Creators Society Animation Podcast

15. Ken Bielenberg - Former PDI & DreamWorks Visual Effects Supervisor

December 08, 2021 Season 2
15. Ken Bielenberg - Former PDI & DreamWorks Visual Effects Supervisor
Creators Society Animation Podcast
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Creators Society Animation Podcast
15. Ken Bielenberg - Former PDI & DreamWorks Visual Effects Supervisor
Dec 08, 2021 Season 2

Ken's career spans more than two decades in the cutting edge confines of PDI and DreamWorks Animation. Ken was there for Antz, the Shrek films, Monsters vs Aliens and much much more.  We talk about his career and touch on the evolution of visual effects within the animation industry, including pushing the limits at DreamWorks on Shrek, the Golden Gate Bridge destruction in Monsters Vs Aliens and the clouds in Puss In Boots. Ken was very generous with his time so enjoy!

If you have any comments or suggestions please get in touch.
If you're loving the podcast, please share with friends and colleagues.

Host & Producer: Michael Wakelam (@mikewakelam)
Executive Producer: Eric M. Miller
Music by: Rich Dickerson (www.richdickerson.com)
Audio Engineering: Mike Rocha

The Creators Society is a professional society for all disciplines of the animation industry. Our mission is to bring the animation community together to build strong relationships, provide education, and form a better understanding of the different roles we all play in creating animated stories. We celebrate and promote the love of animation, and all the talented Creators who breathe life and imagination into their work.
Learn more about the Creators Society, and how to become a member at
creatorssociety.net

Show Notes Transcript

Ken's career spans more than two decades in the cutting edge confines of PDI and DreamWorks Animation. Ken was there for Antz, the Shrek films, Monsters vs Aliens and much much more.  We talk about his career and touch on the evolution of visual effects within the animation industry, including pushing the limits at DreamWorks on Shrek, the Golden Gate Bridge destruction in Monsters Vs Aliens and the clouds in Puss In Boots. Ken was very generous with his time so enjoy!

If you have any comments or suggestions please get in touch.
If you're loving the podcast, please share with friends and colleagues.

Host & Producer: Michael Wakelam (@mikewakelam)
Executive Producer: Eric M. Miller
Music by: Rich Dickerson (www.richdickerson.com)
Audio Engineering: Mike Rocha

The Creators Society is a professional society for all disciplines of the animation industry. Our mission is to bring the animation community together to build strong relationships, provide education, and form a better understanding of the different roles we all play in creating animated stories. We celebrate and promote the love of animation, and all the talented Creators who breathe life and imagination into their work.
Learn more about the Creators Society, and how to become a member at
creatorssociety.net

Michael Wakelam:

Welcome back to the Creators Society Animation Podcast. I'm Michael Wakelam. In today's episode I chatted with Ken Bieleneberg. He's a PDI and DreamWorks visual effects supervisor vet who's worked on a whole library of movies dating back to your VHS library. And I'm joined also in this intro by Eric Miller, Chief Creative guru of -well chief guru in general of the Creators Society. How you doing, Eric?

Eric Miller:

I'm good. Good morning, Michael.

Michael Wakelam:

Now, you worked with Ken at DreamWorks, didn't you?

Eric Miller:

Yeah, I had the opportunity to work with Ken on'Monsters vs. Aliens', I actually managed his calendar, in addition to the production calendar. And then, you know, we worked on that for about two years. And then later on, I got to work with him again, when we were working on the movie'Home', and he came in, and then he actually is the advisor for my animation company. You know, shortly after I started it, I brought him on. And we would meet, you know, quarterly to, you know, you know, update him on what we're doing, and kind of get some feedback and advice from him. Because, you know, he's just been in the industry for a long time. And, you know, his knowledge is very valuable.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah. And he's, he's got a lot of a lot of knowledge. And what I love about some of these interviews is you get to hear a lot of the history of the studios, and obviously, he was at PDI, which is at the birth of, you know, CG animation and VFX alongside Pixar, and maybe one- maybe one other. And then recently, I spoke with Rex Grignon, who was also there at that time. So it's just great hearing that history. And I'd mentioned to you for a while that I'd been wanting to do an episode focused on VFX in animation. So Ken was really perfect, the perfect guest to do that. Because he's, you know, he's been there for the entire evolution of it.

Eric Miller:

Yeah, he definitely has a lot of knowledge. And when I started on Monsters vs. Aliens with him, he was actually up north at the time. So he, you know, we did you know, all our meetings and stuff across site. And then I think he'd come down like a couple days a week and stuff. But eventually, he moved down to Glendale with the rest of the crew. But yeah, for a long time, he was up at the PDI, which- great team up there as well.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, yeah, we had a really good conversation about that whole dynamic between PDI and DreamWorks at the beginning, and you know, how it started with'Antz'. And, you know, some of the films we talked about,'Antz', you know, some of the challenges there with the early water sims and that type of thing. He mentioned in the interview where they were, someone suggested, well, why don't we just get rid of the water and poison the ants? You know? So some really fun, fun things in there. And, you know, the rocky beginnings of Shrek where they they did a, they did tests with motion capture. And he talks about that, and, and at one point, he said they were going to do Shrek with CG characters on miniature backgrounds, which was really, really interesting. But we don't want to give too much that away. So it's a really interesting part of the conversation. And then we also talked about really kind of that evolution period of visual effects where they were really pushing it forward. And we talked about the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge in'Monsters vs. Aliens' that you worked on.

Eric Miller:

Yeah, it was, you know, again, he's he's a great guy to work with. And it's been a pleasure knowing him over the past few years. I'm happy that he was able to do this podcast for us.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah. Well, let's jump into that chat now with Ken Bieleneberg. Ken, thanks for joining me.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah. Thanks. Thanks, Mike. Great to be here.

Michael Wakelam:

So I'm really excited actually to talk to you today, because... such a great career on so many films and so many interesting parts, I guess, of your career that I'd like to go over. And I've been wanting to do this for a while in regards to VFX in animation. So it's really exciting. You've had a long and distinguished career in VFX. And you worked on some amazing films, including many at DreamWorks when I guess you started out a PDI. And we'll we'll get into all of that. Before you were in animation though you had a stint in live action at PDI. And I always do a bit of research as much as I can, and I loved watching some of the clips and trailers in prep for today. And some of them go far back enough where the trailer guy is saying now available on video cassette. I think that was that was 'Heart and Souls' and you seem to have started out with some disembodied spirits, because then there was Danny Glover and'Angels in the Outfield'. But before we get to that, I'd really love to hit rewind and go back as far as you would like to go back and talk about the spark that got you down, headed down these paths. What was it for you that made you head down this creative route?

Ken Beilenberg:

Well, I started out in computer science, so I thought that, you know, that's what my career would be. So I went to school for that. And- but I had always been making Super Eight films growing up. So I was always, you know, creative and wanting to, you know, tell stories and that sort of thing. But I was also interested in math and science and computers. So I, you know, thought that that would be the career. So, went to college for that, and then started taking film and animation classes just for fun. And I did a couple college internships, that was required as part of our programmes. So I did both of those at IBM and was doing database programming, and not very visually creative, maybe technically creative. And at some point, I just decided, this is not what I want to do, which actually, you know, I really credit those internships for, I think it's really valuable when you learn something you don't want to do. So.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, can be just as valuable can't it.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah, so it was kind of interesting that at that time, so, you know, my parents were helping me, you know, pay for school. And so I had to call my dad and say, you know, going to this private college for computer science, and I don't think this is what I really want to do. And he said, oh thank God, because he thought that my sort of creative skills were, you know, being wasted or not being tapped into. But my dad comes from theatre. So so he comes from a creative field, and my brother was a graphic designer. So there was a certain amount of the visual arts, sort of in the family. So then I took as much animation and film classes as I could, at that time, it was pretty early in the computer animation field.

Michael Wakelam:

Where were you going to school?

Ken Beilenberg:

It was RIT, Rochester Institute of Technology. And so there was a film and animation programme there. I was a student in the very first computer animation class they had, and we didn't even have graphics terminals, it was all typing in coordinates. And there was a film recorder that broke down during the, during the terms that we didn't get to see any of our work until after the term was done so-

Michael Wakelam:

Oh man.

Ken Beilenberg:

-early, early and rudimentary, but so anyway, but I, you know, got the taste that, you know, I wanted to- sounded like a good idea to combine my interests in computers, my interest in film and animation and merge those together into computer animation. So then, I moved out to California, where my brother was. Tried to get a job, almost got into PDI. They seemed to be very interested in me. I was working, or was as meeting with Glenn Entis, who was one of the founders. But it didn't happen. So I ended up doing computer graphics for a couple years. And then I called Glenn back up and said, Okay, what do I have to do to get in the door? He said, Well, we have a position, but I don't think you know, you'll want to take it as a production assistant. And you're already making money. And I said, I'll take it. That's great. So that was my foot in the door to the industry, which was pretty difficult at that point. There was a real catch 22 that in order to get into a computer animation company, and there weren't that many there was PDI, Pixar had started, ILM, Rhythm and Hues. There were just a handful of major studios that were doing computer animation at the time. And so as you know, there weren't many schools, so you couldn't really learn this. But in order to get a job, you had to have experience and so it was pretty difficult. So at that point, you just kind of had to get in however you could. That's what I did. And just, you know, I was just so excited to be there. At that point, in sort of state of the art of the industry was doing broadcast graphics and flying logos and PDI was the king of that. They did early things for the show'Entertainment Tonight' and 'The Networks' and so that's kind of when I started there, I was just excited to be there. And I just, you know, just devoted myself to learning as much as I could and lived at the studio. And at night, I was learning the software and learning how to animate. And during the day, I was getting client's lunches and cleaning out the supply closet. So-

Michael Wakelam:

It's a familiar story, I think, you know, the, the amount of people I talk to, that started their careers, you know, just taking a position of any kind to get in the door. And, you know, being a production assistant, or, or any way that they they could get started and then use the equipment. And that's a great way to learn.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah, and, you know, I think that, you know, shows your passion. And my motto was, you know, just if I work really hard devote myself, the opportunities will come. And that worked out, that worked out pretty well for me. So, yeah, so I just, you know, was just all in learning how to use the software and animate and proving myself and then about six months in, I got a chance to transition from production assistant to being an assistant animator. And so that was, it was nice that I didn't, it wasn't, you know, two years where I had to, you know, get client's lunches. But, so, yeah, and at that point, PDI, we were just transitioning from broadcast graphics to commercials. And so that business was really ramping up as broadcast graphics was going down. One of the things PDI was good at, is recognising the trends in the industry and trying to be ahead of them. Because initially broadcast graphics was state of the art and incredibly lucrative, but eventually the studio or the network's could do it in house and their boutique shops, were doing it for a lot less money. So PDI transitioned to commercials at the right time. And then that was very lucrative, eventually, that became a commodity. And PDI was transitioning, wanting to get into, you know, feature films and developing their own projects, projects. So, so then, the transition happened around 1996 When DreamWorks came calling, and we made a deal with DreamWorks, and they wanted us to do their first CG film. So Jeffrey Katzenberg, who founded DreamWorks, he, he had set up Pixar as as Disney's CG house. So at DreamWorks, he was kind of doing the same with PDI at the time.

Michael Wakelam:

What's interesting is I think a lot of people don't realise that PDI was right there alongside Pixar at the, at the dawn of CG. And really, from what I hear it was there was a feature in development at PDI that could have even been in production before Toy Story, had it gone ahead. So you were right there, I guess in the dawn.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah, definitely. And the studios, the- were very friendly. We would host SIGGRAPH parties, the animation convention or computer graphics convention. So there was a bond between the companies at that time. It's sort of split later on. There was a falling out. Having to do with Jeffrey Katzenberg and John Lasseter and'Bugs' and 'A Bug's Life' and'Antz'. And that sort of ended that sort of sister company feel that we had early on, but yeah, PDI was probably, it might have even been an entity before Pixar was, I forget when they split off from ILM. But yeah, they were they were definitely both in there at the dawn of the computer animation industry.

Michael Wakelam:

And so before you were doing animated features with with DreamWorks, and I guess after the commercials, you were you were doing VFX for feature films as well.

Ken Beilenberg:

Correct. Yes. So PDI had, we were based in Northern California. And we had started up an LA studio to work on live action films and do visual effects. So I went down to the LA studio a few times to work on live action visual effects films. So I worked on I guess, let me look at the I think yeah, so 'Heart and Souls' was my first live action. So I did a few effects on that, that was a really exciting film. And then the next project- actually I went down to work on a film called 'Double Dragon'. And as soon as I got there, the head of the LA studio says, we don't want you to work on that, we want you to work the what we called at the time, the TD on'Angels in the Outfield', so then I switched and worked on that film for, I guess, about a year. That was a pretty intense film, it was pretty difficult because the, I don't think the director had a really good idea of what he wanted. So we were really struggling to find that, that look. So that was a pretty gruelling project, but ended up and we had to change gears halfway through, instead of just being fully CG angels, and they decided to shoot some live action people and then we augmented them with wings and effects and that sort of thing. So, so 'Angels in the Outfield', and then I did another an eraser, did a few shots on an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, then- it was fun at one point, I was up north working on my shots, and then I got the note back, I guess it came from Schwarzenegger, he said, I want more guns. I had to add more guns into the shot that I was working on.

Michael Wakelam:

That's funny. So so that's all my late teens when I watched baseball films and Schwarzenegger films, you were covering that. Okay, and so then so then you jumped into the even, I guess the relationships with DreamWorks started before the before the acquisition before the merge with with'Antz', yeah?

Ken Beilenberg:

Correct. Yeah. So initially, there was a deal for us to make the film and they were investing in the company, and buying equipment and that sort of thing. And they got a portion, you know, certain share of the company from that relationship. So it started off, they were a minority partner at that point. And then later, sometime after 'Antz', or maybe after 'Shrek', I forgot, but then they fully acquired PDI. And we became PDI DreamWorks. But the first film, so 'Antz' was the first film that we did. And the, yeah the rift with Pixar was they were doing 'A Bug's Life'. But PDI had been working on developing a project called 'Bugs' actually, before all that, that's when Jeffrey came calling and pitched oh, we're working on this film called 'Bugs'. And Jeffrey said, Well, that's great, but we have a different film for you to make. 'Antz' was, um, it was really exciting because the, it was, you know, ended up being only the second CG feature to ever be produced. And we had obviously been in the CG business for quite a while, but hadn't done anything of that scale. So all of us were learning how to do this, you know, together. And at that point, with a lot of it, you know, there, there wasn't 3D commercial software for this. So PDI had grown up, you know, writing its own software, and we had a big r&d department. And like in effects, there were, there weren't off the shelf solutions for these things. And a lot of this had never been done, and we had to figure it out. So that was, that was part of the, you know, the really exciting part of you know, it was, it was, I guess you would call that a startup, even though we weren't technically a startup, but it felt like a startup, because we're ramping up hiring a lot of people and having to figure all this out for the first time.

Michael Wakelam:

So definitely the I mean, I think in any business, when you go from that, that smaller scale those to those shorter jobs, to something that's gonna last a couple of years and will take you a couple of years, yhe learning curve is massive. But you know, if you're developing new tools, that must have been quite a change internally and culture wise at the studio.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah, it was. And so you know, one of the like, on 'Antz' one of the big effects challenges we had was there was a big flood scene. Water had really not been done at that scale before. So we found someone who had done their doctoral thesis on water simulation, Nick Foster, and we brought him in, and he developed his tool set. And so that that was a pretty significant moment in effects for the animation. So that was really exciting. At one point of the producers suggested, as it was going to be expensive, we weren't sure how we we're going to do the flood. He said, instead of the flood, maybe they just tried to poison the poison all the ants and I guess that didn't fly, but so looks we we''re able to pull that off. And then after after'Antz' then the next project was'Shrek', which wasn't initially going to be done by PDI. That was being done down in the Glendale studio. 'Shrek' actually had a pretty rocky, early life. So there was, they were going to do it at one point with motion capture. And they spent a year building up a team and developing motion capture technology. And they did a test, spent a lot of money on that. And then showed the test to Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he hated it. That test just got locked up, never to be seen again. And then the project was going to be CG characters over miniature backgrounds. And then they, then they, after the success of'Antz', they said, well, PDI, maybe you can do work on'Shrek'. And so that's how I ended up coming up to PDI. And then we had our lead voice, Chris Farley, passed away when we were in early production. So they had to recas, that's when Mike Meyers came on. So it was a, it was definitely a rocky path to get that project out the door. And with every animated feature, there are story problems along the way. Pixar movies, PDI movies, they get shut down for a while they figure out, figure out story issues. And that definitely happened on 'Shrek'. So we kind of by the end of it, we had no idea what we had. And you get so close to a project when you're just in there every day and seeing the same shot and dailies for you know, 100 times. So it was really shocking and wonderful when we had our first preview screenings where we had a lot of the movie together and the audience reacted so well. So we were sort of caught off guard of how well that movie was being received. So but, and especially given its its history, and it felt fairly cursed.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I think it's interesting when when a movie starts out like that, and it has a massive success. And I think it's you know, it's interesting, looking back on the history of those two companies as well and thinking that, you know, this is obviously before the the DreamWorks campus that they have now, which was probably the the campus that'Shrek' built, I guess. And so it would have felt like a very different, you know, company back then. A lot of people will visit DreamWorks now. And, you know, that was I guess, before they had their own big CG team.

Ken Beilenberg:

Ah, yes, at that point. Yes. before. So initially, the DreamWorks Glendale was working on the 2d films, so 'Prince of Egypt' and'The Road to Eldorado' and and those films. And then, you know, just like Disney, the 2d market just sort of dried up it was determined that that's not what audiences wanted to see anymore. So then they transitioned to, to 3d films, which Disney did as well. It's not to say there couldn't be an audience. But that's what happened. They just the you know decided the box office wasn't there, I guess. And they're more expensive as it turned out. So at the time, I wouldn't have thought so I would have thought, you know, CG is so expensive, and so labour intensive and technology. And but it turned out that, you know, the 2d were more and more expensive. So, so yeah, so that transition happened. And then there was then Glendale was transitioning to 3d, and there was a failry difficult, unification was the term, of the two studios. They had their own r&d down in Glendale. We had r&d up north. When, I guess, 'Shark Tale' was the first CG film that was done done in Glendale, and they went on a different path with more third party software. And then we had to, over a number of years merge the technology between the two studios and get on the same pipeline because it was expensive to have two different pipelines.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, definitely. So (unintelligbile) doing a film at either either studio but but not at both.

Ken Beilenberg:

Right at that in the early days they were just one place or the other, not, you know we weren't collaborating on the films. So the... but later on, we developed ways to share between the studios. And it was efficient because in animation, one of the things we learned about when we started doing features is feature animation had this term called gap, which was in between projects, they wanted to keep people, so they would have to put them in gap. So you're paying, being paid to your training and doing things like that, but not working on paying work. But by having the two studios and being able to have teams work collaboratively, you know, across divisions, they could minimise a lot of that gap. So we would, and that was really successful. We'd have teams down in Glendale working on PDI films and PDI teams working on Glendale films and a lot of video conference- conferencing. And you know, it worked. Yeah, it worked quite well.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, video conferencing, everyone does this everyday normal now.

Ken Beilenberg:

Right? Yes. Yeah.

Michael Wakelam:

It's been interesting to see that transition, that everyone is able to animate from home. And I guess we're yet to see where it'll go after this. But obviously, you worked on all of the 'Shrek' films as a VFX Supervisor, and obviously, they're all very successful. What was- what was your biggest challenge in that franchise?

Ken Beilenberg:

Well the biggest challenge was the, I guess, on'Shrek' one. So the director had seen what we did on 'Antz'. And he said, that's great. But I want 10 times the complexity of'Antz'. And he was really pushing us to, you know, go farther, which, so, which I think we succeeded at doing. And then for 'Shrek' two, same director came back and said, Okay, well, 'Shrek' was great. But now I want 'Shrek' two to be 10 times more complex. Which was difficult because- so it's like, okay, we'll figure that out but when we're working on the budget, and bidding everything, we couldn't pitch that back to the studio, because the studio didn't care about complexity, they said, we're not paying for complexity. So you know, we were happy with 'Shrek' one, it doesn't have to be any, anything more than that. But the director was saying it's got to be more than that. So there was, there's often that sort of push and pull between, you know,(unintelligible) between creative and budget, and all that sort of thing. So we're always, you know, caught them between what the, you know, what the director wanted, and what we wanted to do, and what the, you know, the budget and schedule would allow, but that's not unique to 'Shrek', that's every animated film, or every film has that challenge. But I think on'Shrek' the, I guess, probably one reasons I think we were successful was that the characters were fairly realistic and, you know, human, and trying to get, you know, Fiona to, to not fall into the uncanny valley, which is where are you trying to make a character look realistic, and like a real human, but animated, and but it just doesn't quite work. So then the mind goes, ooh, this is off, and then you hit what they call the uncanny valley. So we were kind of skating around that and trying to figure out just, you know, how to how to make those characters work. And you had to, you know, you had to buy them as characters and 'Shrek' was a fairly, you know, emotional, there was an emotional journey on the film, which is the heart of the film, so you had to empathise with the characters. And so that was probably the hardest thing is working on, technically, just to make those characters work making, because there was no such thing as skin shaders at the time. So we had to, we had to come up with and invent that technology and hair hadn't really been done to that extent. And so we had to write hair shaders and figure out hair simulation. And so there was quite a bit involved and clothing, clothing, was, you know, was new at that time too, then figuring out how, what, you know what we could what we could pull off. So, that was probably the biggest challenge, at least on 'Shrek' one, 'Shrek' two is just probably more scale. Just pushing it pushing it farther.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, well, uncanny valley is something that you know, everyone's still struggling with today. And there's the, you know, the digital human projects and the gap between gaming and animation are getting closer. But it's still a problem that everyone's trying to solve. It's probably easier with less realistic human characters. And we saw that I guess with 'Avatar' that was quite successful.

Ken Beilenberg:

Right. Yeah, absolutely. And at the time, I guess things are changing a bit. But back when we were making those films, one of the mottos was, don't make an animated film unless it should be animated. Meaning, you know, if it's- there's some reason for it to be an animated film, you know, fantastic characters or more squash and stretch motion. You know, things like that. But things are heading towards that, and fully animated films when they really pull off human characters and game engines are rendering them in real time, I think we're gonna see more and more films that are just, you know, entirely 3d, and, and looking, you know, incredibly realistic. So obviously, we're getting there in games, a lot of them. Although, you know, there's a suspension of disbelief, I think, with games, the, the characters, I think, are often in the uncanny valley. But, but in that mode, or in that you know playing a game, you kind of don't care.

Michael Wakelam:

Exactly, exactly. But we're seeing those game tools, you know, the Unreal Engine being used for virtual production and cinematic projects as well. Which is really interesting.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah, I'm getting better and better. And it's, like the Unreal five demo videos are just amazing.

Michael Wakelam:

It's amazing.

Ken Beilenberg:

That's the, it boggles my mind. Because, you know, one of the other things we always had a challenge with is just rendering. You know, the- if we had a complex scene with grass and trees, you know, this could be 20 hours per 24 hours per frame to render. It was frequently that, and then same complexity in these, you know, game cinematics and game shots and coming out that and Unreal thing, and that's rendering in real time. It just, it just boggles my mind. I can't believe that I actually think there's a trick there somewhere. I don't know what it is.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, we're just doing our first first Unreal virtual production project here and, you know, getting getting our head around that technology. It's fun, challenging, but very interesting.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yeah, definitely.

Michael Wakelam:

So there's, there's an argument to be had that an animated film is entirely visual effects, because I guess the tools that you know used to create them and bring them to life have largely- they're the same tools that have been used for visual effects in live action films. Especially when you look at the genesis not only of Pixar, but which came out of Lucasfilm, but PDI is early days. But I'd also say there was a period between perhaps starting from like 2008 with maybe 'Wall-e' and 'Kung Fu Panda' through 2012, where there was this real acceleration of the level of VFX work. Such as, you know, say the destruction and water effects in 'Monsters vs. Aliens', thinking specifically of the the Bay Bridge scene there, and the cloud work in 'Puss in Boots'. And, you know, work that Pixar was doing in 'Toy Story 3' and'Brave'. What was driving that acceleration? Was it development of in house tools, or the emergence and adaptation of tools, such as Houdini? Or was it a combination?

Ken Beilenberg:

Well, those, I think, for most of the films that you mentioned, and those effects that was both at Pixar and PDI, that was in house development as the tools, you know, didn't exist commercially. Because that was a lot, a lot of that was the first time those things were done. And then, you know, subsequently, then those get rolled into Maya and into Houdini. But the it was really, one of the things that was over my career at DreamWorks was that as a visual effects supervisor, it became easier to say yes to things. Because early you know story would want to do something and we would be you know, I'd have to be the bad guy and say, uh you know, not sure how to do that. And I mean, you know, I learned early on you can't say no, you have to figure it out. But, but there would be you know, instead of it would be yes, we can do that but here you know, this shot needs to be like this and we can't, can't be this wide and so we would find creative ways to solve it. But you know, keep it, you know, doable. But you know, as things went on, there were less and less constraints on story, which was really great. So story could just dream up whatever they wanted. And the computers were fast enough, the tools were better the animators skill sets. So I think that story team started to see that trend. And then they started incorporating more and more big effects in their film. And so there was that I think that acceleration, you know, came from that, it's,you know, it's for big action scenes, using visual effects is a great, you know, great driver for excitement. So, so it's great that we're able to, you know, provide that and we didn't have to, you know, pull back and say no, although, again, I could never say no, I learned that early. I tried that once with the studio. And it didn't go well. So then for a career or longevity, you have to learn to say yes,

Michael Wakelam:

Yes, and then go figure it out.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yes. Which is the fun of it, as well. So that was really exciting. You know, going back, like, I put together an amazing effects team. And sort of early on the I had a sort of a, what would you call it a transit or, a the team of people that would go from artists to developers, so we had- and everyone in between. So, so we didn't, so we had to have a creative (unintelligible) called effects developers so I was hiring in people that were coming from computer graphics, you know, more r&d programmes and colleges, and but were interested in production. So I brought them in, out into the r&d team, but into the effects team. So we were developing effects tools, right within the the effects department, which was great for quick development, because the tool didn't have to survive to the next film. And then the artists are right there, you know, using the using the tool. So there was a really great feedback loop. So that's how a lot of. a lot of the technology was developed first in production, and then it would get passed to the r&d department to, to make it in a more global and sort of be able to be supported and survive into the next film. So. So yeah, a lot of lot of that. So there's a lot of prototyping, you would say, on the films and then and then a lot of that ends up in the commercial software as well.

Michael Wakelam:

It's an interesting lifecycle. Can you talk about that, that destruction scene in 'Monsters vs. Aliens'? If you can recall. Some of the challenges that- challenges I mean, you obviously had the destruction of the bridge, but then there was water beneath it. And on a probably a larger scale than you've, you've dealt with to that point.

Unknown:

Yeah, that was there was definitely a big sequence. We were really excited about doing all of those effects. The... well, I think a lot of the technology already existed, actually, for that, for that film for just the destruction and dust systems and debris systems and the water. So we're using different height fields for just the bay, but then splashes were using that fluid simulation system that had been developed. So I think for the Golden Gate Bridge, a lot of that was just the scale and putting all that together and needing, you know, amazing artists to, to pull all that together. And we had, you know, quite a big, quite a few shots, and some big wide shots. So it was mostly a challenge of scale. And then interaction with the characters, which makes the effects more challenging.

Michael Wakelam:

And when did you start using deep compositing at DreamWorks? Was that by that point, or earlier?

Ken Beilenberg:

No, that was that was quite a bit later, I would say, that might have been more like around '[How to Train Your] Dragon Two', 'Kung Fu Panda 3'. So deep compositing came quite a bit later for for us.

Michael Wakelam:

Can you just explain deep compositing to the audience for us?

Ken Beilenberg:

Sure. So, so deep compositing is when you have just not you don't just have three dimensional layers that you're putting together in the compositing process. You also have depth information. So you're you're able to sort of blend things together based on the depth information that you have. So you could render characters separately, then you can render a smoke pass. And in the past, we would have to cut out the characters out of the smoke pass in order to do that compositing. But with deep compositing, you could just render the smoke pass, render the characters, you have depth information. And then then the compositing factor process that puts the two together and doesn't put the smoke that's behind the character, doesn't actually composite that in. So that's roughly the process.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, and I guess that would have been a big leap in, as far as the realism of those effects in those scenes.

Ken Beilenberg:

It was yes. And so we had, and I don't know where DreamWorks is these days, because I haven't been there for a bit. But we were always talking about whether we should have a compositing department or not. So they tried that on'Shark Tale'. But it, it didn't end up working out and surviving to the next film. Because in the past, and then almost for all the films, the lighters themselves did the compositing. So the- we didn't have that sort of level of compositing expertise that you would have with a compositing specialists that you would have, you know, more on live action film, and you'd get into deep compositing and all of that sort of thing. So, for the most part, the animation compositing wasn't as tricky because you weren't, you didn't have live action elements to try to integrate into. And you had more control and you could re-render something instead of just you know, fixing it in the composite. So there was always talk, though of you know, should we have a compositing department? Would it be more efficient? Would we get better results? On MVA (Monsters Vs. Aliens), we brought on one compositor, Jeff Olm who came in and then we we would kick the really tricky compositing shots to him. So some of those golden gate bridge shots and things like that, so. So it was great. Yeah, we got good results. But it's- the pipeline was always a little bit tricky. And anytime you add another step, it's more expensive. So in this case, it was so yeah. So that was an experiment we did on monsters, but that didn't, that sort of ended there. So we didn't really continue doing that. So my guess is that most of the CG in computer animation industry for feature does not have a separate compositing. I could be wrong, but it's, you know, just that extra step that you often you don't want to pay for and don't want- don't need. It's harder to schedule. So um.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, I was talking to Nate Barnard from Cinesite recently in the in their animation pipeline, and and they have the same approach, the lighter is- composites the shots as well.

Ken Beilenberg:

Right. Yeah, I think that's pretty, pretty standard. But we're always scratching at that thinking, you know, maybe we should have compositors.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. As you say, it's another step, another step in the budget too. So can just talk about the clouds, the cloud scenes in'Puss in Boots', because that was quite a departure for clouds in that really the clouds became almost like characters in those shots. Was that a challenge?

Ken Beilenberg:

Oh, my gosh, yes that was. remembering back to that. So that just- coming up... well, for one thing, having white elements is a challenge. Because they're very tricky. They can easily you know, if you're colour correcting they can easily go in a in a bad direction. And, and, you know, white, pure white, you know, you think of clouds as being pure white. But that's not going to work too well, you need to have some depth, but you know, you get too much depth, and then they turn grey, and then it doesn't look, you know, angelic and fluffy and cloud like. So that's one challenge with clouds. But also, you know, for that sequence, we had lots of character interaction. So that was, that was a big challenge. And the other is just the, the traditional like building an environment to, you know someone draws it, and then it's designed, potentially, you do an art model in the art department and then give it to modelling and it's all very tangible. And you can, you know, you, the director can look at the model and approve it with the clouds we're wondering, well, how are we going to design these and how is it going to be modelled and is that going to start with the effects department and having the effects department, you know, kind of move clouds around and render it is, you know, that's an expensive iterative process. So, so we did end up having modelling just build models, build sets with spheres and ellipses. And so they looked, you know, really kind of strange and bubbly, but were able to- able to get, you know, rough approvals on the sets that way, and then it would go to effects and then they would either just use that as a guide, or, you know, we can actually take those primitives and turn them into clouds, and, you know, hopefully they merge together so that it looks seamless. But that process that required a different, you know, anytime you have to go out of your normal production process of, you know, it goes from story to layout to modelling and- so clouds, you know, kind of circumvented that loop and, and animation, where, you know, what is the surface that they're animating on top of, and we had to work with them have no, you need to, you know, sink down in by six inches, because, you know, director wants to cover their feet, or, you know, they can't be just standing on top of a wispy cloud that didn't look right for contact. So, so there's more back and forth, which made that, made that expensive, and, and then all the interactions. So, so that was the tricky part is just that, you know, went outside of the normal approval process and a normal sort of semi linear production process, which is never really quite linear, where you go from one department and then to the next department, there's always overlap and some feedback loops. Except for the clouds, there was more, a lot more feedback loops.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, it was just, it was a really interesting result, as well. And, you know, anytime you tackle something like that, that's never been done, or you haven't done, you end up with a really, really great result, usually. So you see, you also, I guess, you went at one point from VFX Sup to Workload Director, I guess the credit is, is that more of a pipeline supervision type role, or the tool supervision?

Ken Beilenberg:

It is yeah, so the, I guess, after 'Puss in Boots', then I went into workflow director position for a while, so that- I was ready for a change. And so that's a global position. So you're working sort of across all the projects. And working on I mean, the from the studio's perspective, it's saving money. So they wanted to reduce the costs of making the films on the creative side, we wanted to increase the amount that we could do, and get onto the screen and make them look better and make the effects better. So... which was kind of the challenge, always with those projects that we had with the studio, they would say, you know, we'd be in gap and say, we can do this project, we'll keep busy by writing these new shaders and do this new process. They'd sy, great, do that and then how much can we reduce the budget of the film by you know, how can- how much can we increase the quota, so it's always a little bit frustrating, it's like, okay, we're going to do something good. And then it's going to cost us because it's- they're going to take time out of our out of our schedule and out of our budget. But so that was the workload director job was to try to, you know, create efficiencies and work, you know, across departments and, you know, find ways to, you know, where departments could collaborate, or one department, you know, maybe surfacing and make sure all of their materials, work, you know, with a, with a one intensity light so that lighters don't have to tweak all that stuff in their process. So then it's working with surfacing and saying, okay, we need to give you tools and for how you test all the materials that you're developing, so that they work really simply for lighting, so they can just put a light on, it looks good, and things aren't out of balance. And some, we had some processees, like in layout that were very time intensive. So you know, we would analyse that and say, okay, if we spend this much money on r&d, and spec out this tool, then we can reduce the number of final layout artists, you know, from, you know, six down to four. So that was the workflow process. So I did that for a while. And then- which is great it's great to work across all the, all the teams within a project within a film but then across all the films which for me was one of the things I liked about being a visual effects supervisor is I don't, I guess I always tend towards wanting to have my finger, you know, on a lot of things rather than just specialise in one thing. So visual effects supervisor, I got to work with all the departments, you know, throughout the entire process from, from rigging, to lighting, and surfacing and modelling and matte painting and effects and all the, you know, all the specially the image making departments. So I like that sort of broad sort of oversight. So then being a workflow director, and then I became a production executive. That was something that really appealed to me, as you know, being able to work, you know, then across movies.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, definitely. It's great having, I guess, even from I guess, I look creatively at your CV, and oftentimes, we can think of, we wouldn't necessarily always think creativity and story input when we're when we're thinking about VFX, I guess, but you, I mean, I saw that you had a story credit on 'The Pig Who Cried Werewolf'. You've been involved in producing documentaries, you've, you've written other things. And so tell us about how you kind of outwork all of that creativity in your life in in different ways?

Ken Beilenberg:

Well, one of the things- so definitely, so being, you know, special effects supervisor or being an effects artists, you know, it's definitely, it's very creative. And, and we are, we consider everyone to be part of the story process. So, you know, everyone is contributing to the, to the, to the narrative, and, you know, to the overall film, but there were times when I was feeling, you know, I want to do more, I want to, you know, have a bit more control over the, you know, the story and the narrative or the overall project. So, I guess, after, after 'Shrek the Third', which I was, I was on for pre production. Then my partner who is a visual effects producer at tippet studios, and I both left our, left our positions and started our own production company, to make our own films. And so we started off doing, we were looking for, you know, projects, we we're developing a bunch of things and sort of fell into doing documentaries. So that's where we got our start, and it- and it answered a, you know, an itch that, for myself, of wanting to, you know, be more on the directing and producing side and, you know, have an overall, more control over the creative. Part of it was going to film festivals, and sitting in the audience and saying, oh, you know, I would love to have a film in a festival and you know wishing, yeah, and then we just decided, why can't we do that, and let's do that. So we broke off and did our own things and did a one documentary, and then a concert film, and then another documentary called 'Equality U'. So it was really challenging. So being an independent filmmaker is really rewarding, but it's really challenging as well. Because the, pretty much the entire industry is against you. You have no money, everyone wants to make lots of money off of you. Theatres don't even want to talk to you. You can't even book the theatre, they're like your small potatoes festivals, you think, oh, they're so filmmaker friendly, and they can be and we had some amazing experiences with festivals, but applying to film festivals, a lot of them, you know, have, you know, fairly high entry fees, and-

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, it can be really costly.

Ken Beilenberg:

Yes, very costly. So, so we did that. And it was great. So but we guess we kind of got that out of our system. And then I went back to DreamWorks, which, it was really gratifying to be at a- back at DreamWorks and be at a big studio and go, oh, the industry respects us again. You know, I don't have to fight as hard to make a film. So but yeah, so that was, you know, a really great experience just to be able to start with, you know, nothing and then, you know, be the, you know, the two people my partner and I to you know, pull it together and make a film and then see it up on the screen was really gratifying. And for the concert film that we did, we ended up- we had to figure out how to produce a live concert. So finding a venue and getting the fire marshal to okay the candles that we were using and hiring the film crew and designing the sets and I ended up- I thought our cinematographer would design the lighting for the the film for the concert and turned out that wasn't his forte. So I ended up designing the lighting and the lighting cues and was sitting back- we had five cameras for the shoot and so you know, inexperienced director I'm back there in the video village with five monitors and having to call in real time, like, okay, camera five do this, camera two. And we shot over two days, the first day was a little bit dicey. And then by the second day, I was much more confident and did a better job at that. But but as you know, it's really exciting to just think that you can just have an idea and make it happen. Just create it.

Michael Wakelam:

You're, you're a problem solver, obviously, as well, which is why you're so suited to to VFX and pipeline. And so I think you know, you'd probably take any challenge that was given to you and be able to handle it. Sp now you're you're teaching at Art Centre, is that right?

Ken Beilenberg:

I am. Yeah. So I'm faculty director for concept design at the Art Centre College of Design. And so that came about, I had left 'Boss Baby' was my last film at DreamWorks, I took some time off. And then friend of mine was the chair of the entertainment design department. And he said, well, I have a position open hiring a director of concept design. And I said, well, that sounds great but I'm not a concept designer. And he said, no, you'll be great, it'll be perfect. You know, you've worked with art departments your whole career. And, you know, most of the art department people and production designers and art directors I worked with came from Art Centre. So it was, you know, I had had a lot of experience working with concept designers and art departments, and knew how to, you know, how to run a team and, you know, handle supervising and that sort of thing. So, so I interviewed with lots of different people and ended up getting the job. And it's been great. I really, really love, it feels feels like, you know, the 4.0 of my career of, it was time to do something different. And, you know, I love college, I love University. I love the vibe, I love working with students. And then it's also, you know, that sounds corny, but it is kind of time to give back as well and train the next generation. So I'm really, really enjoying that. And a lot of my job is advising students and working, adding new classes and hiring faculty and working on the curriculum and figuring out how to best give them the best experience and set them up to succeed coming out of college. So... and that's really gratifying.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, and it's certainly a very different education environment in this industry than when you first started out. So I mean, can my, my 16 year old son is putting all of his time in Blender and Unreal Engine at the moment. And then today, I get a text from him to say that he's starting in Houdini, and, you know, jumping into that, and, you know, it's a different world for them, because they've got, you know, free versions, student versions of the software, or all the tools, the same tools that the big studios have, and, you know, they learn through iteration and, and tinkering. But what are some of the things that you look for in student portfolios, some of the pitfalls?

Ken Beilenberg:

So for, for student portfolios, we're looking for potential, that spark of magic and creativity. And we like to think in our concept design programme, that we're not just training artists who can draw and paint, but you know, it's the concept, part of concept design, the thinking part. So we put a lot of effort on on that the problem solving and creative solutions, because that's what studios, that's what they hire an artist for, you know, there are tons, there are lots of people who are amazing at, you know, artists for drawing and painting. But it's, you know, it's more rare to find, you know, people that can be storytellers and problem solvers and you know, creatively do things that hadn't been done before. You know, one of one of the things that directors always do at the beginning of the film is they come and say, show me something I've never seen before. We're looking, we push that a lot in our programme of, you know, creative thinking and originality. And so we're looking for that originality in those entrance portfolios. And you can't expect too much from the students at that point because they haven't been challenged to problem solve. And be as you know, pie in the sky creative. A lot of times, they're, most of my students want to work in video games now. So they've played video games their whole life, and they want to go into video games. So that invariably a lot of the portfolios though, they have reimagined Assassin's Creed and(unintelligible), and but you're looking for, you know, how did they do that? And what, you know what interesting choices did they make bold choices? So that's, you know, we're looking for that combination, they have to have really strong fundamentals. So, you know, we expect a pretty high level of students coming into our programme. And we spend the first year or two, partly on fundamentals, but we quickly transition them into the concept part and the thinking part and, and storytelling part. And so, yeah, so they have to be strong with fundamentals, but yet we're looking for creativity, originality, potential, you know, simple things. Do you miss being involved in production at all? Is it something you'd go back to? Um, it's possible, I do miss it. I miss, you know, being at the big studio and all the energy of production that's going on and the intensity of production. So I partly missed that, but I partly don't, because the intensity of production, the issue with our industry is the work life balances. It's pretty hard to maintain. So in my current job, you know, work really hard, but it's much easier to be, to find that work life balance.

Michael Wakelam:

To go home and relax and have a weekend.

Ken Beilenberg:

And so, so that part I don't miss. I'm not exactly sure I want to go back back to that. But it's possible if the right project came along, I could do that.

Michael Wakelam:

Excellent. Ken, it has been a real pleasure walking down memory lane with you. Thanks so much for joining me and taking the time today.

Ken Beilenberg:

Great. Thanks so much, Mike. It was fun.

Michael Wakelam:

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed that chat as much as me. If you're enjoying what we're doing we'd love your feedback and comments on whatever podcasting platform you use. It really helps the visibility of the show and of course, share it with friends or on social media. If you have any ideas for guests or the show, please get in touch. You can find me on Twitter@mikewakelam or email podcast@thecreatorssociety.org. Special thanks to Rich Dickerson for the Music, Mike Rocha for the mix and our exec producer Eric Miller. Thanks again. See you next time.