“I’m most proud of the group dynamics and joint effort that happens behind-the-scenes. That teamwork is the foundation of any show or achievement, and it’s what I find most rewarding. If you don’t enjoy the process, the outcome won’t be as sweet!”
– Chris Downs, Head of CG, Vancouver
Meet one of this year’s Rookie Award judges, DNEG Vancouver’s Head of CG, Chris Downs!
With over fifteen years of experience working in feature film VFX, Chris previously worked as one of DNEG’s VFX Supervisors before stepping into his current role at our Vancouver studio as Head of CG.
Throughout his career, Chris has worked on some of Hollywood’s largest franchises, including Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Most recently, Chris worked as DNEG’s VFX Supervisor on Disney’s Jungle Cruise.
Hello Chris! Tell us what brought you into the world of VFX and Animation…
I started studying computer science because I loved programming and problem-solving. As a requirement of my degree, I enrolled in language, philosophy and art courses. I never considered myself an artist, but then I met an inspiring art teacher who invited me to take a 3D program using Houdini software. I quickly became an ‘unofficial TA’ in that course due to my background in computer programming, and it wasn’t long until the one course became many, and I accumulated enough credits to receive a dual degree in Computer Science and Fine Arts. That’s when I began thinking seriously about how to create a career out of merging these two passions.
How did your journey start? Any career highlight(s) so far?
I put together a portfolio and attended Vancouver Film School. After graduating, I applied everywhere I could — I sent out over 300 reels! — but unfortunately didn’t hear very much back immediately, so I moved back home to Toronto. While there, I went door-to-door to the studios and luckily dropped by C.O.R.E., a VFX studio in Toronto that was working on a huge animated feature. It was perfect timing. They were looking for a Character FX artist, and the Head of the Character FX department and I happened to have graduated from the same university. I showed up to my interview wearing a suit, and I’ll never forget my chagrin looking around seeing everyone else in jeans and a sweatshirt! Ultimately, I was hired and officially got my foot in the door.
While there, I focused on working on as many shots as I could to grow my demo reel. It was a great crew and easy to make friends — funny enough, I actually met Stanley Dellimore (DNEG’s Global Head of CG and fellow DNEG Rookie Awards Judge) there! That strong camaraderie really kicked off my career journey and I’ve reunited with C.O.R.E. people on projects across multiple studios since!
What do you like the most about your job?
My answer has definitely changed over time. In the beginning, my favourite thing was the technical and artistic balance: where one day I’m programming a tool that makes everyone’s lives easier, and the next day I’m flexing the creative muscle to make something look awesome. But as I’ve progressed into more leadership and supervisory roles, I’m finding myself really valuing the teamwork and collaboration side of things. I love supporting my team, whether it be jumping in to offer solutions or just bouncing ideas off of one another. Before taking on more senior leadership roles, I looked at things as an individual actor. Now, I see things from a much more collaborative perspective. I’m personally really looking forward to getting back to the office on a semi-regular basis — I miss that in-person chemistry.
What is your proudest moment to date?
Working with a handful of close friends on the last two Harry Potter films was definitely one for the bucket list and a ton of fun. We were working for Rising Sun Pictures in Adelaide (a small town compared to other VFX hubs!) and our team was extremely small and knew each other well. I was one of just two lighters, the other lighter being one of my best friends!
Otherwise, since becoming a Supervisor, I’m most proud of the teamwork and collaboration that happens on a project. Of course it’s fun to collaborate with the director and move the show forward creatively (and don’t get me wrong, awards are great!) but I’m most proud of the group dynamics and joint effort that happens behind-the-scenes. That teamwork is the foundation of any show or achievement, and it’s what I find most rewarding. If you don’t enjoy the process, the outcome won’t be as sweet!
What’s one thing that is always on your desk when you work?
First – even though during #WFH my family is only about 10 feet away, I keep a family photo on my desk, they always bring me a smile. I also have a ‘Tragically Hip’ hockey puck that stays on my desk. There’s not really a story behind it, I’ve just always loved that line in Happy Gilmore where Adam Sandler’s character pulls a hockey puck out of his pocket. His date asks, “Do you always carry a puck around!?” and he replies, “Yeah!”.
Lastly, I’ve always had (until one of my children accidentally broke it… it’s currently in repair!) a Lego Iron Man statue. My buddy gave it to me after I finished an IronMan race and I keep it on my desk for perspective… If I can do that, then we can get through whatever we’re doing in VFX!
Why did you choose to get involved in the Rookie Awards?
One of the founders of The Rookie Awards, Alwyn, was my roommate when I lived in Los Angeles! We worked at different studios and really hit it off as roommates, and he introduced me to my wife, so now I’m indebted to him forever ;). Mostly, I feel it’s important to give back and provide mentorship for budding artists. It’s hard to get started in the industry without access to someone else with experience who can guide you, and I remember how difficult it was for me to get my foot in the door. So anything like this I want to be a part of, and I’m proud to be able to provide that support for the next waves of artists.
What are you most looking forward to about the Rookie Awards?
I’m always excited to see what new ideas and techniques are being used to bring the artist’s visions to life. Some years you’ll see a theme, others you’ll be blown away by the variety. And I’m always thrilled to see just how far VFX have come each year, how much every year manages, somehow, to build on the complexity and creativity of the year before!
Do you remember being a rookie in the industry? What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in the industry or who is just starting a career in VFX?
Reaching across department lines is a very valuable skill to learn. It’s easy to get siloed into your department and start to think, “that’s not my problem”. But the whole industry is really about collaboration and creating something together. I think it’s only because I bounced between departments early in my career that I was able to really communicate across teams, and this became invaluable once I took on leadership roles.
Finish this sentence: DNEG is…
As fantastically creative and collaborative as all of the incredible worlds we’ve helped to create and explore!