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Inside Atomic Fiction: An Exclusive Interview With a VFX Powerhouse

Michael Maher

PremiumBeat meets with VFX Supervisor Jim Gibbs to talk about the work of Atomic Fiction. See how the VFX studio builds worlds for Game of Thrones, Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond and more.

Top image: Jim Gibbs and Kevin Baillie via Google Cloud Platform

We recently had the pleasure to tour the Canadian office of VFX studio Atomic Fiction. Before we get into the tour and our interview with VFX Supervisor Jim Gibbs, here’s a little history on the studio.

About Atomic Fiction

Inside Atomic Fiction: Logo

Atomic Fiction was founded in 2010 by visual effects artists Kevin Baillie and Ryan Tudhope. Some of the duo’s earliest credits include previsualization and effects for Star Wars: Episode I and Titan A.E. By the early 2000s, Baillie and Tudhope where the first two employees at The Orphanage. There they began a relationship with VFX veterans like Jonathan Rothbart, contributing to projects such as Superman Returns, Sin City, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. They also made contacts with celebrities like Adam Sandler, working on his films Anger Management and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

Baillie and Tudhope soon found themselves working for Robert Zemeckis at Image Movers Digital. They worked on the realistic CG captures of actors for A Christmas Carol as well as animation for Mars Needs Moms. Amid production of Mars Needs Moms, Disney announced they would be closing Image Movers. This gave animators and artists ample time to find new work once the film completed. While completing the film, Baillie and Tudhope decided to open their own VFX studio — Atomic Fiction.

At the same time they were laying the groundwork for a new VFX studio, Sandler’s team reached out for help on his next project, Just Go With ItRealizing this could be their first gig, Kevin and Ryan worked on Just Go With It out of their home, and with those funds they opened the first studio in Emeryville, California — just a mile away from Pixar. In that first year, their team also worked on Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the incredible facial reconstruction of Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Boardwalk Empire
Image: Boardwalk Empire via Atomic Fiction / HBO

Notable Past Works:

Atomic Fiction just wrapped production on Star Trek BeyondThey developed digital environments, digital set extensions, digital stunt doubles, and effects animation for the film. Here is a previous example of Atomic Fiction’s work on Star Trek Into Darkness. Take a further look at their work with the company’s 2016 reel.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Into Darkness
Images via Art of VFX

Aside from Star Trek Beyond, the company is currently working on other blockbuster projects like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Inside the Atomic Fiction Montreal Office

I’m standing outside the doors of Atomic Fiction’s office in Montreal on Rue de Bleury. This inconspicuous downtown building houses an array of different companies and government offices, like the Directeur de l’état civil. Today I’ll be heading up to the eighth floor. I make my way through the lobby to the elevator bay. With a quick push of 8, I soon find myself standing outside of two locked walnut doors. Without a keycard, I press the doorbell hoping they haven’t forgotten about my visit.

I’m buzzed in and greeted by one of Atomic Fiction’s newest employees — who has been given front desk duty for the day. I am immediately handed an iPad with a digital non-disclosure agreement. I peruse the terms and sign my name. Unlike my behind-the-scenes tour with the NHL Dallas Stars, I won’t be permitted to take any photos. The NDA I just signed makes sure of that.

I start to peek around the entryway for signs of life. A walled-off front desk with the Atomic Fiction logo is immediately to my left. On my right is the kitchen, cafeteria, lounge, and a small conference room. A giant chalkboard wall in the kitchen is covered with scribbled pictures and anecdotes, such as how to use the new espresso machine. A few employees hang out and discuss something, before they grab a drink and return to their desks. From here I can’t see any workspaces, obviously to prevent any visitors from seeing too much work that is currently in progress.

Inside Atomic Fiction: At the Office
Image: Office space via Atomic Fiction

I’m soon joined by Russ Dubé, the Head of Studio at Atomic Fiction. Russ has over twenty years of experience in VFX and animation in commercial work, television, and film. He has been running the Montreal office for over just a year, recently moving from New York, where he worked on countless projects as a freelance Senior VFX Producer.

With a big smile on his face, Russ greets me, double-checks I’ve signed my NDA, and immediately starts the tour. We briefly start off in the kitchen area which I had voyeuristically glanced at. Russ tells me that my visit came at a great time, as Atomic Fiction wrapped production on Star Trek Beyond just days prior to my arrival.

We walk through the kitchen area and head down a short corridor into the office space. A handful of offices line the outside perimeter of the floor, but I soon enter a massive open workspace. Rows and rows of white desks and computer monitors galore take up the entire floor. There are no cubicles, but the desks are aligned into various sections for different departments. I catch one employee meticulously combing through an actor’s individual strands of hair for an undisclosed project. I do not envy her at this moment.

Russ tells me that the Montreal office is running at full capacity, and they have had to open additional office space on the seventh floor below. We walk down the stairwell to see another room of monitors, with this floor mostly occupied by employees working on a separate project. We are nearing time for my interview, so Russ leads me back to the eighth floor. One of our final stops is the screening room.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Screening Room Meeting
Image: Atomic Fiction Screening Room via Google Cloud Platform

The screening room is used every morning for dailies. There the VFX supervisors watch all the work done up until then, and comb through scenes with artists as their shots arise. These meetings can last all morning long. I’ll touch more on dailies later. As the office has grown, so have the company’s needs. Russ tells me that the current screening room will soon be demolished to make way for a larger screening room at the other end of the floor. Growing pains.

We depart the screening room for an empty office, which is where Kevin Baillie and Ryan Tudhope work when they are in town. Russ leaves to grab my interviewee. As I wait in the office, I consider which chair to sit in. Do I sit at the sofa? The chair? Do I pull a power move and take Kevin’s chair? I take a seat in Kevin’s chair, only to then get back up and slink my way to the couch.

Inside Atomic Fiction: The Walk
Image: The Walk painting via Caleb Ward

Right above the sofa hangs a rather stunning painting of Philippe Petit walking between the World Trade Center towers in New York. Atomic Fiction was the main VFX studio behind Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, producing an astonishing 40 minutes of footage. I come to learn that the painting was originally made for Robert Zemeckis, and a duplicate found its way into this office.

VFX Supervisor Jim Gibbs

Inside Atomic Fiction: Jim Gibbs
Image: Jim Gibbs via Atomic Fiction

Russ returns with Jim Gibbs, a Visual Effects Supervisor at Atomic Fiction. Russ starts the timer on his phone and leaves us be. You’ll notice that Russ is a very prompt person, the perfect person to run a VFX studio. 

As I exchange pleasantries with Jim, I come to learn that he is from Garland, Texas. Leave it to me to travel all the way to Montreal to meet a guy who grew up 25 minutes down the road from me in Dallas. Gibbs studied computer graphics at Texas A&M University. At the time, the program was not very robust — but it was up-and-coming. Many of the students graduating around the same time wound up at ILM and Pixar. There was not an established undergraduate workflow, so Gibbs had to study architecture. A perfect start to the world building he would do in VFX. After the graduate program, Jim landed a job at Image Movers Digital in San Francisco.

Image: VFX Supervisor Jim Gibbs via Google Cloud Platform

Gibbs was recruited to work on the CG motion capture for A Christmas Carol. It was there he met Baillie and TudhopeYou should see the puzzle pieces falling into place now. Gibbs stayed with Image Movers Digital throughout the end of Mars Needs Moms. He recalls the announcement of the company’s closure.

Everyone assembled in a big room and then we went home for the day. Some people left right away. I stayed on shuffling through work with the lighting departments and compositing. I stayed on until December.

Kevin and Ryan were supervising the completion of the project, so they jumped into Atomic at the end of Mars Need Moms.

Around October and November, Baillie and Tudhope were hard at work on Sandler’s Just Go With It. By January 2011 they moved into their new office, and Gibbs was the first to join. The company worked out of an old sugar refinery. The building had great bones, and there the open office layout was born. One of the first projects was a music video for the KinKi Kids, a Japanese pop music duo.

The two band members met the perfect girl, but she turned out to be a robot. We added sparks and retimes to make her look more robotic. The final shot was their faces pasted on dummies in a box.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Transformers 3
Image: Transformers 3 via Atomic Fiction

At the same time, Atomic Fiction would also agree to work on the Chicago explosion sequence in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.

Transformers 3 was a big launch pad. It had a crazy timeline and we were still working out a lot of our pipeline. We worked like crazy for a solid month and a half. There were car explosions and Transformers tearing up Chicago, disintegrating people.

Jack and Jill picked up at the end of Transformers, and kept the studio running long enough to get work doing face replacements on Boardwalk Empire. Keep in mind, all of this happened in the first year of operation.

2012 also proved to be a major year for the VFX house, as Atomic Fiction worked on several more projects that helped shape the company. They created the futuristic world of Looper.

Perhaps their biggest project of the year was the inverted plane sequence from Robert Zemeckis’ Flight. The VFX work earned the company a Satellite Award for Best Visual Effects.

Cloud Rendering The Walk

Inside Atomic Fiction: The Walk
Images: The Walk via Atomic Fiction

The working relationship they built with Zemeckis at Image Movers Digital has been crucial to Atomic Fiction’s success.

Kevin continued relations with Zemeckis to get work for The Walk. We did early tests on a green screen stage. Jenn Emberly and the rigger did an amazing test of Philippe.

Atomic Fiction’s test footage earned the greenlight for the film. (More on test footage in a bit.)

In this video, you will see how the team in Montreal built a portion of the World Trade Center on set, and then digitally added every element, from the buildings down to the moving traffic below. You will also get a glimpse of Old Montreal (which is just blocks away from the Atomic Fiction office) doubling as Paris in the film.

As amazing as all the little details are in the VFX world, from individual rivets in the Twin Towers, down to the accurate newspapers on stands in the streets below, the biggest technological breakthrough of The Walk was the successful use of cloud rendering. During production, Atomic Fiction was actively building and testing what would become Conductor — a cloud-based rendering platform.

Atomic Fiction was built on the idea of building its own cloud-based render farm. Early on we couldn’t afford to rent render farms. Transformers 3 was one of the first projects to be rendered in the cloud.

We started off using Amazon’s cloud and a company called ZYNC to render projects.

Cloud rendering became a pillar of Atomic Fiction, allowing them to complete projects on time and within budget. As projects grew and the company became more familiar with using the cloud, Atomic Fiction outgrew ZYNC and needed its own cloud solution. The Walk gave them the opportunity to build and test Conductor simultaneously. 9.1 Million core hours were rendered in the cloud. By the end of the project, they had proven an entire project could be built on their pipeline. Conductor was spun out into its own company, which will be released to the public this September.

On the technology side of things, one of the biggest costs of a startup VFX company is a render farm.

In the future [with cloud rendering], more boutique offices will pop up and specialize. The cloud knocks down barriers to get into VFX.

Here is a quick piece Google produced on Conductor’s cloud rendering. (That’s Jim Gibbs at the ten-second mark looking at the computer screen beside co-founder Kevin Baillie.)

Gibbs goes on to tell me more about managing projects, and how the cloud allows them to do more with less. Once a project is completed, they don’t have any costs to keep a render farm running. It’s at this point the conversation switches into the many details a VFX supervisor is responsible for, and how Gibbs and the team at Atomic Fiction keep the workflow moving through the pipeline.

Atomic Fiction’s VFX Pipeline

Inside Atomic Fiction: VFX Pipeline
Image: Office space via Atomic Fiction

There are no set rules for every motion picture, but typically a production will seek out VFX houses for what they specialize in and then ask them to bid on the work. There are also no rules on getting work, but it’s typically up to the director, production company, and the studio. A VFX house may be given an entire film, or just a few sequences throughout.

When we bid a show, we typically work from a script, or previsualizations, or even filmed footage, depending on when we get involved.

With the script, the team can determine how things will be shot and make suggestions to ease the amount of work down in post-production. They will then calculate the amount of days and hours a job requires — totaling everything up for the bid.

In Atomic Fiction’s first years, their pitch work would showcase what the founders had collectively worked on. It was their prior experience that really started conversations with the studios. Their lack of original content meant they were sometimes asked to produce tests for bids. Gibbs recalls a bid for Edge of Tomorrow — a project that was a long shot for Atomic Fiction at the time.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Teddy Bear
Image: Teddy Bear Mech Suit Concept Art via Atomic Fiction

The Teddy Bear test was a 20 second short of a man in a mech suit walking into a warehouse, where he finds a teddy bear on the ground. He hears a scream and walks off screen. While it didn’t land them a job on Edge of Tomorrow, it did add more material to their arsenal.

We really just wanted to make more stuff for reels to show off.

Once Atomic Fiction receives a job, things quickly get moving. As a VFX supervisor, Gibbs is responsible for determining how a project will get done and ensuring it looks great. Each show and film has their own VFX supervisor. Atomic Fiction’s VFX supervisors will first meet with the VFX supervisor from the studio. Currently Gibbs is working with a Disney VFX supervisor on the new Pirates of the Caribbean film. 

Back at Atomic Fiction, the VFX supervisor will then manage a project with a producer. Gibbs will handle managing the creative work and the methods used, the producer will handle the schedule and budget. The Atomic Fiction producer will also coordinate with the film studio producer to keep things on track and within budget.

A production manager will work on the floor, checking in with the artists everyday. Then CG supervisors will determine what tools need to be developed and will solve technical issues, like how to best build a forrest with the available software and hardware. Below all these positions are the various coordinators and leads. Finally, a whole team of artists will actually build and create the assets for the film.

I ask Gibbs if many of the employees are local.

We have a really diverse team, most of which are local but also folks from other parts of Canada, California, and of course — the rest of the world as well.

Competition in Montreal is pretty stiff. There are a ton of local employees at Atomic Fiction, but a fair amount of international employees have made their way to Montreal to find work.

Atomic Fiction’s work environment isn’t very typical either. Many of the artists can easily move between departments. There isn’t much departmentalization you may see at other VFX studios. Many employees can move from front-end tasks like modeling to back-end tasks like compositing and lighting. 

Plenty of employees come out of art school, so they have experience doing different things.

As far as the typical workday goes, everything starts with the dailies.

Dailies are the most important ritual of a show.

9:30 is first realistic time to start production meetings in an office full of creatives.

The VFX supervisor, producer, production team, and sometimes other VFX supervisors will meet in the screening room we toured earlier. There they will talk about the challenges of the day and of the week. They review all the work that has been done up to that point. Artists will be brought in to go over specific shots. Then the team hashes through any problems they are facing. Dailies can easily go on for two or three hours, as this is the only time the entire team is together to work on a project.

In Gibbs’ role, his days are pretty non-stop. Following dailies, he will spend the afternoon in other random meetings or serving on a task force to solve particular problems. He will also do rounds to the artists desks to see if they are running into any issues.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Nuke
Image: Atomic Fiction VFX Artist Using NUKE via The Foundry

The artists at Atomic Fiction work almost exclusively in NUKEGibbs tells me that most films and studios have all switched to NUKE. Outside of that, 3D packages are based in Maya for animation, rigging, and even some lighting. Lately KATANA has been their go-to program, which consolidates lighting and backend work. Animation and rigging exports from Maya are sent to KATANA, which allows them to immediately work in lights.

Kevin Baillie has said of the program:

KATANA has become the bedrock of our pipeline. Big scenes, experimental lighting setups, we can throw anything at it and it’ll give us production-ready results that we can share up and down the chain. With timelines getting shorter and shorter, you need tools like KATANA around; there’s no other way to get the work done. — The Foundry

I start talking to Gibbs about his own work, and the ever-increasing duties he has taken on. He started as a generalist in the office, which forced him to get creative.

If I can’t figure something out, there wasn’t someone to ask. I had to figure out a way to make stuff work.

That led him to focus on lighting composition and back-end work. As Atomic Fiction grew, Baillie and Tudhope found themselves overseeing larger projects and the company’s overall output. This allowed Gibbs to take on internal leadership roles while still working on his own duties. By the time Deadpool rolled around, Gibbs had switched to a full supervisor position.

World Building and Deadpool

Inside Atomic Fiction: Deadpool
Images: Deadpool via Atomic Fiction / Art of VFX

Once Jim Gibbs had switched into a supervisor role, it was only a matter of time before he found himself back at work creating VFX. As you may recall from the beginning of this piece, the crew at Atomic Fiction had previous experience working for Jonathan Rothbart at The Orphanage. After The Orphanage shuttered, Rothbart went on to work as a VFX supervisor on films like Avatar. He soon found himself leading the VFX work of Deadpool.

Though Atomic Fiction was not involved in the test footage that was leaked, they were one of the first to express interest in Deadpool. In fact, the first brainstorming sessions were over dinner and drinks to come up with ideas.

We went out to Detroit to gather reference for what would be the basis of the freeway chase sequence.

The counting bullet sequence was shot on a viaduct in Vancouver. There was a ton of early concept work done to design a more generic skyline and city. We did a ton of replacements. Those were presented to the director, and then decisions are made to move forward.

Inside Atomic Fiction: Deadpool VFX
Images: Deadpool via Atomic Fiction

Atomic Fiction landed 250 shots in several major sequences, including reworking the original test footage for the film and the “counting bullets sequence.”

Inside Atomic Fiction: Deadpool Motorcycle Chase
Images: Deadpool via Atomic Fiction

The car chase was almost all CG, outside of the internal conversations. We really pushed the cloud on the project, and were routinely running 32,000 cores at once. We could launch massive renders, and within hours everyone would have images back.

Take a look at the massive amount of work Atomic Fiction took on to create Deadpool in this VFX breakdown.

Curious about world building, I ask Gibbs where they pull all their references from. Surprisingly I find out they shoot most of it themselves. That trip to Detroit yielded thousands of photos, many of which were printed and hung on the wall as inspiration.

He tells me about a current sequence for Pirates of the Caribbean. The may pull an element from a photo — like a hill. The hill is then placed into the background matte painting. Then additional elements are added on top, like trees, grass, or buildings. He is quick to say that the work the artists do on matte paintings really is unbelievable. 

Regarding textures, a massive photo library is used to build surfaces. Macro shots of clothing or tree bark are meticulously crafted into VFX elements. Thousands of these images can be used, as they try to avoid repetition like having the same tree appear over and over.

Advice to Aspiring VFX Artists

I check the timer to see that my time with Jim is running out. I quickly shift gears to ask about any advice for our readers interested in starting careers in VFX. Time runs out as I ask the question and Russ walks in with a quick wave of the timer on his phone. Gibbs nods at him and turns to me to offer a few final words.

Things are constantly changing, and there is so much information available to anyone. Getting a thorough knowledge of VFX is available through interviews like this and on sites like CG Society and FXguide.

He goes on to mention the fair amount of free software and trial programs.

You don’t need a super-amazing computer or software to make really cool things. It’s all tinkering. This all began as a hobby, and it’s almost like a revelation to find out you can do what you love doing for a living.

Gibbs shares a story about Baillie and Tudhope.

They had access to a computer with 3D software in high school — back in the mid 90s. They wound up getting a key to the classroom and would work on the computers until the alarms went off at night. This led the to work with Microsoft and George Lucas.

As far as the industry itself goes, Gibbs says

There is a high demand for technical directors. VFX is a fun collision of worlds between the technical and artistic — in a way you can’t really find it elsewhere.

Some really awesome art schools have trained artists that may not have the technical edge a [technical director] may have. It’s very rare to find someone with a great eye and technical chops. Those that can do both at Atomic Fiction are invaluable and very very busy. It’s a rare talent to have.

Essentially everything boils down to Gibbs’ final words to me.

You must be able to make stuff that looks cool.

Special thanks to Atomic Fiction, Jim Gibbs, Russ Dubé, Ryan Tudhope, and Caleb Ward for putting this all together. Interested in more long-form articles like this? Let us know in the comments below.