“We get to solve unusual problems, typically visual ones, that arise when we are trying to create new ways of telling stories with filmmakers – it’s very interesting and keeps you on your toes!”
Oliver James, our Chief Scientist, started his journey with DNEG as a Research & Development (R&D) Supervisor 18 years ago. He’s worked on films like Batman Begins, Inception, and Interstellar just to name a few. Keep on reading to learn more about his career in Research and how his work helps to shape the science behind filmmaking.
Hello Oliver! Tell us what brought you into the world of VFX and Research Science?
My journey started out in photography as a hobby – something I was really interested in. After university, I got a job in a photographic studio as an apprentice, the best way to learn absolutely everything about the photographic industry. Not only how to create pictures but how to run a studio, how to deal with clients, and all the technical aspects of photography. I loved it but I was missing my physics, computing and mathematics. So, I started doing some research… I wasn’t even aware that the VFX industry existed in the UK at the time until a friend of a friend introduced me to someone in the industry and I landed my first job in VFX. Fun fact, the company I started with was based just a few hundred yards from where DNEG London is now!
I moved to DNEG because I really wanted to work on Batman Begins. I think everybody in the industry was excited about the prospect of Christopher Nolan bringing his unique style to a superhero movie. I was also looking forward to working with Dan Glass and Janek Sirrs (both Production VFX Supervisors) again, a pair I had worked with in the past on Matrix Reloaded at ESC and during my time at CFC. They took the VFX work to DNEG and I think I gave the company a call the day that was announced.
Batman Begins kickstarted DNEG’s photogrammetry tooling: we wanted to recreate parts of Chicago as a stand in for Gotham City. We had a lot of fun building tools to remotely control DSLR cameras on cranes, to stitch these images into giant panoramas and to build geometry from the pictures.
Back then DNEG was a much smaller company so you’d have one main show going through the company, and that would be driving a lot of new technologies. We’d design the technology so it could be used in very general ways, but there was always a very clear connection between what we were building and the shots it was being used on. At the time, this made sure that our limited resources in R&D were focussed on where they would have the biggest impact. Artists were using the code hot off the press, which created its own problems but it was also exciting to see the results of our work being used so quickly. It led to creative partnerships between programmers and artists.
What’s your day-to-day like as Chief Scientist at DNEG?
I’m not sure about average days but normally it starts with sort of catching up with the team I’m working with. I like to have at least one or two solid projects. Taking the time to catch up with those teams is very important. I do spend a lot of time reading scientific papers to catch up on the latest techniques, trying to see how I can adapt existing research work, how I can modify it, and potentially take ideas from other domains and move them into VFX.
What do you like most about your job?
We get to solve unusual problems, typically visual ones, that arise when we are trying to create new ways of telling stories with filmmakers – it’s very interesting and keeps you on your toes!
A good example of this was the work we did on Interstellar to visualise what a black hole and a wormhole might look like to a real film camera in space. With the work I do, you often know whether you’ve reached a solution to a problem by looking at a picture – and not necessarily looking at a graph or numbers. The ultimate indicator of whether something has worked or not is if it looks good. I enjoy that kind of way of working.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
If you look back on any five-year period in the industry – looking at the technologies and techniques that people used at the beginning of that five-year period and then at the end – there’s a huge gap between them, and they’ve changed in unimaginable ways. If you want a career in this industry I think the most important thing is to have a solid foundation in core subjects. Technologies will change, but a solid foundation will allow you to adapt.
What’s one of the best shows you’ve worked on?
Interstellar is one of those technically very challenging shows, for which we had time to explore and develop technologies. It required learning a whole new branch of physics and applying that to images at super high resolution, while tackling a myriad of other challenges. Honestly it was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on.
Time for some rapid fire questions – What’s your special power at work?
Breadth of knowledge in VFX.
What are you most looking forward to everyday?
I’m currently working on a project on neural rendering. Everyday we work on experiments which I look at in the morning with my colleagues. It’s exciting to see what’s appeared overnight, how these experiments went, what new direction they send us in, and what new ideas they’ll help us come up with.
What’s your best memory so far at DNEG?
Spending almost a year working very closely with Professor Kip Thorne has been a career highlight. I learnt a lot of physics from that partnership and also got an amazing insight into the way a Nobel prize-winner goes about solving problems.
Another one would be the series of talks we gave on that work which has taken me all over the world.
Finish this sentence: DNEG is…
Where art meets science.
Oliver will be at SIGGRAPH 2022, find out more about our programme here. Interested in joining DNEG’s Oscar-winning team? Stay tuned for our next ‘FOCUS’ and click here to find out more about our open positions across our studios in North America, Europe and India.