Writer / Producer / Director and Visual Effects Producer
Q: Jon Gress you are a writer, producer, director, and visual effects producer. Please tell us a bit about yourself, how you started, and your extensive background.
I'm one of those people who has just always known what they wanted to do... to make movies and music. At 4 years old I hijacked my dad's 8mm movie camera and took secret movies of the gardener. It was hardly an epic, but even at that very young age I was hooked on making movies. As a kid I would wrangle all the neighborhood kids into making action and adventure movies. I was always interested in making bigger-than-life movies so I gravitated to special and visual effects right from the beginning. First it was firecrackers for bullets and homemade fake blood for squibs, hand made props, and model spaceships. Then it was stop-motion and hand-scratched animation using a needle and a magnifying glass (8mm film is VERY small lol).
As I got older and began performing in rock bands, I naturally began producing music videos for my own band as well as others (including fog, laser and explosion effects of course). By the time I stopped touring, the first personal computers came on the scene and the first 3D software. Always being in love with the latest in bleeding edge technology, when I heard about this new communication system called the internet and the new hypertext creation method called the world wide web, I jumped all over that and formed one of the largest internet content providing companies in the Southeast at the time, producing cutting edge interactive 3D, video & VR content for large companies. We were the first on the internet to stream a radio station 24 hours a day over the internet and spearheaded new technologies for many big companies.
Q: You have trained hundreds of visual effect artists, who have gone on to top visual effects companies for blockbuster films, and you have created productions for many multinational and Fortune 500 clients. Please tell us a bit about your work and the movies you have contributed directly and indirectly to.
Over the years I produced everything from motion pictures, television, music videos, radio shows and advertising to full interactive multimedia architectural, previz, visual effects and even medical training curricula. In the late 1990's I decided to turn my focus to my original love and passion, motion pictures. I quickly realized, while training dozens of new artists on all of this cutting edge technology, that I needed to somewhat formalize what I was teaching in order to streamline this start-up time (and save me from having to repeat this training over and over again). So I began production of an comprehensive all-inclusive video and book Special Effects & Visual Effects curriculum which I began posting some for free online in around 1997. The series was very popular and I would regularly receive emails from all over the world, so I knew I was onto something.
In 2004, while scouting a location at Universal Studios Orlando , I saw a sign for The Digital Animation & Visual Effects School . I had noticed over the past few years that many of the best demo reels I had received while hiring, were grads from this school so I decided to stop in and let the owners know they were doing a great job teaching their students. I met Jeff and Anne Scheetz, the owners, told them who I was and what I did and told them how their grads really shined above the other candidates I'd received over the years.
About 6 months later, I received a call from Jeff asking if I'd like to be the guest Director for their award winning live action space adventure movie "NASA Seals" (right down my alley, how could I refuse?). It was a fantastic experience and I truly loved the working + teaching environment. About a year and a half later Jeff called me to see if I'd be willing to come back on an open-ended basis to direct projects for them. The timing was perfect for me so I accepted. As the school was retooling their VFX curriculum, the academic director (my dear friend, the amazingly talented artist William Vaughan) suggested to the school that I be allowed to implement my VFX curriculum, which was a perfect symbiotic relationship. The school got my curriculum and I got to test and refine these training methods over the next 7 years while getting input from hiring VFX supervisors from many major VFX houses along the way.
After talking with Mike Seymour and John Montgomery, (the incredibly talented and just genuinely all-round great guys from FXPHD) I became a professor for them teaching a synthesis of the "Crash UDK real-time game engine course" and the "cutting edge guerrilla tech previz" courses I had developed. After that I was approached to put my entire course curriculum into book form which I had started way back in 1997, but was now a proven and refined curriculum with hundreds of grads now VFX artists, Leads, Supervisors and even Emmy Award winners at virtually every major VFX company in the world. The book is being released this coming week, worldwide through Pearson, in booksellers and on Amazon.
Q: You are an academic at FXPHD.com, an online vfx, production, and post-production training program. Tell us about the courses that you teach and the tools that you use.
I teach a huge range of courses and software. My resume probably says it best. ---- Visual Effects Director and Graduate Instructor in 3D Computer Animation, Film/Video/Graphics production & Digital & Visual Effects. I personally trained hundreds of VFX artists who now hold supervisor, lead artist and other positions at virtually every major VFX studio worldwide; with some even winning Emmy Awards and nominations. I created and implemented comprehensive new graduate-level curriculums with lectures, presentations, handouts, hands-on exercises and testing to enhance existing production curriculum and integrate advanced cutting edge digital & visual fx production technique instruction to include:
Comprehensive Introduction and Instruction to VFX Software Including: Advanced Photoshop CC / Premiere CC / After Effects CS5 Production (Including Primatte & Keylight) / Nuke X (Including Primatte, Keylight & IBK) / Fusion (Including Primatte) / Boujou / PF Track / Camera Tracker / Mocha Pro / Silhouette / Lightwave 3D & Particle Systems/Hypervoxels / Realflow / Turbulence FD / UDK 3 / Lightmass / Cascade / Kismet / SpeedTree / Unity / Crash Course in Film, Camera & Lighting Production & Techniques and how they apply to CG & VFX production & Integration / Advanced Visual Effects Cue Eye Training for Live Action-CGI Integration and photorealism.
/ Advanced 3D Photorealistic Texturing Techniques / Bluescreen/greenscreen keying / Advanced Keying using Primatte, Keylight, IBK, Ultra & other keyers / Advanced Rotoscoping for VFX & Steroscopic Conversion / 2D & 3D Motion Tracking, Matchmoving & Matchimation / Advanced Procedural Matte Extractions / Advanced Procedural Edge Matte, Spill Suppression & Treatment / 2D & 3D CGI Integration / 2D, 2 1/2D & 3D Digital Matte Painting, Set Extensions & Virtual Sets / Advanced 3D Camera Projection Techniques / Advanced HDRI Shooting, Light Probe Creation & Implementation / Advanced Procedural Color Correction & Color Matching Techniques / Advanced Radiosity Lighting Solutions for emulating Studio Environments.
/ Advanced Multipass Rendering & Compositing / Advanced Procedural 3D Modeling & Displacement Techniques / Film Colorization / Face Replacement / Advanced & Cutting Edge VFX Techniques including: Bullet Time, Time Ramping, Heat Distortion & Displacement, Particle Systems, CG Demolition & pyrotechnics, etc.../ 2D, 2 1/2D & 3D Digital Matte Painting, Set Extensions & Virtual Sets / Advanced 2D, 2 1/2 & 3D Crowd Replication Techniques / Advanced Radiosity, Global Illumination, IBL, SIBL Solutions / Stereoscopic, 3D Creation, Implementation & 2D to 3D Conversion / UDK Game Design, CSG/BSP Workflow & Game Creation.
FXPHD Sydney, Australia
Professor UNR101 - UDK Game Engine for Film/VFX Production & Previz
Fast track curriculum for learning the Epic Games Unreal Development Kit - UDK 3 game development environment. The course is a fast paced introduction to the UDK 3 game development environment and engine covering the basics of the entire suite of UDK development tools. It takes the student from zero to building their own freestanding game and movie Pre-viz in UDK in this one course. http://www.fxphd.com/fxphd/courseDetails.php?idCourse=413&v=popup
UNR 201 - Tech Guerrilla Previz in UDK
Course covers all of the essential facets in the creation of an effective Previz, from 360 Degree Backdrops, Interior and Exterior Location Sets, Custom Terrains using DEM & Procedural Extraction & Modeling techniques, Props, Custom Character and Lightning Fast Actor Cloning, Creating and Using your own Home Mocap System, Virtual & Motion Tracked Cameras, Bringing External Compositing VFX Tricks into UDK and much more. http://fxphd.com/fxphd/courseDetails.php?idCourse=425&v=popup
Q: Everyone might be wondering how a hugely successful professional as yourself uses iClone in his work. Talk to us on how, and when you learned about iClone, and why it is now a tool in your arsenal.
Over the years, I've learned that effective production is all about constantly re-evaluating your workflow and keeping an open mind to any and all possibilities that might improve efficiency and performance. I've used some very unlikely tools over the years to great success. Working with companies who are open to ideas and who aren't bogged down in set pipelines, like some of the larger companies tend to get. Sometimes we can spark amazingly innovative solutions such as we did in 2004 with Animator DV, which was an inexpensive stop motion tool with a live preview system that I had asked the developer if he could implement a rough chromakeyer into - within a day he had and we were using it to amazing success as an on-set previz tool, when other companies were stunned to see the technology we somehow managed to obtain - http://animatordv.com/anunnaki.php.
I'm a huge pre-viz'er. I've been doing extensive previz before it was even a recognized word. In my honest opinion, the time to work out the intricacies of a production is before you're ever on set. The problem is, that for most people previz is like a huge production unto itself so many people skip it. I first stumbled (literally) onto iClone while downloading the original CrazyTalk Animator which we used with amazing success for a whole other production solution. There it was on the website. I've used other tools in the past that I would say would be considered your competition, and while I had some success with some of them for doing previz, they were all kind of "clunky" to use.
After our animation project using CrazyTalk was finished, I started playing around with iClone to see if I could use it for some previz work. To my pleasant surprise, it was amazingly intuitive and fast to use! So I was saying to myself - "This is working really well... and it does animation... oh wait, and facial animation... and automated lip syncing... and layered animation... and now there's a mocap plug-in I can do for quick mocaps right in my office with a Kinect in 10 minutes without needing a whole crew to fire up the Vicon stage?!!! And an export app to seamlessly export everything to any 3D app?... even game engines?!!!!!!!". I was blown away at the amazing integration and how well thought out and seamless everything was. Without even realizing it, at first, I found myself popping into iClone, the mocap plug-in and 3DXchange more and more... first for little tasks, then for small previz, and eventually for entire demonstrations and pre-visualizations.
Q: You have written a book titled " Visual Effects and Compositing". In your book you have a section where you talk about the uses and benefits of iClone. Can you briefly talk about these?
I'm a person who calls it like I see it. Coming from the old days of SFX & VFX, I use what works... and in VFX the rule is "If it looks right, it's right!". Too many people these days are what I call "application snobs". Just like clothing snobs, they sneer at anything without the most expensive brand label. It never ceases to astound me while I watch them struggle for hours, days, even weeks with the "name brand of the day" application, while I finished the entire job weeks ago and already completed 5 more. All while they wallow in what they consider their "chosen" or "pure" artform.
In my book I address Reallusion products and how they have impacted me. The first line of the section kind of says it all - "Sometimes innovation catches you off-guard. One day, you suddenly realize that you've been turning more and more to a solution that you never originally expected to be so useful or important to you. That's what happened to me with Reallusion's incredibly useful software tools."
Q: What other works/projects can your students and fans expect from Jon Gress in the near future?
Now that the book is completed (aside from lectures and workshops), my focus returns to my first love, making movies... and the completion of my long awaited sci-fi feature, "Anunnaki - The Movie" which I will release this coming year!
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Official Website: http://jongress.com/