EK Interview: Kevin Margo

Kevin Margo is a VFX / CG extraordinaire currently working at Blur Studios in Los Angeles, California, who recently made his directorial debut with the sci-fi influenced short entitled GROUNDED. I had the opportunity to do a bit of Q&A with Mr. Margo about his latest endeavors, current career choices, and personal creative insights. Check out the full spread after the jump.

Eternal Dual at Elba Point Tennis Club // CG Artwork

Welcome Kevin, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. It means a whole lot to me and the Empty Kingdom family. To start things off, why don’t you introduce yourself to our readers? Like information with regards to where you’re based out of, what you do professionally, what recent projects you’ve completed, and anything else you’d like to share.

Thanks EK! I’m writer, director, producer, VFX artist and editor of the short film GROUNDED. I live and work in Venice, CA and highly enjoy beachside atmosphere. By day I’m a VFX / CG Supervisor at www.blur.com, and have been there for about 10 years now. Blur Studio is a mid-sized animation studio focusing on commercials, ride films and game cinematics. Recent projects the studio has worked on includes David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo title sequence, several VFX shots for The Amazing Spider Man, and the launch trailer for Halo 4. At last tally I’ve overseen 25+ projects and a features length worth of CG animation. More recently I’ve taken to live action filmmaking, directing GROUNDED, with plans to do more in that arena.

What kind of schooling did you receive to help you acquire the skills you have polished to this day? Did you always want to get into computer graphics and animation?

I’m a trained fine artist, with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art ’00 (MICA). But my interest in art began much earlier: in middle school I got hooked on comic books and Calvin and Hobbes. The imagery was so alluring I would replicate pages from the comics in colored pencil, marker and airbrush. I began keeping sketchbooks around this time and haven’t stopped daily doodles of whatever catches my eye. I’ve a shelf full of 20 sketchbooks by now. Lately I’ve drifted towards digital sketching, with a pressure sensitive stylus and iPad. So my sketching continued through high school, with my tastes ‘maturing’ towards fine art that lead me to MICA for college. While studying there I mainly focused on representation drawing and painting, dabbled with abstraction, and was an early adopter of the digital arts beginning to establish itself in the curriculum.

I embraced 3D software after I played the PC adventure games Myst and Riven. I’m not a ‘gamer’, which is likely why these appealed to me. They conveyed very rich, illustrative worlds rendered with high detail and beauty. They were an engrossing form of escapism into a virtual world with convincing atmosphere and immersion. It was this aspect that was an extension of my traditional art: a finely rendered representation of the world around me – something in which to lose oneself. So I set out to learn the tools which would enable me to do the same. There were only a few courses taught at the time, but it was enough training to land a job at a local video game company after I graduated. After a few years of working on game art I longed for a more narrative and substantive application of my skills… and that led me to LA and Blur studio.

You obviously have more than enough experience as a VFX / CG Supervisor, but is your most recent directorial efforts for the live action sci-fi short GROUNDED (2012) a step toward a new path for you? Is film to be your next route? What have been the most challenging aspects of taking on this dual role of both storyteller and technical guru? What were the most rewarding aspects of your journey?

GROUNDED was an extremely revelatory experience that’s impossible to turn my back on, so yes it’s a new path I must explore. I can’t say with certainty what this means just yet, other than I aim to scale up production on similar projects as much as opportunity and the market will provide for. Wearing both storyteller and tech hats had benefits and drawbacks. Directing / storytelling is newer of the two roles, and demanded focused attention to both learn and guide successfully on that front. Tech guru was more in my comfort zone and established skill set, so I was able to lean on the 10 years of developed skills with confidence.

Together, it was really just about planning and preparing ahead, ensuring nothing went unchecked come shooting time and we were capturing everything needed for VFX / post. The mental burden of juggling all those responsibilities on set in real time was tough but the production was small enough that it was feasible. Co-director Barrett Meeker was integral on the live action shoot as well in this regard. A few rewarding aspects of GROUNDED: the realization of what’s achievable on very modest budget and resources given the motivation and time. Knowing I’ve the skill set to execute most aspects of production without reliance on a huge team of artists is quite liberating.

Plein Air Replicants // CG Artwork

What was the inspiration behind GROUNDED (2012)? Can you take us through a brief walkthrough of how you turned your idea into a reality? How did this type of workflow differ in comparison to the projects done at Blur Studio? Are there parallels / similarities?

The death of my father a few years prior was the main inspiration for GROUNDED, but also touched on recurring themes that arose in my past relationships with women. I abstracted these ideas to a degree for looser interpretation by the broader audience while maintaining enough kernel from the source so I would remain intimately attached to the material. Writing GROUNDED was unconventional… more of a scene summary of intent / actions followed with a shot list. While writing I gathered tons of reference imagery, developing a style guide of costumes, martian environments, grading treatments, compositions, etc… Next, over the course of two evenings, we shot a live action previz of the entire short film in the back room at Blur. We used faux costumes (a motorcycle helmet as the astronaut helmet for example) and props (an umbrella for the parachute). The goal was to create a working edit with this temp footage as a guide to shot angles, lenses, and timing / action that would serve as a blueprint when shooting on location and inform VFX preparation. Next I spent several weekends location scouting around the deserts of southern California. We settled on a remote area of Death Valley National Park for the crash site, and Silurian Dry Lake bed north of Baker for the terraforming / grass scene. After recently watching P.T. Anderson’s The Master I’m fairly certain they filmed the motorcycle desert scene in this same location.

We also spent a weekend constructing space wreckage out of junkyard car parts, old computer motherboards / circuitry, and dry-hard spray insulation foam. We did several blue screen tests for the free-fall sequence, but ultimately arrived at using a forklift to suspend astronaut actor Derron Ross 50 feet in the air in the back parking lot of Blur against a clear blue sky (the natural blue screen). In total there were 6 days of shooting. 2 days X 2 desert locations and 2 days with the forklift / free-fall scene. Editing went smoothly… I had a cut I was happy with in 2-3 weeks time. Then the VFX began. For 5-6 months nights and weekends (Blur duties during the daytime) I methodically worked my way through 80 shots adding the myriad of digital elements required. Concurrently I had convinced one of my favorite all time musician / mixer / producer (www.kenadnrews.com) who I’ve followed since high school to score GROUNDED which turned out to be a great collaborative experience and really helped define a distinct identity for the film.

GROUNDED was a different experience from Blur projects in a few ways. At Blur, I’m not directing those cinematics, so my role in the project is narrowed to execution of the CG and art direction. Concepts, previz, story, performance, editorial and client wrangling is where the director focuses their attention. The Blur projects typically have been entirely CG with minimal live action, as opposed to GROUNDED that was a hybrid live action / CG film. Blur is beginning to take on some more live action work as seen in the Halo 4 spot, but still mainly focuses on CG animation. I think the largest distinction is between the commercial nature of Blur work and a personal film like GROUNDED. It was free of external influences such as clients and consumers, only limited by available time and budget.

Halo 4 // Trailer Cinematics

Most of the work that encompasses your Blur Studio portfolio deals with a lot of video game cinematics and trailers, like your most recent HALO 4 involvement. How do you and the team at Blur initially tackle such a project? Are you given any set guidelines from the actual developers, like storyboards or scripts? Or is that all done from scratch? How much creative input do you get to weigh in on during this collaborative process?

Every project comes with a different set of constraints / expectations. Some clients will approach us with script, boards and treatment already. Typically these are ad agencies representing all aspects of marketing for a game, our cinematics just one arm. So they’ll have very specific goals in mind. Our favorite clients are the game developers themselves, in which a more collaborative process occurs. Often they’ll give us a rough idea and we’ll write the script. Sometimes we’ll assist in designing the characters and worlds of their game if early in their development. These tend to be the most creatively flexible and rewarding projects.

VFX and computer animation spans across a multitude of media platforms, with applications ranging from simple video “clean-up” jobs, to generating abstract and otherworldly scenarios. From looking back from our own personal experience, what do you see as the next step in VFX evolution? Have we already hit, or are approaching, our limitations? What hurdles do you have today in our current technological progress that you would love to see corrected / revamped for the future? Are there any aspects that you believe shouldn’t change at all?

I don’t think we’ve come close to hitting limitations of VFX / animation application. They have certainly matured and saturated many different platforms the last decade. There are hints of attaining a convincing photoreal visual bar as seen in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Avatar for example. Expect many more successful examples over the next few years… a diffusion of these capabilities to the broader industry. Hurdles I encounter tend to be in the form of processing power of the desired results. Tools and software enable artists to create more complex content, and that places a burden on computing power to deliver feedback in a responsive, intuitive manner. So it demands a constant navigation between the creative potential and reality of resources.

Ideally the potential is enabled to manifest itself without limitation. The next step in VFX evolution for film I imagine are higher frame rates, increased stereo use, larger resolutions, and a more intuitive and seamless workflow in the creation of these films. Video game graphics are still hindered by the demands for real time feedback to a recognizable degree. As tech advances they’ll increasingly look as convincing as current film VFX, only with true interactivity for the player. In other platforms I see huge applications in the inevitable augmented reality market. Those Google goggle prototypes recently previewed online, when paired with GPS / Wifi / accelerometer / compass and Kinect type technology, could allow for photoreal digital elements overlayed atop the real world presented to the user. William Gibson touched on this concept in Spook County.

Fire Fall // Trailer Cinematics

From your current work, I’d like to assume you have a healthy attraction towards science fiction and fantasy related subject matter. Do you have any particular favorite films, TV shows, video games, books, or any other media that you find to be a great source for inspiration (name a max of three)?

Like many in the industry, SciFi content influenced my maturing artistic direction and sensibility. H.R Giger’s stamp on the Alien films, and Kubrick’s stunning 2001: A Space Odyssey resonated with me at an early age. Recently films like Moon, Another Earth, The Tree of Life, and Melancholia have influenced me greatly, not only for the SciFi / cosmic backdrop but also the profound themes and concepts explored. Contrasting the character’s psyche, struggles and introspection against the overwhelming grandness and indifference of the universe makes for a great dynamic. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War and The Accidental Time Machine are good reads as well. There’s an efficiency to Joe’s delivery I appreciate.

Are there any artistic role models that you have found to be of great influence to your growth as an artist (max of three is preferable)? In what way has each of these people shaped your artistic mindset?

So many artists have influenced me, but I’ll name a few over the years. Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame was the first artist to inspire me in middle school. He believed in the potential his medium had with a conviction I rarely see in commercially viable art. Under the guise of childhood imagination and comedy he conveyed many insights on life with a delicacy uncommon in his field. Richard Diebenkorn’s beautiful sense of structured composition influences my approach with representational art. Terrence Mallick’s (The Tree of Life) approach is appealing… live action shoots are the gathering of paint, editing is the act of painting. There’s enormous latitude in editing to dictate the viewer’s read and emotional response to a scene.

Well, we have reached the end of this interview. Again, I humbly thank you on behalf of the EK team for spending your time and efforts with us. I extend my hand to you good sir. Before we sign off, are there any upcoming projects or potential works-in-the-making that you’d like to share as a final note to our readers?

Thanks EK! I’m currently in the early stages of another short film exploring recurring dreams about flooding. These short films are becoming my way to work through emotional and psychological hurdles, so I intend to keep at it. It’s a great cathartic outlet.


Full short for GROUNDED.

VFX Breakdown footage for GROUNDED.

Kevin Margo