CG Garage is like the VFX Nerdist, and deserves as much acclaim. This highly informative and wildly entertaining podcast is helmed by Christopher Nichols (Director of Chaos Group Labs). Past interviews have included the heaviest hitters in the CG world, such as Scott Ross, Wes Ball and Tim Miller.
The reason it gets so many great guests is because of Chris' past, which has included time with major VFX houses (Digital Domain, Sony, Method Studios). And, because he's out there working his Rolodex, listeners get to hear insightful, open discussions about fascinating topics like major film projects, how artists can navigate the studio system to get a movie made, or why people are talking about industry trends in the first place. If it matters to artists, it's probably getting talked about, and you don't always need to understand the tech to get into it.
Chris recently hit his 50th episode, and CGSociety sat down with him to pick that beautiful brain of his about everything from his podcast to his ground-breaking work at Chaos Group, the company behind V-Ray, and their work on crossing the Uncanny Valley.
Let’s go way back, where are you from, where are you now?
After doing this podcast for a while, I’ve realized my background isn’t that uncommon. My undergraduate was in Mathematics and Fine Art, my Masters in Architecture. Together, they put me on a path that led to VFX and my current position at Chaos Group Labs. Nowadays, I get to turn all those interests – VFX, research, architecture, and visualization – into unique experiences for the CG community. What’s been especially interesting to me is that while my education doesn’t always relate to what I do now, it has kept me open to exploring the science behind CG. Particularly how people perceive subjects like digital humans and VR.
What sparked your interest in the wonderful world of CG?
For me, it started with mathematics. My classes in Non-Euclidean geometry and topology made me want to visualize the things that theoretically couldn’t be visualized. I embraced Mathematica on a NeXT computer to visualize N-Dimensional objects, which is probably what sparked my interest in creating things that don't exist.
You then went into architecture – can you tell us a little about that time? Do you still dabble?
When I graduated from the Rice School of Architecture in 1997, I was known as the CG guy. I taught others how to approach it for a time. Then when I got a job at Gensler, it was a key part of my role. I’ve always loved designing, but cultivating skills as a 3D artist was what made me valuable and rare at the time. Having these skills is probably what pushed me into VFX, as well.
I still love architecture, but it’s my education that sticks with me the most. It taught me that design is not something that is precious. If something is not working, you throw it away and try something new. It also taught me to present and tell stories. Every day architects present and tell the story of the spaces they design. Learning that skill in school enabled me to have creative conversations. It is probably why I enjoy podcasting too, which is really about other people telling stories. That said, since I never actually tried to get my architecture license, because I eventually went into VFX, I can’t say that I have done anything architectural since 2002.
Why the move to the movie making world? How did your architecture background help you in movies?
The interesting thing is these two worlds are much more linked than most people think. There is an ongoing joke on the podcast about the amount of ex-architects that work in VFX. On top of that, the architecture community, unknowingly, has made massive contributions to the CG world that have directly impacted VFX. For example, architects have driven the world of Global Illumination since the mid-90s. If it was not for them, V-Ray would not be where it is today and would not have been adopted by so many other industries.
What was your favorite project to work on?
I learned a long time ago, that the projects I enjoy the most, come down to the team and the bond we developed over the course of the project. Sometimes it is a bond that grows, like with the team I had on I, Robot. Sometimes it’s appreciating that everything was in sync and running smoothly, like on Real Steel. And sometimes, it’s watching 9 mins or so of the light bike sequence from TRON: Legacy and knowing that even though the clip can’t convey it, there was a lot of growth, pain, and joy that we all went through over the course of that year. A lot of times it comes down to the friendships, and you get that with the best projects.
You specialise in photoreal. Who inspires you in this field?
Photorealism is an interesting word. There are two parts to it. The main part of is a simulation of physical lighting. That in itself is fascinating to me. I first saw the potential of this when looking at Paul Debevec’s early work. Fiat Luxx in 1999 showed me that Image Based Lighting was going to change everything. Then of course, I got into my first serious raytracer with V-Ray in 2001. That was still in architecture at the time.
After you have the right physics, then you still have the responsibility as an artist to get something to look good. That is when I look to directors and photographers for inspiration. People like Kubrick, Fincher, and more. I am also a big fan of imperfection in photography, as I find that it often has more life and reality to it.
V-Ray is pretty much the industry standard – how are you going to improve it even further?
Vlado (Vladimir "Vlado" Koylazov, , co-founder and CTO of Chaos Group) is a very good listener. The majority of what V-Ray is today is based on feedback and the fact that Vlado listens to the user base. If V-Ray is the industry standard, it is because the industry made it what it is today. I’m still amazed at how much V-Ray gets improved even service pack to service pack. So the real answer is the power is in the hands of our users, whether they hail from the VFX, architecture, automotive, or design world. Wherever they want it to go, that’s the path.
You are currently the Director of Chaos Group Labs. What does this role involve?
Chaos Group Labs was an idea that Lon Grohs (Chaos Group’s Chief Commercial Officer) and I came up with before I even joined Chaos Group. Our user base is not only brilliant, but diverse, which creates a unique opportunity to put great minds together. Once I joined up, Labs began to form organically. Since I was no longer attached to a specific studio, I was able to present myself to my friends at other firms in a wholly new way. As a collaborator. This opened up new conversations and goals that we continue to develop.
My specific role as the Director of Chaos Group Labs is best described as a facilitator; I help put the pieces of the puzzle together. That is how I ended forming the Digital Human League, and got independent filmmakers to talk about the own challenges with the Uncanny Valley and how we could all help each other. I am now doing the same thing for VR, joining people together that are approaching it from different angles. In the end, I love talking to fellow creative people. The podcast was a natural outlet for that.
Can you give us a rundown on the Digital Human League? What is it about? What success stories/outcomes have blossomed from this project? How close are we to crossing the uncanny valley?
To make a long story short, a diverse group of experts came together to study digital humans, so we could create a baseline that would help other artists get across the Uncanny Valley faster and more often. Why digital humans? For one, the challenge is intriguing, but it’s an important subject that I believe has a life well beyond CG.
One of the great parts about our group is that we all bringing different backgrounds and interests into this project. My chief interest is in why the Valley exists in the first place. In many ways, you could say it was already crossed in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But even if that’s true, there are still questions that people want answers to. What did it take to get there? Why is this process still such a challenge? We are constantly finding new things that may (or may not) contribute to crossing the Valley. For example, the appearance of subtle blood flow – in places like your cheeks – is something academics are currently studying. We all have an innate sense of what looks right when we stare at another person, finding out whether links like accurately mimicking blood flow cues will help others see a digital human as more alive is going to be really interesting.
So far for this project, we have released Digital Emily 2.1. We are working on a new Wikihuman that will carry a lot more detail. We will be presenting him soon. You can follow all the updates on Wikihuman.org.
And, the Digital Film League?
The DFL was formed out of Kevin Margo’s short CONSTRUCT. It started with Kevin asking for help, which led us to explore an all new workflow for him. Like many Labs projects, if you jump in with the goal of just helping and staying open, you end up discovering things you didn’t expect. This is how Kevin ended up exploring a virtual production pipeline that utilized V-Ray running inside of MotionBuilder, which we designed together specifically for this project. These days, the DFL is exploring the consequences of new mediums such as VR. We email each other ideas, and try and have dinner together to build on them.
This leads me onto your CG Garage podcast – which is required listening in my office– can you tell us how it began? Who are some of your favorite guests? What’s the craziest story you’ve heard?
I love podcasts. It is the only way I get through LA traffic. One of my favorites is Nerdist, and if you listen to my show you can probably tell – it’s modeled after it. Chris Hardwick facilitates a great conversational tone, and just lets conversations happen – no edits. I realized I could do that too.
I picked up a few high quality microphones, a mixing board, and my laptop and started. I did not know if it was going to work or not, but I knew that it had potential. I started calling up friends and asking them if they wanted to hangout and chat. The process seemed so natural and fun to me.
One of the things that I try to do is not ask the obvious questions. I like it when the audience gets to hear a side of someone they didn’t expect to come out. Like when Steve Preeg talked about how he did animations for the OJ Simpson trial, or Erik Nash talking about how the Animal Rights group got involved on Oh Brother Where Art Thou, or the process that Ruairi Robinson went through to put out Leviathan. It was especially great when I was able to turn the tables on fxguide’s Mike Seymour and ask him questions for a change!
It is hard to really pick out favorites out of these. I think it was amazing that Wes Ball, director of the Maze Runner series, called out the podcast on his Twitter which led him to being a guest. Followed shortly by Tim Miller, co-founder of Blur and Director of Deadpool, who gave an amazing heartwarming story about what motivated him, what got him where he is, and admitting the mistakes he made along the way. Scott Ross has actually been on my podcast 3 times, and we have since become good friends. Something I did not expect. But one of the most unexpected ones was with Norman Seeff. Instead of asking him what it was like to photograph all those celebrities, I forced him to talk about a subject he was not familiar with (digital humans) just so that I could gain a fresh perspective. After that interview, he and I gave each other a great hug and I knew that my mind had been transformed.
What makes a good podcast?
There are a few things I have learned, along the way, but really, I owe David Tracy thanks for the small tips he gave me. First is, get some good mics. Nothing makes for a more annoying podcast than bad audio. Also, face to face works best. Notice I have never really done much over Skype. Make your equipment portable to record anywhere. Be yourself. All I am trying to offer people is the opportunity to be a fly on the wall as I talk to people. But lastly, it is about consistency. I put one out a week. I try and do it at the same time every week. I see a clear pattern that people expect these. Consistency is the biggest thing. I learned that from Nerdist.
What podcasts do you listen to?
Besides Nerdist, I listen to WTF a bit. I also like the TED Radio Hour. I enjoy The Vergecast as they are very casual and funny as well. I like Tomorrow, as well, which is with Josh Toposki, one of the original founders of The Verge, who has since left. Of course if you are interested in actual CG stuff, you have to listen to the fxguide ones, as well as Allan McKay.
What advice do you have for emerging artists?
If you get into this industry because you want to make movies, the novelty of having your name in the credits quickly wears off. This is where things get more exciting. There is so much more to explore after that. Keep looking around, ask questions, and don’t be shy. If someone tells you that this is the way you need to do something, ask them why. If you don’t like their answer, figure it out. A lot of times, we have to come up great ideas by asking why.
Thanks Chris! I have a 14 hour drive to the in-laws this Christmas vacation - guess what I'll be listening to... past episodes of CG Garage!
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