Glenn Melenhorst is a VFX Supervisor at Iloura in Melbourne whose work spans projects including Game of Thrones, Ghostbusters, and the Ted movies, to name only a few. Glenn has shared some valuable insight into the realities of being a supervisor in a prominent VFX studio, as well as what it takes to complete a shot. Check it out:

Personal work by Glenn

What was your first job in the industry, and how did you land it? We'd love to know what project you got your start on or what software you were using, for instance.

I started out a LONG time ago as a 2D animator - pencil and paper and paint, working for a company called Mickey Duck. We worked on television commercials and I often tell people that we had no way of testing our work when I started, so we would ink and paint over animation and the first time I’d see it move (apart from flicking through the pages) was when the final film came back from the lab. No pressure. That was way back in 1987. I had an Amiga 1000 which I purchased with money my grandfather left me and was instantly taken with Deluxe paint. A whole 32 colours back then J. My first real 3D software was Crystal which is ancient history now, then 3DStudio DOS. I was told by the creator of 3DS that I was the first person to use it for anything other than an extension of AutoCAD. That is how old I am.

Personal work by Glenn

Haha, you certainly have a wide breadth of experience. What other roles did you hold prior to becoming a supervisor? And how did your workload change upon taking on the title?

I bounced from company to company once CG took off. My first role as animator turned into anim-lead by virtue of the fact that oftentimes I was the only animator in the place. Eventually I branched out with my own company called Zephyr in Port Melbourne and began making commercials on my own. After seven years, we were a team of roughly six people. I sold my company to an online facility called Iloura that I used to final my work at. From there I was creative lead of its animation department. The department grew to totally take over Iloura and after merging with another animation company called Phemeomena, we set about pursuing film work in the US.

As you can imagine, my workload has just increased enormously. That said, I stress over film like I stressed over commercials. We do more complex work today because the tech allows us to, but we lavished as much care on those simpler jobs back then as some of the blockbusters we get involved with today.

Very interesting. So what does a day in the life of a VFX supervisor look like at Iloura? Do you have the same routine weekly, or are there variables? We'd also love an inside look at the culture of the studio!

We work very open plan. I sit at a desk in the studio with the artists as I think it’s important we are all accessible and work/play together.

Sometimes I am working on a pitch, which means I deal with a small creative subset of the studio and we make animation specifically to win work. I love this stage as it’s a very creative time with little client interference. They want to see what your ideas for a project might be so you are left alone to pitch your best.

When we are in the height of production I start the day at my desk checking mail and any dailies I might have missed from the day before. There are usually client notes from work submitted overnight and I will ponder those before briefing the artists. Then it’s into the theatre with my laser pointer to discuss the work with each department in turn. Animation reviews, lighting reviews, FX and compositing reviews. I spend a LONG time in the dark with artists yacking and drawing. That usually takes up a large part of the day.

Into that you weave reviews with studios or directors via Skype and Cinecync, as well as working on set (less often) and regular trips to the USA to meet with studio execs and other creatives.

What do the initial stages of the process look like for you and your team when a new project comes through, and how much does this vary between projects?

It varies a lot. The team of artists you need for SpongeBob SquarePants is very different from those you need for Game of Thrones. Every job needs a period of development, tool writing, and character development which is unique to the job. We start off mostly by building assets, blocking out scenes and learning the characters. For example, when we were ramping up on Ted, we sent all the animators to ‘Ted school’. Our animation supervisor Nick Tripodi and his leads set a benchmark early on that became the cornerstone for new animators to learn from and expand upon.

In Game of Thrones there was a HUGE amount of R&D done on horse anatomy and motion as well as development in massive and mocap. We built ‘dirt tools’ and ‘blood tools’ in Houdini for the large amounts of splatters and chunks we needed. For SpongeBob, we spent ages translating what was a traditionally 2D set of characters into 3D. With over 20 years of rules that govern how they look and behave and distort to draw upon it took months of study to recreate them faithfully.

What is your favorite stage of a project, and alternatively, which parts do you find to be the most stressful?What are some tactics you use personally to mitigate the stresses?

I love the initial creative pitch and I love the very end when it’s all done. Usually the push to finish – the late nights and weekends are the hardest to navigate, particularly when there are young families or other commitments that need to be maintained. Sometimes there is no getting around the stress, you just have to know that it will pass eventually. I keep reminding myself in times of high stress that the work I’m so worried about will one day be in the bargain bin at the shops the next, and to not get so hung up on it all. Sometimes it can feel like what we are doing is the most important thing in the world, but it’s really not.

As a supervisor, who do you look to when you come across a particularly stressful obstacle at work? Are there any anecdotes you can offer of times where you felt truly stuck on a project?

I always say that VFX is like building a car while you are driving it. Tools are always being improved or invented and client changes can undo a whole bunch of otherwise completed work. It’s always a bit chaotic. There are daily obstacles from all sorts of directions. Part of my day to day is to keep up with every shot and where it is currently in the pipeline, what every artist is up to, as well as what is coming next and what the client’s expectations are. I walk the building looking for log jams in the flow and try to address them as I find them. That generally means getting into a huddle and chatting about ways through or around what the issues are. We are pretty good now at this part of the process as we have weathered a lot of storms together. As for specifics, it’s hard to point to any one in particular.

How and when do you deem a shot "complete" ? I imagine deadlines play a major role in this, but would also love to know about any other mandatory benchmarks you need to hit before deeming something finished.

There is always someone who will look at a shot and be able to find fault with it. I need to complete work firstly to my client’s expectations and then to mine. Sometimes I’m more of a fiddler than the director or production sup I’m working with and sometimes they are pickier than me.

Deadlines are always immovable and do force you to be done before you’d like to be, but I always hope by that stage we are being more critical of tiny detail than anybody in the real world would care about. I find myself often calling a shot done before my leads do, as they are tasked with making the shots as amazing as they can but I have to get it out on time. It’s always a negotiation.

Also, we often stress about the tiniest of detail only to go as a group to the cinema for a screening and come out saying “Wow, those shots flew past so fast!’

Some directors will watch a shot through once while others will watch them on a loop forever, wracked with indecision. I remember Guillermo Del Toro would watch a complex shot through once and say ‘I love it!’ or he’d say he didn’t and have a clear reason why. He didn’t care whether the toes of a character compressed correctly when they hit the ground, or more correctly, he trusted us to do our job and take care of that stuff which is empowering for artists. He cared about the story of the shot – what it was communicating.
Conversely I have worked on a show where the studio supervisor had us version a shot over thirty times changing just the pupils on a fleeting background character. It takes all types I guess.

Personal work by Glenn

So for someone who might want to become a part of this seemingly fun, albeit a bit hectic, professional culture, what are the main elements you look for in a portfolio or reel when looking for new hires? Alternatively, what are the major red flags?

In terms of animation, I really take issue with pantomime acting – characters striding about like a silent era move star with a whole bunch of overly broad pointing and mugging. Clear staging is an important part of acting but I prefer subtle observations. The best reel I ever saw was a character reading the paper, just small observations and poses, subtle expressions and real acting.

I dislike the “Ooh, this rock is heavy…OMG now it’s as light as a balloon” style animation tests. The “door is stuck until the protagonist has loses his cool, bashes away at it and collapses before the door swings freely open” type shtick gets old fast.

It’s the same for any of the disciplines. Observation and subtlety is what I really respond to. Beautifully designed characters (No more scantily clad Orc women with big swords please J) or carefully integrated GI into real environments are great to see.

I like to see production work but I really like to see an artist’s personal stuff too. Sometimes I see amazingly polished reels full of king Kong and Avatar etc. but the artist’s personal work at the end throws up real red flags. It’s the true indicator of their abilities.

Personal work by Glenn

In what we can imagine is a busy professional schedule, how do you make room for personal work. Any pointers you can offer for time management? Also, why is it necessary to maintain personal work while on the job?

Sometimes, making art commercially to someone else’s aesthetic brief can be creatively unfulfilling so I encourage all our autists to make their own art; It’s all about practice.

At home I like to sneak away after everyone at has disbursed for the night and make my art, learn a new button in ZBrush, watch a tutorial or a speed paint. I think as a creative person it’s hard not to want to prioritize that stuff over sleep. I used to make art in the morning which was good in that you had a hard deadline to stop as you had to leave for work, at night you are prone to kid yourself that another hour won’t hurt the next day – but it always does.

Personal work by Glenn

And finally, what are your favorite resources for learning and evolving your skills that our audience can add to their arsenal?

Firstly, don’t do as I do, and think that a new painting app will make you a better artist. I see some amazing work done on a paint program and for some strange reason think that if I buy it I will somehow be a better artist. Why do I do that to myself?

There are a million people better at 2D and 3D than me. I am awe of the work being thrown out for free on the net daily. I have to make peace with my own limitations and keep practicing.

I find that watching others, watching speed paints and speed sculpts is the most inspirational and instructive way to learn. I think the software is secondary to that. I have Max and Maya at home but use Blender because it’s fast and intuitive. I have photoshop and Manga Studio and Rebelle and ZBrush and Krita and so on but all of them are just tools. Worth learning for sure but it’s all about practice and observation.

Personal work by Glenn

CGSociety thanks Glenn for this valuable insight, and we hope it inspires you to create!