Bruce Branit – In The SpotLight

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Bruce, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Growing up, my older brother was always into filmmaking. I was often recruited as an extra or to hold a light, So, I was exposed to that since I can remember. The idea of making stories with a camera just seemed second nature. When I was 12, my father bought an Apple II, and I quickly immersed myself in programming and all things computers. I studied industrial design at the University of Kansas. As part of those studies and part-time work as a graphic designer I got into 3D and realized you could tell stories with this new tool. About this time the Video Toaster came out on the Amiga. A friend of mine, Jeff Scheetz, who started the DAVE School, split our savings and bought one, almost exclusively for the Lightwave program that at that time you could only get bundled with the Video Toaster hardware. I worked for an ad agency after college and started the first 3D department there. And then followed my dream of working in movies and television out to Los Angeles to begin working for John Gross and John Parenteau at Digital Muse.

Your initial background is in architecture and engineering, did you find a it a hard leap to the visual effects you do now?
I only spent a semester in architectural engineering before finding industrial design. But I think the education I got there, where we were versed in painting, color, and basic design theory, actually prepared me better for this career than a lot of my friends who came from film school backgrounds. I found that a lot of what I learned about basic design principles also applies to a spaceship blowing up or the way a shot cuts with another shot. I didn’t know screen direction from a jump cut, but those things I was lucky to learn on the job.

You’ve worked on some pretty interesting projects, how did you find working on episodic television?
I like working on episodic TV a lot. It is sort of like a never-ending marathon, but it keeps you sharp. Some of the most exciting times were in the early years of Voyager and Sliders. There was no precedent and no real expectations, so every week we were pushing what was possible. Even then, though, there was a desire to have effects like what we saw in the movies that year, on television for 5% of the time and budget the next year. That trend continues and today television is much closer to feature films in expectation, but not budget. But it is still exciting to work on shows like Lost and Flash Forward and be able to compete and succeed at such a high level.

You moved back to the mid-west, what was your main reason for leaving Hollywood?
I met my wife on the Digital Muse co-ed softball team. We are both Midwesterners and had thought at some point we saw ourselves moving back there with a family of our own. In 2003-04 Jeremy Hunt and I had a company called Strange Engine, and we had just finished a great and busy year but at the end of the year we looked for the giant bucket of money and after overhead, and taxes and the over-all cost of living in LA, it wasn’t there. So I figured if I could do half the work I was doing in LA back in Kansas City, we could have the same or better quality of life, as well as be nearer to family. So I was able to make the move and keep in touch with some of the people I had worked with throughout the years in LA, and so far it has worked out nicely.

Tell us a little about your company BranitFX; is it small? What are your main types of projects?
We are a small company. Today, we have 6 employees, and are staying quite busy. The last 2 years we have juggled 75% television and feature work from Hollywood with about 25% commercial work for local and regional agencies. Like everyone else in the business we are fighting lowering budgets that the recession and the competition in the VFX market have brought about. But being in a place like Kansas City allows us to be a little more maneuverable as the cost of living here is so much less we can pay our artists less, but keep them as staff year round. At the end of the year they have more in their pockets than friends working in LA for twice as much but going from gig to gig and having much higher living expenses.

Corona Commercial shot

How do you find the market for visual effects in the Midwest? Is a lot of your work, now, built on the reputation/contacts you made while working in Hollywood?
Exactly, that is the whole secret. There are a lot of small boutique FX shops both in LA and around the world. The key with all the successful ones, are personal relationships with VFX Supervisors and Producers. I think working remotely is more and more common every year but there has to be some assurance that if something is going wrong, you wont just disappear. If you are in LA a supervisor can come by and sit with you and your artists, and work things out. We can’t do that as easily so we have to be more proactive, more foresight with potential problems before that might become last minute problems. I work “side by side” with a couple other artists who are these sort of islands outside of LA, “Hollywood Ex-Pats.” And in every case they are people who have built trusted, personal relationships that prove they are not going to fuck something up.

Your short film, 405, how did that project come about?
At Digital Muse a producer asked about what it would take to land a jet on a freeway for a potential spot. The capabilities and the budget were so out of kilter that nothing ever happened beyond that. But I kept thinking about it and driving home from a friends’ house on the 405 I started snapping pictures for background plates and started building environments for a test shot. Jeremy and I looked at the shot and right there and then decided we needed to shoot something that told a great story. That weekend we shot and by Monday or Tuesday had a rough edit assembled.

Bruce Branit 405 Short

What software/hardware do you use to pull your projects together?
Today, we are mostly a Lightwave and Fusion company. I love both programs and can personally do anything I need to with them. We also have seats of Maya and After Effects and hope to grow our Maya capabilities with the right artists in the next year. I am also looking to Nuke, as I have never seen a platform spread through all the post houses so quickly. It seems to have dominated market share in the blink of an eye.

Is there any one type of project that you like working on more than others?
I love television and film. We could stand to do a little more film work in the next year to balance out the pace of TV. I have directed and supervised the post on a few television spots and enjoy the process of developing the creative alongside the agency and bringing it together through production and post-production. Even commercials are little stories or short films if done right. It goes back to being involved and being able to donate some creativity into the project and have it accepted.

What type of formal training do you have in visual effects editing?
None really. Like I said, when I came to Hollywood there was a lot I did not know about film and staging and editing. I learned a lot from friends who had film school backgrounds. Jeremy and John Parenteau in particular. I found that I knew a lot intuitively, but still had to make some mistakes to learn what I didn’t know. The first time Dan Curry said that I had “crossed the line” on an effects shot on Voyager, I had to discreetly find out what the hell that meant. I enjoy editing a lot. It turns into another part of writing a good story. It makes you ask yourself what story and in what order are you trying to tell it. It becomes similar to what I like most about VFX work; a logic puzzle disguised as art.

Your new short, World Builder is amazing, and the storyline very touching, what was your inspiration for that?
Thanks. I had an idea for something along the lines of World Builder shortly after 405. But could never put the pieces together. At first it was similar to an idea featured in an old Twilight Zone where construction workers build our reality in the hours before we arrive at the present. I thought our current 3D tools made this work much better now than with 2 x 4’s and hammers. But it was an idea like 405 without the old lady, a cool thing to watch, but without something that connects the viewer to it it’s just an FX showcase. At a much later date, after I had moved back to KC, it occurred to me that it should be a love story and not just the story of a cool interface and a twist on reality. After that the story came out quickly.

What was the toughest part of putting that project together?
I was lucky on the shoot. The largest stage here in town was going to be green for another month and after that painted white for a while, so I reserved the stage and that set 100 balls in motion whether I was ready or not. My brother, the same brother I held lights for as a kid, is now a very respected DP and AC in this market. So he was able to call in some personal favors on my behalf and get an A-list crew to come in on a Saturday to help with the shoot. The toughest part started after that. That was realizing how long things were going to take while balancing paying jobs and sleep. You ask yourself a thousand times, “What am I doing and why am I working on this thing?” but once you are half way into something like that you have to finish or it becomes sort of a sad tragedy, and you really HAVE wasted your time. My wife became pregnant during the post and I set the due date as the due date for World Builder as I thought I would have no more free time after that. I didn’t make it but I managed to finish it about 6 months later. It is really not finished. There are a hundred things I would fix and change, but at some point you abandon it in the best condition you can leave it in and see if anyone likes it. I’m glad they did.

I saw where you used Lightwave on World Builder, how long have you been a Lightwave user?
I have been using Lightwave since 1992, probably version 2.0? Since before it was ported to PC’s from the Amiga and after that through the DEC-Alpha processor days.

How does your process or pipeline go when starting on a project like that?
I grew up writing stories and had a few published as a teenager. So I still write and develop in prose for a while to get the meaning and back story in my head at the very least. Then I get into story beats and script phases and how the story will work from fade-up to fade-out. And before shooting anything, a good animatic or rip-o-matic is a necessity today. From script to animatic to editing to post production, it is all about the story and those stages and tools can all work together to make sure the story is there and getting across to the end user.

I hear the production time on that was very quick, can you tell us about it?
Yes, the actual shoot was one 14-hour day. I had an animatic of the whole thing worked out in advance. When I showed it to my brother 2 or 3 days before I could feel the air draining out of the room as he watched and the animatic went on and on and on. It looked like an impossible day. But I printed out a frame of each take and each set up and sorted them on a board for like-minded shots so we were able to shoot off all the tight shots or all the hand interface shots in a very short period. On some cases we shot one take and moved on. We planned it so that for the builder there was one general lighting set up and shot all of that in the first 2/3s of the day, and then brought out a swingable key light and shot all of the woman’s scenes the rest of the day. it was a tough shoot but more because of the pace and not because anything broke or we had to stop and think or argue about anything. In the end the crew and talent made it happen and I owe them a lot for what they accomplished.

What do you like most about using Lightwave 3D? What do you think about the new incarnation, Core?
I always refer to Lightwave as an old truck. If it breaks, I can pull it over, open the hood and bang on it with pliers and it will work. I know what it will do and what it won’t and knowing that I can get it anywhere with oil and duct-tape. I feel that some other packages are more like a Ferrari and if it breaks I’m going to have to bring in a specialist in a clean suit to get it to do what I want. I know I am swimming against the current with this old-school thinking and am one step away from talking about “these kids today!” and I get that. I think CGI has been around long enough that there is actually already a generational division. When the programs were new, we had to find a way to make the software do things it was not made to do. We had to improvise and hack things together. Today there seems to be a tendency for the artist to be at the whim of the software, and not to think pragmatically. When I hear an artist say, “It won’t do it,” I want to scream. The software is a tool and sometimes the simpler the tool the better. That being said, I think there are astonishing things being achieved today through sheer technology alone that break that outlook into pieces. So my mindset is to find the simplest way to do something, always knowing that there are breakthroughs and new tools out there that can let us do them faster. But don’t ever loose the art for sake of the technique.

Deep Space Nine shot

Where do you want to take BranitFX in the future, as far as projects?
I would like to continue to grow a little but not much. The key for us is artists that can do the work and bring something more than is being asked for to each and every shot. With that in place we can choose projects that are exciting and rewarding. It is hard to run a company and be a creative artist doing shots. Ultimately, I enjoy doing the shots so we are bringing on some producers and managers to run the company to keep me doing what I do better. I have spent the last year developing the story of World Builder as a feature film. We are close to getting it off the ground with the help of my agents at ICM, so hopefully in the next year we will be able to talk about the beginnings of the World Builder feature animatic and pre-viz work.

Whose work do you admire and has been an inspiration for you?
I’ve always been fond of Joseph Kosinski. His commercial work and visual storytelling are so far ahead of the game it’s hard to comprehend. I can not wait to see where he goes with Tron and cannot believe that such a perfect pick to direct that movie was actually selected and given the chance to do it as a first time director. It gives me hope in Hollywood, and I hope Tron is awesome. For general filmmaking and creativity from inspiration to execution, it is J.J. Abrams hands down. I think he is the Spielberg of this era.

If there is one person you can thank for your success, who would that be and why?
No, I can’t think of one. I owe a lot to my dad, my brother, friends in high school and college, co-workers, business partners, bosses and supervisors.

How do you find balancing your family life with having your company, BranitFX?
That is a very hard part of this business. Deadlines get pushed around shots get added and dropped so it becomes very hard to answer whether you will be home on a certain night on a certain week. My wife learned early when we were dating after we had to cancel a vacation at the last minute. The demands and expectations on VFX get more every year. Ironically part of the theme of the World Builder feature I am developing involves a man who is consumed by the demands and distractions of his work in a virtual world to a point where he is neglecting his real life and his family. It is only after something terrible happens that he realigns what is most important in life. I think we all need to sometimes take that step back and remind ourselves that it is only a movie, or only a TV show and unlike some other nobler professions, people will not die if our work is occasionally only 99%.

What other interests do you have outside of what you do now?
I enjoy sports like basketball and baseball. I am a huge and loyal Kansas Jayhawk fan. I used to golf and sail before having a company and a son, someday soon I hope to get back to those pursuits. Both me and my wife like to travel and my wife is the best travel planner I have ever known. She has a knack for finding out of the way places to stay and visit. We hope to expose our young boy to other cultures and parts of the world as much as possible.

What would a dream project for you be and why?
I am starting it now. And that is developing, writing, producing, directing and doing visual effects work on my own film, World Builder. When I am able to get away from the day-to-day deadlines of the visual effects business and spend days on story development I find myself reinvigorated. But I do not ever want to leave the VFX world behind; I think it has become as crucial to telling stories and the camera.

And lastly, what advice would you give someone trying to get started in visual FX?
It used to be to teach yourself and challenge yourself. Today there are a lot of good education options out there. But it is still possible to break into the business without going to one of those. You need to be able to break a shot down into steps and find a way to systematically go about executing your vision. Do something that inspires you; try to make a shot similar to something you loved in a movie. Compare your work to actual work you are seeing on television and in the movie theater. A lot of artists start out in a bubble and see their work as great because they made it. Grab some frames of a movie and compare the quality, because that is how your work will be judged; by those who would hire you. If you can make a shot that looks like anything you would see done professionally, that’s it, you’ll get a job somewhere.

Bruce, I want to thank you for an awesome interview. I and I know everyone else found the talk immensely entertaining and informative. Can’t wait to see what exciting stuff that’s going to come from you and BranitFX.

Thanks so much, Bruce!

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