Day-to-Day Specials

To My Mentor.

August 16, 2015

Not sure how this is gonna go, but let’s give it a shot.

Here at VFS, once we reach Term 4 we’re moved into the studio and each student has their own assigned slot and computer. If you’re reading this you’re probably a VFS student and know it all too well. Anyway, that’s also the moment that we get our Industry Mentors, people that are currently working on shows or features that come to the school, once a week, to give us advice and review our work.

As you might’ve gotten from all my previous posts about hard times and such, I lack social skills and I’m a little too much task-driven. For the VFX folks at 3D111 our mentor was a guy called Werner ten Hoeve. First class, he calls our names as we enter the door. Gotta admit, that makes you feel a little special, he’s not just trying to decipher the names on the fly, he actually took time to know all the faces and stick names to them. He shows us some of his work, explains how the classes are gonna go – “render your stuff to show me, I don’t wanna wait forever while you render and it’s your turn” – and rushes us back to the studio.

For Term 4 he got really close to some of us, chatted a lot, told stories about work, showed us unbelievable work, spent more time with some and less time with others. I was usually one of the fastest to get feedback, I never had much to chat about. I’m not too good at knowing which company worked on which movie, or who’s this or that compositor, so small talk didn’t go far. Eventually we got to talk about filmmaking in general, set experience and all the crazy stuff that happens in real world, and that got me into the conversation – mostly with Sean and Rityka. Then we started to talk about movies, and references – fucking Seth Rogen references, every class, man! – as I started to think that’s not the regular conversation students have with their mentors. At least that’s what I got from hearing the animators and modelers talking to their mentors. We joked. A lot. All the time.

That doesn’t mean Werner was a cool guy that would give an “ok, move to the next shot” easily. Hell no. He also wouldn’t spare hard comments when they were needed. He’s always been very direct about feedback and that got my respect right from the start. I’d rather have my work trashed than waste time working on something that isn’t going the right path. And we had that, several times, thank you very much. I had dealt with picky clients when freelancing back in Brazil, but never like this. The great difference this time was, whenever I worked on the fixes, the shot actually improved – sometimes drastically.

By the end of Term 4 I wasn’t too close yet. Term 5 was the moment when the magic happened for me. I mean, we could talk on facebook, what other mentor does that? I’ve always tried to avoid talking about work whenever we chatted, because facebook isn’t work, right? At some point I hit a wall with one of my tracks. I was three weeks in in Term 5 and still working on my first VFX shot (one which I thought would be simple) out of seven. The track just wouldn’t stick, no matter what. Then, one sunday I didn’t know what else to do to get the shot working and sent him a message out of desperation, shoving all the problems I was having onto his way. I can’t remember what he replied exactly, but based on that reply I changed my way of working. Not trying to get it all done at once. Small steps. Get one thing working, move on to the next, onto the next, and the next and so on until it was finished.

I got that shot done before Wednesday on that same week (we always had Werner’s classes on Wednesdays). Of course it wasn’t final yet, but the track worked and I learned that sometimes automatic stuff won’t help and you need to push through hundreds of keyframes, sometimes it’s easier – and you get to listen great music in the meanwhile. Later on I went back to that shot for some fixes he suggested that made it better (like the ship reveal on the sky).

After that one shot was done, I went berserk on the others, taking them out of the way as fast as I could, as good as it could. Once we had a first pass on everything – except the last shot, but that’s gonna be explained later – Term 5 was getting to its end. During the break I sent him another huge message, saying that I was feeling I could do more and sometimes would have nothing to work on while waiting for feedback. He replied that he was going to push us hard in Term 6. We took some extra time besides all the feedback and shots while he explained me how shotgun was supposed to be used, and we spent over a day setting my account more like a real world one – “do you see the Tasks area? well, put your tasks there. Upload shot versions, not just random things onto Media” and a lot more.

By that moment, I was willing to trust my life to this guy. Aaaaand then I got very fucked up and had to go back home in Brazil. It was week 4 and we just had our last official presentation before Graduation. All my shots were final but the last one. The last one had always been some kind of wishlist. A thing so elaborate that I actually thought I couldn’t pull it off. Thanks to being on that stage I was allowed to present my reel at my class’ graduation ceremony and come up on the stage with them. Werner was very supportive when I told him I had to go home. He came to school off his schedule so we could talk about what I was going through.

While I was home I had plenty of time to think. Process some of the crappy choices I made, think about what I wanted for my life, what I wanted regarding work, and that eventually led to another of those huge messages I sent him. This one was tricky because it wasn’t about anything specific, it was about work in general, all my insecurities and doubts, all my fears, everything I thought I couldn’t handle was there on display and, I have to say, he aced that conversation. By that time he was already a close friend.

I worked on some small stuff for my last shot while I was home, not much. I also spent some time on the WeatherCaster app, but in general I didn’t work hard. I would say “I played around in Nuke”. In the meantime he told me about his request to VFS that he could still be my mentor during this “Term 6 v02”, which meant I would be his only student. How incredible can this guy be? Seriously, not only I luck out to have him as my class mentor, I also get to be his only student for two full months.

When I got back we talked some more. More shit happened, but I was in a different state of mind. Really, I was VERY different when coming back to Vancouver this last time. After our first meeting at the studio, he insisted that we went out and ate something – you could remember I was a little slimmer – which was awesome and the healthy food surprised us by being tasty too.

Another thing I did differently now was I took my time with work. That meaning I went VERY, VERY slowly about things, simply because I had a faint idea of how to get them working but didn’t want to put it to the test and see it crash and burn, you know, like I said in this other post. I always ran my ideas through Werner, to see if I was going right about each shot and this time wasn’t different, even when I presented what I thought to be a series of crazy steps to get the shot working. He had this “I’m about to laugh” look while he agreed upon my strategy. You should remember he’s a funny dude. But he didn’t laugh, he said that “do it!”.

And then I went on, as brave as I could, tackling down tracking issues, growing the most confusing nuke tree in my entire reel, sorting out what should be comped first and what would come on top, slowly and always going back to Werner to be sure I wasn’t overcomplicating things (I do that a lot too). The last week rolled by and I was left with just a couple fixes on a shot I didn’t even think I was capable of doing. These were left for the end because… I had no idea of how to deal with them. Yesterday I was at the studio, in pain just with the thought of having to back into Maya to tweak renders and pray to the gods of mentalRay, and talking to Werner at the same time, saying I was about to go and adjust my geo to fix the issues I had left, when he mentored up and taught me some new tricks, which got things working without rerendering. Of course, he also pointed some larger issues which made me keep my computer running renders all night, but not the ones I was afraid of.

This morning, when I sit down at the studio I get a message from him “ready to finish this?”. Last adjustments were done and submitted around noon. By then I shot him a message and went home. I was taking the bike out for my daily seawall ride when I notice two missed calls from Werner and a message of “check Shotgun”. Hell, why check Shotgun if he just called me? So I call him back, expecting some smaller tweaks to be done, easily explained over the phone, but I’m wrong. He was calling to say the shot had been approved and I was officially done with the reel. SERIOUSLY, no one could ever ask for a better mentor than this. I couldn’t ask for a better friend, for I’ve learned from him so much more than what school was supposed to teach me, for I tried for whatever-many paragraphs explain what he means to me and I still couldn’t.

In short, if you skipped EVERYTHING ABOVE, I say that I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without my mentor and my reel wouldn’t be anything near what it is without his advice and support along the crazy ride these last 8 months were. Thank you, Werner ten Hoeve, you earned that first spot in my credits, my friend.

photo credit: Maria Juliana Caicedo Sánchez