David Luong is a senior VFX artist who has made a name for himself working on cinematics for Blizzard’s cult classic games such as World of Warcraft and Starcraft. After almost a decade in the industry, working at studios such as Rhythm & Hues and Luma Pictures, he tells us how he still finds a way to love what he does.
What inspired you to pursue a career in VFX?
I grew up playing a lot of video games on the Atari, NES, Super NES, PC and arcade systems. I loved the game play, characters and story. But more so, I fell in love with the snippets of cinematics or short movies inside the games that really catapulted my imagination with it’s state of the art realism for the given times as you progress through the story.
I was also enamoured with watching movies, a great escape for me that allowed me to soar up in the sky or go to a far, far away land. Movies like The Neverending Story, Spaceballs, The Lion King, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings were just some of the huge inspirations in my life that made me want to pursue a career in creating such beautiful imagery that you don’t see in everyday life. I was also a big fan of creating believable imagery when it wasn’t there in the first place, an invisible art. That is the truest form of visual effects. These longings further pushed me to want to do what I am doing today.
How did you get your foot into the industry?
I was a self-taught Photoshop artist in the late 90’s; it greatly intrigued me what I could manipulate in the 2D world to “trick” others, like a magician! This grew into a graphic designer position in my highschool newspaper, which I then parlayed into being the first online website editor for my newspaper. I was grateful to have gone against other award winning website editors in a national journalism competition, and placed first place among all of those schools. I was so happy, and at that moment, it pretty much cemented my dream of wanting to pursue the magic of visual effects and computer arts in the future.
After highschool, I went to Academy of Art University where I got a Bachelors of Fine Arts in 3D Animation (with a focus in compositing and digital matte painting). After four years there, I got my first stint in background painting with Disney Toon Studios on Tinkerbell for a few weeks. Then I was accepted into Luma Pictures where I got to work on Underworld: Evolution as a roto/paint artist. I learned so much there, and met some of the most amazing industry professionals who I still call friend this day and we keep in contact even after all of these years. After Luma, I was accepted into Rhythm & Hues as a compositing apprentice, and got to work on Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, Night at the Museum, and Superman Returns. That was my first big studio experience, and once again, I learned so much there and gained much experience.
Using my newly found skills and my feature film shots displayed in my demo reel, I applied to Blizzard Entertainment in the fall of 2006 as a digital matte painting artist. I was accepted as a “finishing artist” who did much more such as lighting, compositing, rendering, and digital matte painting.
Having worked on feature films and games, what are the pluses and minuses of working on the different mediums?
This actually comes up a lot, as many think I work on the actual game, which I don’t. I work on the movies for the games, so it’s still quite similar to feature films in that respect. We’re still working on the visual effects portion to be displayed to the world as a means of supporting an overall story. The main difference of working in a film studio vs a gaming studio like Blizzard Entertainment, is that we are our own client. In that, the client we are delivering to (the game team) is a part of our own company. So internally, we are always working together to get the best product in the end. Although, the deadline for us, was the game team’s deadline, and so we must adhere to that if they push the deadline (which is usually good for us since we get more time to work on the cinematic. But also bad because we sometimes don’t let go of a project and lose scope overall, scrunching the time schedule for our next upcoming cinematics.)
The other big difference is that our credits might not be seen on the silver screen in movie theaters, but they are seen on devices of gamers around the world, which is also a very rewarding experience.
It’s great to be a part of the overall game experience, supporting both the story and game play. The fans, including myself, really appreciate the effort we put into our games and cinematics.
What has been the biggest spurs to your skills development in your career?
Usually it’s when a big unknown challenge comes to my plate, for example when I worked on my first cinematic teaser, StarCraft II – ‘Building a Better Marine’. I met lots of great co-workers, and learned much more on the back end of the pipeline. The next big learning experience for me was during World of Warcraft – ‘Wrath of the Lich King’, in which I was able to work very close with the director, Jeff Chamberlain, and my lighting lead, Sheng Jin, from beginning to the end. I also got to do a variety of tasks, such as lighting, compositing, matte painting, look development, and concepting. I’m very proud of the work that came out of that cinematic.
The next time I learned lots was during the Hearthstone cinematic. I was able to prototype the 2.5D style look, that was used to help make our 2D card illustrations become “3D” through compositing and projection techniques.
Personally, I develop my skills the most when I’m teaching others, which I’ve done since 2008 through my online class: CGWorkshop: Matte Painting. It’s amazing what you can discover as you try to create material to enable others to understand your process, while at the same time, researching and developing new processes to best teach your ideas. A by-product of doing these types of tasks, is that it often opens my eyes to better and more efficient ways I can use myself in the future.
What was it like working at a smaller studio like Luma compared to a bigger studio like Rhythm & Hues?
Luma Pictures was my first studio, so I was really wide eyed and loved so much of what I was doing there, even though I was probably working lots of overtime. I got to know pretty much the entire studio while I was working there for the 6 months. I’m grateful to Ian Noe, the producer, as well as Payam Shohodai, the VFX Supervisor, who have given me the opportunity to work there and to prove myself as someone who had just graduated from school.
Over at R&H, it was impossible to know everyone, but their process was so rock solid because so many people have worked there for a very long time. It was a bit more rigid in the pipeline, and you could get lots done very fast. It was much more specialized and you pretty much stick with what you were hired for. The people I met while working there were also amazingly nice and I’m also happy to have worked at an Oscar award winning studio.
“The [Blizzard] culture is super geeky, and they really allow you to embrace it, while also being able to do some of the highest caliber work in the industry for game cinematics.”
You’ve been at Blizzard for almost 8 years now, what is the best thing about working there?
The best thing about working here is that I get to combine my love for video games, and my love for creating movies! It’s a very unique place to be, I can think of no other studio that does that, except for maybe Square, that do their own cinematic and video games under one roof. I’m also still a huge Blizzard fan, coming in, and presently. So it’s a perfect combination for me. The culture is super geeky, and they really allow you to embrace it, while also being able to do some of the highest caliber work in the industry for game cinematics.
My husband also works here, since a year and a half ago, so being able to work at the same company with your spouse and sharing the great perks together is really special. I also get to bring my dog, Xena, to work, so that is amazing!
What exactly does Senior Cinematic Artist II position entail?
Being a Senior Cinematic II artist entails that I really have to be able to push the vision of the art directors, directors, and supervisors into the frames and shots of our cinematics in a way that is above and beyond of what’s expected. I get more tasks and responsibilities that one normally doesn’t get in a more focused role. For example, I do lighting/compositing for our cinematics, while also doing digital matte painting when I get a chance on the pre-rendered cinematics, as well as the in-game cinematics. I also do lighting for our in-game StarCraft II cinematics when they call upon my help.
I would also try to lead the team when I can, and develop new, more efficient tools or ideas that help speed up our work flows at the studio.
You’ve also taught via CGSociety.org, how has your experience of education shaped the way you teach students?
I started teaching in 2008, and after the 6 years of teaching it has really humbled me as an artist, as well as grown me into wanting to show others what I know and the best possible way to attain it. My workshop has videos and lectures, but more importantly, it’s the support and feedback I give to my students that are invaluable and something not even piracy can take away. When a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I usually try to research it myself in order to give them the best possible response in an educated way. This in turn allows me to continue to learn and grow, as mentioned earlier. My students are very enthusiastic during the workshop and very appreciative of my work.
Many visit me in person after the class, and I’ve also been invited to a few places around the world to give seminars, all from people introduced to me through my workshop.
You co-authored a book ‘d’Artiste: Matte Painting 3’, how did that come about and is it something you would like to do again?
After working in the industry for over 8 years, teaching digital matte painting for 6 years, and being a part of the amazing online community called CGSociety, they called upon me and two other artists to help co-author a book for digital matte painting. I bought and read through the first two volumes, heavily inspired by the likes of Dylan Cole in the first book, and Chris Thunig in the second. I submitted a bunch of my art works in the second book with all of them being accepted for publishing. Then getting to be one of the featured artists 5 years later, and having Dylan Cole allowing me to use one of his personal pieces in my own gallery, was just the most fantastic and highest honor I’ve ever gotten thus far.
I was fortunate enough to interview with one of the legendary traditional glass matte painters of the ILM age, Michael Pangrazio, currently a senior art director at Weta Digital, which was another humbling and mind blowing experience. His work from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and countless other movies are just master pieces.
Through the book creation, I also got the chance meet and bond with two other world class digital matte painters, Milan Schere, and Damien Mace. They are such wonderful people, and true masters in their craft. I would definitely do something like this again. My friends and family loved the book!
You’ve already evolved a lot in your skills and roles, where do you see yourself in 10 years time and beyond?
I really want to be in a more art director or creative director role at a studio. I think pushing my vision and idea while getting to work with other amazing artists is something I’d like to pursue in the future. Also, owning my own business is another near future goal.
I’m already working towards that with the recent purchase of an artist loft in downtown Santa Ana with my husband Steve, right in the heart of the artist district. I am planning to open up my first gallery show with my own art work to sell this coming August 2nd, 2014, which is during the art walk here downtown. Every 1st Saturday of every month, there is a communal art walk here that allows you to peak inside other gallery spaces and artist workspaces to buy and see how they are working. I plan to be a part of this monthly gallery opening with my own space, but featuring different local artists each time after showing my own work to start it off in August. It’s a really exciting Summer for me, and I hope to give great spotlight to other artists and host their own art work here monthly.
“It’s really a hard time for a visual effects artist these days and it feels more like a gypsy life”
How do you think the industry has changed since you started off? Is it better or harder for an artist?
The industry has really been shattered as far as the VFX in Los Angeles is concerned. It’s definitely become a more global market, and a more tough market to get into. You used to be able to get lots of work as a VFX artist in small shops, as well as big ones such as R&H, Digital Domain, Sony Pictures Imageworks. But now, most of those shops are defunct, bankrupt, or have moved up to Vancouver where government subsidies have really siphoned the work here in Hollywood. The quality is some of the best ever though, no doubting that. The images coming out of London for Double Negative, Framestore, Moving Picture Company, as well as New Zealand’s Weta Digital, to Australia’s Animal Logic or Rising Sun Pictures are just breath taking. However, the work and labor force is much less focused in LA where many have grown roots and have families from previous years, so it’s hard to see them uproot and move to another country when a studio decides to move there to get more tax benefits.
Not only this, but the art schools have been pumping out more and more students each year. The studios are often choosing the cheaper, less experienced, but hungry and eager working new graduates over seasoned, experienced workers who command higher wages while keeping a few key lead/supervisors to show them the way. With that, even more of the market gets saturated in the young, and older crowd.
It’s really a hard time for a visual effects artist these days and it feels more like a gypsy life compared to the relative stability that there seemed to be just 5 years ago.
Luckily at a place like Blizzard, we are working on our own games, and together under one roof in Irvine, CA. As long as our games perform well by continuing to go for the quality bar and keeping the public satiated, a VFX artist will do ok here. I’ve always been grateful to see a place like Blizzard really valuing its employees as not just as an asset or a number. It was my dream job to come work at Blizzard, and it has continued to be so throughout the almost 8 years I’ve now worked here. Z