I never thought I would have the privilege to work on a Steven Spielberg movie and especially never imagined I would be responsible for the camera work in a long sequence, but that’s what happened on the movie Ready Player One.
My previous professional experience led my animation supervisor at ILM to believe I could handle a 30 second long shot of a camera flying through The Oasis planets. It was a massive establishing shot for the movie so I was pretty nervous.
The layout supervisor had placed a few temporary spheres for planets and a basic camera path in a scene for me to start from and as he was handing off the shot to me he looked at me with a mix of empathy and pity and said “Good Luck!”
The shot I’m referring to is the first one in my animation reel you can watch above.
I used every trick I had in my toolkit to sell the shot. The idea was to get buy off from Steven before everything was fully built out so it was a mix of doing layout, camera, and animation blocking.
Just to hear my supervisor say “Steven wants to see a new version by tomorrow” made my eyes widen that I was even having a conversation with someone calling Spielberg by his first name. I never got the chance to meet him in person but I did hear his feedback in a recorded session where he was in a private theatre watching the film’s progress with just a few top people.
Sitting at my desk I opened up the recording to hear what Spielberg had to say about my shot. I wrote it down in my notebook (pictured below) to remember exactly what he said word-for-word because I knew the opportunity may never come again.
My shot ended and Steven paused and didn’t say anything. After a tense moment he gave the feedback below and I was ecstatic.
It was a very bizarre moment because I was in the dark, at my desk, alone, and listening to this career milestone feedback that made me so happy but I also had to get right back to work! There was no time to bathe in this lifetime achievement.
But for a moment I allowed myself to have a huge grin on my face as my entire journey to arrive at this point sunk in: the years of studying, student debt, moving city to city, the long hours and nights led me to hearing one of my filmmaking idols say he liked my work.
What made this so meaningful was that in an early stage of a shot like this there’s a lot of freedom for the artist to interpret and make decisions. I was able to contribute some of my vision of how I thought it should look as well and some of that made it into a Spielberg movie!
When I started the shot I was given the very basic building blocks, some concept art, and a few swooping hand gestures from my supervisor to mimic what he thought the camera should do.
I also received feedback from the VFX supervisor. For example, imagine this 30 second shot with no cuts and they ask for the camera path to take a left instead of a right halfway through the shot.
That means that every turn after that is reversed as well, and that every planet must be moved from that point forward too and they wanted these changes done quickly, sometimes within a few hours.
Luckily, I have had enough experience in Maya to know how to build a scene like this so I can quickly adjust to huge notes.
I can’t overemphasize how important it was for me to know how to use many tools in Maya that most character animators might not be familiar with, like modeling, creating animated deformers, setting up custom constraint rigs, animating a flying camera, and making temporary procedural textures.
Some specific examples were taking a generic character rig, gave him board shorts, modeled the surfboard and textured it procedurally in case they wanted me to change the color of a stripe on it. I made my own pyramids and textured them with a procedural texture as well so I could quickly adjust the scale of the size of the blocks in case they didn’t think the size and scale of the texture was selling the planet-feel compared to the human size of the characters skiing down it.
All of this was built with flexibility in mind to handle the inevitable notes that a shot of this size receives when it’s getting fleshed out from scratch.
Once Steven bought off on all of this complicated blocking and camera work I passed off the shot to other talented animators in Singapore to finish it out and I moved onto the other shots you can see in my reel.
It’s an experience I will never forget and makes all the hard work worth it.
If you want to get started on a similar path, check out my courses and learn some 3D. It won’t get you working on a Spielberg movie over night, but you never know where it may lead if you don’t start learning now. I certainly never imagined having this experience, but learning animation and Maya made it possible.
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