Week four: James Atkinson

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In a career spanning 17 years, James Atkinson has created visual effects for over 30 feature films, including The Sum of All Fears, Superman Returns, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and Black Sky.James joined Digital Domain as a digital artist in 2008, where his first commercial with VFX Supervisor Jay Barton, Bacardi “Sundance”, won the V.E.S. Award for ‘Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial’.

Since then, he’s served as Visual Effects Supervisor on 22 commercials including United Airlines “Departures” and “Network” with director Carl Rinsch, Infiniti “Winter”, “Competitive”, and “Snowball”, UFC “Evolution”, Pam “Haunted”, NBA2K13 “Enter the New Dynasty”, and Omega “Planet Ocean”. James has also created unique and innovative imagery as a digital artist and CG Supervisor for commercials such as Halo 4 “Neuron”, Lincoln MKS “Cleaner, Faster, Smarter”, and Mazda 3 “Red & White”.  His recent commercial, Liberty “Answer”, is nominated for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial and Outstanding Created Environment in a commercial for the 2013 Visual Effects Society Awards.

James graduated Summa Cum Laude from Texas A&M University with a B.S. in Computer Science before earning his M.F.A. in Cinema-Television at USC, where he received the Edward Small Memorial Award for Excellence in Directing.

His first industry job was an internship at Rhythm & Hues Studios, which led to a 10-year position including FX, lighting, and sequence supervisory roles. Before joining Digital Domain, he also served as an FX supervisor and digital artist at Framestore CFC London.

James is currently a member of the Visual Effects Society.


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41 Responses to Week four: James Atkinson

  1. Yizhou Li says:

    He is a really nice person and gave a great speech. It was wonderful to hear his most truthful thoughts on the industry about visual effects and “commercial v.s. features” and to know many details of each projects he brought in. I really like the way he broke down the steps of approaching a project and the explanation of each of them. I had a great time and thank you.

  2. Dustin Reno says:

    James was a really wonderful presenter. I enjoyed his honesty about the field, the peculiarities that come with the job, and his own experiences. His energy and enthusiasm for his job is evident in the way he communicated about his projects/co-workers, and it really makes me hope that we can all be as successful at finding those kinds of jobs that make you happy to come to work each day. I do not think breaking down how these types of sequences and renders are accomplished will ever cease to amaze, regardless of how the technology and techniques continues to evolve.

    I don’t plan on going into the vfx field, but it’s nice to see people who are still just as passionate and excited about it, despite the tumultuous nature and current state of affairs it is in.

  3. Evan Harbuck says:

    James gave a very thoughtful presentation and I found his advice refreshing to hear. I hope others got as much out of his comments and suggestions as I did. I really appreciated his honesty about his work, the industry as a whole, and his advice for us as students looking forward to when we’re out of school. One of the big takeaways for me was his response to Kurosh’s question about the content of his work and that to him the artistry of the craft and the caliber of the team you work with overshadows the shortcomings you may find in the content of your work. I think that’s a very important message for anyone, not just in animation, to find happiness in what you do. Also, I found the work on his reels to be fascinating. Like Dustin said, I could watch a whole seminars worth of vfx breakdown. I find them stunning and inspiring.

  4. My father told me a story once:

    A man goes to the doctor, one of his arms has an awful rash full of hives and pustules. The doctor looks at the arm and disgusted asks: – Sir, your arm looks terrible, what happened to you?.

    I have no idea, responds the man. Very intrigued the doctor follows -O.K, then please describe to me what you do? The guy proudly responds: I work at the circus. I´m in charge of giving the elephant´s prostate exam.

    The doctor responds: Well, Of course that is the reason of your disgusting rash. YOU NEED TO QUIT!

    To which the man says: What! and leave the wonderful world of show business?

    I appreciate every guest that is honest and open about his life and is looking out for the welfare of students. Specially in the VFX industry that seems to be very tough!.

    Our guest made a comment of how so many of his classmates had moved on to other professions and the things one has to do to not be like them and “survive in this industry”.

    It makes me wonder, what is the thing that would justify living your life as a survivor. I guess we´ll see when we graduate.

    “There will be no sketch this week”

  5. Joanna Barondess says:

    I really enjoyed James’ presentation. His honesty about the VFX/animation industry was incredibly refreshing and I got a lot out of his advice about surviving post-graduation. We all know that the entertainment industry is tough to get into and it’s all about who you know. It’s just nice to hear that over and over again as a reminder as to what needs to be done in order to get in the door.

    James seemed pumped about his own work, which was really nice to see. I enjoy seeing passion in hard work. It makes me hope the best for all of us entering the Real World.

  6. Jessie Wang says:

    Excellent presentation! Very intense but a lot of useful information about different jobs. James makes me think about some questions I’ve never think about before – do I really want to do feature animation? Do I willing to enter the industry even just doing the minor stuff right after graduation? I don’t think I have the answers now… Staying in the industry is hard, and it is very said to hear that people who had spent so much time and money on their degree ended up doing something totally irrelevant.

  7. James Atkinson has built an impressive career, and should feel proud of his many achievements in visual effects. I appreciate his frank comments about the sacrifices required by this career path, Here are some some quotes from his talk:
    “Getting paid is the most important thing.”
    “Projected matte painting is our bread and butter”
    “Game people will make the most money.”
    “I’m the one-camera guy.”
    “Don’t fall in love with your own work.”
    “Content isn’t important.” – when describing why he is most proud of his commercial “Liberty Answers”
    Maybe I am being idealistic, but I need to love what I am doing – and what the work is saying – before I am willing to sacrifice my health and happiness.

  8. Ivan Sayon says:

    James’ presentation was very good. I love hearing about the reasons why certain creative decisions were made on his projects to either circumvent a technical problem or to meet a tight deadline. And it’s always helpful to hear a professional stress the importance of keeping up with technology in the industry as well as doing research on current economic trends involving international tax incentives/subsidies that may affect your ability to find work. Even though a lot of what he said comes from a VFX perspective, I find the knowledge he gave applies across almost every discipline of the animation pipeline.

  9. Ruthie says:

    I love when guests come in and break down their work, especially when they show where the ugly parts and mistakes are and how they covered it up. No one has a magic feather and streams pixelated perfection from their finger tips, it is all hard work. It is really inspiring to be reminded that even the top artists in the industry have to start with a blank slate and build something. I really admire the guys in the VFX industry because they have a passion for technological innovation mixed with a strong ethic of showmanship– to make the audience think they’ve seen something real even through there’s nothing there but data. I think that ethic unifies professionals like James Atkinson and his team with all artists because ultimately we are all trying to make something meaningful with illusions. It is a shame that even masterful creatives are valued so poorly these days, and I hope that the tide will turn soon. I agree with everyone that the frank and honest discussion at last week’s seminar was very much appreciated.

  10. linhui wang says:

    Thanks for James bringing us the wonderful presentation. I really like the guests showing the processes of work, it’s more about the thinking ways than the tools technology. When I stepped into the area, I have to sense that learning can not be stopped.

  11. Tim says:

    It was very refreshing to hear James’ approach to the pipeline, ie/ not being too precious about the project and just achieving as much as is possible, within time and budget, to please the client. It was also lovely to see some of the shortcuts (swipes, blurs etc) he would utilize to achieve this. While James’ subject was really more appropriate to VFX, I think that his healthy approach can be applied across the animation board: Spend as much time up-front, thinking, as possible!

  12. Robert Calcagno says:

    The presentations I always appreciate is when someone brings up, equally, what you should do but also what you shouldn’t do and what you can get away with. I mean that in a positive way! Atkinson’s presentation about his work through Digital Domain and in the industry was a welcome approach, especially since he was willing to not only show but encourage “shortcuts”. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way but in using your limited resources, and in such a time-crunch of an industry, means you always have to keep in mind how to most efficiently and effectively handle any project you take on.

  13. Caress says:

    I really enjoyed this seminar! James both had interesting information to give us, as well as a lively attitude about his work. Of course there was the depressing side of how cut-throat the industry is and once we leave the reality is that not all of us will have jobs…


    But it’s always good to see if you want to end up in the same position as someone else. He seemed pretty happy with how his life has been, even if unexpected things happened.

  14. Erin Shea says:

    It’s really interesting to me how people had very different reactions to James’ presentation. I’m glad people appreciated the insight into the VFX industry and James’ honest chat, but I personally didn’t find much common ground with his career advice and it seemed to uphold a really traditional and even fear-based way of thinking about work. Yes, it was cool to see him breakdown the awesome shots, and yes, he gave some practical tips, but as Kurosh and Simón wrote about, the way he described his relationship to his work and his career was off-putting for me.

    Since I already tried the corporate route for 3 years before coming to USC, I know that life isn’t for me – I want to be an integral part of my future workplace(s) – and a lot of James’ insight seemed to come from that big impersonal business perspective. Hearing him talk about his perception of how the industry is (and also remembering the earlier panel of folks from Disney, Sony, etc.) has inspired me to reflect again about what I value and what kind of career I want after USC.

    I know I want to enjoy what I do on the daily and long-term scales, and I also know I value making career choices from a responsive place, not a reactionary and out-of-desperation one. The reason I’m pursuing this degree in visual communication/animation is to build skills that will help change the conversations we have – about work, culture, food, social equity, environmentalism, etc. And James’ presentation was a great reminder to me about the ways we can shift our thinking – and use visual media to spark discussion. Call me naive, but I genuinely believe the world is changing and we are more able than ever to design the career we each want.

    I’m not sure what this means for me on a practical level, but I’d like to hear what you all think about this approach and examples of jobs/people you’ve heard about that challenge the “way the industry is.”

  15. Amelia says:

    I agree with Erin, Kurosh and Simon. Those quotes Kurosh! Taken out of context they are kind of funny, but as an artist attempting to pursue her passion those statements are kind of terrifying. Like Erin, I have worked in the corporate world and found that it is not for me. And, also like Erin his presentation and a number of other presentations by similar corporate employees have made me re-evaluate what I want to focus on while I’m at USC. Of course, I’d love to make tons of money but I think I will be happier if I don’t sacrifice my personal style and voice just to be rich.

  16. Josh Weisbrod says:

    I did really enjoy James’ honest and pragmatic discussion about his experiences within the VFX industry, even though I don’t have any interest in VFX as a career for myself. His information about his experiences working on a team I think could apply to many facets of animation, as many of our projects (including ones we make here at USC) will be collaborative.

    I especially liked his practical advice about how we should be on the lookout for internships (and the benefits of those) and how we should be on our best behavior with one another– because it is so important to behave maturely and to not make enemies, in order to project professionalism. It was also interesting to hear about the strange paths some of his friends and colleagues took upon getting out of school, and how we shouldn’t stayed so closely glued to our expectations of our future careers, as the world and the industry are changing so constantly.

  17. Jake Zhang says:

    James’ talk gave me sense of how the industry of VFX look like and I think they are very useful even though I am not a VFX guy. The trend of getting global that James talk about is also one thing I should consider when I am going to face looking for a job.

  18. Ryan Gillis says:

    I feel like Mr. Atkinson came to this talk with the express purpose of giving students as candid and pragmatic advice as he could. I thought he answers to questions were thoughtful and honest. If I’m being honest, though, these kind of talks make me glad I’m not going into the vfx industry.
    Los Angeles definitely seems like an oasis that is running dry (topical drought humor) for the motion picture business. The thing that shocked me most about James’ talk was when he mentioned that the studios are going to keep chasing subsidies. I always assumed that the focus shifting to London and Vancouver, and those would be the new hot spots. But I had no idea that they could shift quickly someplace else. VFX seems like the life of a nomad.

  19. Sophie Xing says:

    Jame lets me know more about industry of VFX. I didn’t know anything about it before. I really appreciate that he shared all his experience and advice for us. He gives me idea what should I focus on my career.

  20. Tristan says:

    It was nice to see someone visit from the VFX industry that is realistic without being bummed out about work going overseas. I definitely appreciate his honesty. On the work side of things I also enjoyed his approach. The bank commercial was incredible and he was enthusiastic about how much thought they put into it and the planning that took place even though, as he said, hardly anybody actually saw it when it aired.

  21. Maggie Harbaugh says:

    This wasn’t my favorite of seminars. It was actually a bit disheartening. I appreciate his honesty, but I didn’t really want to hear that he regrets his student loans. We are all paying a lot to be here and I’m sure we are all nervous about the debt we will be in after we graduate. I guess I just wasn’t prepared for his brutal honesty about the industry. It certainly wasn’t inspiring like other seminars have been.

  22. Joseph Yeh says:

    James has a large body of high level work and he is really an expert on vfx and water.I’m curious about his personal demo reel- whether he has the ability to do these shots solely by his own hand. Sometimes I feel the best artists can do it themselves, but then I guess the best directors don’t have to.
    I was also very happy with James’s response to my question about how to make his water shots. A realistic final look really is a deep and arduous process.

  23. Fan Feng says:

    For me, visual effects are very attractive. Different from the technology labor, James has his own thoughts. His brain is so rich and creative, without any doubt, his technology is awesome,too. I was so shocked when I saw his reel. He did that all by himself? OMG… Actually I want to know more about behind VFX making. I know that is a big team work, too. I want to know how they cooperate through software. If the software crashes, what they can do? or like us, just panic and redo it….

  24. earnason says:

    James did a good presentation and was a dynamic speaker. I found him pleasant and his work impressive. His advice though and view on careers was more demotivating for me than inspiring. His stance on the work itself and career paths made me wonder why one would want to enter a creative profession in the first place, rather than just law or medicine if it is about following the money and not caring too much about the content and loving your own work.

  25. Frederico de Sa Fernandez says:

    Really interesting and professional portfolio, without a doubt. Mr. Atkinson seems to be an old school veteran on his field and gave some precious advice. Specially liked when he talked about being dynamic when it comes to work with advertising versus the old VFX production models. His insights on how he has sacrificed his personal feelings towards the work in order to achieve his career goals made also a strong point for those who chose to work exclusively with Visual Effects.
    I would not choose his path, though, these are different times.

  26. Lanzhu Jian says:

    amazing work from James, But once time I found, VFX is in need for hundreds of people working to make it happen. It is a rough career for girls. Just my opinion. But the work is very impressive.

  27. Yawen Zheng says:

    James’ presentation is amazing, Even though my area is not in VFX, but still it’s very good to get know about Visual effect and how it make. He did a very good job to combined commercial and art, really attract people.

  28. Yifu Zhou says:

    Always wanted to know how he did his work and wanted to see the breakdowns of his works. It is very helpful having him sharing those insights. It’s hard to believe he has been done so many high quality works.

  29. Christina Brous says:

    Like about half the people who have commented, I felt a little disheartened listening to this guy. He had such amazing work and what seems like a great career, but I guess he was just a little disenchanted with it all. Which is alright, I’m disenchanted with most things, haha. Other than that, his presentation was interesting and I enjoyed seeing his process.

  30. Brian Rhodes says:

    Incredibly detailed and beautiful art. I really enjoyed James talking about how he approaches projects as being resourceful and efficient with limited time. I think artist are always faced with these challenges and it takes creative thinking under pressure to come up with a beautiful solution.

    It is a bit disappointing that so much work goes into something that will be archived and possibly never seen after a few months, but he seemed very inspired by what he did, and that inspires me.

  31. Fernando Rabelo says:

    James Atkinson is a very nice fellow who caught everybody’s attention by his honesty and great work. He though us the career of animation can sometimes be though but that it is worth it. James has an impressive reel that proves he has been working hard to achieve the pieces his clients need. It was also interesting to see that not always all the animation has to be done perfectly in order to succeed in a piece. Sometimes it can be cheated using smart tricks saving tons of money and innumerous amount of hours. He was a great guest and it was a great seminar.

  32. Reggie says:

    I enjoyed James Atkinson’s work. His commercial work impressed me. My favorite is the Liberty Group Limited “Answer” commercial. It was cool to see the virtual time lapse of the a small development center to an untouched field.

    His approach to commercials was insightful. Commercials are always balancing act between time and quality. Despite the brilliant work, there will be a number of hurdles, including technology, clients’ demands, and short turnarounds. However, one can still achieve great work under pressure.

    Based on his presentation, I think vfx artists have more creative control and output than feature films because commercials have fast deadlines, and it’s more about executing the concept instead of completing a shot for a sequence.

  33. Sijia Huang says:

    It is awesome to have an expert of VFX in the seminar. I enjoy the reel of digital domain he showed us~ Doing VFX is a lot of work and challenging, however when the audiences see the final film they will shocked and amazed by the images!

  34. Zheng Kang says:

    Great seminar! Really enjoyed the reel of his digital works. I can’t believe he has been done so many high quality works. James’ talk showed me how the industry of Visual Effects look like and I think they are very helpful. VFX is becoming more and more important in different entertainment industries. People want to see cool, fantastic and more real things. The method to achieve great VFX is necessary, but I think the concept, the idea, the story are still the most important thing in this industry.

  35. Eric Cheng says:

    James Atkinson’s works are great, so does his career path. It’s very helpful to hear a cool artist like James Atkinson talk about his experiences.
    And I think the most valuable part of this seminar is getting some true opinions about this industry. I have heard a lot about how rough and hard the VFX field is before, while it’s still very fresh to hear those information form a senior VFX artist.

  36. Li,Xia says:

    I don’t want do VFX in the future, But his presentation really inspired me too much
    You need choose a work which can give you happiness. A work which can make you really enjoy it .
    Have a conscious understand to time and budget. Don’t fall in love with your project. Give the Client what they want.
    Clients don’t care how difficult technique have you used for the project. they just want the result.
    Honest is good, but don’t tell too much negative things. It will reduce your student’s passion and motivation. try to use positive way to explain a tough problem.

  37. Ning Xu says:

    stop motion have a lot of similarity with VFX. I think James’ advice about VFX industrial is very insightful and I should inherence that into stop-motion.

  38. Simo Liu says:

    Even though VFX is not my future direction, James ‘s presentation are very inspiring. His works look very cool and professional. Also his pointed out many suggestive points about how to work in the industry. No matter if VFX is my future direction, the suggestion are very helpful.

  39. Frank Gu says:

    I had enjoyed the seminar with James. The VFX stuff looks really cool. Thanks James shares all the cool and helpful information with us.

  40. Chaoqi Zhang says:

    fascinating effects works,the advises of work for tight schedule in industry is very helpful.

  41. His talk was very enriching, I still remember the shot of the commercial that they did for the south african company – there was so much detailed in it! He was very positive and inspiring, and even though I’m not so much into the vfx thing I feel that I took out loads from this talk

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