Animation Special Interview – Tefft Smith II, Head of Visualization and VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo Los Angeles
October 25, 2019 – October 28, the International Animation Day (IAD) was proclaimed in 2002 by the ASIFA as the main global event to celebrate the art of animation. This day commemorates the first public performance of Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique at the Grevin Museum in Paris, 1892. In 1895, the Cinematograph of the Lumière brothers outshone Reynaud’s invention, driving Émile to bankruptcy. However, his public performance of animation entered the history of optical entertainments as shortly predating the camera-made movies.
Tefft Smith II has two decades of VFX experience in the entertainment industry, working as a Previs, Postvis and VFX Supervisor. His work spans everything from feature films (Kong: Skull Island, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Suicide Squad, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Tomorrowland) to television (CSI franchise, True Blood, Bones, Criminal Minds ) to VR exhibits, to themed entertainment and commercials.
Since arriving at Pixomondo, Tefft has worked on the Emmy nominated The Orville, and Netflix’s The O.A. as well the films Goosebumps 2, A Dog’s Way Home and the upcoming Midway.
Tefft produced the award-winning shorts, Carolina Parakeet and The Smiling Man and directed a tribute video to Steven Spielberg for the Visual Effects Society.
Tefft is one of the partners/founders of Gnomon Studios and served as its Director of Education from 2008-2010. He continues to teach various visual effects courses. Tefft holds a BFA in Animation from MCAD with a minor in Photography and Graphic Design.
Today, Tefft Smith II talks to VFX Online about his experience about Animation Industry.
// From Tefft Smith II, Head of Visualization and VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo Los Angeles
How do you describe yourself professionally?
I am a Visual Effects/Visualization Supervisor, working mostly on films, television shows and commercials. I have worked with several top directors in the industry and have had the good fortune to help tell their stories. Along with VFX supervising, I have also produced several short films, with 2 receiving critical acclaim. I hold a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), in Animation, with a minor in design and photography. Along with my BFA, I also hold a degree in Vocational Certification in High End Digital production from Gnomon School of Visual Effects. I strive to bring a personal commitment to excellence to all phases of my life. I am always growing technologically and creatively, as well as personally, both as a team leader and an individual.
What sparked your interest in Animation or Visual Effects?
I always wanted a career in the arts, however, I was limited to thinking it only was possible as a painter. Then I was introduced to computer graphic design. I quickly started designing logos, advertisements and marketing materials for local companies in Chicago. After taking classes in design, I discovered motion graphics and, after seeing Jurassic Park, I realized I could make a career in the arts. I quickly started looking for colleges that taught computer animation.As soon as I found MCAD, my path to the present began.
How did you first land a job in the industry? What was the key to breaking in?
After graduating from MCAD, I moved to Los Angeles to attend the then-newly established Advanced Animation degree program at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, believing that would provide me an entry point into the industry. A company reached out looking for an animator, to work on a project as an unpaid intern. Along with several other students, I went in for an interview and was selected for the project. The company was Look Effects Inc. and the project was a new Pontiac car campaign for a debut at the Detroit auto show. I was subsequently hired full-time and stayed with Look for 8 years, thereafter. The way I grew within the company was by constantly educating myself, both with technology and by experimenting creatively, seeking to learn from others at Look and in the industry. I was working there and attending Gnomon full time for the first year. I feel the way you can make it in any studio you join is being willing to learn and grow as well as being vocal about your creative ideas. I would, and continue to, always present two options. The first is what is asked of me, and the second is an idea they might not have thought about.
Any particular area of technology that interests you?
I have always tried to stay on top of what is developing, technologically and creatively, in our industry, in order to continually grow as an artist. Recently, I have taken a major interest in virtual production. I really feel that the idea of fix-it-in-post is going to be something of our past. With the advancement of real-time renders, motion capturing technologies and virtual environments using LED walls, we will be able to capture, on set, what the directors and studios are looking for.
What do you think will be the evolution of Animation and VFX Industry over the next few years?
I believe that more and more character animation will be done using Mocap, and true animation will be used for creatures, animation films, and avant-garde animations.
What is your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
I will have to say Disney+’s The Mandalorian. Since I grew up in this world, it was a dream come true to have the chance to work on something I love so much. The challenge was to make sure I did it justice.
What was the most discouraging moment in your professional career? What helped you overcome it?
I can’t say that there has been one moment but it is more of a few broad discouragements. The first is the idea that sometimes you work on a show, or a shot, for weeks, sometimes months and then, for no understandable reason, the show is cancelled. So all the work you have done may never be seen or ever talked about.
The other one is the misconception of our role and importance in the industry. I would say that 90% of all major film and television shows have an extensive amount of visual effects. However, we are still struggling to be appreciated for all the effort and work that goes into it. So many people think it is just a series of button pushing, but the reality is that we are all bringing a level of creativity, artistic and technological expertise as well as effort, to the process of entertaining and educating. On both cases, the best way I have moved forward is knowing, especially now, things are always changing and evolving. With everything I do, I try to do it to the best of my abilities, giving it my 100%. I know if I do that, then it doesn’t matter how it is perceived, because I am proud of the effort I put into the project.
What was your favorite Animation or VFX Film and Why?
It is hard to pin point just one film. The short film I directed for the Visual Effect Society about the 50 greatest films was an homage to all the films that have impacted the industry, but also me. Each one was a technological advancement for our industry. Each one pushed the boundaries artistically to allow the viewer to experience something they had never seen. There have been several more since then but still too hard to name just one.
What’s your favorite Animated/Cartoon Character and Why?
Iron Giant. He is a seemingly robotic and emotionless thing, yet he was animated to manifest so much emotion, the joy of just being and loving. He evoked all my childhood memories and still, to this day, brings me a sense of wonderment and happiness.
What’s your special achievements/awards in Animation and VFX Industry?
I directed bumpers of the 50 greatest VFX Films and a Tribute to Steven Spielberg for the Visual Effects Society. I have also won several awards for the Short Film I produced, The Smiling Man. Recently a commercial I supervised the previsualization for, Bud Light x HBO – Joust, won a Super Clio.
What’s your favorite tools for Animation and VFX?.
Autodesk Maya – we use a proprietary set of Maya tools written for Pixomondo by Brian Magner, Adobe Creative Suite, Nuke and Syntheyes.
Any particular artists/professionals that inspire you?
Alex Alveraz, Darrin Krumweide, Aaron Sims, Brad Bird, Tom Peitzman, Mike Chambers, Mark Stetson, Henrik Fett, Marcel De Jong, Andy Weisblum, Wyatt Smith, Dan Gregoire, Johnny Gibson, Derek Spears and Thilo Kuther.
How has your experience been working at Pixomondo?
Since joining Pixomondo, I have been able to grow in every way as an artist and a leader. They have given me opportunities to move into other aspects of the visual effects pipeline. I have had several opportunities to work hand in hand with top directors and manage extremely large teams. Most studios will lock you into the area you are hired for. Pixomondo has really enhanced my ability to expand my expertise and grow creatively in multiple departments.
What do you think about Animation Organizations support from ASIFA, Women In Animation, Animation Guild, Animation Society for this industry?
I feel any organization that can help young and veteran animators grow technologically and creatively is great. All of these and others have helped with finding jobs, answering questions that you may not find at your current studio and, mostly, they act as a sounding board to grow and continue to learn about all the new developments in our industry. And it is a great place to meet people you may otherwise never have contact with.
What kind of projects would you like to work on in the near future?
Completely new and original content. I love the era of sequels and remakes, however, I feel we are in dire need for some fresh new ideas. It would be amazing to start creating films that are self-contained into one story.
What advice would you give to someone who wishes to get in to this industry?
It is easy to learn how to push buttons and learn the programs that help us in the industry. The way to succeed in the industry is by developing an ever-growing fine arts and film making understanding. The more you know about how the industry came to be and is evolving, the people and their ways of achieving it, the better artist you will become. This will also allow us all to develop new and better practices and techniques to more effectively and efficiently service our clients.
What’s the importance of World Animation Day to you?
It allows me to buy doughnuts for my team!