Creative Lives — “Being a generalist has always been my path”: We speak to Just So’s visual effects artist Melbourne Garber
Growing up on a diet of cartoons, sci fi and video games, Melbourne Garber was a typical ’90s kid. But an early realisation that there were people behind his favourite pastimes put him on the fast-track to becoming one of them. As Just So’s in-house visual effects artist, the self-confessed computer nerd still draws on childhood inspirations in his working life. Originally from London, Melbourne grew up and studied in America, where his studies switched between animation, game and graphic design, rendering him a mini-expert in multiple areas. As something of a talented generalist, he’s able to jump into a project at any given point – from pre- to post-production. Supplementing his work endeavours with rigorous research, he relishes keeping up with fast-evolving tech, while working on his own games and comic books. He tells us more about his influences, process and favourite projects.
Visual Effects Artist, Just So Films (2016–present)
Freelance Digital Artist and 3D Generalist, VFX (2010–2016)
MA Animation, Arts University of Bournemouth (2014–2015)
BA Animation for Games, Bloomfield College (2005–2009)
Inside Just So
How would you describe your job?
I am the in-house visual effects artist. It’s my job to clean up footage and add special effects to projects. This can range from 2D motion graphics to full CGI and compositing. If they want to showcase a specific effect or want to try something new and aren’t sure how to go about it, we will look for solutions to the problem to make the job as straightforward as possible for everyone.
What does a typical working day look like?
Normally I get into work at about 9am after a 20 to 25 minute commute. Sometimes I take the bus or skateboard in. My first tasks include going through emails and checking if there are any deadlines I need to make before noon. We regularly get in projects that need effects, so most days usually follow some sort of structure. This makes it easier to organise and plan multiple projects in advance. If there’s no immediate client work to be done, I spend that time sorting out files on the computer, or doing research. I try to take a full hour of lunch to get away from the computer. I’m in front of a screen all day, everyday; it’s important to rest your eyes.
How did you land your current job?
I found the job posting on my school website. I have always been semi-against sending out mass CVs because it’s much harder to get noticed that way. I learnt that it was all about how you network and that connecting a name to a face would get you hired. But I got the job through a very traditional approach.
I think my general knowledge of digital production and various disciplines gave me a distinct advantage. I am quite malleable, so I can jump on projects at any point of pre-production, production, and post-production. Being a generalist has always been my path, and it helps in advertising, TV and on short productions.
“A traditional artistic background has helped me immensely, as I can easily and effectively communicate visual ideas on paper with little effort.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
In the studio. Everyone gets along, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie. It’s a nice ecosystem where we help each other. We feel every hiccup and success together. Nearly every moment is spent in front of the computer, but that doesn’t really bother me as I’m a computer nerd and gamer. On occasion I’ve worked from home to hit certain deadlines. Apart from that, the only times I leave the studio are when I’m on shoots.
How collaborative is your role?
There are times when I’m working by myself or talking to one producer. But in the past I’ve worked with in-house directors, remote freelance visual effects artists or with the editing and colour grading departments to help finalise the look of a film.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
My favourite part is 3D modelling or illustration work; seeing creations come to life brings me great joy. My least favourite aspects are in between projects when we have less to do. I’ll spend that time figuring out how I can be more efficient on the next project, or desperately needed computer maintenance.
Shot from upcoming work for Clarks Dragonshoes
Shot from upcoming work for Clarks Dragonshoes
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Dragonshoe for Clarks Shoes, which was a fully CGI project. The team was quite small with myself and one 3D modeller working on the visuals including the texturing, lighting, animation, simulation, rendering and final compositing. I came in on the project just towards the end of pre-production, so I was helping to refine the storyboards, and made an animatic.
What skills are essential to your job?
Every project is different so I’ll draw on a library of information, tools and techniques to achieve the best possible result. A traditional artistic background means I can effectively communicate ideas on paper, and having a very critical eye is crucial in spotting the smallest of details (always get someone to double check your work). One of the most important skills is the ability to problem solve. Other technical skills include an in-depth understanding of 3D pipeline, rendering and animation. Along with an understanding of various formats such as TV, Youtube, iPhone and projectors, along with the film process, cameras, and their colour spaces.
CGI is my life so I’m always researching outside of work. Everything is advancing and evolving so quickly, which is why research is such an important part of my job. The only way to be on top of it to find time to blast through a couple of articles, or email a few professionals about the state of certain technologies and techniques. I make sure to take time out for myself and chill, though. Otherwise you can drive yourself crazy.
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I usually have several going on at once. I have a personal comic book I’m trying to finish, along with various indie video game projects that I help on. I’m also trying to get back into music, as I was a musician for many years. It’s hard to balance it all, but great when I can put the time in.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A Mac Pro with Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, Premiere, Maya 2017 and Cinema 4D. I have a Wacom tablet for digital painting and several pencils, pens, and sketchbooks within arm’s reach.
In the studio
Mel at work
Inside the studio
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I always knew I wanted to make things for a living. As I created several comics in my spare time, I started to realise that the video games I loved had to be made by people. I started to think about being a game developer, and by the age of 13 I was tinkering around in 3D Studio Max learning how to make solar systems, and cell-shaded objects like in Jet Set Radio (which ruled my life at the time). Now I just want to do more and more; I want to make comics, games, and films and create visually stimulating content that tells a good story.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I’m from London, grew up in America, and also studied abroad in South Korea, so I was always back and forth. I draw on inspiration from the places I visit, and use them to add to my visual library. I was your typical ’90s kid and grew up with a lot of sci-fi and action films, anime, cartoons and video games. These had huge influences on my personal work; there have been projects I’ve worked on where my interest in action films has helped me out. As time goes on I’m starting to see lots of overlap with emerging technologies as well. For example making a VR film has a similar thought process to making in-game video game cutscenes.
“I just want to do more and more. I want to create visually stimulating content that ultimately tells a good story.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
During my bachelor’s degree in America I switched my major many times; from game to graphic design and then to animation in my junior year. By my final year I essentially created my own major that included all of those. This, plus my masters degree in Bournemouth helped me on my path, and in my current role.
What were your first jobs?
While I was at university I did a few internships and started freelancing. I worked for a small production company in New York City and New Jersey, where I did some 3D lighting and compositing. I also interned at a company called The Electric Sheep Company, creating 3D assets for an online browser game. After that I worked at a start-up animation company named Dunnamic. There were only a few of us working there and I was the only 3D generalist and post production artist. I was 23 at the time and never had a position with so much responsibility and such little structure. It taught me how to manage my time better, and how to deal with bigger clients. In between that and my masters degree I freelanced a lot. Freelancing is incredibly intimidating but can be very rewarding. I’ve seen lots of people struggle to find the courage to go head first into it. It’s like swimming at nighttime.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Studying abroad and seeing the work ethic of artists in South Korea. I had a professor there who took me to several game studios. Moving to England to get my masters degree also helped me focus on bettering my craft, acquire new connections and pointed me in the direction of London.
“Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone has a different situation. Some are lucky, some work harder than others. If I don’t feel I’m where I should be with something, I re-evaluate and plan differently.”
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I can’t say there was a specific project; my mindset is to try and take on projects that’ll help my development.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve learnt a plethora of skills so far. 2D illustration, 3D modelling, 2D digital animation, 3D rendering, game design, film editing, digital painting, practical film effects, 3D animation, cinematography, VFX, advanced 3D effects, project management, and many more. The skill set is always changing. Skills that I thought I would not have to use again are also coming back to prove to be very useful (such as game design, and how it relates to VR storytelling).
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Finishing projects. Client work is different as you have a deadline, but there’s less pressure on personal work. Another big mistake is comparing myself to others. Everyone has a different situation; some are lucky, some work harder than others. There’s no way to recreate someone’s life experiences, so take everything with a pinch of salt. Right now I work at my own pace. If I don’t feel I’m where I should be with something, I re-evaluate and plan differently.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I knew what I was getting myself into from a young age. A lot of older friends provided my insatiable, wide-eyed motivation with disillusions of the industry which kept me grounded in reality. I thought there would be distinct differences between workloads in school and the workplace. As you work more, your tolerance for more work goes up, and things you already know become easier.
What would you like to do next?
I would like to either find some funding and time to finish my comic book, or work on a few feature films. There are a few projects I want to pitch for funding as well.
Could you do this job forever?
I don’t think I could do any one job forever. My life has always been filled with change, and I’m always trying to do more – there’s plenty more I want to do within my field. At some point I think it’s important to teach. Once you amass a wealth of knowledge, it’s cruel not to share it.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
The next step would be to become a dedicated VFX supervisor. It requires a lot of focus and discipline, which is why I want to work towards that.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a visual effects artist?
Don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. Always study, love what you do and learn how to take a break without feeling guilty for resting.
This article is part of a studio feature on Just So.