CGI artist James Gardner-Pickett on what schools and the post industry should do to nurture the next generation of talent
When James Gardner-Pickett was young, he would sit glued for hours to DVD extras. In the pre-YouTube days it was the only way an aspiring CG artist could glean any information about the world of VFX and CG animation. Assiduously scouting every piece of info he could get his mitts on, James began experimenting on his Dad’s computer. Unfortunately his art teachers at school were less than supportive of his new-fangled techniques and ideas – but that didn’t stop him finding his way to the post production industry. These days James, who works at Curious Productions, is passionate about the education of tomorrow’s VFX and post talent.
LBB’s Laura Swinton asked him about his experiences and vision for the future of VFX talent.
LBB> You worked on your first professional job at the age of 14 – talk about starting young! How did you get involved and what was the project?
JGP> I had been learning 3D software, after school mostly, from the age of 12 or so, enamoured that I could create what the real world couldn’t muster. After a couple of years learning, my skill set grew enough to get involved in an international campaign for Bulmers cider my father was working on. CGI turned out to be perfect for this ad, which needed the cider bubbles to be apple shaped. It was a big buzz and a proper introduction to the world of advertising!
LBB> Growing up, I understand your Dad was a retoucher and your Mum was an artist – what was it like growing up in such a creative household?
JGP> It was great! I would sit on the back of the sofa watching my dad retouch for hours, putting a big dent in the sofa! Eventually, he handed over the pen and that was my introduction to Photoshop and the digital art world. My dad was and still is a veteran high-end retoucher, and a true gadget man! Our house was always filled with the latest software and gizmos, at my fingertips to play with and learn - a true tech sandpit.
My mum was a real chameleon of art, great at everything she tried her hand to; a natural for fine-art, adept at murals on the house walls and by my side every night helping me wade through the jungle.
LBB> I understand you were self-taught as a teenager when it came to CG technology - before the days of YouTube no less! How did you teach yourself? How much time did you devote to it?
JGP> Pre YouTube days were dark for young learners I feel. Knowledge of specialised subjects was guarded behind paywalls and institutes. I got so much inspiration from DVD extras of the time! I remember a love of learning, the feeling of knowing what exactly I wanted to do for the future: computer generated art. Driving forward - no doubts, glued to the screen and teacherless - I persisted down a road of relentless mistakes and trials of error, riffing off of the small successes. Pushing buttons until it clicked, I definitely learnt the art of not giving up right there. Nearly every night after school on my dad’s PC, and during every class I could get away with saw me on my laptop, driving toward what MY subject of passion was.
LBB> I gather you were a bit disappointed when the teachers were not so open to your digital approach to art – what happened?
JGP> I signed up for A-Level art, excited. Unbeknown to me, it was in fact a fine art course. I had grand ambitions and enthusiasm for incorporating the new CGI techniques I’d been learning for years into my art, to carve out and develop MY art style - to only be told that I couldn’t get marked properly if I did so. Following constant negotiation with my teacher year-round to try and sneak in photography and CGI wherever I could, it ended up diluting my vision. A positive from doing what you don’t want to all year is the simple reinforcement of what you already knew: this was not the path I wanted to go down.
LBB> Why do you think there was this attitude about digital’s place in art? Do you think that’s changing among educators?
JGP> It’s a funny thing, I felt in the - admittedly limited - art world that I was exposed to as a young lad, that it wasn’t ‘proper’ art unless a brush was involved, a real one. It was very much about interpreting the world in front of you and painting it in a different style. Whereas what I was enamoured with at the time were the possibilities of putting the viewer into a new world, where impossible things were perceived in a photo real portrayal.
In the industries where your true CV is a portfolio of content, the new generation may need to be brave and not be encompassed by the pressure to follow traditional routes. It may mean you are technically less “qualified” than others and become more experienced in the true industry practises and workflows.
In the advertising industry of VFX artists, I believe it’s happening; the whole educational paradigm is being forcibly changed. With the new formula of a wider Internet audience, it means much lower fees than, say, universities, opening access to a wider demographic of people, with on-tap digital tutors that specialise in the minutia you want your mind to acquire.
I think there’s room for kids to have time in school to flesh out and develop a skill of their choice, much like Google and Microsoft have implemented with their ‘20% rule’, and LinkedIn’s ‘Incubator’. It means the young generation can deep dive into what their perhaps ‘quirky’ passion topic is, instead of it being squashed in schools because there isn’t an exam for it.
LBB> Your job is right at the intersection of art and science/technology – but traditionally these two things are seen as quite separate. Does that make it tricky for VFX/post companies when it comes to finding talent who can combine the two?
JGP> It’s very much like the world of physics, where you have the theorists and the experimentalists. They are both essential, but if you can wield both swords, then it opens doors, especially in VFX. Those drop-jaw epic shots in that movie or advert you just watched are usually done by people who can.
Without a technical side to the artistry, you’re at the mercy of the coders to build your possibilities, your tools. Once one grapples with it, it allows someone to create the tools, to create what was the impossible.
Modern day discovery of talent really relies on another skillset the artist needs: social media. It’s essential, and I feel today many artists are great at this, and the platforms out there to let you be discovered are awesome and let those gifted artists rise to the top.
LBB> Should the industry be more active when it comes to educating schools and colleges about what’s really going on and the job opportunities in creative post and production?
JGP> Definitely. If it wasn’t for films and their DVD extras, I may have never known what potential futures were out there. The schools need to be less wrapped up with the pressure to only teach what’s inside the exams; and the VFX industry could do more to get the next generation excited and involved. I got my job through work experience placement in a department that was perfectly matched to what I was aspiring to. If the industry and the schools work together effectively, we can match the kids much closer to their interests more consistently.
If we can get the children of today to realise that the boring vector maths in class could create the fantasy plant world of Avatar; or that sculpting clay in class could be a stepping stone to sculpting the characters of their favourite Fortnite game or the next monster in Avengers, then we would no doubt have a lot more kids stoked for the next class, knowing where they could go.
The post production industry is a lot of fun, with so many opportunities to entertain, to tell stories, and inspire through the broad briefs that we get; to really put a creative stamp on the work you do and enjoy your career.