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Art and Technology Fusion: Insights from Henry Foster, AKA Toadstorm's Journey

INTERVIEW
April 12, 2024
Interviewed by:
Mearg Taddese

Welcome to an enlightening journey into the realm of technical artistry and visual effects.

Throughout his career, Henry has worked in a variety of fields, including motion graphics, commercials, visual effects, and his current pursuits in medical robotics. Explore his early influences, the difficulties he faced during production, and gain insight into his perspective on the dynamic interplay between Art and Technology.

Let's begin by introducing yourself briefly.

I'm Henry Foster, also known as Toadstorm. I used to freelance in motion graphics, commercial and VFX studios as a 3D generalist and technical artist, but now I'm working at Intuitive Surgical, a medical robotics company.

Reflecting on your childhood, could you share with us what inspired you while growing up and how those early experiences influenced your current career path?

I think my biggest inspirations growing up were cartoons (especially Looney Tunes, Ren & Stimpy, and Batman), the natural world, and Monty Python's Flying Circus. I was a weird kid. In high school I started making stop-motion animations with paper cutouts because I idolized Terry Gilliam, and then that turned into Flash and After Effects animation, and then 3D from there. I think my biggest challenge was a lack of good art instruction... there are so many more resources now than there were in the old days before YouTube. Core art skills are so important to any career in visual media.

Exploring your creative mindset, what sparks your inspiration?

It's almost always either something I've seen in nature, or something naturally-inspired that I've seen another artist doing. I really enjoy breaking down branching structures or the kinds of growth patterns you see coming from coral or lichen or fungi, there are just so many patterns out there that can be created by just a few simple rules.

Could you share a challenging or unexpected task you've faced during production? How did you navigate through it?

I used to be paired frequently with an art director who loved making these really wild style frames that were really nebulous, blended-together photo collages. They were beautiful and complex, but 3D has rules, you know? It's really hard to figure out how to make these amorphous objects without distinct borders in a medium where everything is defined by numbers! Houdini really saved my bacon a number of times with projects like this, as did good communication with some very skilled compositors who could help me strategize on the tougher shots.

How do you juggle your time, especially with personal side projects? and how do you stay energized and manage it effectively?

I tend to go through phases where I'm very productive, followed by stretches of time where I just can't be bothered. Some people work much better with a fixed schedule where they're going to spend an hour or two every day being creative or whatever, and I think that's great if that works for you, but it's important to not burn yourself out. You can't work out your muscles if you don't eat, and you can't have creative output without taking in the world around you.

As you've advanced to supervision or Lead roles, what's your secret? Any tips for those aspiring to grow into similar roles?

Don't be a jerk. If you're working with others, and most of us are, it's honestly more important to have a cool head and good interpersonal skills than it is to be really good at whatever you're doing. If people like you and like working with you, you're way more likely to progress in your career than some enfant terrible.

Taking a moment to reflect, are there any insights or skills you wish you had acquired earlier?

I'm doing pretty well right now but if anything I'd have tried to jump into real-time graphics much sooner. It opens up a huge range of new opportunities outside of what we've traditionally considered as VFX or motion graphics or whatever. It's also really fun!

Who in the industry do you admire or find someone to be an inspiration?

I know I mentioned Terry Gilliam earlier. I think I'd also add Rob Bottin, the guy who did the special effects for The Thing at a very young age. I always admired the artists who were capable of doing these amazing effects without computers... being such a computer nerd myself it seemed like this incredible kind of genius to me.

Let's focus on one of your favorite projects. Could you walk us through the creative or technical process behind it and the elements that brought it to life?

I really like my "rainy forest cinemagraph" piece. I was living in LA at the time and desperately missed rain and dense forests. Rainy days are my happy place and I love making plants in 3D so I just wanted to try to build something I could stare at for a long time. My blog has the detailed technical breakdown, but I more or less just grabbed a few reference images and videos that had the right mood and then got to work blocking out the main elements before refining each effect (the plant impacts, the raindrops, the rivulets, etc). It's not a long piece and it's just one shot but I still enjoy watching it; I tried to make every part of the animation worth looking at for a few loops.

Most of your works are either hardcore programming, tool developing and problem solving.Have you face a problem where you don’t know how to solve it or get lost? if so, how do you solve it?

Yeah, I get those all the time. I try to break down the problem into smaller problems if I can; it's easy to get overwhelmed by big questions so the more you can divide up a problem into smaller, easier problems, the better. If I can't progress through an issue despite that, I go take a walk. If I still can't progress, I just put it down for a while. You can't force an epiphany. I've put down problems sometimes for months, only to figure them out in a few hours once I'm ready to sit down and look again with fresh eyes.

What's your favorite part of your job? Is there a particular feature or tool that you love andcouldn't imagine working without?

I love seeing people react to any kind of piece I've made; seeing how people connect with your art is what it's all about, right? I also love helping other artists get their work done easier. Their expressions of relief when things "just work" is really rewarding. Regarding tools I couldn't imagine working without, it's Houdini without question. For all its frustrations it really just lets you do whatever you want, and that's both overwhelming and freeing.

There is this quote from John Lasseter, “The art challenges the technology, and thetechnology inspires the art.” and your position seem to be a perfect example for this.Can you tell us how you might relate to this? or your take on Art vs Tech.

Sometimes it's a lot easier to be creative when you have rules to follow. Think about how quickly someone can come up with a haiku or a limerick as compared to free verse. Creating things in 3D can sometimes feel like that, though for me personally the most interesting projects are when you have to make 3D look like it's not 3D; things like non-photorealistic shading and other stylizations encourage you to break out of the typical constraints of "realism". I've always felt like I'm a bit too technical for the art world and a bit too artsy to be a "real" programmer or developer so having a space to create in that has some constraints can be really useful.

How is it like working at studio compared to freelance? What do you find different ora cross over that is common in both?

Working in a studio can give you a sense of ownership over parts of the process, if you're there long enough to make an imprint on the place. You can really get to know your own team, their various strengths, get into the details of pipelines and workflows at a really deep level. It's easy to get pigeonholed if you stay put at one place long enough, though, and in the worst cases you can get dependent on a single set of tools or a single pipeline. Freelancing obviously rarely has that problem; you can learn a ton of different approaches and techniques really quickly by bouncing around, and you get to meet a lot of people, but you don't necessarily get to make any big decisions when you're a hired gun. I honestly think everybody should do both for their own education.

Let's broaden the scope and discuss AI in our industry. With varying opinions among artists, do you approach it with apprehension, excitement, or do you maintain a neutral standpoint?

It depends on what you mean by "AI". If you're talking about generative AI like Sora or Midjourney or whatever, I really detest it. So much energy and water wasted powering these plagiarism machines to generate mostly just garbage stolen from the work of actual artists for just a few rich people to profit from, it's really awful when you actually think about it. That stuff I don't think we should be scared of; I think once the "wow" factor is gone people are going to realize that it's just not useful for any kind of precise work, and once the subsidies dry up (and they are very subsidized!) the true cost of these services will not be worth paying.

If you're talking about machine learning, I think there's a lot of potential there. You can imagine training your own models or having open-sourced models to help massage skin weights, like a really fancy delta mush. Or faster and cleaner ways to denoise or sharpen renders, or clean up fluid simulations. These tools can feel like black boxes so to maintain directability I think inserting them as precision tools into specific parts of the pipeline is going to be the best utilization moving forward.

Time for a bit of speculation! How do you imagine the future of VFX unfolding over the next 10-15 years?

It's been a pretty dismal year for VFX artists with last year's strikes and possibly more on the horizon. I'm hoping that we'll see positive change for VFX artists coming from all this pain, but I don't know if I'd bet any money on that prediction. I guess I'll just say I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll still be making movies like we always do and there will always be a need for talented artists to add some extra magic to the plates, and technological advances will keep coming to make it faster and easier to get good results to iterate on.

On your journey of personal development, how do you challenge yourself and foster growth as an artist?

I try to make time for personal projects, even if they're small ones. Sometimes I'll get inspired during them and they'll turn into much bigger projects... the little VR garden environment I built started as an attempt to teach myself how to make shaders, and that became a fancy rain-on-glass shader, and I liked it so much I built an entire room around it and learned a ton about the real-time art pipeline in the process. It's okay to start small!

MOPs is extensively utilized by Houdini motion designers for its ability to combine theuser-friendly experience of C4D with the robust capabilities of Houdini.Could you share any future plans for MOPs?

I don't have any huge announcements to make there... right now I'm committed to slowly refining the existing tools and expanding use a little more into KineFX and rigging, and possibly also a bit more into volumes. I do think that APEX is very interesting and I can see some possible use cases for it in the future, but it's a little too new yet to be making tools that lots of people depend on!

For artists interested in exploring your work and learning more about you, where can they find you?

I post all my personal work at https://www.toadstorm.com. My technical blog is there too, and has a lot of my ramblings about Houdini, Maya and CGI in general. Everything MOPs-related is available on the MOPs website, https://www.motionoperators.com.

Lastly, how do you give back to the community?

Well, I have several personal projects I've done available to download and a bunch of long-form tutorials about them on my blog! And MOPs of course. I try to share everything I can. It's the least I can do after however many years I've been doing this... close to 20 now I think.

As we come to a close, what final message would you like to convey to your fellow artists?

Be nice, pace yourself, go outside, and make cool stuff. Don't panic about the tech. The eye is what matters.

Thank you, Henry, for taking the time to participate in this interview with us.

If you're a Houdini artist, chances are you've stumbled upon one of Henry's insightful blog posts.

However, if you haven't had the opportunity yet, be sure to check out his blog here; It's a rich source of valuable information and guidance.

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