Interview with Blur Studio's Mike Johnson

In a Flash! we talk to Blur Studio's Mike Johnson about life as a scene assembler for big-name cinematics.

In a Flash! we talk to Blur Studio's Mike Johnson about life as a scene assembler for big-name cinematics.

3dtotal: Hi Mike. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you found your way into the CG industry?

Mike: My name is Michael Johnson and I was born and raised in NYC. Since I was young, I've always drawn portraits, still life, cartoons, and comic-style art.

After graduating art and design high school in Manhattan, I moved to California and that's when a friend of mine introduced me to Illustrator and Photoshop. From there I taught myself those programs and started playing with vector art and After Effects for motion graphics.

It wasn't until I saw a video game cinematic that I began to think 'Now that's something I want to try!' From there, I looked into 3ds Max and started reading books and watching online tutorials. Instantly, I was hooked and began having fun making environments and products to trick my friends into thinking they really existed.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | WB Games

3dtotal: Wow, so you taught yourself the 3D side of things? That is really impressive. Where do you start when trying to learn 3ds Max and other 3D software by yourself?

Mike: I started teaching myself 3ds Max by purchasing the huge 3ds Max Bible book, and looking up tutorials for anything specific that I wanted to learn. If I wanted to learn how to animate something, model an object, particles, or destroy things into pieces, I'd just look it up in the book or on YouTube. I also used sites like 3dtotal; there are so many helpful tutorials on this site.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | WB Games

3dtotal: If I understand correctly you currently work for Blur, creating environments and working on lighting and compositing for scenes from their cinematic trailers. Can you tell us a little about how the trailers are made and what your involvement is in the process?

Mike: Initially there is a script that comes from one of the directors at Blur, and once that's approved it goes on to storyboards. From storyboards, we start to get concepts of the environments, characters, props and so on. Once we have all those elements we can start building layout environments so the animation department can get started.

When the layout is approved the environment modeler comes in and starts really filling out those layout environments with actual elements that will be in the final look and feel. At Blur, my job title is Scene Assembler, which consists of modeling and lighting the environments, bringing the characters into the scene and lighting them so they integrate well, and then finally compositing all of that with the FX department's work.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Fox Sports

3dtotal: That sounds really interesting. It sounds like you are involved in most of the stages of the creation of the trailers. Do you ever find it restricting when there are different assets and characters coming from different people, or does the process tend to run smoothly?

Mike: Most scene assemblers are involved a lot that's what makes our job so fun though! Rather than just being a lighting artist or a modeler, you get to switch it up for each project. The process usually runs smoothly. Sometimes there are technical issues but that goes for everything.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Y&R; | Pepperidge Farms

3dtotal: We regularly plug Blurs work on the front page of our site, and everyone is always blown away by the outstanding work you guys create. Can you tell us a little about how both yourself and Blur studio maintain such a high standard of work?

Mike: Thanks! Really I think the way we maintain the level of work we do is just by having fun with it and each other! At Blur its all open to walk around and talk to your friends and ask questions if you don't know how to approach something and I think that plays a huge role in developing skills as an artist.

In my first year there, I learned more than probably 5 years of self-teaching. Also, everyone has no set hours so there's really no clamp on your creativity; you can come and leave as you please (but of course get your stuff done!)

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Y&R; | Pepperidge Farms

3dtotal: How interesting. I would presume that you all worked set hours. Do you work on multiple projects or is the whole team working on the same project at the same time?

Mike: Don't get me wrong you have to at least put in 8 hours a day, but usually if you know what you have to do and you don't have meetings earlier in the day, you can come in at a decent hour without swollen eyes! And if youre the type that likes to work late with no one in the studio, you can do that as well. The studio is never closed to the artist.

There are always multiple projects going on at a time. If the majority of the team is on one project its probably on a really large scale! That's also what I love about this job, because you never know what style of project youre going to be on. But I think its great to get to work on diverse projects because you learn a lot.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Y&R; | Pepperidge Farms

3dtotal: When we judge site gallery submissions, we are regularly faced by scenes which are poorly composited and look very inconsistent. Can you tell us a little about how you avoid this issue and how you create believable lighting etc?

Mike: When youre compositing its very easy to get lost in colors. I try to make everything black and white when I'm adding all the elements into a shot. This way its easier to check the values between your foreground and background elements. Typically, elements in the foreground will have higher contrast levels than elements in the background, which in return will bring correct depth levels to your image.

For lighting I try to stay as realistic and simple as possible. If it's an exterior shot in the day, sometimes a simple direct light for sun and HDRI will do. In some cases we get projects where we don't use GI, and you have to create the bounce light effect with several lights, but I think if you keep a practical light setup you'll achieve realistic results in most cases.

Courtesy of Blur Studio |WB Games

I also think that most of the time you'd get much better results when you light an object from an angle rather than placing a light directly behind your camera view. It will give your object and/or image shape and depth. That's always better than a flat image. Also, always look up lots of reference images!

Composition plays a huge role in images as well. Without great composition the eye tends to get lost in the image and its hard for the back-story to come across. There are many books on composition but one of my favorites is 3Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition For Visual Storytellers.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Isomniac Games|Electronic Arts

3dtotal: Working at a big studio must be very satisfying, but also time consuming. What do you like to do to let your hair down in your free time? Do you feel that your free time activities ever influence the way you approach lighting a scene or modeling an environment?

Mike: Yes, working at Blur is very time consuming, but also so much fun! Its awesome to see your images appear during a football game or around the town.

In my free time I like to watch a lot of movies, practice a bit on programs I want to use in the future, and take a trip or 2.

I think, in general, in being a CG artist everything has an influence on the way you approach every task. There's never a time where Im not looking at the ground and thinking about the irregularities in the concrete, or at a building with ornate shapes, or at mountains that fade into the sky with greater distance.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Isomniac Games|Electronic Arts

3dtotal: How much freedom do you have when working on a still for a trailer? Can you make design decisions when working on the lighting, or do you have to closely stick to references and concepts?

Mike: Usually we have to follow what the concept art provides, as far as mood and color is concerned, though there are rare occasions when you can bend the rules just a bit. In the end, its always up to the client.

3dtotal: Finally, if you could work on any kind of project, whether it be feature film, cinematic or game, what would you choose and why?

Mike: I want to do everything! As long as I'm growing as an artist I really wouldn't mind what I'm working on. Once I feel I'm not learning anymore, that's when I'll have to move on and try something new.

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Isomniac Games|Electronic Arts

Courtesy of Blur Studio | Isomniac Games|Electronic Arts

3dtotal: Thanks for your time Mike. We look forward to seeing the next epic cinematic!

Mike: Thank you guys! I appreciate the opportunity and you guys reaching out to me. Take care!

Related links

2 books that Mike recommends are the 3ds Max Bible and Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition For Visual Storytellers.
Check out Mike Johnson's website for his latest work, including cinematic work on Elder Scrolls!

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