Men’s Day Special Interview – Dan Smiczek, CG Supervisor, Pixomondo Los Angeles
November 16, 2019 – International Men’s Day on the 19 November was founded in 1999 by Dr Jerome Teelucksingh a history lecturer at University of the West Indies in Trinidad Tabago. Interestingly calls for an International Men’s Day (IMD) have been going on since at least the 1960’s when it was reported in the New York Times, Feb 24 1969 that “Many men have been agitating privately to make February 23 International Men’s Day, the equivalent of March 8, which is International Women’s day“ This Day for women was first inaugurated in 1909.
International Men’s Day encourages men to teach the boys in their lives the values, character and responsibilities of being a man. Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must become the change we seek.” It is only when we all, both men and women, lead by example that we will create a fair and safe society which allows everyone the opportunity to flourish in their families and communities.
November is an important month for the masculine soul because it celebrates several events that are important to men. So, we encourage you to wish everyone a happy International Men’s Day on 19 November.” For more info, visit at www.internationalmensday.com
Dan Smiczek has over 18 years of visual effects experience, with film credits including Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and Harry Potter and the Scorcerer’s Stone. Dan started his career as a NASA contractor working for both the Johnson Space Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now gets to work in fictional space universes on TV shows such as The Orville and the Star Trek franchise.
Today, Dan Smiczek talks to VFX Online about his experience about VFX and Animation Industry.
// From Dan Smiczek, CG Supervisor, Pixomondo Los Angeles
How do you describe yourself professionally?
Officially my title is CG Supervisor (Computer Graphics Supervisor). I work very closely with the Visual Effects Supervisor and I am on the floor with the crew bringing the VFX Supervisors’ ideas into reality. The job is a mixture of project planning, technical troubleshooting, artistic direction, and magic. It’s a unique position where you have to have a strong technical ability as well as an artistic ability.
What sparked your interest in visual effects?
From a very young age I have been fascinated with everything film and television, consuming everything I could get my hands on. I spent a large part of my childhood making trips to the movie theater and I was blown away when my family got our first VHS player. I will never forget the very first movie we bought on VHS. It was a used copy of “Ghostbusters” that a video store had for sale. That obsession and curiosity led me to try and understand how films were made. Like many others in the industry I gravitated toward science fiction films and that began my quest into understanding Visual Effects and how I could do it myself.
How did you enter in this industry? What was the key to getting inside?
When I got into the industry in early 2001, I considered myself part of the second generation of Visual Effects artists. The first generation I see as the dawn of the transition of taking the techniques created in live action special effects and bringing them to computers during the ’80’s and ’90’s. In the 2000’s a lot of first generation techniques had software,as well as pipelines,that started to be established,which allowed for a surge in the number of visual effects artists. At the time I was in the aerospace industry as a contractor working with NASA JPL. I already knew I wanted to transition into entertainment and had some previous experience making rudimentary animations. While trying to figure out that transition, I was taking classes at UCLA extension and one of classes I took involved taking a tour of (VFX studio) Rhythm & Hues. I was blown away by what I saw and I realized that visual effects was how I wanted to enter into the entertainment industry. The next day I sent in a resume. I happened to have hit them right at a time of growth where they were in need of people with a technical background. Within a month I left my engineering life behind to take a chance on a 3 month contract working for Rhythm & Hues as a matchmover on “Dr. Dolittle 2” and I have not looked back.
What is the current state for men in the industry?
Unfortunately visual effects has been a heavily male dominated industry. Things are changing because the work is more global now, but there is a long way to go. I would say the current state for men in the industry is too good. I firmly believe the more diverse the industry becomes,the betterthe quality and the art of VFX will be.
What is it like to work as a man in your current place of work?
I am actually going to flip the question a little bit and change “man” to “family man”. Many of us started in this industry at a young age and now wehave families with children. The demands of the industry can be very intense and make it very challenging to jugglework and havinga family. Fortunately in my current place of work, Pixomondo, there are a number of people in similar situations so there is a level of understanding in dealing with all of the juggling.
How do you think the industry could improve in those areas?
One of the big areas – not just this industry but in all industries – that could use some improvement is in regards to family leave for the birth of a child. The United States lags far behind the rest of the world in supporting new parents.
What’s your favorite shot or sequence of VFX or Animated Films?
I have been very fortunate to have worked on and supervised some great work over the years. One that stands out for me was the sleigh sequences from the film “Elf” where I did the smoke, fire, and sparks coming out of the jet engine on Santa’s sleigh. We had no idea at the time there was any chance that the film would become a holiday classic and a staple that airs every year. And now that I have children, it’s an amazing feeling that a film I worked on many years ago is something they now can enjoy.
Any special achievements in VFX or Animation?
I was a part of the Academy Award winning team for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” as well as the team that received a nomination for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Most recently my team was nominated for an Emmy Award involving our work on Season 2 of the television show “The Orville”.
Any particular artists/professionals that inspire you?
I am really inspired by the pioneers of Special Effects who came up with the theories and techniques that are still used today in modern Visual Effects. Before I got into the industry, I took a fantastic class on Visual Effects taught by Glenn Campbell, a longtime Visual Effects Supervisor who started his career on groundbreaking films such as “Tron” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. I still carry a lot of what I learned in that class with me today – specifically in regard to showing how original Special Effects techniques are the exact same techniques that transitioned into the computer world of Visual Effects still used today. One of the big names that jumps to mind who helped shape what we do today is Ray Harryhausen. His impact on the industry is unquestionable and will reverberate for many years to come. I have also had the honor to work with some of the pioneers of Special Effects in the Visual Effects industry over the years. On Lord of the Rings my Animation Supervisor was Randy Cook who brought the Terror Dog’s to life in “Ghostbusters”. It was a great experience seeing firsthand techniques that crossed over from the Special Effects world into Visual Effects.
How has your experience been working at Pixomondo?
Since joining Pixomondo I have had fantastic opportunities working on high profile television shows like “The Orville”, “The Mandalorian”, “Star Trek: Picard,” and “Westworld”. I also had the challenge of working on the feature film “Midway” which involved coordinating six Pixomondo facilities all working together and sharing assets to complete 457 shots.
How the Access VFX, Visual Effects Society and many more Organizations support for that industry?
The Visual Effects Society is an honorary society so that is their focus as opposed to support. Unfortunately I don’t know much about Access VFX. True support for the industry would come in the form of a visual effects union but as of yet that has not happened. I have had the good fortune of becoming a member of The Animation Guild (IATSE Local 839) during the time I worked for Dreamworks Animation and saw the many positive impacts that a union can have on the workforce.
What do you think about future of VFX and Animation Industry?
The future of the VFX and Animation Industries is very bright in regard to the increasing amount of work out there. It used to be that there were only a half dozen movie studios who were giving out the majority of VFX work. In the past 10 years the amount of companies needing VFX and animation has exploded. And now with the new streaming services creating their own content there is an even bigger explosion of new work coming.
What would be your ‘dream project’ to work on in Animation or VFX?
When first getting into the industry, the dream was always to get a chance to work on a Star Wars film. Fortunately with the increase in new Star Wars projects, I had the opportunity to contribute to several episodes of the first season of “The Mandalorian” recently. Beyond that, the dream project has always been lot more abstract. Trying to do things nobody has ever done before or create visuals that will blow people away is always what drives me forward.
What advice would you give to someone who wishes to get in to this industry?
It’s actually one of the easier times to get into the industry at the moment depending on how willing you are to relocate. First there are a large number of classes and schools dedicated to Visual Effects than there ever have been previously. The second, and even more important, factor is relocating to a location that is experiencing a large increase in job opportunities. The Visual Effects industry these days is heavily driven by government subsidies whether they are in a different country or on a state level. Right now the new “hot” place where there is a large amount of job opportunities is Montreal. To go hand in hand with how to get into the industry is to set expectations of what you are getting yourself signed up for. Beyond the engaging work and glamour there can be very challenging work conditions. The global VFX subsidies are ever-changing and new locations are constantly popping up offering even better subsidies to draw work to their city. Because of that you can’t get too comfortable in the city that you live in and accept that you may have to continue to move around the world chasing work. On more than one occasion I was working somewhere and given an opportunity to crew on a new project but only if I was willing to move to Vancouver (the hot location at the time). The work hours can also be very challenging. Release dates rarely push so you are working against hard deadlines that are unmovable and can quickly turn into working 60-100 hour work weeks for long periods of time. And because of different work regulations per country and the lack of a global VFX union you could be asked to work those colossal hours and not receive any extra pay for them. Even with those challenges the work can be very rewarding and the friends I have made will last a lifetime.
What are your thoughts about International Men’s Day?
I like to think of it as a day of mentoring and trying to make a positive difference in the world. It is especially meaningful to me this year because I have welcomed my son into the world and I look forward to trying to be the best mentor and father that I can be.
We would like to thank Dan Smiczek for the great interview, and if you would like to know more about him, Feel free to check him out on LinkedIn.