on there reel, enthusiasm and the skills were looking for on a particular job. Be enthusiastic and excited, but not over the top. And if someone asks you something and you don’t know, say you don’t know and ask what it is. Don’t try and bs those interviewing you. As well, let it take it’s time. Work at smaller companies and learn in that environment. You will gain more right off that bat than jumping into a large company if you have no or little experience.
How IS life in the big city???
Josh: Very funny. I know who wrote this. Lemme tell ya… life is great in the big city, much warmer than where you are buddy
Finally, Red Bull, coffee, or something else?
Josh: Haha. I am neurotic by default so I certainly don’t need Red Bull. I work out every day at lunch to let the stress out and clear my mind… well… that or a valium
We would like to also add that Josh has been promoted to the Sequence Supervisor on Rhythm & Hues latest production, The Golden Compas! This film is going to be awesome, to view the trailer head over to the official Golden Compas website here!
Thanks for the great interview Josh!
The VFXTalk Team