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Inside the Mind of Lewis Taylor : From Childhood Sketches to Hollywood Effects

INTERVIEW
June 11, 2024
Interviewed by:
Mearg Taddese

Lewis Taylor, VES Winner and a seasoned Lead FX Technical Director currently shaping magic at DNEG.

Known online as Oscarsrazor, Lewis shares his inspiring journey, childhood memories, and invaluable wisdom for aspiring artists from his decades of experience.

Let’s kick things off. Can you briefly introduce yourself? Share your name, your profession, the studio you're currently working at, and if there's a special name the internet knows you by.

I’m Lewis Taylor a Lead FX Technical Director currently working for DNEG, I’m developing a special name it’s oscarsrazor which is based on Oscar the Grouch, who like me is a little grumpy but sweet natured, and takes the simple logical route to things.

Tell us about your childhood. What inspired you growing up, and how did those early experiences lead you to your current career? Were there any unique challenges you faced during those early stages?

Ah this was a long time ago, childhood was tough, properly tough not romanticized tough. My Mother passed away when I was ten and my father was left to raise three kids on his own, so I had to learn to be pretty independent very early and take care of my younger sister.

We grew up poor, but never without creativity in the house. Dad was and is an avid music fan, did papier-mache, all types of wood working, always doing something. He taught me how to draw early on, and around the age eleven something amazing happened. He started running a video store! We talking old school Betamax, this is 1987 and pretty much only people who were really into movies had Betamax. So it was a more film literate crowd, I would sit in the shop and help rewind cassettes and stack the shelves. After dinner I’d take 2-3 movies into the house(we lived behind the store) and just watch. I saw pretty much every movie from 70s through to late 80s except the softcore porn we had, funny it didn’t remotely interest me.

I should mention, I have an eidetic memory, so pretty much every scene in every movie I can remember after watching it once or so. Around this time we also got the first Sony handycams in Australia into the store to rent out. So naturally I took one and started filming all types of stuff, but as I was the only person I knew super into films at age eleven I mostly just played alone. Building little miniature sets for the G.I Joe action figures I had, and just spending hours laying on the grass, eye level just slightly above the blades imagining all types of scenarios for these guys. I think  ended up getting quite good at making small fires and explosives out of whatever I could find. I recall using my Sister’s nail file to file the heads off about 1000 matches till I got a decent pile of it, made a fuse and whooooosh! Hours of work up in flames in two seconds. Totally worth it.

I started getting into skateboarding around this age, and cruising the streets and laneways. I also would spend summer holidays at the farm and being the uber responsible eleven year old I was, would be given the task of driving the Tractor and feeding horses. In return I was allowed to take the rifle and a box of ammunition out into the forest and shoot cans. I’d be out all day walking the forest on the property, no-one around, just me and the rifle and a packed lunch. I pretended I was Rambo in First Blood Part 1 (the only good one!), it was the best. Where I live is not far from Melbourne City but we had a beach so I also spent a lot of time in the water too.

Moving into your creative mind, what lights the spark for you? Where do you find the most inspiration when you're deep into a project?

Movies, a lot of movies. Studying the crap out of The Five C’s of Cinematography, Painting with Light, The Animator's Survival Kit, the Elemental Magic books, just anything that helps you see what is going on. Your job on the project is to service the story, the sequence, the shot, the frame. Often you are constrained in Live Action to physically correct work, but even inside that you can inject personality into the work. Hit beats to service the shot. No different to practical FX people boosting explosions, exaggerating or playing down the effect. I try to keep that in mind when I’m working, how would a practical FX person or gaffer approach this.

What's the most challenging or unexpected task you've encountered during production, and how did you navigate through it?

There’s a couple that come to mind. Recently it was on a project we just wrapped on. A few shots required very detailed fire, past anything I’d done or seen done. It was a two pronged problem, how to get enough detail of motion and ferocity into it but also how to make the resolution fit into 180 odd GB of ram. Every trick I knew, and some new ones I learned were applied to solve it. The other was Christopher Robin the Winnie the Pooh live action show. We were doing a lot of fur on this, and one very delicate shot called for Winnie to reach out and stroke Christopher’s (Ewan McGregor) forehead. The fur rig was able to be simulating collisions but was not able to hit the note about interaction due to how simulation works and the limits of the groom. So I deleted a section of the groom and hand animated the fur interactions. It looks perfect in the shot and was a great experience to lean on my Character Animation background.

Time to switch gears a bit. How do you manage your time, especially with side personal Projects And when stress creeps in, how do you handle it and keep your energy levels up?

I don’t sleep much, only ever needed 5hrs of sleep so that helps! I have a lot of things on the go, so my day is usually broken into the following. Up at 5am, coffee and world news for 30 mins, then exercise/stretching for 45 mins. Breakfast and reading through SideFX changelogs and other software's issues/fixes. Then we have the workday, I try to get up from the desk regularly and take a proper lunch, usually ride my bike to the skatepark and have a roll for 30 mins or so, really clears the head of VFX. Once the workday is complete/abandoned I go lay down and listen to some music before the family all get home and we have dinner. So now we’ve got 3 or so hours to watch Animation or some cool reference/making of for films, maybe do a little test here and there of something I’m trying to learn or solve. Having the MacBook pro be my remote machine and then simply unplugging and walking downstairs to keep working on a high powered machine has been a revelation. Far as keeping energy up amid the stress, I eat really well, exercise a lot, never smoked and drink very little booze. I think those are the basics that keep you going to a point, but honestly I have what my wife calls “The Tigger” personality. I’m far too energized as a general rule, I think it’s a combination of being naturally hyper, but also life has been very tough for me in a lot of ways so I tend to be very positive in life. It might not come across that way in a forum post but believe me I’m crazy positive and upbeat. Having that as a state of mind helps get you through.

As you’ve climbed the ladder to Lead FX or FX Supervision, what's your secret sauce? Any tips for those aspiring to grow into similar roles? Are there any gotchas or obvious statements that you wish you knew earlier?

You need to get the runs on the board, lot of shots need to happen first. But starting to pay attention to how dailies works, how the show requirements work, just being more aware of what is happening in the Studio outside of “your shot.” I wish I’d learned earlier to be more aware and less argumentative without offering a solution earlier. I don’t think I’m complete in learning, it’s a continual process, and I don’t get it right all the time. But what I do do is reflect each day on what I did right/wrong, how I could’ve handled the situation better, got the result we needed with the least amount of fuss or Jira tickets!

What are the things you wish you knew or learned earlier that would have made a significant impact on your current situation?

I wish I had learned to start a shot by planning it out on paper first. Having an actual plan, and starting broad, rather than jumping straight in and creating an unmanageable jumble of ideas and sticky tape to hold it all together.

One of the most important lessons I learned was to test things through the whole pipeline early! On Sponge Bob - Sponge out of Water I was just getting into the Film FX Dept at iloura, on loan from Commercials to learn about film FX. One task was where Patrick Starfish jumps onto an ice-cream a kid is eating and smooshes it all around. I knew I didn’t want to do some sort of mesh deform, wanted it to be a simulation! So I spent a good deal of time with some help from Rob Kelly to do this ice-cream in FLIP. This was 2014 so a while ago, but I got variable viscosity with velocity freezing by proximity working. Patrick could smoosh all around in the ice-cream and it moved properly, held its volume, looked great. I had the Animator on that shot Andy come over to my desk and say how happy he was with it. This was rad! But that is the end of the good part of the story. Once this got approved to pass on downstream to Lighting is where the problems began. The ice-cream model was UV unwrapped like an orange being sliced, so it had seams running from the top around to the bottom in a lovely cross shape. When we tried to transfer UVs to the FLIP mesh you could never solve the issues at the seams, so the mesh was useless.

I asked Look Dev if they could maybe re UV it and unwrap it hiding the seam where the cone would be, they didn't have the bandwidth to do it. So the effect was abandoned. We fell back to animated blendshapes, it looked not as good, the Animator came over and asked what happened to the ice cream, he thought it didn’t look as good. I actually got a lot of heat for that effect, some of it pretty unfair. The VFX Supe on the show even mentioned in an Interview how we went “old school” because sometimes the simulation method/Houdini was just too complex and not the right way to go. That was not the whole story, it was however a very important lesson.

What was the problem, is that I did not pass my early test through the pipe soon enough. I had no guidance about it either, was left to fend for myself on it. So I learned two things. One, to pass early FX work through the pipe to Lighting as soon as possible, no matter how rough, this will help catch issues and give you time to fix them or pivot with options, not fall back to some blendshapes.

Two, I became very aware of the need to speak up to my Dept Lead or Supe about issues and flag them, not be an Island unto myself. They can’t help you if they don’t know about it, so don’t be embarrassed to speak up.

Who in the industry do you look up to as an inspiration or guide?

I look up to people who know what they’re doing, they get it, the whole thing. Nico Delbecq - FX Supervisor at ILM, just a great solid person. Raphaël Gadot, former FX Supervisor at ILM, now teaching at ALA Academy, a very clever and Artistic dude, I wish I was as good as him. Peter Sanitra, a long time VFX Artist, has done everything, knows a lot, and just kills solo/freelance in a way I’ve never seen. Everybody knows Peter. Ben Andersen, the smartest, most bestest person I’ve ever met in my life. Being around him makes me want to be a better person, and we catch up once a week for a burger, I always ride home feeling a little bit of Ben rubbed off on me, and I try not to lose it as the wind rushes past me.

Lastly, Aghiles Kheffache, CTO of 3Delight Renderer. This man is a menace, has an absolutely brutal and honest and correct view of the Visual Effects Industry, it’s software and politics, there is no bs padding of things, I appreciate that level of honesty and intelligence.

Let’s shine a light on one of your favorite projects. Walk us through the creative process and the magic that brought it to life. What makes it stand out in your portfolio?

Christopher Robin, it was such a change of pace from blowing things up, and dynamic camera moves and shots that are 20 frames long. Everything in here was slower, highly inspectable, and fiddly. Not one strand of fur could pop, no honey could do anything weird, everything had to be perfect. On the surface it’s not eye-popping unless you have done that type of work and know how hard it is to keep it all stable. I enjoyed hand animating the fur, and working with a good Junior Kris Kebbe to make really good stable honey for Winnie to step in, to have in his fur, and all the other CFX work we did. It was a total change of pace for all of us, and was a difficult but visually rewarding show. We got an Oscar nomination for it, and Disney sent us crates of Champagne along with our nomination cards.

Most of your works are complex simulations with multiple layer and rendering FX. How do you deal with it? What are tricky challenges and what do most people get/picture it wrongly?

You need to look at the requirements of the shot, and determine how much visual weight each element has. No need to make complex RBD fractures of buildings if they are going to be buried in smoke and fire right? On the Creator the big Nuke shot and blasting of the village, I did a simple voronoi fracture of them, one pass at it. It was far enough from camera and being covered in a dust shock wave it didn’t need anything more complex.

So it’s about picking where the complexity needs to be, but also getting the balance of the ratios of elements right. So you got that big RBD fracture happening, but what sizes and percentages should the supporting elements be? How are they moving? If it’s lighter and would be pushed by the percussive pressure would it fly out faster? It’s Animation 101, overlapping motion. The elements all need to live together in plausible physics, but they need to have a sense of overlapping and supporting each other. Too often people get the balance wrong, or they simulate one element and don’t inject anything from the element into the other ones.

An example is, a dust impact whoosh that doesn’t influence a fire burning nearby. What the hell? The air from the dust would do two or three things right? It would influence the motion of the fire, it would be injecting more oxygen so the fire would burn more intensely or maybe even be blown out. Yet we see these elements dropped into shots all the time with zero influences, totally making it look like it is, a bunch of separate elements comped together.

The other bugbear, is the misunderstanding or lack of physics knowledge FX Artists can sometimes have. If for example smoke is pouring out of something and there's wind influencing it, but an object passes by and should block the wind, it's often missed. Just that level of awareness about what is going on.

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

Houdini. Coming from 6yrs of Max/Maya and moving to Houdini in 2010 was life changing. My fav tech would be the following SOP nodes, transform, switch, blendshape. You can do a lot with those. And I would say the move to USD/Solaris, there’s an exciting move forward here in terms of how we work, it’s going to blow away so many frustrations.

Most artists miss the part of using references and reading manual for their FX work. Where do you get your references or favorite place to get from? and How do you study references?

I don’t know what it is, but people will fire off questions to chat groups that would largely be answered by simply googling or reading the manual. It’s not a good trait to have. Sure reach out if you have no idea about something, but you’re not doing yourself any favors by not knowing how to research. It’s key. What are you going to do if there’s no-one around to answer you? You need to be self sufficient to a degree, don’t be an island, but don’t be mindless.

I have a large collection of books, covering Art, filmmaking, coding, and a very curated list of bookmarks! A zillion unorganized bookmarks are almost useless. There are a few places I go to for knowledge, here are some.

https://www.toadstorm.com/blog/

https://www.scratchapixel.com/

https://tokeru.com/cgwiki/

https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/pixar

https://blog.selfshadow.com/

https://www.youtube.com/@everyframeapainting

https://www.youtube.com/@GreatArtExplained

https://www.youtube.com/@piercefilm/videos

For how I study reference, I do it uninterrupted. No music, no phone, no distractions. I make sure I’m not in a hurry, you aren’t going to retain anything of meaning if you try to jam it into your head while being distracted. Often I will have a notepad and pencil, taking notes, sketching out my understanding of the reference.

How is it like working at a big studio? What do you find different from working at a small studio and team?

Working in large Studios is really something. There’s a loss of the nimbleness we had at iloura. I can’t walk over to the head of pipeline and ask them a question, or get some help on an issue. In a small Studio you can pivot and try things, I had 3Delight put into the FX Dept and it was a wild ride. The Houdini plugin did not exist. We worked hard with Aghiles to develop it, and it went from nothing to where it is today due to the work we did over that couple of years. I would not be able to do that type of thing in a large Studio. Working at scale in a larger Studio is not hugely different in terms of the work you are doing, it’s more to do with the fact there’s just so many more people. Which means you on average have access to some truly brilliant minds, a depth of RnD and internal tools that smaller studios simply don’t have. Render farms are much larger, simulation farms not being limited to a handful of machines but hundreds of machines is also a big difference.

You have strong and concrete understanding of render engines and rendering a scene. How did that interest come and what have you notice through your experience

I guess it’s that once you make something, you want to see it looking its best yeah? I never understood FX Artists that either didn’t care or were indifferent to rendering. So much of what you do is revealed in rendering, you should care! For me rendering is just beautiful, it’s where math and programming become the Art. There’s so much going on in here, getting things to work correctly, efficiently, but with flexibility and the ability to do whatever you might need. These parameters are huge to deal with, and it’s fascinating to see how it gets dealt with.

I started with renderman compliant 3delight in 2007, so we talking Reyes micropoly, point cloud indirect, on demand ray tracing, de-coupled shading and sampling so motion blur and DOF were almost free. Rendering billions of particles with minimal sampling because Reyes worked by projecting the particle to the screen window, no need to fire rays out to see if you hit one! Now we are in path tracing world, which is much easier for Artists, and removes a lot of the knowledge needed in the past. Both a blessing and a curse. Lighting Artists now are much less technical than in the past, so when things get wonky, which they do, there’s a real knowledge drop off that causes problems. But on balance it frees the Artist, and enables less technical people who are brilliant at lighting and composition to do this work. Tech shouldn’t be a barrier.

But touching on those benefits of the Reyes era, I feel we have gone backwards in rendering in a few areas. Particles are now much harder to render than they were 15yrs ago, it’s insane. Motion blur and DOF are now expensive calculations that due to the coupling of rays means you largely have to just cop it in the neck if you want noise free images.

For Artists picking an engine, well if you are in a company that choice is made for you hehe. But for yourself, I think it’s whatever you feel works for the hardware and type of geometry you are rendering. I would say that with deep rendering you can effectively use multiple engines if you wanted and deal with it in comp later. But ideally you want to use one engine.

Forget about “feature complete” whatever that means. If you never plan or need to render caustics, who cares if the engine doesn’t do it? If you only render hard surfaces then maybe a GPU engine would be perfect if complexity allows. It’s important to think in terms of your needs.

I’d say as a final note, most engines are showing their age. The API’s are old and tired,  each new release feels underwhelming, the era of wow not really a thing anymore. We also still see the walls of parameters, and the murky waters of XPU from multiple vendors. It's weird that we are in the time of the fastest CPUs ever, yet we have less flexibility with renderers

Shifting to a broader topic, what's your perspective on AI in our industry? Some artists have strong opinions—do you fear it, love it, or have a neutral stance?

I don’t spend any time thinking about it. I might have thrown a comment here and there about it, but honestly, if you know your job in VFX well enough, you know this stuff isn’t going to supplant you, it’s not taking your job.

I do think one thing, authentic human made work will actually become even more cherished, it won’t be diminished. There’s a hunger for it in the youth of today. Don’t listen to loud Tech Bros and anyone else trying to sell this to you. It’s all designed to hype investment.

Let's have some fun! If you were to predict the future of VFX, how do you see it evolving in the next 10-15 years?

I have no idea. I think interactive rendering will get much better, solvers will become more unified, rigging will still be in Maya, animation too heheh. I think we are reaching a limit in terms of resolution, 4K seems to be where people go, okay I can’t see past this detail and it costs too much to go further, but who knows. AL/ML will do roto and camera tracking for sure, there’d still be some tasks that it won’t be good at in that area though. I feel like we hit a high water mark in 2008 with Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, and VFX hasn’t looked much better since then.

So, not sure if the future is going to be better in terms of output. I’d say smaller places will be able to output work of a quality only dreamed of until recently. Imagine a USD world of working, of outputting geo with less overheads, smaller teams putting out both high quality and higher shot counts.

On the path of personal development, how do you continue to challenge yourself and grow as an artist?

You are never done learning, if you are getting lazy and comfortable get off your arse. I see it very simply, I live my life in blocks of five years. Assume I have five years to live, what would I want to do, to see, to learn, to experience? It’s not morose, people put off things or take it too easy in life, thinking there’s all this time. What time do you think you have? You aren’t guaranteed anything except today. So I live mentally in those blocks of five years, it helps keep me motivated, to be kind, to say I love you to my family and friends. What other motivation do you need than that? You have no idea how long you are here for, get busy!

Congratulations on your VES Award, it was an amazing FX on the Creator. Can you walk us through or insights to how one artist can get to that level and win a VES award, as it is very inspiring for lots of artists.

The Creator was a team of all very experienced Artist and Production. So there was little room for mistakes, or many iterations. Most shots went through only a handful of iterations. I feel like if you have trained your eye to see the visual weight of elements, you pay attention to thinking about how you are going to build your effect, keep things fluid and your data footprint small! You’d be surprised how much keeping your sim times small, and data light can help. But also, don’t be someone that blindly submits to the farm and comes in next morning to see it failed, or was totally wrong after the first few frames. Step through your setups for a few frames locally, make sure it’s doing what it should do. Double check all your settings before you submit, so that work overnight is not a waste. If you want to reach that level there is no room for “oh I forgot to check” it’s not acceptable at all. That is the difference I see from okay Artists to Principal Artists. They don’t make the mistakes a lot of others do.

For artists who want to check out your work and learn more about you, where should they go? Feel free to share your website and social media links.

https://oscarsrazor.net/

https://x.com/oscarsrazor

Lastly, what do you have for the community? Whether it's a personal project file, a tool, or a website you find helpful, this is your chance to give back and contribute to the Community.

I did a presentation on Volumes at a SYD HUG not too long ago, I feel it has a lot of good info in it, and some handy tools for voxel calculations, and camera frustum culling in pyro sims.

Get Lewis’s SYDHUD presentation about volumes project file here.

DOWNLOAD HIP FILE

As we wrap up, what final words do you have for your fellow artists? No pressure, but is there something you'd like to share or a piece of advice you think would resonate with your colleagues in the industry?

Life is short, find your passion and strangle the hell out of it. Don’t be a dick.

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