Spend enough time interviewing VFX people and you’ll notice a funny pattern: everyone has a different story, a different path into the industry. For Mark Epstein, a senior Flame artist at Ghost FX London, his passion for VFX work emerged out of his love of … skateboarding.
How does someone go from an adolescent skateboarding hobby to working on some of the film industry’s premier projects – films like The Darkest Hour and Maleficent 2? We caught up with him during a gap in his busy schedule to discuss his personal journey into the VFX industry and the life of a Flame artist: the joys and the challenges, the memorable moments and the tools of the trade.
How did you get started in the industry? What first sparked your interest in VFX?
Mark Epstein: It mostly grew out of a passion. When I was younger, my whole life was skateboarding, breakfast until bedtime. Eventually my friends and I got pretty good, enough to travel around and do it, and at that point I decided to get a camera and start filming us. I was the guy not only skating but skating and filming, trying to capture the action. And that grew into creating our own skate videos, editing out the falls, just like they did for the professionals.
Mark Epstein, skateboarding
I managed to get Adobe Premiere back in its early days – probably version four or five – and familiarized myself with that, and it became a second passion. I thought, “Wicked, this is amazing.” That’s where the connection to nonlinear editing systems came from, and when it came time to decide on a college course of study, I knew it had to be about editing.
I managed to get a place at Ravensbourne Design College, which has historically been a good place to learn editing skills in England, and did a post-production degree. The course load was heavily focused on editing, but we also did a bit of after effects. And in my final term, we had to gain some work experience, and they posted a giant board with company names on it, and I managed to be the first one to reply to a new company, a boutique VFX house based in Soho called Absolute Post.
I did your basic intern-type things, including making cups of tea and running errands, but I also got to hang out in the machine room, doing all the video copying – which back then we did on tape – and it was there that I first encountered Flame machines. This was back when they had their Tezro boxes, those big purple machines that look like they’re from outer space. I remember being absolutely mesmerized by what these guys were doing. You could just see the images being formed in front of your eyes, and observing their process up-close was a light bulb moment for me. I was like, “I want to be the guy that sits in the chair and gets to do that!”
The great thing about it was that it didn’t matter what degree or experience I had before that; anyone could learn to do this, if they put in the effort and were excited about it. I just started teaching myself, and learning from the other guys – everyone was really helpful.
After a lot of learning and long hours learning the ins and outs, I worked my way up through the company and became a full-time Flame guy. The rest is history.
What are some of the noteworthy projects you’ve worked on?
One of the most interesting ones was The Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic. We were called in at the last minute to do some touch-up work; it was all very rock-and-roll. The film had been graded by Peter Doyle, the legendary colorist behind The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and when someone like that calls you up, you get a bit nervous. “Pete wants to meet with us in his theater? Oh my god!”
Basically, a lot of problems emerged in the grade. They had used an amazing makeup department, but after a long day of shooting under hot lights, with wigs and expensive prosthetics on, things can unravel. The wig mesh was showing through very clearly, and it had made it all the way to the final grade without anyone picking it up, and this film was supposed to hit theatres imminently.
They came to us with this sense of urgency and panic, like “we need to fix this!” It was nerve-racking at first, but thankfully, the actual work went very smoothly. Once we got it into a Flame, working in full resolution, we absolutely zapped through it using the planar tracker, which back then was quite new. It was just amazing; it didn’t give us any problems at all. We managed to crank through quite a few shots really quickly, and Peter was just amazed, and very thankful. We had two guys on Flame and I think maybe one guy on Nuke, and we were just tearing though these shots, some of which were very long. It went from “How are we going to do this?” to “Oh, we totally nailed it!” without too many tears, and everyone was super happy.
What about your work for the television series It’s a Sin on Channel 4?
That was also a lot of fun. Basically, they shot the series in Liverpool in the UK, but an entire section of the narrative takes place in New York, and the challenge they brought to us was: how can we make Liverpool credibly look like the Big Apple in the 1980s?
It’s a short scene, only a few shots of the city, but that meant we had to sell it quickly. We replicated all of the cars, because they only had a small number of American Cadillacs and taxis, and we did all the license plates ourselves, and created CG renders of extra cars. And then there are the buildings. What sells New York the most? We put in the Twin Towers, the Chrysler Building, roads full of traffic, beeping horns – and we festooned some of the buildings with American flags.
It's a Sin VFX breakdown
One big challenge, though, was the roads. New York streets are larger, with big four-way crossroads at right angles, and obviously they have a subway system. We scoured the Internet for rights-free photographs of empty crossroads and bought stock footage to play around with, and added little vents on streets to release steam from the imaginary subway system.
That’s the type of work many places might hire a DMP artist for, but I’ve always been happy to do my DMPs in Flame. Once you’re a senior compositor and you’ve been around for a few years, you know what you’re doing.
What’s one of the trickiest shots you can remember working on?
We had to handle some really tricky stuff on some work we did for a sci-fi television show called Avenue 5. They had done some shots through a window, where you were supposed to see people looking out into outer space on a blue screen, but there was a fault with the camera and they weren’t getting the correct edges.
Everyone was having a nightmare of a time with it, but we threw it into Flame and I used the YUV keyer – that’s probably one of the oldest ones, and the best for noisy footage. We made a full 3D mapping of the set, and then we could put the camera wherever we wanted and control the lighting, and render what those windows should look like. I would say the variety of keyers in Flame is brilliant – they all work slightly differently, but over time you realize certain ones work very well for different things.
What excites you about your job as a Flame artist? Is it the TV show or movie you’re working on, or the actors, or some specific task?
That’s a very cool question, and the truth is, it’s different for every job. Personally, I get excited about little, quick shots, especially if the client has been freaking out over them, thinking that it’s going to be a nightmare to take from point A to point B, but I know that I have some workarounds in my back pocket that make it doable and pleasing to the client. Or, with bigger shots, knowing that you’ve got to come up with a map painting. You might spend the entire day getting loads of different elements and picking bits of them to make a really nice still, all using the compositing tools in Flame. Then you’re going to take that to the next level and composite all the live action stuff as well, in the same box.
There’s a lot of pressure on you, as a Flame artist, but I think for me, that’s also part of the reward. When you’ve really crafted something, from beginning to end, and it hasn’t gone around a whole team of people first; it’s just essentially been you doing all the work. That’s pretty cool, and when you get to the end of it and look back, and it’s a million miles away from where you started – it’s very rewarding.
What is your favorite Flame tool, or what Flame tools are you most looking forward to?
I haven’t had a chance to use any of the machine learning tools yet, which I’m annoyed about, but I think it’s brilliant. My colleague at work has been using your machine learning base, and just watching what it can do has been amazing. That’s a game-changer. I just hope it doesn’t put us all out of work.
The thing I’m really excited about, though, is the new camera tracker. That got my excitement up straightaway, because that’s been a long time coming. I would upgrade just for that.
As for my favorite tool, I’m a big fan of the planar tracker. Very often, when we couldn’t get a camera track, and even the Nuke guys couldn’t get a camera track, we managed to cobble something together using the planar tracker. It’s literally saved the day, when we thought we had run out of options.
It’s especially good for beauty work. I think it’s brilliant. I start from getting my tracks with the planar tracker, then we have a number of different tools and techniques depending on what we want to accomplish. We use CROK Beauty, which is a matchbox written by one of your users that neatly puts together a lot of tools in one go. It helps us do the kind of precise beauty work people are looking for nowadays, because the era of airbrushed, artificial models is long over.
We’re also big fans of the action environment. It just brings together everything you need, tracking different pieces of footage over each other, using masks … That could, in itself, be a huge script, but you guys have this tool that neatly put everything in its right place and it’s a very useful interface. I think if it didn’t exist, a lot of people would be put off compositing, because the scripts would look really messy and unwieldly.
And let me say, even though it isn’t part of Flame, ShotGrid is the engine that drives our whole department. That’s how we track shots. That’s how we give initial feedback, before face-to-face meetings. It’s how we track or hours and figure out how productive we’re being, so that we can stay on schedule. We even use it to make all our QuickTime deliverables for our clients on time.
Final question: when you look back at skateboarder Mark and consider where you are now, do you feel like you’re living your career dream? Are you happy with what you’re doing now?
In a way, I do have my dream job. A lot of people are very ambitious; they want to own their own company or climb some never-ending ladder. But for me, personally, I’m very happy. If you had asked 15-year-old me if doing this kind of work – compositing things, working on movies, designing crazy stuff – sounds cool, I would have said definitely. It sounds a bit cheesy to say I’ve got my dream job, because nothing is perfect all the time, but you know what I mean. This has been my only “career” job, and I love it.
About Faces of Flame
Autodesk's Faces of Flame series aims to shed light on the stories of Flame artists who, like Mark Epstein, are a force of creative change in the world of VFX.